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The Hamas Attacks and Israeli Response: An Explainer
The Hamas Attacks and Israeli Response: An Explainer
An explainer answering readers’ questions about the situation in Israel/Palestine after October 7th.
Alex Kane, Mari Cohen, Jonathan Shamir, and Isaac Scher

On October 7th, Hamas militants broke through the barrier that surrounds Gaza and invaded more than 20 Israeli towns and army bases in a gruesome attack that has been widely understood as a “paradigm shift” in Israel/Palestine. Israel has responded to Hamas’s assault with massive, ongoing air strikes that have destroyed some of the enclave’s largest residential buildings; it has also threatened an imminent ground invasion of Gaza.

In response to these unprecedented developing events, Jewish Currents solicited questions from our readers. In the coming days, we will continue to post answers to the questions we receive on a rolling basis.

What happened on October 7th?

On Saturday morning, Palestinian fighters from the armed wing of Hamas—the Islamist political party that governs Gaza—fired a barrage of rockets into central and southern Israel. The rocket salvos coincided with Hamas fighters using hang gliders and paragliders to fly over the barrier separating Israel and Gaza. Hamas militants also used drones to bomb Israeli surveillance systems on the fence, as well as explosives and a bulldozer to destroy parts of the barrier. The militants then rode motorbikes into Israeli territory and, alongside the fighters who had paraglided into Israel, invaded more than 20 Israeli communities and army bases. In the hours that followed, Hamas fighters took control of small villages such as Kfar Azza, and parts of cities such as Ofakim and Sderot, shooting and killing more than 1,100 people, including children and the elderly, and wounding over 2,500. At least 260 of the Israelis who died were shot, some at point-blank range, at a music festival outside Kibbutz Re’im. Israeli government sources say that most of those who died in the Hamas attacks were civilians; the Israeli newspaper Haaretz listed over 130 Israeli police and army members killed.

The attack resulted in the highest ever civilian death toll in Israeli history in a single event, far surpassing the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada or massacres by Palestinian and Arab fighters during the 1948 war. Israeli civilians described being locked in their homes for hours as they saw armed men roaming the streets, shooting at anyone they saw. “I know what to do within 15 seconds of hearing an alarm, but today was different. It was the hardest day of my life,” one Israeli woman who survived the carnage in the southern kibbutz of Nir Yitzhak told the Associated Press.

Hamas named the operation “Al-Aqsa Storm,” referring to the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, which is located on what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount. According to the Associated Press, Hamas said that the attack was motivated by Israel’s 16-year blockade of Gaza as well as by violence at the Al-Aqsa mosque, Israeli raids in the West Bank, escalating settler assaults against Palestinians, and the expansion of settlements.

Palestinian militants also took at least 150 Israelis—soldiers and civilians, including elderly people and children—into Gaza as hostages. A Qatari official told Reuters that mediators are trying to broker an agreement in which Israeli women and children held by militants are freed in exchange for 36 Palestinian women and children incarcerated by Israel, but a Hamas spokesperson said they would not negotiate over the release of hostages until Israel stops attacking Gaza. On October 9th, a Hamas spokesman further said the militant group would kill a hostage every time Israel bombs Palestinians in their home without giving them a warning.

How has Israel responded to the attacks?

The attacks appear to have caught Israeli officials off-guard, leading many to call the events a massive intelligence failure on the part of Israel. “They got us,” said Israeli army spokesperson Major Nir Dinar, in an interview with Reuters. “They surprised us and they came fast from many spots.” In the hours following the initial attack, the Israeli army entered southern Israeli communities in search of Hamas militants in the area, and on Tuesday afternoon, army spokespeople said that they had killed around 1,500 Palestinian fighters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the attack by vowing to reduce Hamas hiding places to “rubble.” “We are at war,” he said, adding that “the enemy will pay an unprecedented price.” The Israeli air force has since carried out a punishing bombing campaign on Gaza. According to an October 10th statement by an Israeli army spokesperson, the goal of the airstrike campaign is to create widespread “damage,” rather than to differentiate between civilian and military targets. As of publication, Israeli airstrikes have killed an estimated 830 Palestinians and wounded 4,250 in the course of four days.

