Israel’s 9/11? How Hamas Terrorist Attacks Will Change the Middle East

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Perhaps the most surprising part of Hamas’ devastating cross-border attack was its complexity. Rarely in history has a terrorist organization been able to fight from the air, sea, and land. Both al-Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka had similar capabilities but even they were incapable of launching simultaneous, coordinated assaults utilizing all three. Hamas, working alongside Palestine Islamic Jihad, and, per the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, supported and guided by Iran, the patron and financier of both, has now achieved an infamous notoriety. The potential for this war to expand to three fronts, should Hizballah decide to attack Israel from the north — as it did when Israel and Hamas clashed over Gaza in 2006 — and for violence to erupt from Palestinians on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, would gravely complicate an already complex and fraught situation. Should Israel decide to strike Iran or Tehran decide to intervene more directly in the conflict, the consequences would be catastrophic for the region. With terrorist groups as far afield as Afghanistan pledging to support Hamas, the introduction of a diverse array of foreign fighters cannot be discounted either.

For Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, the timing was propitious. For months, Israel has been beset with internecine political fights. These internal frictions were progressively sharpened by greater polarization, highly controversial proposed judicial reforms, political vituperation, sustained mass protests, and boycotts of military service by reservists. Meanwhile, the Israeli government was nevertheless seeking normalization of relations with several countries across the Arab and Muslim worlds, with some success. 

Terrorists are always studying their enemies and probing for opportunities to strike precisely when their opponents are distracted or preoccupied with other matters. It was thus the perfect storm in Israel for Hamas, given the current government’s fractious coalition, its unpopularity with many Israelis, the prime minister’s ongoing legal travails, and the recent clashes both on the Temple Mount, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, and in the West Bank.

 

 

The surprise terrorist attacks that shattered Israel on Oct. 7 are without precedent. And, this war, which will surely escalate and likely have wide-ranging and longstanding repercussions, will be a watershed moment in national, regional, and international security on par with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Much will depend on Israel’s next steps, with options likely ranging from a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to perhaps a more ambitious and consequential strike directly against Iran. Either eventuality will reshape the Middle East for the foreseeable future — not least by likely derailing the Abraham Accords peace talks, as Hamas and Iran clearly intended.

A Barbaric Attack on Israel’s Civilians — and a Stunning Intelligence Failure

The failure of Israeli intelligence — arguably among the most sophisticated in the world — to detect the preparations and logistical staging that were likely months in the planning will result in independent inquiries, systemic reforms, and a new mindset regarding security and homeland defense.

It is hard not to draw a parallel with the other epic intelligence failure in Israel’s history — the 1973 Yom Kippur War. And, the fact that these attacks occurred nearly 50 years later to the day makes this comparison even more compelling. But, with at least 700 killed, 2,000 wounded, and hundreds more missing and presumed being held captive in Gaza, the scope and magnitude of this weekend’s surprise attacks will almost certainly approach — if not surpass — the 2,656 killed and 9,000 wounded half a century ago. Viewed from another perspective, Saturday’s casualty toll alone was already double the number of Israelis killed on the worst day of the Yom Kippur War: Oct. 7, 1973. 

In terms of population proportions, this conflict will be much worse than the attacks suffered by the United States on 9/11. Indeed, much like in 2001 when many Americans knew someone or someone who knew someone who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or on United Flight 93, Israelis will all be grieving the loss of relatives, friends, and neighbors. In the first day alone, it is the equivalent of if 20,000 Americans had been killed on 9/11. Even in the darkest days of the Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian and Syrian armies never pierced the defensive ring around the country maintained by the Israel Defense Forces. Civilians then were not hunted down in their own homes and murdered, sexually assaulted, and wantonly killed and kidnapped. These recent events will forever change the security calculus of Israel in assuring the safety of its population. Having once seemed practical and effective, Israel’s “mowing the grass” counterterrorism strategy now appears unforgivably short sighted and insufficient and will surely be replaced by a far harsher regime.

