Israel's growing legion of critics never tire of warning the Jewish state not to make the same mistakes in answering Hamas's savage attack that the United States made after 9/11—namely, the Bush administration's post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those invasions, critics say, led the U.S. into a morass of "forever wars." So, too, will Israel's military effort in Gaza, they assert. As Israel contemplates whether to resume its mission of eradicating Hamas's leadership in Gaza after hostage diplomacy ends, the Biden administration's warnings not to make a similar mistake have grown more intense.
But comparisons of October 7 with September 11 are shaky at best. True, Hamas's butchery in southern Israel and al-Qaida's devastating strike on the United States 22 years ago share some similarities. Both attacks were carried out by militant Islamist offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood that reveled in martyrdom. Both groups saw their attacks as a way to stun the world and attract attention to, and recruits for, their cause. In both cases, the targets were mostly civilians, though on a per capita basis, October 7 was about 15 times the scale of September 11. While al-Qaida and Hamas undoubtedly underestimated the furious military retaliations their attacks would prompt, both succeeded in proving that their enemies, despite their superior military and economic strength, were not invincible.
Upon reflection, however, the differences between the assaults, those who perpetrated them, and America's and Israel's responses to them are greater than the similarities. Al-Qaida and Hamas may both be militant Islamist groups that justify mass murder in faux-religious terms, but their goals are different. Al-Qaida in Afghanistan was an assembly of religious fanatics from many countries who aimed to oust America from the Middle East and rekindle an Islamic caliphate throughout Arabia and ultimately the world. Hamas's goal has always been local: to destroy Israel, from the proverbial "river to the sea." Unlike al-Qaida, Hamas has cared little about the oppression of non-Palestinian Muslims, even those in the Middle East.
A second key difference is geography. Al-Qaida attacked America from a remote, thinly populated country; Hamas has embedded itself in one of the most densely populated areas on earth, directly adjacent to its target, Israel. So while both attacks elicited ferocious military responses, America's initial engagement in Afghanistan had less impact on the civilian population than Israel's. And after 20 years of counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, the U.S. could choose to leave. "For the simple reason of geography, Israel lacks such an option," writes Raphael S. Cohen, director of strategy and doctrine at Rand's Project Air Force. "For better or worse, Israel and Gaza are fundamentally intertwined."
America had internal and foreign allies in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but Israel has been forced to wage war virtually alone to rid Gaza of Hamas's leadership. The U.S. was able to drive al-Qaida's Taliban hosts out of power by November 2001, less than two months after 9/11. Israel faces a far longer, tougher struggle to wrest Hamas from power, and it must do so while trying to save all remaining hostages, a challenge the U.S. didn't face in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Though the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan after President Biden's decision in August 2021, against his military's advice, to withdraw all U.S. troops without leaving a residual force in place, it is unlikely that the Taliban will permit the militant groups it hosts to stage another 9/11-style attack on America from its soil. Israel's foe, by contrast, is more determined than ever to strike. Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas's decision-making political bureau, recently vowed that Hamas would continue attacking Israel "again and again" until the Jewish state is "completely destroyed."
Critics who warn that Israel should not repeat America's post-9/11 errors also ignore an inconvenient fact: neither al-Qaida nor its successor ISIS has mounted a devastating attack on American soil since then, and it's certainly not for lack of trying. Since 9/11, says Rebecca Weiner, the New York Police Department's deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, the NYPD and its law-enforcement allies have thwarted some 57 plots against the city, some "sophisticated and complex."
Perhaps the most consequential similarity between October 7 and September 11 is how both events highlighted the need for a fundamental shift in strategy. Just as America downplayed the threat of militant Islamists for years before 9/11, Israel failed to end Hamas's murderous rule in Gaza, despite repeated clashes over 15 years. Keeping Hamas in power seemed preferable to ruling Gaza or helping the Palestine Authority to do so. But Israel, like the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, has yet to outline what David Petraeus, former CIA director and former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls a "grand vision" for Gaza—namely, what it wants to happen there after the bombing and shooting stop. Embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent statement that Israel would have to retain "security control" for Gaza "indefinitely" drew criticism in Israel and abroad, causing Biden to warn Israel publicly that re-occupying Gaza would be a "big mistake." But besides Hamas, there seem to be few takers for the job of ruling the enclave of 2.2 million impoverished, embittered Palestinians. Egypt and other neighboring Arab states have ruled out participating in a joint security force to stabilize Gaza. So, too, has the Palestinian Authority, which rejects the prospect of re-entering the territory backed by Israeli military might. Absent a strategic vision for Gaza, Hamas seems destined to re-emerge, even if Israel manages to kill, capture, or eject its current leaders.
In these senses, then, 9/11 and 10/7 are indeed similar. There seems no obvious answer, in Israel, to the question that Petraeus asked as America prepared to invade Iraq: "Tell me how this ends?"