What is happening in Gaza now?

As of Tuesday, October 10th, Israel was continuing its aerial bombardment of Gaza for the fourth consecutive day. The airstrikes have flattened high-rise apartment buildings and killed entire families; for instance, 19 members of the Abu Quta family were slain by an Israeli bombing attack on October 8th. “There is no safe place to go to in Gaza right now,” Nidal Hamdouna, a Gazan who works with the humanitarian organization Church Aid, told The Guardian, adding, “I witnessed the wars of 2008, 2014, and 2021, but this is something unique in terms of the intensity.” Palestinians are trapped in the besieged strip as warplanes flatten successive neighborhoods. Although Netanyahu told civilians in Gaza that they should “leave now” if they wanted to escape the bombardment, Israel has closed all the crossings from Gaza under its control, and has repeatedly bombed the sole crossing outside its jurisdiction, which leads from Gaza into Egypt. Unable to flee the strip, roughly 187,500 Gazans have been internally displaced due to the bombing, a number that is expected to rise. The majority of displaced people are taking shelter in schools—but schools, too, have been severely damaged by airstrikes, as have hospitals and medical clinics.

Israel also responded to the Hamas attacks by further intensifying the air, land, and sea blockade it has imposed on Gaza for the past 16 years. On October 9th, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a complete closure of Gaza so that no food, electricity, gas, or water would get in. Using dehumanizing language that international law experts have identified as genocidal, Gallant said, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, called Gallant’s statements “abhorrent,” and said the use of “starvation as a weapon of war” is a “war crime” that should be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Al Jazeera reports that food and clean water are already in short supply in the coastal enclave, while the blockade is creating a crisis for the already overtaxed medical system. Medhat Abbas, Gaza’s Health Ministry director general, told NPR that unless borders are immediately opened to allow an influx of fuel and medical supplies, “there will be a collapse of the health system.” On Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported that tents had been erected in front of Al Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, to expand the capacity of the morgue, which could not hold the bodies of the dead.

How has the United States government responded to Hamas’s attacks and Israel’s retaliation?

In his first statement following the Hamas attack, President Joe Biden outlined the US’s complete commitment to Israel’s war effort. “We stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel,” he said. The congressional response has mirrored Biden’s, with nearly every US senator pledging to stand with Israel. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Republican Michael McCaul and Democrat Greg Meeks co-authored a bipartisan resolution affirming the US government’s support of Israel. Introduced on October 10th with 392 initial co-sponsors, the resolution condemns Palestinian violence and mourns Israeli deaths but does not express grief or mourning for Palestinians killed by Israel, instead claiming that it is Hamas that is “directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians.” The resolution also promises to resupply military assistance to Israel on an emergency basis, beyond the $3.8 billion in military aid that the US already commits to Israel yearly.

While establishment politicians on both sides of the aisle have affirmed Israel’s “right to defend itself,” some have gone further, with Democratic Senator John Fetterman saying he “fully [supports] Israel neutralizing the terrorists,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio telling CNN that Hamas “have to be eradicated” even at “horrifying” cost in Gaza, and Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley likewise calling on Netanyahu to “finish them.” “Washington is not merely abdicating official and moral responsibility,” wrote Yousef Munayyer, a senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, “but enabling mass atrocities at a time when all the red flags for genocide are up.” Calls for de-escalation have been few and far between. Only a handful of progressive Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, have urged Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire. Senator Ed Markey was booed at at a pro-Israel rally in Boston when he called for “de-escalation.” Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the State Department Office of Palestinian Affairs each tweeted—and then deleted—their support for military de-escalation. “Opposition to a cease-fire means being in favor of flattening Gaza,” one congressional staffer, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly, told Jewish Currents.

Even fewer politicians have included the context of Israel’s occupation in their statements. Rep. Jamaal Bowman mentioned a need to end Israel’s “blockade of Gaza” in order to “end this deadly violence,” while both Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush suggested that Israeli apartheid helped create the social conditions that made the Hamas attack possible. “As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government,” Tlaib said, “this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.”

