By now you’ve no doubt read or heard about the unprecedented offensive Hamas launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel at approximately 6:30 a.m. local time on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.
Beginning with a barrage of anywhere from 2,200 to 5,000 rockets (depending on whose count you believe), Hamas’ offensive was followed by a ground incursion, where Hamas forces bulldozed the border fences between Gaza and Israel, then attacked Israelis, racking up a body count of more than 1,300 at last count, wounding thousands, and taking scores hostage — more than 150 people, including dozens of women and children. A music festival celebrating the end of the Jewish holiday Sukkot was one of the first targets, located a little over three miles from the Gaza border at Kibbutz Re’im. Nearly 300 Israelis were slain in that first push by Hamas.
According to CNN, “Hamas military commander Muhammad Al-Deif called the operation ‘Al-Aqsa Storm’ and said that the assault on Israel was a response to attacks on women, the desecration of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the ongoing siege of Gaza.”
Considering the decades-long blockade Israel and Egypt have imposed on Gaza — further tightened after Hamas (labeled a terror organization by the U.S., Canada, the UK, the EU and multiple other countries) took power in 2007 — it’s an easy explanation to buy without knowledge of the greater political context. The plight of the Palestinian people under Gaza blockades has been well-documented and denounced by much of the world as well.
Nevertheless, such an offensive does nothing to further their cause, which should be an obvious get for anyone with a modicum of understanding of the political climate in the Middle East. For one, Israel’s Likud party is in control of the legislature, called the Knesset, with party leader Benjamin Netenyahu at the helm as Prime Minister. Netenyahu, in his third stint as PM, is far from a peacenik. Though he is on record as supporting the idea of a “peaceful two-state solution” to the Palestinian question, his stance is also highly conditional at best and certainly belied by his endorsements of continued Israeli settlement expansion into the West Bank. Netenyahu is considered a hard-liner by most, and he’s never shied away from deploying a military response to any perceived threat. That Israel would strike back — hard — at such an offensive should come as a surprise to no one.
(It’s important to note: Hamas seized control of the Gaza strip by deposing Fatah officials in the June, 2007 Battle of Gaza. Hamas won the majority of the seats in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Elections, resulting in a split Fatah-President-and-Hamas-Prime Minister leadership, which crumbled in the 2007 Gaza civil war. The end result split the Palestinian territories into two separate factions, with Hamas controlling Gaza and the West Bank Palestinian Authority under Fatah rule.)
Make no mistake, this wasn’t an impulse attack. This took planning, likely months of effort, and involved thousands of people. This was a multi-pronged assault by Hamas that came from the land, sea, and air. The number of missiles used in their opening volley was unprecedented, and they appear to have been aimed at overwhelming the Iron Dome defense systems Israel employs. The infrastructure required to stockpile the munitions — almost all from Iran, according to multiple sources — is significant, especially considering how successful Israel and Egypt have been with the Gaza blockade. More than 65 miles of underground tunnels used for smuggling weaponry into Gaza had been destroyed long before these attacks.
The endgame for Hamas — and more accurately, Iran — isn’t simply retaliation for the perceived mistreatment of Al-Aqsa mosque whorshippers. This attack was aimed much, much higher.
Enter the Saudis.
Over the last several months, diplomatic talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel have continued to progress, much to the dismay of Palestinian and Iranian leadership who have voiced concerns that the Saudis aren’t committing enough to Palestinian welfare in the ongoing negotiations.
In September, Lester Holt interviewed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi for NBC. Raisi said, “We are against any bilateral relations between our regional countries and the Zionist regime. We believe that the Zionist regime is intending to normalize this bilateral relations with the regional countries to create security for itself in the region.” Indeed, Israel is seeking bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, just as they have established normalization pacts with Egypt, Jordan and the UAE. Conversely, Iran wants Israel wiped from the map, as does Hamas. This is also a matter of public record.
The Saudis officially establishing diplomatic relations with Israel would decidedly change the political climate in the Middle East. The Saudis are widely favored as leaders across the Muslim majority nations, indiciated by a Gallup poll last spring — and far more popular than the leadership in Iran. Even the Palestinian citizenry favor them over their Iranian allies. (The irony is that this poll was conducted as relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were thawing. The attack on Israel could threaten to freeze those relationship back up.)
