It’s a trap. Hamas’s ruthless and spectacular attack on southern Israel last Saturday was many things: an atrocity, a display of militant ingenuity, and a demonstration of the weakness of Israeli intelligence and defenses. Israel and the Palestinians have a long history of brutality against each other, but the Hamas killing spree outdoes anything since Israeli-controlled Christian militias massacred unarmed Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside of Beirut in 1982. It may even have been the single most brutal act by either side in the 100-year-old conflict. But above all, it was intended as a trap—one that Israel appears about to fall into.
Hamas’s leaders and their Iranian backers have a conscious strategy. Like almost all other acts of spectacularly bloodthirsty terrorism, Hamas’s assault on southern Israel was designed to provoke an emotional and equally or even more outrageous response by the targeted society. Hamas and Iran are attempting to goad the Israelis into Gaza for a prolonged confrontation—which is to say that the intended effect is precisely the ground assault Israel is now preparing in order to root out and destroy Hamas as an organization, kill its cadres and leadership, and destroy as much of its infrastructure and equipment as possible.
Hamas surely would not have meticulously planned its audacious assault without also extensively planning a response to the hoped-for Israeli counterattack on the ground. The Israeli military will likely encounter a determined insurgency in Gaza. After all, Israel has had control of the land strip from the outside, but not on the inside. Israeli dominion over Gaza’s coastal waters, airspace, electromagnetic spectrum, and all but one of its crossings, including the only one capable of handling goods, has made Gaza a virtual open-air prison—run by particularly vicious inmates but surrounded and contained on all sides by the guards.
Hamas evidently decided to destroy that status quo, which was no longer serving its interests. The Islamist group also hopes to seize control of the Palestinian national movement from its secular Fatah rivals, who dominate the Palestinian Authority and, more important, the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas has never been a part of the PLO, in large measure because it is unwilling to accept the PLO’s treaty agreements with Israel. The most notable among these is the Oslo Accords, which included recognition of Israel by Palestinians but no Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state or a Palestinian right to statehood.
Hamas is attempting to seal the fate of Fatah, and maneuver to eventually take over the PLO and its international diplomatic presence, including UN observer-state status and embassies around the world. By taking the battle directly into Israel, claiming to be defending Muslim holy places in Jerusalem by branding the attack the “Al-Aqsa Deluge,” and hopefully breaking the Israeli siege of Gaza, Hamas seeks to belittle Fatah and demonstrate the primacy of its policy of unrestrained armed struggle over the PLO’s careful diplomacy.
Moreover, Hamas and its Iranian patrons want to block the diplomatic-normalization agreement that the United States has been brokering between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Such a deal poses a danger to Hamas because the benefits of its “significant Palestinian component” would have accrued to Fatah in the West Bank, at Hamas’s expense. For Iran, the agreement would be a major strategic setback. Should Israel, the most potent U.S. military partner in the region, and Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most financially powerful and religiously influential one, normalize and build cooperation, Tehran would face an integrated pro-American camp. American partners, including the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, would effectively ring the Arabian Peninsula, securing control of the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf through their three crucial maritime choke points: the Suez Canal, the Bab el-Mandab Strait, and the Straits of Hormuz. Saudi-Israeli normalization would largely block Iran’s regional aspirations in the short run and Chinese ambitions in the more distant future.
So, Hamas for domestic Palestinian reasons and Iran for regional strategic ones decided to set off an earthquake that would at least postpone such a reckoning. Iran and Hamas are counting on Israel to attack Gaza with such ferocity that the international sympathy of the past week toward Israel, even in the Arab world, evaporates quickly and is replaced by outrage at the suffering inflicted on the 2 million residents of Gaza. Those civilians have already been cut off from electricity, water, food, and medicine, all of which are controlled by Israel. Existing supplies will quickly dwindle as Gaza and its inhabitants are pounded from the air. Israel appears prepared to inflict many thousands of civilian casualties, if not more. It has adhered to a doctrine of disproportionality for deterrence predating the founding of the state: Jewish militias embraced it when dealing with the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine, and at no stage since have more Jewish civilians been killed than Palestinian ones, with the ratio usually closer to 10 to 1 than 2 to 1.
Israel appears poised to fulfill Hamas’s intentions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed retaliation that will “reverberate for generations” among Israel’s adversaries. The Israeli general Ghassan Aliyan warned, “You wanted hell—you will get hell.” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declared, “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.” None of these speakers made any effort to distinguish between Hamas militants and the 2 million Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The “human animals” comment is telling. For decades, and especially in recent years, the people of Gaza have indeed been treated like animals. Perhaps not surprisingly, guerrillas emerging from their ranks indeed acted like animals when they attacked southern Israel. So now Israel will triple-down on the dehumanization and collective punishment of all of these “human animals.” Tehran couldn’t ask for more.
Hamas and Iran hope that Israel will refuse to return to the status quo ante and will instead institute a prolonged ground occupation of Gaza, declaring that Hamas can no longer be allowed to pose such a threat. But Gaza, they trust, will be a slaughterhouse for Israeli soldiers, both during the immediate incursion and over time as the anticipated insurgency gains its footing.
Israel’s apparent eagerness to fall into this trap is understandable, and indeed predictable, which is why Hamas was confident in laying it. Outrageous overreach by terrorists typically aims to provoke overreach. Washington and other friends of Israel who are now seized with sympathy should immediately caution Israel not to make this blunder. If Israel instead exercises restraint, however difficult doing so might be both politically and emotionally, it can thwart the goals of Hamas and its Iranian sponsors. Restraint would go a long way toward ensuring that the diplomatic opening with Saudi Arabia continues to move forward, dealing a major blow to local revisionist powers, such as Iran, and global ones, such as China and Russia, that wish to supplant a rules-based order with one based on “Might makes right.”
Unfortunately, in the efforts to eliminate Hamas, which cannot be done by force, and to ensure that such a threat can never be allowed to reemerge, which is equally impossible so long as the occupation continues, Israel seems ready to jump right into the briar patch.