Israel’s Darkest Day

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More than 1,000 Israelis died at the hands of Hamas terrorists on October 7, by far the worst day in Israeli history, roughly triple the death count on the bloodiest day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Israeli military and civil society were taken unawares and responded slowly and ineffectively. The Hamas attack uncovered deep flaws in Israel’s tactical capabilities as well as its strategic outlook. Israel’s existence depends on the speedy correction of these flaws.

The term “intelligence failure” became an overnight cliché. Hamas employed drone attacks in emulation of tactics employed successfully by both sides in the Ukraine war for nearly two years, destroying Israeli observation posts and at least one Israeli Merkava IV main battle tank by dropping grenades from cheap drones. Israel introduced drones into warfare in the Syrian theater in 1983 during the so-called Beqaa Valley turkey shoot, and its failure to adopt electronic countermeasures widely deployed in Ukraine implies a failing technical edge. Despite warnings about the vulnerability of the Gaza barrier from some Israeli military intelligence analysts, Hamas fighters drove a bulldozer through the Gaza fence and hundreds of Hamas killers—the number still is unknown—entered Israel on motorized vehicles. We know this from videos released by Hamas itself; we do not know whether the terrorist organization used more sophisticated communications security measures to evade Israeli detection.

The details of the tactical intelligence failure, though, matter less than Israeli self-deception. The Netanyahu government thought that it had all strategic bases covered and that it could bribe Hamas to remain on the sidelines as it negotiated diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. It lulled itself into a complacent haze that obscured the recalcitrant elements of the ancient world that opposed the modernizing impulse of the Abraham Accords.

As Edward Luttwak wrote in Tablet magazine, Hamas duped Israel by providing information on rocket attacks by its Shi’ite rival Islamic Jihad. “Israel promptly reciprocated the de facto Hamas ceasefire by allowing thousands of Gazans to work in Israel—first 17,000, then 20,000, with the potential for many more. Their earnings were changing the lives of 100,000 family members with the possibility of even wider benefits. What was happening on the ground seemed to open a path toward tranquility for Israel and a degree of prosperity for Gaza.”

Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government continued to encourage Qatar to fund Hamas. In 2020 the head of Mossad traveled secretly to Doha to urge Qatar to continue the funding, which amounted to over $1 billion between 2012 and 2020. The Persian Gulf statelet, the sole supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood among the Gulf States, continued to send Hamas $30 million a month, as Daniel Pipes observed Oct. 8 in the Wall Street Journal. Qatar now proposes to mediate a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, as Reuters reported on October 9.

Qatar is a major non-NATO ally of the United States and the site of its largest foreign air base at Al Udeid, also the forward headquarters of US Central Command (Centcom). When Centcom assumed responsibility for America’s military relationship with Israel, replacing the European Command, the IDF believed that US military intelligence had its back in the region. The Hamas attack was also a humiliation for American intelligence, with its unsurpassed electronic monitoring capability. Hamas is, formally speaking, simply the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Qatari royal family has been the major sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood for decades.

Some media reports claim that Iran helped plan the attacks with Hamas. Iran is Hamas’ major supplier of weapons, and the reports are credible. We may not learn soon, if ever, exactly how the sectarian politics of radical Islam intersected and diverged between the Sunni jihadism embodied in the Brotherhood and Shi’ite jihadism sponsored by Iran. What the Gaza disaster makes clear is that neither Israeli nor American intelligence understood the opposition. The Biden Administration wooed the Iranians with a $6 billion cash ransom for American hostages, while the Qataris financed Hamas as it were under the nose of the American military.

Hamas staged scenes of horror not seen in Western countries since the Second World War…. That is a deliberate instrument of war, not a mere eruption of pre-civilizational rage.

Most of all, Israel thoroughly misunderstood the implications of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia for the Palestinians. No Arab called himself a Palestinian before Israel declared independence in 1948. Five Arab armies invaded Israel with the intent of exterminating the newborn Jewish State. About 800,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from Jewish territory in the course of the war. Shortly afterwards about 800,000 Jews were expelled from North Africa, Iraq, and Iran. The Jews of Iraq and Persia, whose ancestors had lived there since the First Exile in 586 B.C.E., left with the clothes on their backs, along with the descendants of the Spanish Jews expelled in 1492. Israel absorbed them, and its Jewish population jumped from 630,000 in 1948 to 1.59 million in 1955. The Arab states refused to absorb the 800,000 refugees of the 1948 war, and insisted on segregating them as refugees to be returned to Palestine upon the destruction of the Jewish State.