What are the material forms of aid the US has offered to Israel?

In his initial statement on October 7th, Biden sought to discourage other countries from jumping into the fray, saying that the US “warns against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation.” The day after the president’s proclamation, the Pentagon underscored its seriousness by directing a group of US Navy warships to the Eastern Mediterranean. NBC News reported that the US naval force was repositioned because the paramilitary arm of the Lebanese political party Hezbollah had just fired a volley of rockets at Israeli military installations in disputed territory near the occupied Golan Heights. The US’s official rationale for the repositioning was to force Hezbollah to stand down, and to deter Iran’s involvement. But the warships—which included an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and four destroyers—have other capabilities. “An aircraft carrier is basically a massive military base in the ocean,” Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security, told Jewish Currents. “If Congress further extends Biden’s authority to engage in hostilities against Hamas or other actors, he’ll have the means to do so.”

The US has also offered other kinds of assistance to Israel, with Department of Defense officials announcing on October 9th that the US is “surging” the delivery of various munitions to Israel, contacting weapons companies to expedite the delivery of pending Israeli orders, and assessing what further munitions can be transferred. On October 10th, the US also sent hostage rescue experts to Israel, and on the same day, President Biden said the US would restock the supply of missiles for Israel’s anti-rocket Iron Dome system.

How have the European Union (EU) and its member states responded?

The EU swiftly condemned the Hamas attack “in the strongest possible terms.” The statement—made on behalf of the 27 member states—said that such attacks “only further increase tensions on the ground and seriously undermine Palestinian people’s aspirations for peace,” and added that Israel has “a right to defend itself in line with international law, in the face of such violent and indiscriminate attacks.” In the days since the attacks, the Israeli flag has been projected onto landmarks across Europe, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and the European Commission building in Brussels.

Dorien Vanden Boer, a policy officer at the Catholic social justice network CIDSE (International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity) ​​who works on Israel/Palestine politics in the EU, said that although the EU has historically “called for restraint when it comes to Israel’s reaction, we are not seeing that now.” This time, the tenor of the statements has been “more extreme because the situation is more extreme.” EU president Ursula von der Leyen and EU parliament president Roberta Metsola have said they support Israel’s right to defend itself, but have “not mentioned Palestinian civilians in Gaza and their need to be protected.” These responses, Vanden Boer said, “give Israel the green light to do whatever they want.”

The European response has also included punitive action against Palestinians. On Sunday, Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, unilaterally announced that he planned to freeze aid to Palestinians in response to the attack. The EU is the biggest donor to the Palestinians, giving $728 million per year. Separately, Germany said that it would review its financial support to the Palestinians, while Denmark and Sweden froze their development aid, and Austria suspended their funding altogether. (Neither the EU nor its member states send aid to Hamas; their recipients include the Palestinian Authority [PA], which governs portions of the West Bank in close coordination with Israel, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East [UNRWA], and other aid organizations.)

Várhelyi’s announcement drew opposition from member states, prompting the EU commission to backtrack on cutting aid on Monday. Vanden Boer noted that Várhelyi has long advocated for making funding to the Palestinians and UNRWA conditional on the removal of anti-Israel content from Palestinian textbooks, and posited that he has “been waiting for a moment” to cut it altogether. “He is [far-right Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán’s man in Brussels, and his position is very much in line with the Israeli government,” Vanden Boer said. She further added that the European response shows that “the EU is a biased actor that sides with Israel,” especially since “there has barely been any reaction to the genocidal discourse coming from officials in the Israeli government, military, and parliament.”

However, in recent days the rising Palestinian death toll has led to more tempered statements. On Tuesday, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell urged “the protection of civilians,” “restraint,” and for the parties to find a “political solution.” In the first direct criticism by a senior EU official of Israel’s conduct since Saturday, he added that “cutting water, cutting electricity, cutting food to a mass of civilian people is against international law.”

What is Hamas, the Palestinian militant political group that led the attacks?

