October 13, 2023 | Commentary
The War After the War Between Wars
October 13, 2023 | Commentary
The War After the War Between Wars
The latest phase of the war between Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran was bloody and brutal. It began on October 7 with a surprise attack by the Iran-backed Hamas terrorist group out of the Gaza Strip. Hamas fighters punched through the security barrier that has kept southern Israel relatively secure since the second intifada (2000–2005). Fighters then streamed across the border by foot, motorcycle, and ISIS-style white pickup trucks. What followed was an orgy of violence resulting in more than 1,200 dead and an estimated 2,000 injured. More than 100 Israelis—among them women and children, as well as more than a dozen Americans—were dragged back to Gaza as hostages. It would take the Israelis more than 48 hours to regain control of the Gaza envelope. Only then could the Israel Defense Forces begin to consider its next moves.
Israelis were in shock. So were many others watching from around the world. The most advanced military in the Middle East had been overrun by a terrorist organization that until 2023 was viewed by the Israeli defense establishment disdainfully as a “tactical threat.”
Unlike Iran (an existential threat) or Hezbollah (a strategic threat), Hamas had heretofore been able to carry out only unguided rocket attacks that would only occasionally penetrate Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome missile-defense system. But the group did learn to dig commando tunnels and even succeeded in pulling Corporal Gilad Shalit into one of them in 2006, holding him for five years in Gaza before a prisoner swap. Perhaps the most impressive feat ever pulled off by the group was the 2014 raid by Iran-trained frogmen, who stormed Zikim Beach, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, and raided a military garrison.
Admittedly, Hamas has inflicted pain on Israel over the years. Multiple rocket wars have been a constant irritant to Israel. Citizens from the southern communities have sprinted to their shelters more times than they can count. Rockets have terrorized towns and cities much farther afield. Even the interception of those crude projectiles has come at a cost. Iron Dome interceptors fired to neutralize the thousands of Hamas rockets shot at Israel over the years cost more than $50,000 a pop. The financial burden of defending Israelis from a low-level threat has steadily grown.
With the October invasion, however, Hamas announced itself as a strategic threat. In the execution of a complex operation with multiple lines of attack, the group was able to inflict measurable damage. Israel thus learned a difficult lesson: Wait too long to address a challenge, and that challenge will evolve. The al-Qaeda threat of the 1990s was a case in point. The 1998 twin embassy bombings in Africa and the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen were signs that Osama bin Laden’s terror group was gaining in strength and capability. Washington delayed taking action, and the country paid a steep price on September 11, 2001.
The Israelis are calling the Hamas assault their 9/11. However, the comparative death toll, given Israel’s tiny population of 10 million, makes the 10/7 assault even more deadly and painful in relative terms.
While the 9/11 comparison is largely drawn to reflect the pain and surprise of an Israeli population shaken out of complacency, there is another common denominator: the Islamic Republic of Iran. The 9/11 Commission report of 2004 explicitly noted that the hijackers transited through Iran. Subsequent terrorism designations by the U.S. government made it clear that elements of al-Qaeda had found safe haven and other support in the Islamic Republic. The alliance between the world’s most prolific terror sponsor and the world’s most notorious terrorist organization persists to this day, with Israel having assassinated one of the group’s most senior operatives—Abu Mohammed al-Masri—in 2020 in Tehran, where he was living openly and enjoying the hospitality of the regime.
The hand of Tehran was even more obvious in the October 7 assault. The Islamic Republic has been providing weapons, training, and cash to Hamas since the early days of the terrorist group’s inception in 1988. Iranian assistance has been steady, with the exception of a rift that emerged after Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad began slaughtering Palestinians during his country’s civil war in 2011 and 2012. Assad is another important client of the Islamic Republic who plays a crucial role in the pipeline of weapons and cash to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Hamas leaders stood their ground for a few years but ultimately elected to set aside their differences to focus on their shared dream of destroying the world’s only Jewish state.
During the 2021 war between Hamas and Israel, reports of a Lebanon-based “nerve center” began to surface, revealing a high level of coordination between the Islamic Republic, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other groups aligned with Iran. In the two years that followed, multiple reports suggested that the nerve center remained active and that it was directing a wide range of attacks against Israel, primarily in the West Bank. The weapons pipeline arming West Bank militants was identified by the IDF as an Iranian-led operation, as was the establishment of new terror squads, such as the short-lived Lions’ Den.
Within days of the 10/7 assault, journalists from the Wall Street Journal were able to establish that Iran had, over the course of several weeks, helped Hamas plan and execute its most devastating attack. The report was hardly surprising, given the long history of cooperation between Tehran and Hamas. Nevertheless, the Biden administration responded with howls of disapproval. Never mind that the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, posted videos of the Hamas assault on the X social-media platform, conveying an almost giddy satisfaction derived from the bloodshed. And never mind that Hamas and Hezbollah figures alike acknowledged working together on the attack. The White House insisted that there was no proof of collaboration.
