October 12, 2023 | The Messenger
The Miscalculation of Hamas
October 12, 2023 | The Messenger
The Miscalculation of Hamas
Hamas came at dawn and murdered with abandon. It had the element of surprise. Israel was unprepared. This was unprecedented. Israel’s security barrier breached; Israeli communities and military bases overrun; territory conquered; and horrific casualties inflicted. Yet the consequences of its actions may ultimately spell Hamas’ demise. Did its leaders not game this scenario? The answer, likely, is that they did and miscalculated. By misreading Israel, the United States, and, possibly, their very own paymasters in Iran, they may have lit a fire that will now engulf them.
But first things first. From Hamas’ point of view, the attack was an unmitigated success, probably more than expected. The operation, carefully planned for months, was kept a tight secret. Israeli intelligence appears to have completely missed the clues. More importantly: Hamas went where no other terror group had ventured before. It conquered, albeit briefly, Israeli territory, rampaged for hours, challenged only by scant Israeli security presence, slaughtered hundreds, and herded survivors back to Gaza. In Israel, the shock will reverberate for a long time.
Here, too, this was a game changer. Hamas, like Hezbollah and the PLO in the past, previously used Israeli hostages (dead or alive) as leverage. But this time, Hamas — coached, funded, and armed by its Iranian paymasters — had a more grandiose plan: not just to fundamentally alter the dynamics of its conflict with Israel, but to set the region on fire. It hopes to open new fronts that have not materialized yet. Hezbollah has not launched a full assault on Israel’s north. The West Bank has not joined in. Israel’s Arab population has not taken to the streets, like it did in the first weeks of the Second Intifadah, 23 years ago, though recent echoes of those clashes make it a possible scenario. All that could still change. It is a high-stakes game that could cripple Israel with mass casualties and loss of territory.
Seen in this light, Hamas may have gamed Israel’s response and concluded that Israel’s intelligence failure, the hostage crisis, the bloody cost of a ground operation, the risk of new fronts, the likely dissipation of international solidarity once Gaza’s civilian casualties mount, Israel’s own casualties, all would stop Israel in its tracks. Or that Iran and its proxies would join the fray and come to the rescue. Even at a high cost, it might have been worth it.
What Hamas did not envisage was Israel’s response, the wave of international sympathy aroused by the horrors Hamas committed, U.S. resolve to prevent an all-out regional escalation, and the consequences Washington will exact if Iran greenlights further escalations.
First and foremost, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Tehran misread Israel. Or better put, Israelis.
For months, Israel spiraled into acrimonious political fights over judicial reforms. A nation torn apart, with weekly demonstrations to oppose fundamental changes to the country’s constitutional order, with growing voices from the security establishment and civil society warning the country’s leadership that the proposed reform was compromising Israeli democracy and with reservists suspending annual service in protest. It was not a fringe movement, and included senior reserve officers, former military leaders, intelligence, pilots, and more.
The spirited nature of Israeli democracy, to the fanatic eye of its Islamist enemies, appeared as incontrovertible proof of fragility, a symptom of what they always thought Israel to be: a house of cards. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, as their PLO predecessors, have always believed that Israel was an artificial implant in the region, a colonialist project that looked invincible from the outside but was more fragile than it cared to admit. The theory behind this thinking postulated that Israel, like a spiderweb, looked ingenious and robust, but was intrinsically fragile and bound to easily break.
With this concept in mind, and superficial evidence seeming to prove it published daily in Israeli newspapers, Israel’s enemies bet on a divided country that would not rally behind its increasingly hated prime minister. That was the first — and likely biggest — miscalculation.
As news broke of Hamas’ murderous rampage, Israelis set aside their differences and rallied around the flag. Hundreds of thousands of reservists answered the call of duty. Israelis abroad are flooding back home to join them. The country mobilized behind its citizens-soldiers, offering supplies, and behind the victims of last week’s horror, offering aid and shelter. And a national unity government that, with Netanyahu as prime minister, appeared like a pipe dream until last Friday is now a reality. There will be a reckoning. But not while the enemy is at the gates.
Israel has confronted existential threats before. Each time, regardless of national mood and the divisive politics of the moment, Israelis of all religious and political persuasions joined as one. They call it a war of no choice, because a mortal enemy forced Israel into belligerence, and the survival of the nation depended on victory at all costs.
Take the 2000 Second Intifadah. Israel was deeply divided over the Oslo process. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated in 1995 by a fanatic opponent. In July 2000, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak lost his parliamentary majority just before traveling to Camp David to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement. And yet when two months later, a PLO- and Hamas-orchestrated campaign of suicide bombings left Israel vulnerable, Israelis buried their dead and rose, a nation in arms, to restore Israel’s deterrence and eventually neutralize the terror threat that Israel had initially failed to confront.
Hamas grossly underestimated Israel’s strength and the sense of sacrifice and civic duty that, in the hour of peril, unites its citizens as brothers-in-arms. Hamas thought the spiderweb was already broken. Instead, the pain of unspeakable horror fortified it.
Next, Hamas and Iran misread the Biden administration.
The White House took sides in Israel’s domestic quarrel over Netanyahu’s constitutional overhaul. The Israeli prime minister begged for a White House meeting for months, and got only a cameo appearance on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. More than a snub: It was a public humiliation. Meanwhile, the Biden administration sought to revive a nuclear deal with Iran that Israel vehemently opposed. Hamas saw so much daylight between Washington and Jerusalem that it failed to understand America too.
Even as Washington is distracted by the Ukraine war and China’s rise, even as tensions between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu did and do remain, America would not abandon Israel in the hour of despair. Not just words of condemnation, military assistance, congressional resolutions, and solidarity lighting on public buildings — Washington sent a carrier strike group to deter Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon from joining the onslaught. It is ready to position more assets and embed forces in Israel. And it said, very clearly and publicly, lest Tehran misunderstands, that it has its finger on the trigger.
What of Hamas’ paymasters in Tehran, who orchestrated Saturday’s horror show in the hope of setting the entire region on fire?
Suddenly, they realize that America is not a declining power but a sleeping giant. That Israelis will fight for their home, to the last one of them, because they have nowhere else to go. And that the Hamas pogrom of October 7 may turn out to be the last hurrah of Hamas’ murderous cult. The terrorist group may still escalate, but the price has suddenly gone up, as has the risk of losing.
Hamas started the war. It is doubtful it will end its way.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on X @eottolenghi. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.