For most of 2023, a polarising internal political crisis has paralysed Israel and put the very identity of the country at stake. Then, on 7 October 2023, on almost the exact 50th anniversary of the attack that started the Yom Kippur War, Hamas launched an audacious assault into south Israel. The Israeli political establishment, military leadership and intelligence services having been consumed by domestic disarray and internal struggles and diverted to other tasks, were apparently caught again by surprise. Here, experts across the IISS assess the attack against Israel and global reactions to the outbreak of what Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said will be ‘a long and difficult war’.
Prime Minister Netanyahu had spent much of the year on his controversial judicial reforms and management of the extreme elements in his coalition. For many Israelis, the prime minister was putting the nature of Israel’s democracy at stake by changing so radically the powers of the judiciary. He was also ceding so much to the religious right that many worried the country would slide into theocracy.
Shin Bet, or the Israeli Security Agency, has identified the polarisation of the Israeli population as a principal internal preoccupation. The domestic demands of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community were damaging to national unity, and the resentment of the secular majority of the privileges extended to the growing orthodox minority – exemption from military service and, in practice, even from work – was fraying the social cohesion on which the Israeli state had so long relied.
Many in the military leadership were concerned that these developments weakened Israel’s military preparedness. Between March and July, Israeli Air Force reservists refused to keep up their training hours, helicopter instructor pilots refused to report for duty and active reservists in the special forces refused to volunteer for service, all in protest of the country’s direction. Many began to worry that the Israel Defense Forces would lose their operational readiness, surge capacities, and, importantly, their ‘deterrent character’.
Meanwhile, the prime minister made the expansion of the Abraham Accords, by other ways and means, a first-order foreign-policy priority. The ultimate prize became the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The national-security apparatus, including the leadership of the Mossad, was heavily consumed with delivering this result, which in September was being touted as a 50/50 possibility. Ironically, defining the ‘Palestinian component’ of a grand bargain with Saudi Arabia was core to these dramatic ‘expanding the circle of peace’ ambitions. That component is now back on the back burner, as will be further normalisation prospects.
For months, the twin challenges of managing internal political and religious dissent while attempting to confect a wide-ranging deal with Saudi Arabia consumed the political and national-security establishments.
It is currently unknown whether warning signs of the attack were missed or whether warnings were made but not acted upon. These are the questions that only the inevitable post-war inquiry on the intelligence picture can reliably and adequately answer.
Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the tentative conclusion that too many eyes, looking both inwards and afar, were insufficiently focused on the balls rolling towards the southern border.
Hamas’s offensive has created at least a temporary sense of unity among Palestinian factions, particularly with the rival Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the West Bank. The PLO’s initial reaction justified the attacks and called them a ‘response’ to Israeli violations of Jerusalem’s Christian and Muslim holy sites.
Nevertheless, the PLO is likely worried about Hamas’s initial military success and surge in popularity among Palestinians. A public-opinion poll conducted September found that 53% of Palestinians support armed resistance against Israel. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas polled badly, and in a hypothetical presidential election, most Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza said they would vote for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh over Abbas. Hamas will attempt to use its offensive, which has challenged Israel’s invincibility narrative, as evidence of the effectiveness of armed resistance compared to the PLO’s failure to achieve meaningful progress towards a Palestinian state through negotiations.
More pressingly, the PLO is at risk of losing control of the security situation in the West Bank. A harsh Israeli response in Gaza could provoke Palestinian civilians there, potentially even prompting an intifada. Hamas’s military success may also inspire other Palestinian militant groups in the West Bank, including the Arīn al-ʾUsud, Islamic Jihad and the Jenin Brigades, to engage in hostilities against Israel.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman struck an optimistic note during an interview with Fox News in September on the pace of Saudi-Israeli normalisation talks: ‘Each day, we get closer’, he said. But the eruption of the Israel-Hamas war has likely taken a Saudi-Israeli normalisation agreement off the table, at least for now. While calling for an end to the escalation, Saudi Arabia has joined Kuwait, Oman and Qatar in pinning the blame for the violence on the Israeli occupation. Despite the strategic benefit that Riyadh could gain from closer relations with the US and Israel, the domestic and regional political price it would incur for pursuing normalisation amid the ongoing conflict would be too steep.
In contrast with the Saudi position, the UAE has doubled down on relations with Israel, stating that it was ‘appalled’ by the targeting of Israeli civilians. The UAE takes a hard line against the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliate groups such as Hamas, which it views as a threat to its security.
The Arab Gulf states are likely concerned that an escalation could result in the conflict spilling over into the Gulf region. An Israeli ground invasion of Gaza could trigger Hizbullah’s involvement, prompting US intervention. In retaliation, Iran or its partner groups might target US bases in the Gulf region, widening the scale of the conflict into a regional war.
Hamas’s unexpected early military success against the Middle East’s top military power, Israel, suggests Iran’s ability to project power through its armed non-state partners in the region has reached new heights.
If Iran benefits from the emergence of a long and difficult Hamas-Israel war, rival Arab Gulf states will be forced in the long term to consider how they might constrain its ability to use armed affiliates to upend regional affairs.
