Hamas and Israel: The Current Situation and Looking Ahead
On October 7, 2023, Hamas militants launched an unprecedented attack on Israel. After four days, Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took at least 150 hostages. In response, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Israel was at war and mobilized roughly 360,000 army reserves. Israel responded with thousands of strikes on cities in the blockaded Gaza Strip, killing more than 1,000 Palestinians and destroying dozens of buildings.
The United States deployed two carrier strike groups near Lebanon to deter regional actors from further escalation. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi`ite militant organization, launched rockets into northern Israel but has not yet launched its own offensive on Israel.
On October 11, 2023, Prime Minister Netanyahu and opposition member of parliament Benny Gantz formed a national unity government, which will preside over the ongoing war and Israel’s expected ground invasion of Gaza.
Q1: What was the strategic value of Hamas’s attack?
A1: Hamas was probably more successful than it thought it would be, but also more successful than it should have been for its own good. In 1973, the Egyptian military breached Israeli defenses on the Suez Canal and was only briefly in Sinai before Israeli troops pushed it back over the canal, stopping 100 kilometers outside of Cairo. Regardless, the Egyptian military still celebrates October 6 as the day of its greatest victory. Egypt’s ability to penetrate Israel—even briefly—was a victory that continues to resonate a half century later. Hamas aimed to penetrate Israel in a way that would give it centrality and relevance for decades to come, but by killing hundreds of Israelis and taking 150 hostages in the first days, Hamas has put itself in an impossible position. Israel is united in its determination to change the status quo ante and completely push Hamas from power. It is hard to imagine that Hamas will be able to retain power in Gaza when the dust settles. There may be hope for the Palestinian national cause, but there’s very little hope for Hamas.
Q2: How could the status quo ante change in Gaza?
A2: Since Hamas took power in 2007, the Israeli military periodically would go into Gaza, fight with Hamas, and destroy some of its infrastructure. Hamas would rebuild for a few years, and then the cycle would repeat itself. Israelis called this “mowing the grass,” an unpleasant but necessary repetitive task. This cycle is no longer going to be acceptable to the Israeli public or political leadership. Now, the question is what kind of government will emerge in Gaza after the war. It might entail greater control for the Palestinian National Authority based in Ramallah, some sort of new local governance, governance under the tutelage of the Israeli military, or perhaps a coalition of Arab states. There are a lot of possibilities, but it is hard to imagine that Hamas can remain in power.
Q3: How will the hostage situation affect what happens next?
A3: The hostage situation is unprecedented. Hamas took so many hostages from so many different places, threatened to use them as human shields, and threatened to execute them as part of its war aims. The Israelis have said that the hostages will not affect their calculations, but that is likely untrue. At the same time, Israel is not likely to forgo its determination to have a comprehensive ground operation in Gaza that pushes Hamas from power because of the hostages. It is unclear how Hamas is going to try to use social media as a tool in the hostage crisis. Strategically, Israel will likely act irrespective of the hostages while tactically trying to free hostages in any way that it can. Social media coverage of the hostages could change this, but it is unlikely.
Q4: How are external actors like Hezbollah thinking about what’s happening?
A4: The risks for escalation are real, but it is unlikely that Hezbollah had any advance notice this was coming. In fact, most people in the Hamas leadership probably did not know this was coming. Hezbollah feels it has a lot to lose. The Lebanese economy is in crisis. Lebanon went from being a middle-income state to a state where 80 to 85 percent of the population is below the poverty line. There is no question that an all-out war with Israel would result in the complete destruction of the south and large-scale destruction in other parts of Lebanon, and Hezbollah does not know if it could survive that outcome. Lebanon is very vulnerable now, and the last thing it needs is another war with Israel. Hezbollah leadership has the instinct to give moral and psychological support to Hamas without incurring Israel’s full wrath. Israel’s instinct is not to get into a spiral of escalation with Hezbollah that can turn this into a two-front war, especially because Hezbollah is much better armed than Hamas. Hezbollah has up to 150,000 rockets and missiles, many of which were supplied through Syria. It is spread over a much larger area than the Gaza Strip. And Israel does not control all the access points to Lebanon the way it controls the access points to the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah does not want to be seen sitting on its hands, but it also does not want to provoke a full-scale Israeli response. Any number of things could change that, including Israeli attacks that create extraordinary humanitarian suffering or images of lots of maimed women and children.
Q5: How will the war affect regional alignments?
A5: The war makes it harder for Arab states to deal with Israel in the near term. In the longer term, it may create possibilities for Arab engagement with Gaza, which could actually contribute to Arab-Israeli rapprochement. Israel and the Arab states are strategically aligned on Gaza. Virtually all Arab governments are hostile to Hamas, which is essentially the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of these states have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and jailed its members. They also fear the tentacles of Iran, which has helped bankroll Hamas and trained some of its fighters. Arab governments may have a role in helping shape a political outcome in Gaza that simultaneously helps advance Palestinian national aspirations while also dealing a blow to Islamist movements and Iranian proxies.
Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at CSIS.