Hamas was founded in Gaza by members of the Muslim Brotherhood—a Sunni Islamist movement whose stated purpose is to free Arab states from Western imperialism—in 1987, against the backdrop of the First Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. As Tareq Baconi, analyst at the International Crisis Group and author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, explained on the Unsettled podcast in 2019, the group’s formation was spurred partly by Palestinians’ discontent with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a resistance movement that had led armed opposition to the Israeli occupation since 1964. By the late ’80s, the PLO’s dominant secular faction, Fatah, had begun to contend with the limits of a militant strategy and was preparing to make certain concessions to Israel—including officially recognizing Israel and endorsing a two-state solution in which Israel would retain sovereignty within its pre-1967 borders. Hamas represented an alternative that promised not to compromise on Palestinian sovereignty over the entire land or to legitimize Israel as a state.

Since its founding, Hamas has administered and supported robust social welfare services like medical centers, schools, and charities across the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, it has continued to engage in armed operations against Israel. During the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, Hamas was the most destructive of the Palestinian groups that carried out suicide bombings in Israel. From that period until Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Baconi says on the podcast, Hamas “believed that the more pain it could inflict on the Israeli public, the more likely [it was that] the Israeli public would pressure their government to let go of the [Palestinian] territories.”

How did Hamas come to hold power in Gaza?

In January 2006, the last time that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA)—the body created to govern Palestinians under the Oslo Accords—held legislative elections, Hamas ran for office for the first time and won 45% of votes among Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, enough to capture a majority of legislative seats. As Baconi writes in Hamas Contained, Hamas’s campaign emphasized Fatah’s corruption and played to widespread frustrations with the failed Oslo peace process. “Support of armed struggle or Hamas’s Islamic ideology did not feature prominently in its electoral platform,” Baconi explains. “Nonetheless, Hamas’s leaders interpreted the movement’s victory as a resounding endorsement of its worldview.”

The election caused international uproar: The US and Israel froze funding they had provided to the PA and refused to recognize any Palestinian government involving Hamas, which the US classified as a terrorist organization. Even as Fatah and Hamas attempted to form a unity government, Israel responded by imposing a land, air, and sea blockade on Gaza, which remains to this day. Eventually, the US helped fund a Fatah coup attempt, which led to an official split in Palestinian leadership in 2007: Fatah regained control of the PA in the West Bank, while Hamas retained power in Gaza.

What has Hamas been doing since the blockade of Gaza began in 2006?

Since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2006, Hamas has operated as the governing authority in Gaza, often facing discontent from Gazans for its authoritarian rule and for failing to ameliorate widespread poverty under Israel’s blockade. Through that time, Hamas has sometimes used rocket fire to exact concessions from Israel relating to the administration of Gaza’s borders, work-permits for Gazan residents, and the adjustment of some terms of the blockade. Israel has frequently reacted to Hamas rocket attacks with bombing campaigns, an approach Israeli strategists have referred to as “mowing the grass,” which, as Jewish Currents reported last year, “describes Israel’s approach to suppressing armed groups in Gaza by periodically waging short military operations that degrade Palestinian militants’ ability to fire at Israel.” From 2008–2009 and in 2014, Israel supplemented such aerial bombardments by sending ground troops into Gaza to destroy Hamas military capabilities. These campaigns against Hamas have killed large numbers of Palestinians; the most deadly was “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, when 2,251 Palestinians—including 1,462 civilians and 551 children—were killed.

Despite engaging in repeated skirmishes with Hamas—and often describing Hamas as a violent threat that justifies Israel’s security apparatus and aggressive military responses—Israeli leaders have sometimes argued that it is in Israel’s interest to strategically support Hamas in order to maintain division among Palestinians. In fact, the former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief David K. Shipler has reported that in the early 1980s Israel offered financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood members who eventually formed Hamas, in the hopes that they would check the power of the PLO, which they viewed as a threat. This dynamic has continued into the present: In March 2019, Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud party’s Knesset members that “anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy—to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank,” Haaretz reported. Since the recent attacks, however, Netanyahu has insisted Hamas was the enemy all along: “We have always known what Hamas is. Now the whole world knows. Hamas is ISIS,” Netanyahu said. “We will defeat [Hamas] precisely as the enlightened world defeated ISIS.”