As the Biden administration worked to mediate the negotiations between Israeli PM Netenyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, one of the key sticking points in that discussion included the need for Israel to cede land to the Palestinians, a concession that’s not favored among the Israeli far-right leadership. Over the last year, Israeli settlements have increased in the West Bank with the support of factions within the Likud party, despite condemnation by the United Nations. Additionally, Netenyahu presides over a period of significant turmoil in the Knesset, due in no small part to reforms he passed that made it harder to remove him from office while limiting the power of the courts as a check-and-balance to his executive powers. This has deepened the rift among many MKs over the last few years.
The timing of the Hamas attack is not coincidental. U.S. officials announced that there was a basic framework of a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel in place on Sept. 30, just over a week before Hamas launched their offensive. One of the main compromises in that deal appears to be that the Saudis were backing off their original stance outlined in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which the Saudis sponsored, and even then, Hamas rejected. (That they rejected the plan, which called for, “…the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since 4 June 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital,” is further evidence of Hamas’ disinterest in anything less than the complete dissolution of the State of Israel. That’s also supported by Hamas’ own charter, which also cites “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as a reference in Article 32 of the Charter.)
All of this adds up to what would be viewed as fortuitous timing for Hamas and Tehran. An attack of this scale will almost certainly force both Saudi Arabia and Israel leadership away from their negotiation table — even most Israeli moderates would fall in line with nationalists demanding a significant military response after this attack. The Saudis would be forced to avoid the appearance of glad-handing the Israelis after their inevitable military response.
This attack by Hamas is the biggest incursion on Israel in the history of the Gaza Authority — 50 years and one day after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 where Egypt and Syria led an Arab coalition of states attacking Israel. And if you look at that war as a template, some other things come to light: Israeli intelligence was clear that a war was coming prior to the attack. Henry Kissinger, Sec. State under President Richard Nixon, had been very blunt with then Israeli PM Golda Meir in the U.S. stance that a preemptive strike by Israel was a non-starter if they wanted support from the U.S. — largely because the Soviet Union was allied with the Arab League and the U.S. could not afford to exacerbate our own Cold War. We could help our allies defend themselves, but not if they were the perceived “aggressors” in what appeared to be a looming conflict. As it played out, Meir waited for diplomacy to win, and that gambit failed. The result was a first strike against Israel by Egypt and Syria. Israel responded, dug in and won that war over a pitched, 20-day battle.
Through the lens of this historical account, it seems even more incredible that Israeli intelligence seemed to be caught so flatfooted in this weekend’s attack. The idea that one of — if not the most — successful intelligence agencies in the world didn’t know this was coming, is a hard pill to swallow. At the same time, it’s also hard to believe a war hawk like Netanyahu would shy away from a preemptive strike if he knew an offensive on this scale was imminent. Occam’s Razor seems to point toward simple hubris on Netenyahu’s part. Perhaps he assumed that Hamas would be incapable of launching such a sophisticated attack. Or perhaps it was simply an unprecedented intel failure. Or some combination of all of the above.
Nonetheless, if the objective of this assault was aimed in any way at improving the lives of the Palestinian people in Gaza, it’s an abject failure that would be obvious to anyone involved in its planning, or indeed, anyone with even a modicum of simple understanding of the politics at play. Which means it wasn’t the objective.
To suggest this attack was an impulsive response to any activity at Al Aqsa Mosque — the third holiest site in Islam, which is also at Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism — is absurd. The scope and scale of the Hamas attack clearly took months of planning. Al Aqsa is a red herring.
Instead, it’s much more likely that this attack had a very strategic political goal: to torpedo any progress made at the bargaining table between Israel and Saudi Arabia, thus galvanizing both the Arab League and Israel back into a war-time state with each other. And the effects will be far-reaching, reverberating throughout the Middle East as well as here on U.S. soil.
