What’s Next for Hamas and Israel?

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Alexander Palmer on his Critical Questions with Daniel Byman, “What’s Next for Hamas and Israel?” 

Audio file

On October 7, Hamas launched a multipronged assault on southern Israel, killing hundreds of people and taking as many as 150 hostages. Israel responded with airstrikes that have also killed hundreds, a full blockade of the Gaza strip, and a declaration of war. So far, more than 1,600 people have been killed and thousands more wounded in the fighting. According to Israeli and Palestinian authorities, more than 900 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel, and more than 700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and the West Bank.

The attack has no precedent in Hamas’s history, and the coming days stand as a potential turning point for the future of Israel, Palestine, and the wider region. The only thing that is truly clear at this point is that Israel will respond. The exact form its response will take will become apparent in the coming days and weeks, but its full implications may not be fully known for months or years.

Q1: How does this differ from previous crises?

A1: Hamas has conducted rocket attacks, infiltrations, and abductions before, but this attack has already killed more people than all Hamas attacks since 2007 combined.

The more than 3,200 rockets the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) claimed Hamas launched on October 7 and 8 surpassed the total number of rockets fired in any year since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, except 2014 and 2021. The number of rockets launched in the initial barrages on the 7 is still an order of magnitude greater than the number launched during the opening stages of the 2014 and 2021 conflicts.

The size of the infiltration is especially unprecedented. Hundreds of militants crossed into Israel on October 7 along multiple axes, entering roughly 20 towns, effectively taking control of several communities, and attacking at least one large gathering of civilians. It took IDF forces more than two days of fighting to regain control of the settlements closest to Gaza.

Hamas has also taken hostages before, but never anywhere approaching this number, which remains unknown but is likely around 150. Israel is extremely sensitive to hostage-taking, as demonstrated by its decision to trade more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2014 and the fact that negotiations over two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers held by Hamas have remained unresolved for almost a decade. The hostages taken also include an unknown number of foreign nationals, further complicating the situation.

Israel’s response has also been massive and is likely to grow in the coming days. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war and launched Operation “Iron Swords,” the Israeli defense minister called for a “complete siege” of Gaza, and the IDF conducted an unprecedented wave of airstrikes in the strip and mobilized up 300,000 reservists.

The number of hostages will complicate Israel’s response in unprecedented ways. Netanyahu is rhetorically committed to a massive response, but retrieving hostages requires smaller-scale action like negotiations or special forces operations. The hostages will make Israel’s military decisions much harder because Hamas is threatening to kill hostages in retaliation for Israeli airstrikes and the presence of hostages in specific areas will be a key unknown for IDF operators.

Q2: Why now?

A2: Hamas had several reasons to act. Hamas’s claims to political legitimacy depends on a combination of service provision in Gaza, where it is the de facto government, and violent resistance to Israel. It differentiates itself from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank, along both of these lines. Hamas presents itself as less corrupt than the PA—not a difficult argument to make—and provides public services such as trash collection and law enforcement in Gaza. However, its ability to improve the lives of Palestinians has been limited in part by Israeli economic pressure. Unemployment and poverty rates in the strip remain high, increasing the importance of armed resistance for Hamas’s political project, especially as PA president Mahmoud Abbas ages without a clear successor.

The attack also follows several years of escalating violence and increasingly frequent crises. The unchecked growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Israeli settlers’ violence against Palestinian civilians, the open racism of some members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition have fed discontent and pessimism among Palestinians. A growing number of provocative incidents at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, has also steadily ratcheted up tensions, and Hamas explicitly pointed to the incidents as a reason for its attacks.

The attacks are also well timed to disrupt attempts at Saudi-Israeli normalization led by the United States. This would serve the interests of Iran, Hamas’s main patron and Israel’s most persistent adversary. Reports have already surfaced that Iran helped Hamas plan the attack, although the extent of Iranian involvement will probably remain unknown for a long time. That Iran specifically instructed Hamas to attack is plausible, although this more likely resulted from the overlap of Iran’s interests with those of Hamas.

Q3: How did Israel not know this was coming?

A3: How Israel’s vaunted intelligence services were caught unprepared will be debated for a long time. Intelligence failure generally occurs because services do not gather the necessary information to warn decisionmakers or because analysts are beholden to flawed assumptions and analytic processes. Both will probably turn out to be important in October’s failure.