The Palestinians are the only group of people in the world for whom refugee status is hereditary. The million Greeks who had lived in Asia Minor for 3,000 years were expelled in 1922, and became citizens of Greece; the 3 million Sudeten Germans who had lived in Bohemia for centuries were expelled in 1945 and became Germans; the nearly one million Jews expelled from Muslim countries after 1948 became Israelis.

Uniquely, the Palestinians remained refugees by special dispensation of the United Nations, with a separate UN agency to minister to them.

Roughly half the Arabs living in Palestine before the declaration of the Jewish state were economic migrants who came when the Zionists began rebuilding the country. They were not a nation, but only hostages to the Arab states’ refusal to accept Israel’s existence. By the same token, diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab world, and above all with Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s holiest places, would eliminate the raison d’ĕtre for Palestinian refugee status. In effect, the Palestinians simply would be stateless Arabs.

Hamas’s attack on Israel has elicited a response that will cost many Arab lives. Privately, the United Arab Emirates (which has diplomatic relations with Israel) and the Saudis hope that Israel will destroy Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood is the mortal enemy of the Gulf monarchies, a modern totalitarian party with Islamist credentials that represents the biggest threat to the monarchies’ hold on power. Publicly, the Saudis cannot pursue diplomatic relations with Israel while Arabs are dying at the hands of the IDF. For the time being, an extension of the Abraham Accords is off the agenda, and in that respect, the Hamas operation must be considered a major success.

Israel believed that it could buy off the Palestinian Arabs with economic benefits. This worked to some extent on the West Bank. The per capita GDP in Gaza was only $3,664 in 2021. But in the West Bank provinces of Judea and Samaria, where Israel maintains ultimate control, per capita income was almost twice as high, at $6,245. That compares to $3,019 in Egypt, $4,405 in Jordan, and $4,208 in Tunisia. Outside the oil-producing countries, West Bank residents are the richest, best educated, and healthiest Arabs in the world, with 132,000 university students. In Israel itself, Israeli Arabs are 17% of the university student population, almost the same proportion as Arabs in the general population (21%). But the Palestinians—like many other peoples—refuse to be dissolved into the bland soup of modernity.

Hamas staged scenes of horror not seen in Western countries since the Second World War: The display of the naked body of a murdered German tourist on the back of a Gaza pickup truck, the random murder of small children and the elderly, the rape of young girls, the desecration of corpses. That is a deliberate instrument of war, not a mere eruption of pre-civilizational rage. Just after the 9/11 attacks, I warned that radical Islam wielded a deadly weapon against the West that might ruin us:

The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy of “des Schreckens” (to cause horror) and “Entsetzens” (terror; literally, dislodgement). Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on a grand scale. Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.

America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by napalm, that lost the war. America’s experience in the war is enshrined in popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph Conrad’s story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: ‘The horror! The horror!’ It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the close of World War I, T. S. Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, The Hollow Men, with a quote from the Conrad story: “Mr. Kurtz, he dead.”

The present generation of Israelis has become soft and complacent. Its youth has not been called on to fight since their grandparents did their military service. Israel has not fought a ground war since Lebanon in 1982, and no serving officer of the IDF has combat experience. Col. (ret.) Eran Lerman observed this week:

The IDF, once upon a time a well-trained and relatively large military based on its reserve armored formations, has become much smaller, less disciplined, less well trained (since the reserves are rarely called up), poorly prepared for ground warfare and maneuver, and much too reliant on airstrikes, precision munitions, and highly specific intelligence. As a result, there was little that could compensate for the lack of intelligence on 7 October.