On May 10 of 2021, in response to an impending eviction of a handful of Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Shiekh Jarrah/Shimon HaTzadik, multiple protests turned violent in East Jerusalem, leading to rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel and Israeli airstrikes in return. Egypt ultimately mediated the ceasefire on May 21.
During the same period, the rate of antisemitic incidents In the United States exploded to more than double the number recorded in the previous year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
According to the ADL report, “…from May 11-31, 2021, there were 190 cases of harassment, 50 cases of vandalism and 11 assaults. Forty-seven percent of the incidents (118 in total) included explicit references to Israel and Zionism, as explained in detail below.
“The most dramatic year-over-year increase was in the category of assault, which rose from zero in May 11-31, 2020, to 11 in the same period in May 2021. There is evidence that at least seven of the antisemitic assaults were motivated by anger over the conflict in the Middle East. For example, on May 18, diners at a Los Angeles restaurant were attacked by individuals in cars carrying Palestinian flags who, said, ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves’ after the diners confirmed that they were Jewish. Some news reports indicated that the attackers used anti-Jewish slurs. On May 22 in Manhattan, a Jewish man wearing a Star of David necklace was punched by a man who allegedly asked him, “What is that around your neck, does that make you a fucking Zionist?” And on May 24 a Jewish man in Las Vegas was assaulted by a stranger who said that Jews are ‘baby killers’ who ‘are not going to exist’ after they had a conversation about the Israel-Hamas conflict.”
Americans and Jews around the world are already bracing for a repeat occurrence. In Australia, Sydney police are investigating a pro-Palestinian rally that occurred outside the famed Sydney Opera House where a group of attendees were filmed chanting, “Gas the Jews.” Amidst a rising tide of general antisemitism in the United States over the last several years, with 2022 reaching an all-time peak, Jews around the nation are already on edge, and Jewish institutions are bracing for more.
“In the midst of the horror and shock following the barbarism of Hamas’ murderous attack on women, children, the elderly, and teenagers at a music festival during one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, we are all in mourning,” said Rabbi Joseph Black, Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver — the largest congregation in Colorado. “While members of my congregation and community may differ on their feelings about the current Israeli government, we are all united in support of Israel at this tragic time. We all have relatives, friends and deep connections in Israel. We are glued to our televisions and other media sources as these horrific images flood our consciousness — adding to our trauma and grief. We know full well the potential for anti-Jewish violence. The rising climate of antisemitic hatred that is closely linked with anti-Israel activism has been well documented. I hate the fact that, over the past several years, we have been forced to add significant security protocols to our daily lives. I would much rather use those funds to enhance our educational programming, or our social justice work in the greater Denver community. Safety and security have become a fact of life in the Jewish world. How many churches have been forced to hire armed guards to protect their members? How many religious services outside of the Jewish community have been forced to begin with a security briefing? Think about that. Yes, I am angry. But I am also determined to never allow hatred to trump humanity.”
That sentiment is shared by Rabbi Raphael Leban, Managing Director of The Jewish Experience, a Denver-based non-profit dedicated to helping Jews connect with their faith. “The Jewish community of Colorado is absolutely heartbroken,” Leban said. “We feel the pain and suffering of our family members and brethren in Israel as if it were our own. We are simultaneously galvanized to assist in every way we can, and to support each other to the utmost, putting aside any differences in politics or outlooks. Our local security measures are slightly elevated, but our real concerns are for the safety and welfare of people in Israel.”
And it’s not just antisemitism we’ll see here. Anti-Muslim sentiment will increase as well. Witness this dispatch from ultra-conservative Colorado podcaster and election-denier Joe Oltmann he posted to Facebook last Monday that is nothing but terrorist fear-mongering by a guy who owns a gun store:
Denver Police Department officials confirm that they have issued a department-wide bulletin to patrols to be extra vigilant around both Muslim and Jewish institutions and houses of worship, as well.
Regardless of your political beliefs concerning the Israeli-Palestinian question, I urge you all to support your Jewish American friends and family and remain committed to fighting the scourge of antisemitism that is likely to find another new foothold in the United States amidst this latest round of Israeli-Hamas conflict.