Israel may have underestimated Hamas’s ability to learn and enforce effective operational security. Israel’s security apparatus is formidable but not omniscient. Hamas’s ability to plan an attack involving thousands of fighters suggests that it was able to identify and implement countermeasures to Israel’s uncrewed aerial systems, human informants, and electronic surveillance. However, a recent statement by an anonymous Egyptian intelligence official suggests that Egyptian intelligence had detected and communicated to Israel that something big was coming. If true, this means that the failure probably cannot be completely explained by Hamas’s successful counterintelligence efforts.

Israeli intelligence officials may also have mistakenly assumed that Hamas’s future would be much like its recent past. In the various crises since 2014, Israeli deterrence seemed to be holding, with Hamas and Hezbollah repeatedly seeking to de-escalate through negotiations. Israeli’s defensive systems like Iron Dome also seemed to protect Israelis from Hamas activity, while the “smart fence" made infiltration from Gaza difficult. Hamas has also recently been seen as gradually moderating its stance, seeking legitimacy through economic development while smaller groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad conducted attacks against Israel. These assumptions were clearly wrong, and some analysts had warned that the Palestinian situation was boiling over and that an unrepentant Hamas was seeking to turn the tables on Israel.

Q4: What will happen next?

A4: Israel has no good options in Gaza. The ongoing air strikes, no matter how disproportionate, will probably not be seen as reestablishing deterrence or denying Hamas a major victory. A total blockade will also be insufficient, even though its impact on Palestinians would be terrible. According to Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, the country plans “to obliterate Hamas terrorist capabilities,” which will not be accomplished by a blockade or airstrikes.

This leaves a major ground intervention as the most likely course of action, although Israel has repeatedly sought to avoid such incursions in the past. Such an invasion would be difficult for the Israeli military and devastating for Palestinian civilians. Gaza is among the most densely populated places on earth, and urban assaults are among the most difficult and deadly of all operations a military can attempt. To give a sense of what could happen, the last major Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, 2014’s operation Protective Edge, lasted about two weeks and penetrated only a few kilometers into the strip. The fighting in those two weeks resulted in the deaths of 66 Israeli soldiers, six Israeli civilians, and well over 2,000 Palestinians (mostly civilians, a quarter of whom were children), although it is impossible to know how many were killed in ground combat rather than in strikes by Palestinian rockets or Israeli aircraft.

Beyond Gaza, Israel will also have to manage the threat of escalation in two key arenas. The first is its northern border with Lebanon and Syria, which has already witnessed one major crisis this year. Hezbollah already appears to be testing Israel’s limits in the area, firing missiles and artillery in the Golan Heights on Sunday. The IDF also said that it had killed an unknown number of infiltrators from Lebanon and commenced airstrikes in southern Lebanon on Monday. The situation at the border is uncertain and could change rapidly.

The second is the West Bank, where Hamas has explicitly called for militants to take up arms. The area is ripe for major unrest. Even before this weekend’s attacks, violence in the West Bank was increasing to the point that analysts were speaking of a Third Intifada. Previous Israeli military activity in Gaza has prompted large demonstrations in the West Bank, and there is little reason to believe current Israeli operations will be different. Israel has already conducted one large ground operation in the West Bank this year, a major raid on the Jenin refugee camp, and may feel compelled to intervene again if the PA is unable to limit unrest.

If Israel does enter Gaza in force, it will face a momentous decision—whether to leave a weakened Hamas intact and in control or to overthrow its de facto administration. Neither option is appealing. If Hamas survives, it will claim a strategic triumph over Israel. If it is overthrown, no moderate Palestinian force exists to replace it. The PA lacks significant political support among Palestinians and has resorted to brutal repression in the West Bank in the absence of political legitimacy. Without a ready replacement for Hamas, Israel will have little choice but to assume direct control over Gaza, which will most likely exacerbate Palestinian militancy, deepen the divisions within Israeli society, and tie up its military and economic resources in an open-ended counterinsurgency campaign.

Alexander Palmer is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Daniel Byman is a senior fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS and a professor at Georgetown University.

Special thanks to Rayna Salam for editing and publication support.

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Daniel Byman
Senior Fellow, Transnational Threats Project