The civil disorder that plagued Israel this year over judicial reform also indicates a weakness in the fabric of Israeli society. This reached into the armed forces. Hundreds of Air Force reservists last July declared that they would not report for duty to protest the reforms. This breach of discipline is unprecedented in a country where the reporting rate for reservists previously exceeded 100% (some superannuated reservists reported although not required to). The desire of secular Israelis to be an ordinary country whose main activity is the pursuit of individual fulfillment, rather than a Jewish State, stands in terrible contrast to the mass murder of Israelis simply because they are Jews.

The long-term objective of Hamas and other jihadists is to make Israel unlivable for a large number of its citizens, especially the young, secular techno-cognoscenti who could work as easily in Berlin, Budapest, or Brooklyn. Terrorism raises the level of sacrifice required to maintain the Jewish State above the tolerance level of many Israeli citizens. It is unclear whether and in what way Israelis will rally around the project of a Jewish State.

If Israel cannot strike a killer blow against Hamas on the ground during the next few weeks, its strategic position will be permanently weakened.

Israeli analysts have long warned that the country’s technological edge over Iran was slipping. In 2015, military intelligence chief Herzl Halevi warned: “If you ask me whether we’ll have a war with Iran over the next 10 years, I’ll give you a surprising answer: We are already at war with Iran,” Halevi said. “We’re having a technological war with Iran. Our engineers are fighting Iranian engineers, today, and it’s becoming increasingly significant. Today we have the advantage. Iran is closing in on it. Since the 1979 revolution, the number of universities and university students in Iran has increased twentyfold, compared with three and a half times for Israel.” Israel’s survival may depend on whether its high-tech industry would rather design jamming devices for drones or dating apps for the American market.

Israel’s short-term options are limited.

To root Hamas out of Gaza would require a ground incursion at a heavy cost. It is not clear to what extent Israel’s historic technological advantage will prevail. The Ukraine War has produced numerous innovations in anti-tank warfare, including the use of drones to destroy tanks. Hamas circulated a video of a drone disabling an Israeli main battle tank with a 1980s-vintage grenade. Russia has developed effective jamming tools to disable drones. Whether Israel has similar technology is unknown. Israel’s ability to mount a ground operation in Gaza depends on factors about which information is not available. Air raids are ineffective against an enemy which has had sixteen years to build deep tunnels.

Israel rightly fears a two-front war, namely with Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north. Hezbollah has between 40,000 and 150,000 missiles, including some sophisticated maneuverable missiles that Israel’s Iron Dome air defense cannot counter. The missiles are to a great extent emplaced in civilian populations. To defeat a Hezbollah missile barrage Israel would have to strike launchers in heavily populated civilian zones, with many thousands of civilian deaths. Hezbollah is both a local Lebanese militia and an instrument of Iranian policy. It probably will not launch an assault on Israel unless Israel strikes Iran—which gives Israel a very good reason to leave Iran out of the war for the foreseeable future.

For the time being, Israel will keep Gaza under siege. It has a grace period due to the world’s revulsion at Hamas, but this will not last forever. As pictures of starving Gazans circulate in the coming weeks, world sentiment once again will turn against the Israelis. If Israel cannot strike a killer blow against Hamas on the ground during the next few weeks, its strategic position will be permanently weakened.

The terrible events of the past several days make clear that the existential urges of the ancient world cannot be erased with the bland brush of modernity—something that the Serbs of Kosovo, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Ukrainians of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson learned already. The twentieth century resolved its ethnic wars by population transfers, some orderly, some horrific. The Israeli-Arab conflict should have been resolved in the late 1940s with a transfer of roughly equal populations. The Arab states aborted the transfer by imprisoning 800,000 Palestinians as permanent refugees and incubating a monster.

There will be no two-state solution in Israel; after Hamas gulled the Israelis into complacency and then committed horrific acts reminiscent of the Holocaust, Israel will not, and should not, countenance Palestinian statehood. One way or another, the population exchange of 1948 will be completed sometime during the next several years. Either Israel will destroy Hamas, and the population of Gaza will dwindle over time through emigration, or a large number of Israelis will deem the cost of a Jewish polity too high, and decamp for Europe or the United States. This may seem cruel, but if the events of the past few days have taught us anything, it is that the monsters of the ancient world still walk abroad in daylight, and they will not be banished by the bland pronouncements of diplomats.


This article was published by Law & Liberty and is reproduced with permission.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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