The Hamas Assault on Israel Changes Everything

Gruesome toll: Israeli soldiers carry the body of a person killed during the Hamas attack on the Kfar Aza kibbutz on 7 October. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

As Deputy Director of ELNET UK, the London office of the European Leadership Network – which aims to strengthen multilateral relations between European countries and Israel – this is an article I never wanted to write. But, as hard as it is to talk about, the Hamas crimes in Southern Israel need examining not just for their barbarity, but also for their impact on Israel’s domestic politics and military posture. The events of the last several days are paradigm-shifting.

In July 2023, I walked through the Kfar Aza kibbutz in southern Israel with a group of 14 UK Labour Party researchers and advisors interested in learning about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our tour guide, a beautiful young woman and mother of several small children, explained to us the reality of life 2 km from Gaza. We toured the border, the bomb shelters, the nurseries, the farms and the houses. We ate lunch with a group of kibbutzniks in the dining hall and left feeling inspired by their resilience and with a belief that, with such perseverance, a better future might be possible. Everyone we met is now unresponsive and presumed either kidnapped or dead. Their kibbutz was subject to a massacre on 7 October when almost 100 Hamas terrorists took over, burning, beheading, shooting and raping whoever they could find. These scenes were repeated in more than 30 towns across Southern Israel. Over 1,300 Israelis are dead – the highest number of Jews killed in a single day since the liberation of Auschwitz. The attack is paradigm-breaking for Israeli politics and the Israel Defense Forces.

It feels churlish to talk about politics, but sadly, we must – with the strong and clear caveat that in whatever analysis follows, blame for this attack lies squarely and solely with the Hamas terrorists who carried it out.

In the medium term, there will be a political battle within Israel about how any of this was possible. This battle will eventually play out at the ballot box. To put the potential ramifications in perspective, it is widely thought that the Israeli left never recovered from the carnage of the Second Intifada. Yet, more people died on 7 October than in those horrible four years combined. It is too soon to tell whether this will lead to a similar sea-change in domestic Israeli politics, but it will likely depend – at least in part – on the outcome of the war that has just begun.

In the highly unlikely scenario that the war ends with enough time for something akin to ‘business as usual’ to resume before the next Israeli election, it seems impossible to imagine that a government presiding over such a traumatised country would wish to pursue its previous, divisive push for constitutional reform. This is especially so given the establishment of an Emergency National Unity Government in Israel that unites once bitter foes. Indeed, the battle lines that were drawn over the judicial issue appeared to evaporate on Saturday – reservists who had previously refused to serve out of protest, stepped up when called; a record 360,000 reserve soldiers have reported for duty since Saturday. This is the largest mobilisation and show of collective unity in Israel’s history.

In July 2023, we visited the Kfar Aza kibbutz in southern Israel. Now, everyone we met is unresponsive and presumed either kidnapped or dead

In the longer term, there are at least four major areas in Israeli politics that will likely experience significant change – though in truth the list is longer.

First, there is Israel’s military posture. Until the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel retained a largely front-footed military posture that prioritised offense over defence. With the development of air defences, the construction of border barriers and the signing of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, a change to a more defensive mode made sense. But many military analysts were left anxious that this could lull Israel into a false sense of security, akin to perceptions of the French and their border with Germany in the 1930s. These fears seem to have some weight. So, we can expect the balance between Israel’s offensive and defensive military posture to change and potentially become a source of political debate within the country once more.

Second, there have already been reports of disturbances and celebratory road-blocking in some northern Israeli-Arab towns. This will bring back memories of the Arab-Jewish violence that broke out within Israel during the May 2021 war with Hamas, and throws into sharp relief the extent of Arab integration into Israeli society. Indeed, this is just one of five prominent ‘arenas’ from which Israel is now facing ongoing or potential terror, with the other four being Gaza (from where this all started), Lebanon (from where Hezbollah has already launched drones, rockets and anti-tank fire into Israel since Saturday), Syria (from where Shia and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-affiliated militias have already fired rockets into Israel since Saturday) and the West Bank (from where a terrorist shot and wounded an Israeli on Tuesday). A multi-front war of aggression against Israel looms large.

Staying on the topic of domestic social issues, there may well be a longer-term debate to follow in Israel about the extent of the military draft for members of the ultra-Orthodox community. Their exemption has been a livewire issue for many decades in Israeli politics, but the number of reservists reporting for duty, and the sense of collective endurance in Israeli society following these attacks, might bring such issues to the fore in the years to come.

While we are not privy to Israel’s military strategy or objectives for its ground operation in Gaza, the long-term status quo has clearly been destroyed

Third, Israel’s approach to the West Bank will understandably harden as a result of 7 October. In the eyes of Israelis, the Jewish State has withdrawn from three swathes of territory in the recent past: the Sinai, Southern Lebanon and Gaza. The Sinai spent much of the last 10 years in the hands of Islamic State; Southern Lebanon is in the firm grip of Iran’s Hezbollah; and Gaza is under the control of Hamas, who used it to plan Saturday’s atrocity (and to fire over 15,000 rockets in the years since Israel’s withdrawal). The Israelis have tried controlling these areas, vacating them, enacting a partial blockade and erecting fences around them. Yet with each change, however much Israel’s actions are appreciated or condemned by the ‘West’, Palestinian violence toward Israelis seems to grow. Albeit in the absence of wartime polling to substantiate this claim, it would seem inevitable that any latent support for an Israeli withdrawal from another territory – the West Bank – will diminish further.

Fourth, there is Gaza. While we are not privy to Israel’s military strategy or objectives for the seemingly inevitable and necessary ground operation in Gaza, the long-term status quo has clearly been destroyed. Whether that leads to a full recapture, part capture, tighter blockade or attempted handover of Gaza to some other power remains unclear. But Israelis, especially the million or more living in the south and within touching distance of this week’s massacres, will no longer tolerate Hamas’s freedom to operate on (and invade) their border.

In short, this is a time of great shock in Israel. It will lead to substantial military and political change, with ramifications for Israel’s government, the collective Israeli ‘left’ and ‘right’, Israel’s approach to the West Bank, its domestic political priorities and its overall military posture. For now, though, we at ELNET UK join with all of Israel in mourning their overwhelming loss, and offer our unwavering solidarity to them as they protect and defend their country.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Aaron Cohen-Gold

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