Hamas's sophisticated, multi-pronged attack on Israel has changed the geo-political landscape of Israel and the region. The nature and extent of those changes will depend largely on how Israel responds to Hamas's ambitious combined offensive.
It is as yet unclear how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to carry out his pledge to turn Hamas' strongholds into "ruins" without sacrificing the Israelis whom Hamas has taken hostage. But even in the early aftermath of Hamas's stunning assault, this much seems clear.
First, the militant Islamists' devastating, highly coordinated assault on Israel by land, sea and air succeeded partly because it was a total surprise to Israel's intelligence and security services, and hence, a shocking failure. Whereas Israel misinterpreted the intelligence it had about Egypt's and Syria's war plans before the 19-day October War of 1973, this time Israel had no advance intelligence. Its much-respected intelligence and security services apparently had no clue about what must have been months of Hamas planning and training, as well as its production, import and stockpiling of weapons. Israel grossly underestimated Hamas' military capabilities.
But the Hamas offensive strike was more than a colossal intelligence failure.
Israel's Iron Dome air defenses were overwhelmed by the launching of some 3,000 rockets (Hamas claimed to have fired more than 5,000) from Gaza in less than three hours. Hamas terrorists were able to infiltrate Israeli military facilities; its bulldozers broke through Israeli border fences and breached Israeli towns and settlements without a rapid response from Israeli soldiers and helicopters. The assault was so swift and deadly that Israelis in targeted areas had less than 30 seconds to get to shelters, if they could reach them at all.
So the unprecedented Hamas offensive was a broader Israeli failure of security and readiness — an "everything failure," as Juliette Kayyam, a former U.S. government official and terrorism analyst, called it.
Second, the status quo vis-à-vis Hamas is clearly no longer sustainable. As defense analyst Max Boot noted Saturday, Israel's policy until now has been to retaliate against Hamas attacks inside Israel, but not to destroy the organization. Israeli defense analysts had argued that ridding over 2 million Gazans of Hamas would result in a political vacuum that might be filled by even more violent Palestinian groups.
That calculation has clearly changed. While it remains unclear precisely what Israel will do next, Netanyahu's pledge to crush Hamas suggests that Israel may launch a costly, full-scale invasion of Gaza without a clearly articulated end-game, something that successive Israeli governments have resisted.
In addressing Israelis, Netanyahu warned Gazans to leave, as "the enemy will pay an unprecedented price." But such a military campaign is likely to involve heavy military casualties for Israel, too. As Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas member, told Al Jazeera Arabic on Saturday, Hamas is ready "for all options, including a war and an escalation on all levels."
A further challenge for Israel is punishing Hamas while saving Israeli hostages who may be held in Hamas tunnels and other staging areas deep inside Gaza. While rescuing hostages usually involves diplomatic negotiations or prompt military action, a full-scale ground invasion would seem to require days, if not weeks, of careful planning.
Moreover, a brutal, protracted Israeli invasion of Gaza is likely to put extraordinary pressure on Mahmoud Abbas and the rest of the West Bank's beleaguered Palestinian Authority leadership, who are Hamas's bitter rivals. Abu Mazen, as Abbas is known, has already said that Palestinians have the right to defend themselves against Israeli strikes. But would Palestine Authority forces, which heretofore have worked with Israel to maintain a relative if increasingly strained calm on the West Bank, be willing or able to stop Palestinians there from resorting to violence if Israeli forces go house-to-house, block-by-block, killing Hamas militants and Palestinian civilians in the process?
Pressure, too, will build on Hezbollah, the Iran-supported Islamist militants who control much of Lebanon, to open a front in northern Israel, as it did after an Israeli soldier was captured and held hostage in Gaza in 2006.
In the region, much, too, has changed as a result of this attack. For one, the prospect of Saudi Arabian recognition of Israel, after months of not-so-quiet American-supported talks, has now dimmed. While many doubted that the Biden administration would be able to persuade Congress to accept Riyadh's price for recognition of Israel — advanced weaponry, U.S. defense guarantees, and American approval of a supposedly civilian nuclear program — efforts to bring about a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement are likely to be suspended pending the outcome of Israel's response, if not placed in deep freeze.
While the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states that have recognized Israel as part of the American-brokered Abraham Accords are not likely to renege on their diplomatic breakthrough, a sustained Israeli military campaign in Gaza with heavy Palestinian civilian casualties is likely to tank further efforts to deepen and expand ties with Israel.