[Make sure to read Daniel Greenfield’s contributions in Jamie Glazov’s new book: Barack Obama’s True Legacy: How He Transformed America.]
A week before its attack Hamas agreed to another truce with Israel. The agreement negotiated by Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations traded an end to border attacks for more imports, a bigger fishing zone and more work permits that allowed 20,000 Gaza Muslims to enter Israel.
The agreement reached between Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and Sukkot, the conclusion of the High Holy Days season, offered an end to the explosives and rocks being hurled at Israeli soldiers on the border and the incendiary balloons starting fires on Israeli farms. And terrorist attacks on civilians like the murder of Batsheva Nigri: a kindergarten teacher shot and killed while driving in her car with her 12-year-old daughter.
Qatar, a state sponsor of Hamas and an ally of the United States, claimed that it had “succeeded in de-escalating the situation in the Gaza Strip by mediating an understanding.”
Hamas ended the border riots and Israelis went into the Sukkot holiday with an apparent calm. The Israeli army and security forces continued to focus on the West Bank, where much of the violence appeared to be coming from, rather than the Gaza Strip which seemed quiet.
But the border attacks and the negotiated ceasefire had all been part of a feint. Hamas had been working on a large-scale attack for two years. During this time it had calculatedly tamped down some of the violence and appeared amenable to informal truces in exchange for benefits.
When Hamas began conducting exercises on kidnapping Israelis and “storming settlements” in plain sight in September 2023, experts dismissed it as posturing to extract more concessions. In an article five days before the attacks, the default assumption by a Western diplomat and Israeli defense officials was that Hamas was running short of money and an infusion of Qatari cash along with more work permits, which brought $2 million a day into Gaza, would appease it.
An expert quoted in the media described Hamas border violence as a “tactical way of generating attention about their distress. It’s not an escalation but ‘warming up’ to put pressure on relevant parties that can come up with money to give to the Hamas government.”
It was in this state of tactical blindness, the equivalent of America’s obliviousness before 9/11, that the Hamas attacks executed on the conclusions of the High Holy Days took place.
Israel did not entirely drop its guard. Army units were still watching the border and a unit of the Shin Bet, its domestic security agency, had been dispatched in anticipation of an attack. There had been warnings that something was coming, but in line with previous attacks, the most Israeli security personnel anticipated was a 7-10 man incursion by a Hamas strike force.
No one expected over 2,000 terrorists breaking through at multiple points for a full-scale invasion of neighboring Israeli towns and communities. But they should have.
The Hamas campaign has been described as Israel’s 9/11, but it has more of an analogy to another disaster in America’s military history. In January 1968, Communist forces in Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, taking advantage of a local holiday truce and the conviction of American military leaders that enemy forces were not capable of an attack on that scale.
The ambition of the attack took everyone by surprise. The Viet Cong were able to attack even the U.S. embassy in Saigon and take control of cities like Hue where they murdered and tortured whomever they pleased. While the Tet Offensive failed, it broke the morale of the Vietnamese and helped end Democratic Party support for the Vietnam War.
Like the Tet Offensive, the Hamas attacks violated a cease-fire and depended on diverting Israel’s attention away from the Gaza border and to the West Bank. The border riots and the agreement had lulled Israel into a false sense of security about the scale of Hamas ambitions. Like the Tet Offensive, rocket attacks were followed by a large-scale assault targeting populated areas deeper inside Israel that were not properly hardened. Gazan workers who had been given work permits guided the Hamas terrorists with information about those communities.
Israeli deployments at the Gaza border had been aimed at countering the two usual scenarios over the years: attacks across the border and infiltration by small groups. During border riots, a limited number of IDF soldiers would warn off the rioters, often by firing in the air, and snipers would be on watch for long range attacks. The border fence had been built to block any but the most determined infiltrators and to quickly alert response teams to any incursions. In the event that the border fence was breached, Israeli special units would quickly intercept the terrorists.
In these scenarios, a relatively small number of soldiers could secure the border. No one had planned for a third scenario or brought in sufficient numbers of soldiers to cope with it. Like most militaries, the IDF had focused on winning the wars as they were being fought now.
And that is always a fatal error.
The border fence had been designed to alert Israel to individual breaches so that military forces could quickly converge on the area. But now there were far more breaches than forces. While overwhelmed Israeli border forces tried to stop the invaders, more of them were breaching at multiple points and heading toward their real targets: communities inside Israel.
Unlike the Jewish communities that had existed in Gaza before the disastrous ‘disengagement’ that forced them out in the name of peace or the Jewish ‘settlements’ in the West Bank, the ‘kibbutzim’ were not especially hardened. Whereas Jewish ‘settlements’ tend to be more religious and heavily armed, the equivalent of small towns in Texas, the communities near Gaza attacked by Hamas were more approximately Boston suburbs. They were not entirely helpless: but they were dependent on security teams who kept weapons in a central location.
The Hamas terrorists, who had used the Gaza work permits to gain detailed intelligence on their targets, were well aware of this. Security in these communities had been set up to cope with the usual threat of one or two terrorists, but was completely unready for 70 or 90 heavily armed attackers with detailed maps of their targets and a plan to secure their objectives. And that included knowing where the security teams and IDF personnel in those communities lived.
