Just three weeks into the deadliest war between Israel and Hamas, it already is clear that the bloodshed has flipped long-standing assumptions in Israel and the region upside down.
Israel’s military and intelligence services were exposed as incompetent and ill-prepared. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decades of attempts to sideline the Palestinians and U.S. efforts to manage the conflict, rather than solve it, badly backfired.
Israelis’ sense of personal security was shattered. The international community’s traditional approach of urging Israel to withdraw from occupied land in exchange for peace now appears out of the question.
“Many paradigms have collapsed with this murderous attack by Hamas,” said Nadav Eyal, a commentator for Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
Here is a look at how the key players got it wrong.
Over the decades, Israel’s military and security agencies built a reputation of near invincibility through sophisticated intelligence-gathering, daring covert operations and deterrence.
Israeli intelligence units kept tabs on Palestinians with sensitive surveillance tools. Travelers in and out of Gaza were subject to deep background checks and interrogations that together with a network of informants gave Israel a massive database.
This was backed by a high-tech military equipped with intelligence so precise a drone could kill a wanted militant in his bed, while leaving the rest of his house intact. The border was fortified with tanks, army bases, a massive separation barrier fitted with cameras and sensors, and an underground wall seen as impenetrable.
Still, on Oct. 7, militants blew through the barrie r undetected and moved into Israeli towns without resistance. It took hours for Israeli forces to respond, allowing the militants to kill over 1,400 people, the vast majority civilians, and capture over 200 hostages. It would be days before Israeli security forces regained control, and some two dozen border communities remain evacuated.
The heads of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service and Israeli military intelligence have admitted failure and taken responsibility.
They remain on the job while Israel wages its war. But they could be among a long line of expected resignations and firings when the dust settles.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU
Netanyahu has survived his lengthy political career by persuading the nation that he is best qualified to protect them and treating the Palestinians as a side issue.
He has repeatedly resisted attempts to restart peace talks and rejected calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Instead, he sought to manage the conflict with a combination of economic incentives to the Palestinians, backed by occasional military operations against Palestinian militants, while expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and maintaining a stifling blockade of Gaza.
Netanyahu exploited the divisions between the rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza — a policy that often served to strengthen Hamas at the expense of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority. This undermined Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and provided an excuse for not pursuing peace talks.
While trying to sideline the Palestinians, he courted wealthy Gulf Arab countries with the belief that this would force the Palestinians to accept an arrangement far short of independence. His message was that Israel could be a strong country and citizens could enjoy a Western-style lifestyle while containing the Palestinians with a powerful army and separation walls.
This world view was upended by the Hamas attack, and Netanyahu’s lengthy political career now appears in jeopardy as his government faces widespread domestic outrage. Netanyahu, who loves to boast of his country’s military and economic successes, will be remembered as the man in charge during the worst attack in Israeli history.
Netanyahu this week acknowledged that he, like many others, “will have to provide answers” to the public — but only after the war is over.
“I simply cannot imagine an Israeli prime minister surviving such a colossal failure — not only in the history of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel, but a colossal failure in Jewish history,” said Eyal.
Since brokering interim peace accords three decades ago, the United States has pursued two sometimes contradictory goals.
It has repeatedly called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But with the exception of a handful of short-lived peace plans, it has done little to promote this goal, focusing instead on conflict management, preventing tensions from boiling over and leaving a fragile status quo in place.
In many ways, the latest war is an outcome of this failed approach. It showed that the status quo was not sustainable and had in fact undermined chances of a two-state solution, in part by allowing Israel to expand settlements and deepen its 56-year-old open-ended military occupation.
Israelis, meanwhile, overwhelmingly see their 2005 withdrawal from Gaza as a failure that they believe led to the rise of Hamas and the Oct. 7 disaster.
Mazal Mualem, a commentator for Yediot Ahronot, says there will be no appetite for territorial compromise with the Palestinians after the war. “No one will evacuate even one piece of land in the next generation,” she said.
Not that territorial compromise was ever an option. Netanyahu, who has governed with the exception of one year since 2009, never expressed willingness to yield occupied land to the Palestinians.
But Eyal sees increased militarization and little appetite for diplomatic initiatives. “It’s almost impossible to take risks,” he said.
Israeli historian Tom Segev, who has documented the uprooting of Palestinian communities during the war surrounding Israel’s creation, said he could not rule out a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza.
The Oct. 7 attacks played into deep-seated Israeli fears that the Palestinians are not prepared to accept Israel’s existence. While Segev said it’s too early to say which way the war is headed, the sentiments are clear.
“People are saying, ‘Expel them from Gaza,’” he said.
THE GAZA STRIP
Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 after concluding the continued occupation of the densely populated Palestinian territory was untenable. A close adviser to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon famously said the withdrawal was also intended to pack peace efforts “in formaldehyde” and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state with the West Bank at its core.
The withdrawal left a vacuum that Hamas quickly filled. The Islamic militant group won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, and the following year violently seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority.
Israel imposed a blockade, limiting movement in and out of Gaza in hopes of weakening Hamas. It waged a series of wars and smaller battles with Hamas — a policy known as “mowing the lawn” that was meant to keep the group in check.
In perhaps its biggest miscalculation, Israel concluded that Hamas had morphed from an armed group committed to Israel’s destruction to a more pragmatic organization focused on governing and survival. The Oct. 7 attack proved that Hamas’ military wing was more powerful, better armed and more organized than Israel assumed.
Israel “fell asleep at the wheel,” wrote Amos Harel, a commentator on military affairs for the Haaretz daily. “Israeli society repressed the ramifications of the Palestinian conflict, persuaded itself that it could go on rolling the problem forward without looking for a solution, and sought lucrative real estate and cheap vacations abroad,” he said.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, but this will not be an easy task against a group with significant public support and an entrenched military presence in Gaza. And even if Israel prevails, it has not presented a clear exit strategy.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has said Israel does not want to be responsible for civilian affairs — indicating that Israel does not want to re-occupy Gaza. He has also called for a “new security regime” without elaborating.
President Joe Biden said Wednesday that “when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next.”
“And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution,” he added — repeating the same formula that has been the basis of 30 years of failure.
By Nadeem Faisal Baiga