The emerging war between Israel and Hamas carries potentially devastating repercussions for the region. The human, operational and strategic blow inflicted by Hamas on Israel and what it portends in terms of Israeli retaliation may well eclipse all previous escalations since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The crisis threatens to disrupt the fragile de-escalation process that has brought regional powers closer in recent years and prioritised economic integration and infrastructure development. The Abraham Accords were a product of such thinking, and the ongoing Saudi-Israeli talks followed that logic.
The key immediate question is whether Iran will enter the conflict, and if it does, whether it will be by choice or by being dragged in. There is good reason to believe Tehran does not want to confront Israel directly and will manoeuvre accordingly.
But there are longer-term structural questions. The emergence of Hamas as the undisputed leading Palestinian organisation will have lasting effects, as was the case with Lebanese Hizbullah in 2006. It has gained new standing and influence among many Arabs. How Hamas decides to use this capital as it faces down the Israeli military juggernaut may destabilise several governments.
There is trepidation in Cairo and Amman, where containing the Islamist group in the hope of a reassertion of the Palestinian Authority has been the policy. For Egypt, a new Israeli occupation of Gaza means an active conflict on its borders. Instability, extremism and human trafficking in the Sinai Peninsula were the top domestic-security problems of the past decade and could return. Jordanian King Abdallah has already told his interlocutors, ‘I told you so’. The Jordanians had grown unnerved with the Western and Gulf fixation on normalisation with Israel at the expense of a sustainable stabilisation of the West Bank and Gaza. A war next door could have a destabilising effect on Jordanian society, given that the majority of residents are Jordanians of Palestinian origin or Palestinian refugees. Cairo and Amman will have an interest in working together by deploying their international connections and intelligence services.
In contrast, the crisis puts Turkiye and Qatar on the front stages. Both countries have privileged relations with Hamas, hosting their leaders and media and supporting them financially. They could offer to mediate but risk being tarnished or appearing impotent. They are both accused of overly indulging Hamas.
Notably, the outbreak of the crisis has sidelined Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter had led the way to Arab normalisation with Israel, but to Arab and Muslim publics, it will look as though it has little ability to moderate Israeli policy. Saudi Arabia is likely concerned about how its flirtation with Israel will play out as a bloody war rages on. A break with Israel is highly unlikely, and both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi view Hamas as an ideological and security threat.
It is possible that both Hamas and Iran hope that this war will ignite widespread popular support for the Palestinian cause and for confrontation with Israel. While there have been some demonstrations of popular support, largely in countries with weak central governments or where Iranian influence is strong, it is as yet a long way from being sufficient to force regional governments to abandon or confront Israel. There may be many reasons: fatigue, disillusionment or distrust of the Islamist cause, which Hamas represents as much as they do Gaza; an unwillingness to hazard the relative gains of the recent de-escalation in the region; and, on the part of the leaders, an unwillingness to have their policies dictated by a terrorist organisation. The tinder may not be as dry as either Hamas or Tehran hoped.
While Iran and Hizbullah have with Hamas formed a virtual ‘unified front’, it has not so far proved to be any more cohesive or effective than other, historic groupings of Israel’s adversaries. Both Hizbullah and Iran have applauded Hamas the loudest, but whether they would be prepared to risk their resources and possibly their future by fighting alongside them remains to be seen. Tehran, and Hizbullah in recent years, have been careful to avoid direct and potentially costly confrontation for fear of the consequences on their domestic positions. Israel has confined itself to targeting Iranian capabilities outside the region or to precision operations inside Iran. A tricky decision for both Iran and Hizbullah will be how to respond to pleas for military intervention from a Hamas besieged and decimated by Israeli military action. If they commit to assist, they become belligerents in a war with Israel. If they decline, they hazard their credibility and that of the ‘unified front’. All support short of actual assistance may be their preferred course of action.
Lebanon and Hizbullah
Rym Momtaz and Emile Hokayem
Whether the Lebanese militant group Hizbullah will open a second front in the north of Israel has been front of mind since news of the Hamas attack broke.
Both groups have long-standing ties, and Hamas maintains a base in Lebanon. Hizbullah is more connected to Iran, but in recent years, Hamas has relied on the Lebanese group to strengthen relations with Tehran. All three actors have repeatedly stated that one of their common goals is to ‘unify the fronts’ against Israel and have reportedly established a joint operations room in Beirut. In recent weeks, leaders from Hizbullah and Hamas (as well as the smaller Islamic Jihad) have et and publicly declared an intention to coordinate more closely. Whether Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officials were present at these meetings remains unclear, but Esmail Qaani, the head of the Quds Force, has been a frequent visitor to Beirut.
So far, Hizbullah stated that it has been in constant contact with Hamas leaders to coordinate their responses but has refrained from an all-out show of solidarity. On Sunday, the group initiated limited skirmishes, with exchanges of mortar fire in the disputed territory of the Shebaa farms. The area under attack widened on Monday but remained contained despite Hizbullah claiming three of its own were killed by Israeli shelling. It is possible that Palestinian fighters in Lebanon, with subtle but ultimately deniable Hizbullah prompting, could conduct cross-border operations. Significantly, Hizbullah can help Hamas through inaction because significant Israeli forces and capabilities will remain pinned in the north for defensive reasons.
