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Israel’s “9/11” and Its Consequences

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 67 by Assaf Moghadam and Thomas Risse

№ 67/2023 from Oct 16, 2023

The brutal Hamas attacks on Israel constitute a traumatic event for the country and its citizens – just when the Jewish state was going through the most dramatic constitutional crisis in its history. What are possible scenarios for Israel’s response to its “9/11” and what are consequences for Israeli politics?

The Hamas Attacks and Possible Scenarios

The indiscriminate massacres of more than 1000 Israelis by Hamas terrorists are dramatically affecting the country’s collective psyche – not unlike the effects that the terrorist attacks of “9/11” had on US citizens in 2001. Israelis used to be told that Israel is the place where Jews can live in safety, where one of the world’s strongest armies will ensure the protection of its citizens. This founding myth of the State of Israel was, of course, a direct result of the Shoah. The State of Israel was envisioned as a safe haven that would make sure that "never again” would Jews be rendered defenseless. The massacres that took place on October 7 – complete with images of whole families extinguished, shot point blank, young women raped, babies killed and kidnapped, Holocaust survivors mocked and executed—have shattered this notion, at least for the foreseeable future. It will take a long time for Israelis to process this trauma.

In response, Israel is readying itself for a massive ground invasion to incapacitate Hamas and to end its rule in Gaza. As the Gaza campaign will proceed, Israel will face growing pressures – most consequentially from the United States – to avoid a humanitarian crisis. The dense population of the Gaza Strip, however, coupled with Hamas’ wont of using civilians as human shields and placing military and political infrastructure inside civilian locations, including schools and hospitals, will complicate these efforts. Furthermore, most Israelis view the October 7 attacks as a game changer, and are willing to incur sacrifices, on both sides. To them, the attacks have painfully exposed the costs of surprise attacks. These feelings have reinforced the sense in Israel that the country has to take its fate into its own hands and achieve complete victory over Hamas.

Still, a full-scale occupation of Gaza could easily result in a quagmire, and is hence doubtful. Virtually no Israelis have an appetite to rule Gaza. Instead, the most likely scenario is a ground war in Gaza designed to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure. The question who will govern Gaza on the day after the Israelis withdraw from the Strip is of little concern, unfortunately, given the current mood among Israelis.

Israel also faces a precarious and unpredictable situation on its northern border, where tensions are very high. Hezbollah keeps testing Israel, with the latter leaving no provocation unanswered. Israel has mobilized hundreds of thousands of army reservists, many of whom are not awaiting orders to enter Gaza, but instead, stand ready to defend Israel’s northern parts from a potential invasion by Hezbollah. While Israel seeks to avoid a two-front war, it cannot be ruled out that Jerusalem itself will decide to tackle Hezbollah after having completed the Gaza campaign. Last but not least, the situation on the West Bank is a major concern, particularly due to the close proximity between Jewish settlements and Palestinian towns and villages. It is relatively quiet right now, but mass uprisings are always a possibility given the dire living conditions of the Palestinian population. And then there is the question how Israeli Arabs will position themselves. In sum, there is no shortage of nightmare scenarios given decades of festering conflicts, violence, gross injustices, and violations of human rights. And rather than diffusing the conflicts and tensions, extremists within Israel’s governing coalition have added fuel to the fire.

Fortunately, the US has sent a strong message of deterrence to diffuse the tension, particularly in the North. By sending two aircraft carrier battle groups, the Biden administration has signaled to Hezbollah and its Iranian supporters to think twice about exploiting the present situation. President Joe Biden has emerged as the hero of the hour to many Israelis.

And the Netanyahu Government? A Time of Reckoning Will Come

The barbaric attacks have galvanized Israelis. Israeli civil society, which has already proven impressively capable in staging 40-some weeks of mass protests against the government’s plans to push through a highly contested judicial reform, mobilized quickly and effectively to support its troops and bolster efforts to locate kidnapped Israelis. But once the military campaign is over, there will be – and has to be – a time of reckoning. Most Israelis hold the extreme right-wing government under Prime Minister Netanyahu directly responsible for what happened.

First, the attempts by Netanyahu and his hard-right colleagues to undermine Israeli democracy have polarized the country as never before. This has had immediate effects on the Israeli security apparatus, as many former and current military officials, including the defense minister, have pointed out time and again. No wonder that Israel’s archenemies such as Hamas perceived this as a window of opportunity to strike at a country perceived weak and vulnerable.

Second and more immediately, the efforts by the Israeli radical and religious right to strengthen the settlements in the West Bank and to humiliate the Palestinians at almost any cost have contributed to the present disaster. Pre-occupied with protecting the settlements in the West Bank, the IDF neglected the southern areas bordering Gaza. This decision proved tragic. Some 1500 Hamas fighters were able to enter Israel from Gaza, massacring hundreds of Israelis living in the surrounding Kibbutzim, and conducting one of the worst massacres of modern times at a music festival that cost some 260 young Israelis their lives.

50 years ago, then Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned after the Yom Kippur war. At the conclusion of the present war, the Netanyahu administration will face enormous pressure to do the same, from a public that already sees the present government as one that abandoned its people and failed in its most fundamental duty, namely to protect its borders and citizens.

Assaf Moghadam is professor of political science and dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at Reichman University, Herzliya, Israel.

Thomas Risse is senior professor of international relations at SCRIPTS, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.