When I need the most accurate analysis about Israel, the first call I always make is to my longtime friend and reporting partner there, Nahum Barnea, a veteran Yediot newspaper columnist. When I called him on Saturday afternoon for his read on the Hamas attack on Israel, I was stunned by his first response: “This is the worst day that I can remember in military terms in the history of Israel, including the blunder of the Yom Kippur war, which was terrible.”
Nahum is a careful reporter who has covered every major event in Israel for the past half century, and when he explained his rationale, I realized it was an understatement.
This is not your usual Hamas-Israel dust-up. The Gaza-Israel border is only 37 miles long, but the shock waves this war will unleash will not only thrust Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza into turmoil but will also slam into Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and most likely Iran. Why? Any prolonged Israel-Hamas war could divert more U.S. military equipment needed by Kyiv to Tel Aviv, and it will make the proposed Saudi-Israeli normalization deal impossible — for now. And if it turns out that Iran encouraged the Hamas attack to scuttle that Israeli-Saudi deal, it could raise tensions between Israel and Iran and Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, and also between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is an incredibly dangerous moment on multiple fronts.
But going back to Nahum’s point: Why is this war such a disaster for Israel, worse than the Yom Kippur surprise attack from Egypt and Syria, which happened 50 years and one day ago? For starters, said Nahum, there is the sheer humiliation of it for the Israeli military: “In 1973 we were attacked by the biggest Arab army, Egypt.”
This time Israel was invaded in 22 locations outside the Gaza Strip, including communities as far as 15 miles inside Israel, by a military force belonging to “the equivalent of Luxembourg.” And yet this tiny force not only invaded Israel, overwhelming Israeli border troops; it took Israeli hostages back to Gaza across that same border — a border where Israel had spent roughly $1 billion erecting a barrier that was supposed to be virtually impenetrable. That is a shocking blow to Israel’s deterrent capabilities.
Second, he noted, Israel has always prided itself on the ability of its intelligence services to penetrate Hamas and Palestinian militants in the West Bank and get early warnings. For the past few weeks, as anyone following the news from Israel knows, Hamas was conducting what appeared to be practice maneuvers for just this kind of attack all along the Gaza border — right before the eyes of the Israeli military.
But it appears that Israeli intelligence interpreted the moves as Hamas just trying to mess with the heads of the Israeli military and make commanders a little nervous, not as a prelude for an attack. Israeli intelligence apparently believed that Hamas desperately needed more financial assistance from Qatar, which has given Hamas over $1 billion in aid since 2012, and work permits for Gazans to work in Israel — and both Israel and Qatar have always required a quiet border in return.
“The intelligence interpretation is that they were training for something that they would never dare to do,” Nahum said. “It was bad judgment and arrogance.” Hamas instead launched an incredibly complex and sophisticated invasion from land and sea.
But now we get to the really terrible part for Israel. Hamas was not only able to cross into Israel and attack Israeli communities and army bases, but it was also able to kidnap a number of Israelis — reportedly including some older people, children and at least one soldier — and take them back to Gaza. Associated Press photos “showed an abducted elderly Israeli woman being brought back into Gaza on a golf cart by Hamas gunmen and another woman squeezed between two fighters on a motorcycle,” A.P. reported. Pictures of Israeli bodies taken to Gaza and being dragged into the streets were circulating on the internet.
At the same time, Palestinian fighters took groups of Israelis hostage in the border communities of Be’eri and Ofakim, but they were eventually freed by Israeli special forces.
This is going to be a huge problem for Israel. In a previous term, in 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including 280 serving life sentences, to get one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, back from Hamas in Gaza. Bibi may be called on to empty every Israeli prison of Palestinians if Hamas is holding older people and children in Gaza, Nahum noted.
Netanyahu promised on Saturday to deliver a crushing blow to Hamas in Gaza, but what if Hamas is holding Israeli civilians who could be used as human shields? That will curb Israel’s room for retaliation.
“Everything the army does in Gaza going forward will require them to take into account the impact it could have on the lives of civilian hostages,” Nahum said.
Finally, Nahum noted, the top ranks of the military and the prime minister, who chairs the security cabinet, know right now that down the road there will probably be some kind of commission of inquiry into how the Hamas invasion was allowed to happen.
So they must now conduct this war, make excruciating decisions about trade-offs among deterrence, retaliation, getting hostages back from Hamas and maybe even invading Gaza, knowing all the time that even if they manage all of these perfectly, some kind of inquiry awaits them at the end of the road. It is not easy to think straight under those conditions.
