A five-point primer on some of the conflict’s hidden drivers
Readers, your narrator did roughly 15 years of counterterrorism work in New York City at the height of the post-9/11 Islamist threat — work which included travel to the Middle East. I was fortunate enough to spend years with true subject matter experts, Arab, Israeli, European, American.
As such, I offer some points that have not broken through as yet to the mainstream media.
First, however, allow me to plug my piece in last week’s weekend Wall Street Journal (click on the below headline, or here).
It’s a brief summation of what domestic counterterrorism officials need to be thinking about now — and thinking about hard (caution: sometimes it’s behind a firewall, sometimes it’s not. I can’t figure that out myself).
Note: What follows is not hard fact but speculation, based on my own knowledge and recent conversations.
1. How Did Hamas Pull It Off? Much of the media has expressed amazement that the vaunted Israeli intel services were so taken by surprise. According to sources I’ve spoken to (and trust), my best answer here is this: Hamas did this by hiding in plain sight. For many months now, they have been training openly in Gaza, while threatening Israel constantly. Call it the “boy who cried wolf” strategy. Essentially, Israel became inured to the constant indications of an attack (the Arab coalition apparently used a similar tactic to launch the Yom Kippur War in 1973).
Reportedly, at 3 a.m. — just hours before the attack — senior intelligence officals were apprised that something was brewing. They considered it to be troubling but likely more-of-the-same, apparently believing Hamas was neither capable nor willing to launch such an operation. And so, they shelved it for addressing later in the day, and went back to bed.
You know the rest.
As for how Hamas knew where to break through Israeli defenses: roughly 20,000 Palestinians leave Gaza every day, to work in southern Israel (mostly on kibbutzes). That’s a lot of eyes and ears.
(The Hamas flag)
2. Why Did Hamas Pull It Off? Or perhaps better phrased, why did Hamas pull it off now. This is tricky, and redounds in many ways to the chasm in the Mideast between the Sunni and Shia worlds.
Recall that Hamas is actually a political party, elected to lead Gaza. There were upcoming elections in Gaza. Did Hamas fear they would lose their grip on the strip?
Some posit this, but I doubt it. The aspect of this I do buy, however: Hamas feared irrelevancy. Nothing shook the Arab street like the Abraham Accords. The truth of the matter is that other Sunni Arab nations — Saudi Arabia, Egypt — are in no rush to take in Palestinians. They have done very little to help the Palestinian cause, or to improve their lot.
So a growing pact between Israel and the Sunni world — which is led by Saudi Arabia — puts Hamas on the outside looking in (the Palestinians are Sunnis). The Palestinians would have, essentially, lost the Arab street. Because the leaders of the Sunni world, Saudi Arabia, would in the eyes of Hamas have “gone over to the Jews” (recall that Mecca is located in Saudi Arabia, giving Saudi unique stature).
With the virulent hatred Hamas has of Israel, the overlay of a political motive like impending irrelevancy may well have been enough to spur action now. The extension of the Abraham Accords to Saudi would have been a disaster for Hamas, plain and simple. Hamas — and by extension, the Palestinians — would have become yesterday’s news.
So essentially, it was: “We will not be ignored.”
One could apply the same analysis to Iran, by the way. Israel and Saudi Arabia united in any sort of open pact was the road to normalization, trade, cooperation, etc. I’m amazed it was even contemplated in Saudi (a tribute to the precarious financial postion MBS finds himself in — but that’s a different substack).
The Iranian mullahs contemplating such a relationship between Israel and Saudi must have shuddered down to their sandals.
Now: Did Iran actively pull the trigger here? We may never know. But I would vote no. While Iran’s and Hamas’ interests certainly overlap to a large extent, and Iran funds and supplies Hamas, recall that Iran is a Shia nation. Iran holds its nose when it deals with Hamas, and uses Hamas for its own ends. I would liken Hamas to a rebellious child, with Iran as the indulgent parent who doles out an allowance.
Because simply ask yourself this: If this was so meticulously planned… why would Iran not have Hamas wait until the $6 billion from Washington hit Iran’s account?
As for why Hamas moved exactly then: This is likely because Hamas was tracking that rave in the southern desert. The location of the rave was changed by the organizers numerous times, and the final location was only given out a short time before its start, over social media. Hamas intel was on that mailing list.
Lastly: What must be admitted is that, if the plan was to stall (or end) any imminent expansion of the Abraham Accords — it’s likely worked.
3. Why was it so brutal? There’s the hatred angle, of course. This cannot be underestimated. But is there more?
As has been widely reported, one of the things Hamas wants to invoke here is a disproportionate Israeli response — so as to spur world anger and rally people to their cause (again: “we will not be ignored”). The brutality of the acts could be down not only to hatred of Jews, but to the desire by Hamas for upsetting videos to hit media worldwide (they’re likely to get them, quite soon).
Note, however: The losers there will be the human shields and other civilians caught in the crossfire. With the Hamas leaders ensconced in their plush redoubts in Qatar.
As for how the Hamas fighters were capable of acts like beheading babies and burning children alive: Again, the hatred factor. But there is also the fact that the Hamas fighters were likely young men raised for such action.
And I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they were drugged. At the height of their military operations, ISIS used a drug exclusively manufactured and controlled by Hezbollah in Lebanon called Captagon. It is a sort of super-amphetamine that allows fighters to stay awake for days. It also is reported to inure them to any brutality. (In my former seat, we spent a good deal of time, in partnership with the DEA, looking for any indication of this drug stateside — for obvious reasons. Thankfully, we found none).
The Israelis likely know the answer to this already, from bloodwork of either dead Hamas fighters or live captured ones.
4. What’s coming next? Obviously, the ground invasion. I’m hearing Israel has already taken numerous prisoners, and you can bet heavy debriefs are underway. Israel wants to know what the IDF is getting into over there — where the tunnels are, the booby-traps, etc.
(The Israeli flag)
But unavoidably, Hamas has a main problem: supply. The Israelis have turned off all power, water, fuel, and internet. The Egyptians are allowing some “humanitarian” supplies in (most of which will likely go to Hamas fighters, as in any kleptocracy), but that’s it. At some point here, when the real shooting starts, water is going to be the most prized commodity in Gaza, along with food and medicines (consider as an example: Type 1 diabetics die an awful death after only a couple of weeks. According to the U.N, Gaza has at least a thousand Type 1 diabetics — many of them children).
There are reportedly tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that can be used for secretly supplying Gaza, but the Israelis will likely make closing these down a priority.
So consider: The world will undoubtedly attempt to rally humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza at some point. We may even get a foreign-flagged supply ship attempting to anchor in the Mediterranean to offer supplies (from Iran? Qatar?).
Will Israel strike such a ship?
And could this be the spark that sets off a wider conflict?
5. BiBi’s Last Card: Netanyahu has a card to play with the U.S. that I have not seen discussed anywhere. In the early days of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan is reported to have floated the idea of using a nuclear device when it appeared Israel was going to be overrun.
(Moshe Dayan, mid-1950s. He lost the eye on a military incursion into Lebanon, when a Vichy French sniper put a round through his binoculars)
Is Netanyahu prepared to do the same? Has he communicated this to President Biden? That would certainly get Biden’s attention….
In Sum: History has shown that one can never predict events in the Mideast. But from what I am hearing (and as we explored in our recent podcast): There is no Israeli appetite for compromise with Hamas now. Israelis consider this their final battle with the group.
Hamas surely knows this too — as does Iran and their Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. So things are about to get very rough.
Rougher, likely, than entire generations in the west are accustomed to seeing.
Thanks for reading The Ops Desk. Stay Safe!