In the hours following Hamas’s large-scale surprise attack on Israel early this morning, Israelis on social media quickly dubbed the day a “second Yom Kippur”—referring to the surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria in 1973—or an “Israeli 9/11.” Not since the 1947–49 Arab-Israeli War had Palestinian or Arab forces captured Israeli villages.
Hamas executed a stunning military surprise, breaching the Israeli border in multiple ways and attacking more than 20 Israeli population centers, as well as military bases. Militants kidnapped dozens of Israelis—apparently including children and the elderly—and captured military personnel. Israeli social media and news outlets filled with calls for help from families in southern Israeli towns occupied by Hamas, sheltering in their homes as armed terrorists went door-to-door. The failure of Israel’s intelligence and preparedness is second only to that in 1973.
But this Hamas victory might prove Pyrrhic. In fact, Hamas itself might have been surprised by the extent of its initial success. The trauma in Israel today should give pause to those thinking that Israel will simply acquiesce to a short tit for tat. As bad as things have been in Gaza in the past two decades—and they have been terrible—the coming weeks could prove even worse.
Israel will now likely go to great lengths to hunt down those involved. The Israel Defense Forces have already begun bombarding the Gaza Strip. Once they finish clearing Israeli towns of Hamas militants, they will turn their focus in earnest toward Gaza.
The government will feel immense pressure to send ground troops into the Gaza Strip, perhaps even to end the decade-and-a-half-long bloody and stifling stalemate with Hamas and topple the group militarily. Israel has refrained from doing so to date in part because it would be an extremely bloody affair. Israel has had no answer to the question of what might replace Hamas, and still doesn’t. Yet the Israeli public will demand decisive action, including ground operations, even if these again fall short of a complete takeover of the Strip.
Israeli sensitivity to POWs and MIAs is world-record-setting. The current Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, was himself released from an Israeli prison with more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Sinwar now holds dozens of Israelis. The Israeli government faces a conundrum: Enter with force and risk many more Israeli casualties, both military and civilian. Refrain from it, and find yourself at the mercy of a terrorist organization on your border. Freeing all Hamas and Islamic jihad operatives from Israeli prisons, as these organizations demand, would be difficult for the Israeli government to agree to. Israel might eventually try to negotiate, or it might embark on risky rescue operations inside the Gaza Strip with the best-case outcome being only partial success.
Israel’s foes to the north shouldn’t overlook this moment either. In 2006, less than three weeks after Shalit was captured and taken prisoner in Gaza, Hezbollah launched an attack on Israel’s northern border, starting a bloody war that lasted more than 30 days and brought terrible damage to Lebanon. Israel’s northern neighbor, already suffering a devastating economic collapse, should hope that Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, does not make the same mistake now. Because Israel is feeling cornered and under grave threat, its response might be harsher than Hezbollah imagines, especially in an already reeling Lebanon.
The United States has a difficult but vital role to play. Israel and Hezbollah have no direct contact. To help contain this deadly situation, Washington could make clear to Nasrallah the price he would pay for intervening. President Joe Biden has already publicly warned “against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation.”
Hezbollah and Hamas are not Egypt or Syria. Israel doesn’t face an existential threat from these groups, despite the horror Hamas inflicted today. In that sense, the current warfare is not remotely a repeat of 1973. Yet the psychological effect of these attacks, the public outrage already emerging at the authorities who failed to prevent it, the sense of military blunder—all of these factors are reminiscent of the trauma of that war, exactly 50 years and a day ago. And although not as audacious or sophisticated an attack as 9/11 was, the death toll, relative to Israel’s size, is comparable.
Today’s attack resembles these prior attacks in another way too: Israel is in a genuine state of war—not merely one more round of Israel-Hamas fighting. The psychological impact of these attacks creates political cover, and political demand, for Israel to go much further than it has in the past, to be willing to pay and to exact prices it has previously stopped short of.
These attacks are uniting Israelis—temporarily, of course—after years of growing division, allowing the government more room to maneuver aggressively if it so chooses. The massive demonstrations in the country in recent months have now been halted, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to overhaul Israel’s democratic institutions will likely have to wait. Reservists have shown up for duty by the thousands, including many who had refrained from volunteering in recent months in protest of the government’s radical agenda.
A popular theory holds that Israelis compromise only after being attacked, the prime example being 1973, when Israel reached a peace agreement with Egypt in return for giving up the whole Sinai Peninsula. In truth, because Israelis are often attacked, this argument is overdetermined: Any compromise can be retroactively explained by a prior attack.
The current situation might prove, not for the first time, something else entirely: If you convince Israelis that they are in a fight for their lives, for the lives of their families, they will fight. And Israel remains far stronger than its enemies, today’s debacle notwithstanding.