Whether Hizbullah decides to intervene fully depends on known and unknown factors, among them the magnitude of the Israeli retaliation against Hamas and whether Israel is able to severely and durably decapitated Hamas leadership. The dire economic situation in Lebanon has affected Hizbullah's popular constituency and figures in the calculus. The determining factor will be Iran, which has cultivated Hizbullah as its ultimate instrument of punishment and deterrence, which it deploys very judiciously.
The European Union
The European response to the attacks has been mainly symbolic, coupled with immediate practical concerns for European citizens in Israel and civil peace in European countries with significant immigrant populations.
Leaders from France to Poland condemned the Hamas attack against Israel and asserted their support for Israel. They also ordered symbolic public displays of solidarity with Israel at significant landmarks. The European Union, however, lack a cohesive strategy for the Israel–Palestine conflict, and member states are deeply divided on the conflict. On 8 October, Germany’s development minister announced that Berlin would review its Palestinian aid payments. The next day, Hungarian EU Commissioner for neighbourhood policy Oliver Varhely unilaterally announced, without consulting member states, that Brussels would suspend all development-programme payments immediately. Following very public objections by ministers from countries including Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain, as well as members of the European Parliament, a short European Commission statement reversed this decision.
The French president and foreign minister have made public their telephone diplomacy so far, discussing the situation with their counterparts in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But expectations are low for what they can concretely achieve. In recent years, the eruption of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts has sidelined European diplomacy more than it has for the Americans, Egyptians, Qataris and Turks.
Beyond geopolitical and diplomatic considerations, European countries want to prevent tensions from causing a migration crisis that spills over EU borders. Some members of the Muslim-majority immigrant populations in these countries have engaged in public displays of celebration of the attack. Countries including France, Germany and the United Kingdom strengthened the law-enforcement presence near Jewish community locations such as schools and synagogues over the weekend.
The latest Middle East crisis holds implications for the diplomacy of the Russia-Ukraine war. Until now, Israel has retained strong ties with Russia despite the latter’s invasion to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine and remove the country’s Jewish president from office. Israel has given Ukraine only limited, non-lethal aid despite its partners’ calls to do more. The main reason for this restraint is Israel’s regional security concerns: it relies on Russian cooperation in Syria to limit the threat from pro-Iranian forces.
Meanwhile, Russia’s war in Ukraine has driven closer military ties with Iran. Hamas officials have visited Moscow at least three times since Russia invaded Ukraine. The question has always been how far such cooperation could go without causing Tel Aviv to rethink its ties with Moscow.
Hamas’s attack, reportedly with Iranian planning, shows that Israel faces a deadly threat from Russia’s allies despite its own restraint. This poses new questions about its policy towards Russia – which has not condemned the attack – and the limits of its support for Ukraine – which has. Moscow must also fear that a severe retaliation against Iran could weaken one of its few close allies.
The United States
Dana H. Allin
A half-century separates the weekend’s shocking infiltration and attack by Hamas fighters against Israeli civilians from the surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces on Yom Kippur 1973. It could be a coincidence, but it seems more likely that Hamas intended the historical resonance.
The parallels regarding Israel’s crucial American relationship are also beguiling if potentially misleading. In 1973, Arab armies threatened Israel’s existence, and a massive airlift of American military supplies helped turn the tide.
The 1973 war was also the fire-and-blood prologue to immense diplomatic achievements. In the following months, Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy enabled the disengagement of armies on both fronts; in 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat travelled to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset; in 1978, president Jimmy Carter hosted Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin for historic negotiations at Camp David; the following year, Israel and Egypt signed their peace agreement. Egypt, meanwhile, had moved decisively from the Soviet to the American strategic orbit.
This history highlights what seems to be the bleakly limited nature of the American options now. After the harrowing scenes of Hamas operatives massacring Israeli civilians, American rhetorical and military support will have few, if any, strings attached. Washington will support Israel in a war presumably intended to destroy Hamas for good. Several factors remain unclear: whether this is possible at an acceptable cost, the implications of a ground war and potential reoccupation of Gaza by Israeli forces, and the likelihood of correspondingly harrowing scenes of Palestinian suffering and death. All of these could, at some point, weigh on the US-Israel political relationship without significantly affecting their security relationship.
Israel’s recent, bitter political disunity will dissipate for a time; a government in Jerusalem that proceeds on a national-unity basis will be more congenial also for the Biden administration. There is no Sadat on the scene, however, and even with the best of will, it is difficult to imagine a diplomatic solution to this crisis. The idea of a US-Israeli-Saudi grand bargain must be moribund for any foreseeable future. In the least-dire scenario, diplomacy will give way to deterrence. With Israel’s security establishment looking nervously at Hizbullah missiles and the risk of a second front to its north, the US has sent a carrier strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean. This will reassure traumatised Israelis and signal to Iran that Washington will not stand aloof in the event of a full-scale attack from the east.