This situation arguably was foretold 35 years ago in Hamas’ covenant. Just as Hitler’s genocidal intentions toward the Jews in his 1923 book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), were ignored or dismissed as bluster, so too have Hamas’ identical intentions. “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it,” is how the document begins. Article 7 then clearly states, “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” And, Article 13 completely disdains negotiations or a peaceful resolution of Jewish and Palestinian territorial claims. “There is no solution for the Palestinian question,” the covenant proclaims, “except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” Nor are these words historical artifacts. Every Hamas “military” communiqué since the attacks began has ended with the words, “It is a jihad of victory or martyrdom.”

Many commentators have rightly decried the attack as terrorism. And, Hamas has long been designated by the U.S. Department of State, at least half a dozen other countries, and two international organizations as a terrorist organization. But the reports of indiscriminate executions of civilians, sexual crimes, and the young, old, and disabled being dragged into captivity make even that pejorative label inadequate. Instead, clearer language is needed when civilians are treated like this. Pogroms, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and perhaps even crimes against humanity may thus be more accurate — particularly given that Oct. 7 likely now marks the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

War in the Middle East?

Saturday’s attacks should offer a stark reminder of terrorism’s unique ability to drive geopolitical agendas and completely upend status quos. The timing of the attacks was likely a response to the normalization process in diplomatic relations between Israel and many Muslim countries in the Gulf and North Africa. Since 2020, the Abraham Accords have produced the historic opening of formal ties between Israel and a succession of Middle Eastern and African countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. The possible conclusion of a U.S.-brokered establishment of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel was widely seen as a game-changer in regional security alignments. The attendant promised defense pact between Saudi Arabia and the United States was something Tehran was desperate to derail since it was obviously directed against Iran. Throughout history, the absolute worst enemy of terrorists has always been moderates and peacemakers. With Saturday’s surprise attacks, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad and their Iranian government patrons may have achieved their goal of upending a peace process that was on the verge of a major breakthrough.

What is less clear is how Hamas hopes the next days will unfold. Terrorism is, at its very core, strategic violence, selected by actors who no longer seek political solutions. It is unclear what specific strategic result Hamas is seeking. Perhaps Hamas is attempting to provoke an overwhelming response, as al-Qaeda did on Sept. 11, inspiring both Palestinians and their allies in Lebanon and beyond to attack Israel. Or perhaps they are merely acting as spoilers of a newly invigorated peace process, just like the Jewish far-right extremists whose killing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 stymied the Oslo Accords that he had worked so hard to achieve. But this attack came at a time of unprecedented support for the Palestinian cause around the globe (and shortly after a controversial judicial reform proposal in Israel had shocked the democratic world). And, it was broadcast on social media, showing genuinely horrendous imagery of innocent civilians being butchered in the streets and taken hostage. It seems inevitable that the attacks will only set back the Palestinian cause, perhaps fatally. This may yet prove, then, a stunning miscalculation — and perhaps one only possible among actors blinded by hate. 

Or, actors with no care whatsoever for the humanity they are charged with presiding over. Like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant during the 20-year war on terror, Hamas has seemingly demonstrated a disregard for the blood of those they purport to represent. In launching their jihad, the leaders of the group and many of its rank-and-file will be mercilessly hunted by Israeli security forces. But the path to their neutralization will be paved with the corpses of everyday Palestinian men, women, and children who want nothing but a more promising future. Almost half of Palestinians across Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank view the Abraham Accords positively, a greater percentage than in the rest of the Arab world. Hamas’ hijacking of that process will not lead to anything but more violence — and will do nothing to improve the lives of those genuinely suffering in the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps the greatest threat now comes from further miscalculations by state actors. Indeed, as we write, the war is both far from over and will not be contained. An Israeli ground operation to end once-and-for-all the threats from Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised, would almost certainly trigger an uprising on the West Bank and attacks in the north on Israel from Hizballah in Lebanon — Iran’s other regional terrorist minion. Already, this past weekend, Hizballah fired rockets from Lebanon into the contested Shebaa Farms along the border with Israel. And, on Monday, the Israel Defense Forces was warning Israelis living in the north about a suspected cross-border infiltration. If accurate, it was precisely this kind of cross-border activity by Hizballah that triggered the 2006 Lebanon War. Faced with a three-front war of almost existential dimensions and fueled by decades of frustrations over failed peace processes, continued occupation and repression, and land annexation, the Palestinians may embrace the situation as their only hope of altering a status quo that has dragged on for 56 years — since Israel’s lightning victory in the 1967 Six Day War. 

