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Why Hamas started a war with a divided Israel
It's complicated. Saudi Arabia is playing all the fences; Israel is binging on Messianic extremism; democracy in the Middle East is in jeopardy; Hamas is facing an existential crisis. So, war.
By now you know. Last night, U.S. time, while we were safely in our beds, Hamas unleashed a hellscape from Gaza upon Israel, consisting of thousands of rockets fired in barrages, and multiple border infiltrations deep into Israel.
As of around noon Saturday, at least 100 Israelis have been killed, and around 1,000 wounded. Obviously this was being planned for a long time. The New York Times reported that Hamas political leader Salih al-Arouni said the attack is still in its early stages and was organized with “precision and detail.”
This attack took Israel by surprise, and happened during the holiday Simcha Torah, when Jews celebrate the giving of the law (it literally means Happy Torah) to the ancient Hebrews. “We are at war and we will win it,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his nation in a televised statement.
Undoubtedly, Israel has the military advantage, and literally the ability to turn Gaza into its own hellscape, to level every structure, kill most of the armed resistance, and to leave the place destitute and starving. But I’m not sure that’s how you define “winning.”
It’s also not the way Israel has historically handled battles with Hamas. Typically, these operations involve a principle of limited collateral damage, event to the point of warning inhabitants of buildings it intended to attack with a “knock” device and leaflets prior to deploying actual ordnance on target. Israel, despite its sometimes-deserved reputation as an occupier of land claimed by historical enemies going back centuries, has always been a humanitarian opponent in battle.
Also, Israel has its own internal problems. Napoleon Bonaparte is famously credited with “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” For the past eight months or longer, Israel convulsed with protests as Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government has attempted to de-tooth the country’s high court, allowing the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) to override its rulings. This would allow the far-right religious Zionists to legislate their way into a Messianic future they believe is coming.
Many Israelis see it as the end of their democracy. The Jerusalem Post reported in late December 2022:
Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) and Avi Maoz’s Noam are all to a greater or lesser degree pro-active messianic movements. For them, the State of Israel is at best an instrument creating conditions for the Messiah’s coming. At worst, in its secularism and liberal democracy, it is an impediment. For all three, the coming of the Messiah is the supreme goal. It takes precedence over all other political or moral considerations. They see the discriminatory, racist and expansionist clauses they insisted on in their coalition agreements with Netanyahu as necessary steps in a grand divine design.
Netanyahu, a cynic, doesn’t buy into the religious extremism. However, he does believe in his own survival, and as he winds his way through corruption trials, the more power his fragile political coalition gains, the higher his chance of avoiding conviction.
This public display of civil unrest pushed Israelis into a kind of division the nation rarely sees, and now that Hamas started a war, has instantly faded into irrelevance. This morning, opposition leader and former PM Yair Lapid, told Netanyahu he is willing to “put our arguments aside,” and “establish, together with him, a small, professional emergency government” of national unity, the New York Times reported.
Why would Hamas go and spoil watching Israel tear itself apart, politically, by starting a war that unified their enemy, instead of breaking out the popcorn?
The answer may lie in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have of late engaged in a tremendous program to rehabilitate their image from authoritarian savages to sophisticated globalists. From golf, including the takeover of the PGA, to Formula 1 racing, the Saudis have spent $6 billion on “sportswashing.” Yet for all the reaching out, foreign investment in the kingdom has markedly fallen of late. One area where the Saudis are cautiously proceeding on is normalizing relations with Israel.
The U.S. has been brokering the back-and-forth conditions of such a peace. President Biden met with Netanyahu in September to outline some requirements, which include a commitment for Israel to halt settlements in Palestinian territories and preserve the “two state solution” option. The New York Times reported a letter signed by 20 senators this past week expressed concern that the Saudis would draw the U.S. deeper into regional politics by requiring a defense treaty be part of the Israel deal.
Netanyahu’s government would almost certainly oppose such concessions, but the prospect of peace with Saudi Arabia, after the progress made in the last three years, is a powerful incentive. Israel has had a hard time both internally and internationally dealing with its too-close ties with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. It clashes with the Biden administration on appeasement with Iran, which remains a sworn enemy of Israel.
But the Saudis are also playing the fence with Hamas, with whom they have not had formal dealings for a decade. In April, Riyadh played host to a high-level delegation, including Salih al-Arouni. The Saudis fear Iran and its goal of becoming a nuclear power. There is a lot of political play, with the Saudi royals looking for the best chance of staying in power and avoiding the fate of so many rulers who got too secular in an Islamic nation.
For the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel would be a giant blow to Hamas, and further subject the group to Iranian influence and control. Tehran, for its part, cheers Hamas, leading some to speculate that Iran is behind the surprise attacks. POLITICO reported this morning:
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top military adviser said Tehran supported the attacks by Hamas against Israel on Saturday and would continue to back the Islamist fighters “until the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem.”
I am not sure Iran is actually behind the attacks. Israel’s intelligence operations have long warned of an attack by Hamas or Hizbollah since Netanyahu’s ministers have engaged in some extremely provocative behaviors (visiting the Temple Mount) and speech of late.
However, the attacks do put the Saudis in an unenviable position, and draw them closer to Hamas and away from Israel. It would serve both Hamas’, Iran’s, and Hizbollah’s interests to scuttle any potential peace between the Saudis and Israel. In an official statement posted on X/Twitter, the Saudi foreign ministry wrote:
The Kingdom recalls its repeated warning of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.
The statement called for an “immediate halt” to hostilities by both sides, an unlikely prospect at this point.
Israel’s response to the attacks has been to systematically go after Hamas leaders and its infrastructure. The IDF reportedly hit the Gaza home of Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar, and has cut electrical power to Gaza. It’s also been reported that up to 52 hostages have been taken from Israel to Gaza.
The White House announced President Biden will deliver remarks at 2:30pm today. Republicans slammed the Biden administration for releasing $6 billion of frozen Iranian funds in exchange for Americans held by Tehran.
The complex politics of Israel, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia and Iran make peace in the region a fading dream. Remember, that Hamas has as its founding principle the destruction of Israel and the existence of a worldwide Zionist conspiracy. Article Thirteen of Hamas’ Charter (or the Hamas Covenant) rejects “so-called peaceful solutions,” opting for “Jihad.”
Article Eleven calls for conquering all lands occupied by Israel, by force. Article Fifteen commands that “the spirit of Jihad among the [Islamic] Umma” be spread, especially among educators, teacher, and the youth. Article Twenty-Two pledged to destroy organizations it deems as controlled by an international Zionist conpiracy, such as “Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, B’nai B’rith and the like.”
It’s difficult to escape the conclusion I’ve made in the past: There is no negotiation with Hamas. There is no peace, there is no politics. Israel must root out and destroy Hamas, and we, as a civilized people, must join them in that cause.
However, it’s complicated. Israel cannot simply wipe Gaza off the map, even if it were capable of this (and it is).
Hamas is willing to sacrifice thousands—hundreds of thousands—of Gazans to Israeli violence, in order to turn Israel into a pariah, even when that nation was on the verge of historic peace. Peace is not in the interests of Hamas. It should be in the interests of Israel, even if for some Israelis, it is not.