A U.S. intelligence officer once told me that his boss would often send back his reports about Iranian terror operations with one crucial question: Why now? Why were the Iranians hatching this particular plot now, instead of last year or five years in the future? This question is good, and the answer is the beginning of any good strategic analysis. But the analyst was frustrated. Even in intelligence, it is possible to overthink things. “Why now?” he said. “Because they are a fucking terrorist group. And all they do, every day, is think of ways to kill Americans and our allies. Sometimes that’s all there is to it.”
Hours after Hamas broke through the Gaza barrier, I asked whether we were witnessing Step One of a plan that would perhaps involve Hezbollah and a front in the north—and even further moves that would threaten to break Israeli defenses altogether. Israel rapidly reinforced its northern border to prevent that, and according to reports, Hezbollah was warned that any shenanigans would be answered with the leveling of Damascus. Such phased escalations would have had their most devastating effect if they came when Israel was at its most confused and traumatized, and before it mobilized its reserves. Now that its reservists are in place, escalation seems unlikely to happen, at least not in the coordinated strategic way that could cause Israel’s collapse. (Northern Israel went on alert tonight after reported incursions into its airspace, but this did not amount to Hezbollah’s decisive entry into the war.) As the strategist Edward Luttwak has pointed out, Israel tends to start wars badly and end them well, because its strength lies in its reserves, and activating them and getting them on task takes a few days or weeks.
What is Israel to make of an enemy that launches an attack like this, and does not have an immediate Step Two? The more details that come out about what happened this weekend, the more it seems that the simple answer could be correct. In that way Hamas’s operation resembles 9/11 even more than the sneak attack that began the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the days after 9/11, Americans waited in fear for a Step Two that never came. It took years to realize that al-Qaeda didn’t have a sophisticated strategy at all, which is one reason its central terror networks have been obliterated.
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Indeed, it is becoming clear that Hamas achieved what is sometimes called catastrophic success: a short-term victory so staggering that its leaders did not predict it and could not handle it even as it was happening, and whose massive long-term consequences are likely dire for Hamas.
The failure to predict its own success was, in retrospect, appreciable within hours. While the killing was ongoing, the “Saqer” unit issued a video. Saqer is “falcon” in Arabic. In the video, men attach themselves to primitive parasailing rigs, little more than lawnmowers with fans and parachutes attached. They float up, then float down into Israel to kill indiscriminately.
I gulped when I saw this airborne snuff film, which contained echoes of the Islamic State: the glorification of violence, the glee at shooting unarmed and defenseless people. Even more unsettling was the evidence of forethought. Hamas had planned the operation carefully. The group provided for drone footage, cameramen, and video editors. Premeditation means planning, and planning often means strategy.
Against that evidence, however, consider the slapdash videos emerging at roughly the same time, which document war crimes on a massive scale—and are as haphazard as they are savage. But I am referring not only to slapdash production values. The videos depict a military operation that had lost its discipline. They show homicidal and sadistic disorder, an operation that began with stealth and secrecy and devolved into chaos and mayhem. Some of the Hamas terrorists were well kitted with weapons and vests. Soon they were accompanied by what appeared to be men in ordinary civilian clothes, as if they were just going about their day and saw a chance to take part in a pogrom.
The killing did not “get out of hand”: Mass killing was the point of the operation from the start. But the manner of killing, and especially of hostage taking, has every mark of a military operation that outpaced its planners’ imagination. ISIS had strict media discipline. Many of the videos depicted war crimes, but only the war crimes ISIS wanted the world to see: executions, not rapes; explosions, not extortions.
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Hamas fighters recorded their own crimes against civilians, letting their literal and figurative masks slip. Twitter sleuths have already identified suspects who may someday be tried for their crimes. On CNN, the non-Hamas Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti tried to deny that those crimes took place. Without the videos, some might have believed him. The whole sick exhibition resembles, as many have noted, a raid from a bygone era, where individual raiders are left to dole out violence as they wish, and to take their own prizes. These prizes tend to be young women, weeping and soaked in blood. If ISIS based its violence on a cartoon version of early Islamic history, Hamas is basing its violence on the advice of Conan the Barbarian: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.”
The hostages, now human shields, seem to have been brought into Gaza in the most disorganized manner. Some were transported in golf carts, others on motorbikes. Some were filmed, and others not. The footage leaked in real time. Those who celebrated the day’s events noted that Israeli hostages (including small children) are valuable in trade for Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Hamas announced that it intends to execute hostages—who include, it bears repeating, small children and the elderly—on camera if Israel “targets civilian homes without advance warning” in its anticipated operation. If human shields and the flesh trade were the strategic purpose of the raids, it is again noteworthy that instead of spiriting the hostages as covertly as possible into a carefully prepared network of dungeons, Hamas seems to have delivered them onto city streets before jeering mobs. Many more hostages, it appears, were taken off-camera than on. But a day that started under control, with a coordinated surprise attack by literally thousands of armed men, does not appear to have ended that way.
Step One was to infiltrate Israel and commit crimes against humanity. Step Two—well, it’s not clear what Step Two is, and even Step One is looking half-baked. Terrorists gonna terrorize. On one hand, this would be, oddly, good news for Israel in the short term. An enemy incapable of discipline and coordinated strategic thought is a weaker enemy. On the other hand, an enemy without moral boundaries, who will kill unarmed old people, but not before commandeering their cellphones to stream their murder for their grandchildren, is not a promising partner in any kind of peace process. And an absence of strategic logic is little comfort when the undisciplined psychos are still at large, holding guns to the heads of children, and hiding out among 2 million vulnerable civilians just across the border.