Israel may thus feel driven to target the groups’ enablers in Iran rather than the individual terrorist movements directly attacking it from three directions. The allure of dealing such a knock-out blow will be difficult for the Israeli leadership to resist, given the right-wing composition of this particular ruling coalition. But it would unleash powerful forces that would likely prove impossible to control and would certainly engulf the entire region. Perhaps most concerningly, an Israeli government with unprecedented far-right and nationalist factions will be uncontainable in its response. As Steven Cook writes for the Council on Foreign Relations, “Under these circumstances, no foreign government, including the United States, will have any leverage on Israel to respond with restraint.”

Terrorism’s power to upend peace processes, trigger dangerous escalations, and set countries on the path to far more destructive, lethal, and consequential wars has so often been dismissed. But it was an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo that resulted in World War I and produced 40 million casualties, and it was the 3,000 persons killed on Sept. 11 that launched the U.S.-led global war on terror in which an estimated 3.6 to 3.8 million have since perished. Saturday’s attacks will profoundly change the Middle East, as the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon did before them. Preventing the profound repercussions of Sarajevo in 1914 and the response to 9/11 that launched a two-decade-long struggle that many would argue did not end with the United States leaving Afghanistan two years ago, should be of paramount importance in ending this war and containing its spread before the entire region erupts in violence. A task, sadly, far easier said than done.

Implications Worldwide

Moreover, the conflict will also have ramifications far beyond the Middle East. Already, reports have emerged of non-Israeli citizens — including U.S. citizens — being killed or captured by the dozens. Pressure is sure to increase on the world’s governments to respond, perhaps with force, particularly if foreign nationals are among the hostages held in Gaza. What happened on Saturday in Israel should additionally be ringing alarm bells in Washington, D.C., about America’s own enemies who opportunistically will seek to exploit the country’s political paralysis, divisiveness, and distraction with multiple international security challenges alongside the ongoing possibility of domestic political violence as the country approaches among the most contentious presidential races in its history.  

But the implications go even further. At a time when a war for the future of democracy rages in Eastern Europe, perhaps only an existential threat to Israel could draw American attention away from the Ukrainian cause, possibly smoothing a path toward a Russian triumph in Europe. Refugee flows from several countries and regions would further destabilize surrounding states as well as the European continent, encouraging the same backlashes seen after the Arab Spring. And, Jewish communities in Europe, the United States, and beyond will also pay a dear price — doubtless finding themselves in the crosshairs of anti-Semitic terrorists driven by the same hatred that drove the Hamas militants across the Gazan border. 

The big question at the moment is whether the fighting will remain confined to Gaza and restricted to Israel and Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, the terrorists directly responsible for Saturday’s attacks. Hizballah, we can be certain, will be monitoring these developments and perhaps looking for an opportunity to expand the war by striking Israel from the north thus locking the Jewish state into a multi-front struggle, should Palestinians on the West Bank rise up as well. In 2006, Hizballah was initially castigated throughout the region for its recklessness but eventually was lauded for its success in withstanding the inevitable Israeli onslaught and ultimately further isolating Israel among the world’s nations.

In other words, if anything approaching the worst-case scenario — a full-scale, full-theater, total war in the Middle East, involving Israel defending itself against Iran and its proxies — comes to fruition, the security and stability of the world will be affected in ways that would eclipse the impact of the 9/11 attacks 22 years ago.

 

 

Bruce Hoffman is senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council of Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917–1947. Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and DeSales University. Together, they are the authors of the forthcoming God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America.

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