The White House protests were a feeble attempt to deny a connection to the hostage diplomacy deal (announced on September 11) in which Washington agreed to release to Iran $6 billion (plus another $10 billion that the media often overlook) in frozen oil funds in exchange for the freeing of five Americans held captive by the regime. The deal was, at a minimum, the normalization of hostage-taking. One might even say that it was a signal to Tehran and its proxies that hostage-taking was permissible. Fast-forward a few short weeks, and an Iranian proxy suddenly held more than 100 Israelis—the majority of whom were civilians—against their will.
The administration further insisted that not one dollar of the billions was disbursed to the regime in Tehran, so there was no way that those funds had directly financed the slaughter. But even here, the administration was aware that the optics were quite miserable. Those funds were being held by banks in Qatar, which has been Hamas’s financial sponsor for years. In fact, the tiny Gulf Arab country of fewer than 300,000 citizens has served as an external headquarters for more than a dozen Hamas leaders and functionaries, not to mention a collection of other dangerous Islamist figures from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and more.
The Israelis could have made more of this in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas incursion. But there was no time for finger-pointing. The IDF was still working to clear the border of terrorists. In fact, a full day after the assault, hostage crises were still unresolved in multiple communities across Israel, with reports of commando tunnel assaults in communities near the border. It was utter chaos.
Moreover, the Israelis were relieved to see unequivocal support coming out of Washington. President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and a large number of congressional leaders voiced their full-throated condemnations of Hamas while Israel tangled with fighters from the terrorist group in close-quarter combat. The support was a refreshing change from conflicts past, when Israel has been too often condemned for using “disproportionate force” in defending itself. Washington also pledged to replenish Israel’s depleted weapons supplies. Naval assets even sailed to the Mediterranean as a show of force to potentially deter Iran or any of its other proxies from widening the fight.
But the presence of American sailors off the coast of Israel, while appreciated, is a sensitive issue for Jerusalem. The country has long pledged to “defend itself by itself.” Indeed, successive Israeli leaders have insisted that Israel never wants to see American boots on Israeli soil in times of conflict. That fierce sense of independence, informed by the harsh lessons of Jewish history, has driven Israel to not merely adequately defend itself against a wide range of aggressors over its 75-year history. The Israelis have prided themselves on their unparalleled intelligence capabilities to anticipate enemy attacks and stop them before they even occur.
And yet it was an Israeli intelligence failure that enabled Hamas to overrun the border and carry out the attack that claimed so many Israeli lives and rocked the country to its core. From what can be discerned, Jerusalem was caught flat-footed. There could have been a cyberattack involved. But the problem ran much deeper.
For more than a year, the Israeli intelligence services—the Mossad (foreign intelligence), the Shin Bet (domestic intelligence), and Aman (military intelligence)—were working from the assumption that Hamas no longer wished to invite painful wars upon the beleaguered population of Gaza. Rather, they believed, Hamas was content to export the violence to the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority was clinging to power and where the IDF had been struggling to contain rising unrest.
The logic was hard to argue with. And the conventional wisdom was buttressed by intelligence assessments that Gaza-based Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar was looking for a modus vivendi with Israel that would enable him to provide more services to the exhausted and impoverished people of Gaza.
It was all wrong. As with the “conceptzia”—the idea in 1973 shared by Israeli leaders and intelligence professionals that the surrounding Arab states were deterred and would never attack Israel—the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli security apparatus fell prey to groupthink, with horrific consequences. They deployed more assets to the West Bank and fewer on the Gaza border. Eerily, the 10/7 assault took place just after the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War—a war Israel almost lost—which conveyed the sense that history might be repeating itself, or worse.
If there is any good news here, it is that the Israeli public appears to have come together in a crisis. After months of bitter domestic battles over the role of the judiciary, a unity government has been formed and the population has set aside its differences. The “people’s army” called upon 300,000 reservists, including those who had previously refused to serve after proclaiming their opposition to the policies pursued by the Netanyahu government. Israelis of all stripes expressed an eagerness to settle the score and to possibly even recover their countrymen in Gaza.
Whether or not this social cohesion can hold may depend, in part, on the wider war that beckons. Israel has always found unity in the perception of a common threat. That threat is coming into sharper focus. The Islamic Republic is drawing closer to a nuclear bomb. America, certainly this administration, cannot be relied on to take action to thwart the regime’s plans. Israel will very likely, once again, need to “defend itself by itself.”
Until now, the Israelis have waged a shadow war against the Islamic Republic. The “campaign between wars,” as it is known in the IDF, has spilled over into Syria, maritime, cyber, and Iran itself, where Israel has launched direct assaults on the regime’s military and nuclear assets. An interesting debate has erupted in recent years as to whether the gray-zone war will do enough to foil Israel’s most determined enemy.
This debate will take on increased importance now that the Islamic Republic has stepped up its support to the proxy groups it has placed all around Israel’s borders. A multifront war has always been one of Tehran’s most lethal options, unleashing thousands of rockets at Israel, overwhelming its advanced but limited air defenses. The 10/7 slaughter may have been just a small taste of what the regime has in store.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Follow him on X @JSchanzer.