In some communities, members of security teams and ordinary civilians heroically fought back. The story of Inbar Lieberman, a 25-year-old woman who served as the security coordinator for Kibbutz Nir Am, who rallied her neighbors, killed 5 terrorists and saved the kibbutz has been widely told. But other communities were not so lucky. That was where the massacres happened.
The system fell apart and those on the ground improvised. Troops on the ground used WhatsApp to request fire support from choppers. Commando units used WhatsApp groups to locate veterans with military experience and deploy them to targeted areas. “Suburbanites and urbanites, including some retirees, simply holstered their guns, jumped in their cars, and drove maniacally down South – saving their kids, their grandkids, or mere strangers.”
Where the IDF had been overwhelmed and tied down, an informal IDF of veterans stepped into the breach. And without them, Hamas might have achieved its overall objectives.
Hamas had waited two years and deployed over 2,000 terrorists not just to carry out a few large scale massacres, but to seize and secure the targeted communities as forward operating bases, expanding its territory, and seeking to move beyond them in a battle for all of Israel. Its Jihadis wore cameras and recorded their atrocities to use them as a rallying call to summon Arab Muslims in the West Bank and inside Israel’s ‘Green Line’ to join a battle for all of Israel.
The ultimate plan was “to seize the Gaza corridor and open a pathway to Tel Aviv”: a not unthinkable distance of 44 miles away. Hamas moving its atrocities to Tel Aviv would have been the perfect equivalent of the Tet Offensive.
As the Hamas attacks were underway, Al Jazeera reported that mosque “minarets in the West Bank began making calls of ‘Allahu Akbar’ in an expression of support” and “massive processions set out in a number of places in the West Bank… in Jenin, Tubas, Ramallah… in Hebron, and Bethlehem… to celebrate the ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ battle.”
The images of the hostages, the kidnapped children and abused women were intended to panic Israelis and convince Arab Muslims to join a battle on the verge of being won. The Hamas message was that Israel was weak and ripe for destruction. But no real support arrived. Despite its initial victories and massacres, Hamas was unable to sustain its momentum. Like the Tet Offensive, the High Holy Day atrocities were a political victory and a military defeat.
Estimates are that Hamas left behind as many as 1,500 dead inside Israel and more along the border. The Jihadiis, fueled by captagon, known as “the drug of jihad”, a popular amphetamine in the Middle East mass produced by the Assad regime in Syria, and widely used by Islamic terror groups from ISIS to Hezbollah, felt invulnerable and gleefully tortured, mutilated and raped their way across communities, heady with the conviction that they could not be stopped.
The captagon high of ‘poor man’s cocaine’ also made them slow to respond as the tide of battle turned. Many fought and died rather than strategically pull back. A surprise attack had turned into a rout. Like Al Qaeda and ISIS, the larger plans of Hamas resembled those of most Islamists whose military strategies were rooted in a mixture of Marxist guerrilla tactics, Mohammed’s conquests and prophecies of final battles when the end times arrive.
Islamic terrorists and guerrillas execute an attack in the expectation that the larger ummah of the Muslim world will rally to their banners. Islamists like Marxists see all battles as primarily ideological. Victory or defeat in any individual battle is less important than raising morale, terrifying enemies and using that to generate recruitment. The Marxist and Islamist guerrilla aims not as much at winning battles as maintaining a higher level of morale and staying power.
Hamas had won and lost before. Each time it emerged with more financing, fame and manpower. To defeat Maoist forces in the field, you have to actually destroy them. Or make them completely irrelevant. The Tet Offensive had failed at achieving its military objectives, but demonstrated how the Communists intended to win. That is what Hamas had also set out to do.
Israel had spent so much time focusing on Hamas tactics that it lost track of the terrorist group’s actual long term objectives. That is a mistake that it cannot afford again with either Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah or any of the Islamic terrorist groups that it is confronting. Washington’s bad habit of looking at Islamic terrorists through the eyes of realpolitik had rubbed off on Jerusalem. Believing that Islamists want what we all want, that Hamas considerations were driven by $2 million a day or fishing zones rather than a religious mandate to destroy Israel was an error.
Counterterrorism is inherently reactive. Israel excelled at counterterrorism, but that success was also a trap. While the Israelis built better mousetraps, they had come to think of the enemy as a mouse. The more they reacted to what Hamas was doing, the better able they were to stop it in the short term, but the more they lost track of countering its larger plans in the long term.
Islamists engage in terrorism, but it was a catastrophic mistake to think of Hamas as merely a terrorist group and to reduce it to its tactics. The Hamas attacks discarded terrorism and turned to guerrilla warfare, drawing on everything from classic Mohammedan warfare to ISIS attacks to Marxist campaigns in Southeast Asia. Hamas stepped out of the box to launch an operation that overwhelmed Israeli forces still thinking of it in terms of counterterrorism rather than all-out war.
To win a war, you must know the enemy. Israel had lost sight of who its enemy really was. But so has every nation in the free world facing a religious war that is over a thousand years old.