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Israel’s War on Hamas: What to Know

Israel’s War on Hamas: What to Know

Israel will seek to eliminate the threat posed by the Palestinian militant group for good, but its campaign in Gaza could draw in other adversaries, including Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. 

Bruce Hoffman

How sophisticated was Hamas’s attack on Israel?

It is completely unprecedented that a terrorist organization would have the capacity or the wherewithal to mount coordinated, simultaneous assaults from the air, sea, and land. In addition, Hamas possessing the ability to keep its preparations unknown from a country like Israel that has among the most sophisticated intelligence services in the world strongly suggests that it had external state support, advice, and guidance in the planning and execution of the attack on Israel. Iran, accordingly, will be strongly suspected of being behind this. 

Iran already provides both Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) with at least $100 million dollars a year, and it openly proclaims its intention to destroy Israel. Further, in recent months, Tehran was clearly growing concerned over the potential for Saudi Arabia and Israel to establish formal diplomatic relations, and even more so of a Saudi-U.S. defense pact. So Iran had every reason to encourage and facilitate the attack on Israel. However, that is very different from actually ordering, much less orchestrating the assaults or giving any form of “green light.” While Hamas and PIJ—like the Lebanon-based Hezbollah—have close ties with Iran, they also function independently. That said, Iran’s long track record of seeking to destabilize countries across the region, including Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, is also very well documented.

What type of military operation is Israel likely to undertake?

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised, it will be both massive and will seek to be decisive, with the intention of permanently destroying Hamas. Until this war’s wanton execution of civilians, rape of Jewish women, and dragging of women, children, the elderly, and infirm into captivity, there could have been at least the same modicum of restraint and “playing by the rules” as in past fighting between Israel and Hamas, such as during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and the Gaza Wars of 2014 and 2021. The objective in each of those was to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities, eliminate as many of its political and military leaders as was reasonably attainable, and buy time in terms of warding off future fighting by weakening the organization and diminishing its weapons stockpiles, especially missiles. 

However, at least according to what is being reported, Hamas and PIJ fighters have committed and are still committing a vast array of what can only be described as war crimes. The reports of executions, sexual abuse, civilians being pulled from their homes, and other depredations will not go unpunished by Israel. As more of this information comes to light and as the shock of the initial attack fades, Israelis will demand revenge. 

A common argument about counterterrorism is that “there is no military solution,” but that’s not completely true, provided that a country does not care about harming civilians. For instance, the Sri Lankan military’s campaign in 2009 completely crushed the Tamil Tigers. An estimated twenty thousand civilians were killed along with the Tigers’ founder and leader, his entire command staff, and virtually all the organization’s officers and rank-and-file. A terrorist group can be destroyed in this way, but it comes with a tremendous loss of civilian lives. 

If Israel were to pursue this objective, a number of things would likely follow, including Hezbollah coming to Hamas’s aid, or Iran potentially becoming involved, with the possible convergence of foreign fighters from al-Qaeda and the Taliban, among other groups. That would launch this conflict into a different trajectory altogether.

What are some of the advantages and challenges for Hamas and Israel?

Hamas exploited the advantage of surprise with astonishing success. Its advantage now is the ability to scatter and hide within the protective shield of Gaza’s civilian population. Also, as an authoritarian regime that has not held elections in Gaza for fifteen years, it can coerce the population into cooperation and does not have to worry about public opinion. 

Israel’s advantages should have thwarted Hamas’s surprise attack. Israel has one of the most technologically sophisticated, best trained, well-armed, and professional militaries in the region, if not the world, at least given Israel’s small size. The advanced armaments, doctrine, training, and equipment of the Israel Defense Forces have endowed it with formidable fighting capabilities that will become increasingly evident in the coming days.

In terms of disadvantages, Hamas is a terrorist organization and, at least historically, terrorist organizations have fared poorly when the full weight of an established state’s military might is brought to bear on it.

For Israel, the preeminent disadvantage is the hundreds of captives seized by Hamas. Many are dual nationals, including American citizens, so Israel’s efforts to free the hostages will become even more complex. The captives have likely already been dispersed throughout the Gaza Strip, an area about the size of Washington, DC. Gaza is riven with tunnels, bunkers, and other concealed places that will make locating, much less rescuing, the hostages difficult. These places and perhaps even the hostages themselves will likely be laden with traps. This is a challenge of a magnitude that has never been faced before. How this crisis will end is anyone’s guess, but the shedding of more innocent blood—Israeli, Palestinians, and indeed non-combatant citizens of other countries—is certain.

What are some things to look for as this unfolds over coming days?

This conflict is far from over, and it is completely unpredictable as to how it will progress. Powerful, centrifugal forces have been unleashed that have rewritten the rules for Israel and Hamas, and perhaps others in the region. For instance, given Hezbollah’s longstanding ties with Hamas and the fact that their mutual state patron has an immense interest in ensuring the longevity of its regional terrorist clients, Hezbollah will, of its own accord but completely in sync with Iran’s wishes, likely enter the war if Israel launches a ground assault in Gaza. The consequences will then be enormous. This happened during the summer of 2006, when clashes between Israel and Hamas triggered Hezbollah attacks in the north. 

During the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah had an arsenal of about 15,000 missiles, the most sophisticated provided by Iran and Syria, and wreaked havoc on the north of Israel. Today, Hezbollah has an arsenal of missiles believed to be ten times that, which are both more accurate and can travel greater distances. The entirety of Israel would then be vulnerable to missile attacks. Thus, there is every possibility of the war spreading, and the terrible bloodshed and tragedies (especially to the civilian populations) that will follow will make any kind of talks more fraught and more distant than in the past. In addition, Palestinian militants in the West Bank could rise up with violence at any moment, though this would be more likely if Israel were to launch a major ground attack and re-occupy Gaza. That would then raise the question: confronted by a three-front war, would Israel then target Iran in hopes of pressuring it to call off its minions?

Bruce Hoffman is Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

From Reprinted with permission. For more analysis and In Briefs on Israel, Hamas, and foreign policy, visit The original version is available here.

Image: Celebrations in Gaza marking the 25th anniversary of Hamas, December 8, 2012. (Wikimedia Commons, Fars News, Hadi Mohammed. Fars Media Corporation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)

Middle EastReligionU.S. Foreign PolicyUnited States