As this column has been pointing out ever since he came back to power, Netanyahu’s politics of division have done terrible damage to Israel. Bibi prioritized a judicial putsch to strip the Israeli Supreme Court of its power to oversee his government — over all other priorities. In the process he fractured Israeli society and its military. And people have been warning for months how dangerous this could be. Just this week I quoted a former director general of the Israeli Defense Ministry, Dan Harel, telling a Tel Aviv democracy rally that “I have never seen our national security in a worse state” and that there has already been damage to the reserve units of essential Israel Defense Forces formations, “which has reduced readiness and operational capability.”
But as bad as Netanyahu has been for Israel, Hamas has been a deadly curse for the Palestinian people since it took over Gaza in 2007. The billion-plus dollars in aid that it received from Qatar alone over the years could have gone into building Gaza into a productive society, with decent schools, universities and infrastructure, that might have been a model for a future Palestinian state with the West Bank. Instead, Hamas has devoted most of its energies and resources to digging tunnels into Israel and building rockets to try to destroy a vastly more powerful enemy — thus depriving Gazans of any chance to realize their full potential, via a government that is decent, democratic and productive.
Why did Hamas launch this war now, without any immediate provocation? One has to wonder if it was not on behalf of the Palestinian people but rather at the behest of Iran, an important supplier of money and arms to Hamas, to help prevent the budding normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival, and Israel. Such a deal, as it was being drawn up, would also benefit the more moderate West Bank Palestinian Authority — by delivering it a huge infusion of cash from Saudi Arabia, as well as curbs on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and other advances to preserve a two-state solution. As a result, West Bank leaders might have earned a desperately needed boost of legitimacy from the Palestinian masses, threatening the legitimacy of Hamas.
That U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal also would have been a diplomatic earthquake that would have most likely required Netanyahu to jettison the most extreme members of his cabinet in return for forging an alliance between the Jewish state and the Sunni-led states of the Persian Gulf against Iran. Altogether, it would have been one of the biggest shifts in the tectonic plates of the region in 75 years. In the wake of this Hamas attack, that deal is now in the deep freeze, as the Saudis have had to link themselves more closely than ever with Palestinian interests, not just their own.
Indeed, within hours of the Hamas invasion, Saudi Arabia issued a statement saying, according to Al Arabiya network: “The kingdom is closely following up on the unprecedented developments between a number of Palestinian factions and the Israeli occupying forces,” adding that it has “repeatedly warned of the consequences of [the deterioration] of the situation as a result of the occupation as well as of depriving the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights and of [not halting] systematic provocations against their holy [sites].”
I am watching how the Hamas-Israel earthquake will shake up another earthquake.
Ukraine was already dealing with the temblors in the U.S. government. The toppling of the speaker of the House, combined with an increasingly vocal minority of Republican lawmakers — shockingly to me — coming out against any more economic and military aid to Ukraine has created a political mess that has resulted, for now, in no more U.S. aid for Ukraine being approved. If Israel is about to invade Gaza and embark on a long war, Ukraine will have to worry about competition from Tel Aviv for Patriot missiles as well as 155-millimeter artillery shells and other basic armaments that Ukraine desperately needs more of and Israel surely will, too.
Vladimir Putin has noticed. Last Thursday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, he said that Ukraine was being propped up “thanks to multibillion donations that come each month.” He added, “Just imagine the aid stops tomorrow.” Ukraine “will live for only a week when they run out of ammo.”
Can anything good come from this terrible new Hamas-Israel war? It’s far too early to say, but another longtime Israeli friend and analyst I trust, Prof. Victor Friedman (no relation), who teaches behavioral science at Jezreel Valley College in central Israel and knows the Israeli Arab community very well, wrote me late today, saying: “This horrid situation is still an opportunity, just like the Yom Kippur war turned out to be an opportunity that ended with a peace agreement with Egypt. The only real victory will be if what happens next — probably Israel going into Gaza — creates conditions for a real, stable settlement with the Palestinians.” In light of what the Palestinians did today, he said, they can “claim some ‘victory,’ no matter what happens next.” The point is, he added, ‘Someone needs to think beyond more force and more force.”
Personally, I do not believe that Hamas can ever be a partner for a secure peace with Israel. Hamas has had way too many chances for way too many years to prove that the responsibilities of governing in Gaza would moderate its goal of destroying the Jewish state. It turns out to be nothing more than a Palestinian Islamist mafia, interested only in preserving its grip on Gaza and ready to serve as a cat’s paw for Iran instead of making its main goal a new future for Palestinians there and in the West Bank. Its history of rule in Gaza is shameful.
But the Palestinian Authority can be a partner. So if there is going to be an Israeli invasion of Gaza to try to destroy Hamas, it has to be paired with a political initiative that empowers and helps to strengthen that Palestinian Authority so we can forge, as Victor put it, “a settlement that provides all sides with something they can live with. Otherwise, sooner or later, we will be right back in the same situation — only worse. That was the true lesson of the Yom Kippur war.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.