Israeli soldiers stand next to the bodies of Israelis killed by Hamas militants in Kibbutz K’far Azza on October 10th, 2023.
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. On October 9th, Israel cut off Gazans’ access to food, electricity, gas, and water, and on October 13th ordered the residents in the northern half of the Strip—more than one million people—to evacuate to the south immediately. Human rights organizations and experts have now referred to the situation in Gaza as a genocide, with large numbers at risk of dying from dehydration or starvation as well as continuing airstrikes. A ground invasion of Gaza appears imminent.
In response to these unprecedented developing events, Jewish Currents solicited questions from our readers and answered them on a rolling basis over the week following October 7th. This explainer is no longer being updated as we pivot to other kinds of coverage; portions of the piece were last updated on Monday, October 16th.
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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.
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 Friday afternoon, the death toll in the Gaza Strip has risen to 1,799, including 583 children.
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 340,000 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.
On October 12th, Human Rights Watch verified that Israel has used white phosphorus in Gaza and Lebanon, which violates international humanitarian law. The weapon has “a significant incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire,” according to the group. The Israeli army denied the allegations as “unequivocally false.”
On the morning of October 13th, Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians—half the population of Gaza—to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip in preparation for its imminent ground invasion of the enclave. “Hamas terrorists are hiding in Gaza City inside tunnels underneath houses and inside buildings populated with innocent Gazan civilians,” the Israeli army said. The order also asked United Nations personnel to leave. A UN spokesperson urged Israel not to push ahead with the plan, which they said would have “devastating humanitarian consequences.” Multiple human rights organizations have echoed that Israel’s attempt to bisect the most densely populated place on earth—along with its hermetic closure of the Strip—will lead to catastrophic results, especially given the food and fuel scarcity, overburdened healthcare system, destroyed roads, and continued airstrikes. Palestinians in Gaza also worry about whether they will be able to return. “I fell asleep in 2023 and woke up in 1948. We are re-experiencing a new Nakba. The same scene, crowds walking without knowing where to go. We are already refugees,” reads a testimony from a staff member from the Gaza-based human rights group Al-Mezan. Hamas has called Israel’s warning a ploy of “psychological warfare” and asked Gazans not to leave, but there is already a mass exodus of Palestinians to the south.
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. Yet such opposition has continued even as the death toll in Gaza has escalated: In an October 13th message sent to US diplomats working on the Middle East, State Department officials said the department does not want press materials to include three phrases: “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm,” according to a HuffPost report. The Biden administration has also attacked the few members of Congress who have called for de-escalation. On October 11th, a reporter asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about the administration’s response to the few lawmakers who had pressed for a ceasefire now. Jean-Pierre said their comments were “wrong,” “repugnant,” and “disgraceful.”
A handful of 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.”
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.
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 two later announced that they would visit Israel on Friday “to express solidarity with the victims of the Hamas terrorist attack, and meet with Israeli leadership.”
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. Germany, Denmark, and Sweden also 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.”
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, 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.”
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.
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.”
On October 11th, Gaza’s sole power plant ran out of fuel. “Gaza is currently without power,” the head of the Gaza power authority told CNN.
Before Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza in response to this weekend’s attacks, the coastal enclave had two sources of electricity. The power plant, which supplies about a third of Gaza’s electricity, runs on fuel purchased by Qatar and donated to Gaza, and enters the territory through the Kerem Shalom crossing, which is controlled by Israel. Gaza also receives electricity that is purchased from Israel’s state-run power company by the Palestinian Authority—which runs parts of the West Bank—and sent into the strip via power lines. Together, these sources usually supply Gazans with about eight hours of power per day, which is “nowhere near enough,” according to Miriam Marmur, director of public advocacy for Gisha, an Israeli human rights group focusing on Gaza.
The dwindling supply of electricity is a result of Israel’s response to the October 7th Hamas attack. On October 9th, Israel shut the Kerem Shalom crossing, blocking the entry of fuel for the plant, as part of its overall closure of the strip in response to the militant onslaught. The next day, Gisha warned that the enclave’s power lines were not functioning “after apparently being damaged by rocket fire [coming] from the Strip.” Even if the power lines are repaired, Israeli officials have said the state-run company will no longer supply Gaza with electricity, a form of collective punishment that observers have noted could constitute a war crime.
So far, the strip has not gone entirely dark. Some Palestinians with the financial means, as well as institutions such as hospitals, have stockpiled privately purchased fuel to power generators. That fuel comes through the Salah al-Din gate, a commercial crossing between Egypt and Gaza, as well as Kerem Shalom. Egypt closed the gate on October 10th “due to the threat to the safety of civilians and workers at the crossings posed by Israeli bombardments,” according to Gisha. Even if Salah al-Din opens for the entry of fuel in the coming days, “the supply would likely not be enough for operating the plant as well as ambulances and generators,” Gisha said.
Human rights advocates warn that the tightening of the blockade will have catastrophic consequences for the functioning of hospitals and clinics. “Gaza will have a total blackout. Hospitals and medical facilities cannot function without power, meaning the threat to human life is greatly increased,” Marmur told Jewish Currents. Dr. Muhammad Abu Salima, the director of Al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest medical center, said the shutoff of electricity will lead to mass death. “If electricity stops, our hospitals will become nothing but mass graves,” he told The New York Times. The lack of power also impacts Gaza’s water supply. In a statement published on October 11th, Gisha reported that, even before the shutdown of the power plant, electricity shortages had “led to the stopping of operations at numerous desalination facilities as well as wastewater treatment plants,” leading to “a lack of drinking water for the population” and “the inability to pump water to homes, and to pump sewage away from homes and for treatment.”
“Israel’s decision to cut the supply of water, electricity, food, medicine and other goods to Gaza are cruel, illegal acts of retaliation,” said Marmur. “There is a very immediate risk of an unspeakable, unprecedented level of disaster and catastrophe in the strip.”
Many have argued that Hamas’s past and present attacks on Israel are motivated primarily by a hatred of Jews. On October 9th, The Jerusalem Post editorial board expressed this sentiment in a piece claiming that “Hamas doesn’t need an excuse to harm Israel and murder Israelis” because “the massacre of Jews” is “in its DNA.”
However, some experts say that focusing on antisemitism as the motivating factor of Hamas’s attacks is misguided. “We have to ask ourselves, what is the cause of Hamas military actions?” Omer Bar-Tov, a professor of the Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, told Jewish Currents. “Is it simply that Palestinians want to kill Jews wherever they are? Or does it have to do with Israeli policies?” Bar-Tov pointed to Israel’s 16-year siege of Gaza as the central motivator of the Hamas attacks. In an interview with Jewish Currents, Hamas scholar Tareq Baconi agreed, saying that it is important to “push back against any effort to try to suggest this was driven by antisemitism, because doing that also completely erases any motivation that imprisoned people might have in breaking out of their prison.” He argued that Hamas’s recent attack “isn’t driven by hatred and bloodlust,” but rather “by a regime of oppression that has held 2 million Palestinians captive for 16 years and was ready to continue to do that indefinitely.”
Discussions about Hamas and antisemitism typically refer to its notorious founding charter, which conflates Judaism with Zionism, repeatedly using the word “Jews” to describe Israel. The 1988 document also uses antisemitic tropes of Jewish global control, including a specific reference to the early-20th-century antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and posits killing Jews as a Muslim religious obligation. While Hamas has never officially repudiated that original charter—perhaps because, as Baconi told the Unsettled podcast in 2019, doing so would appear to be a concession—in 2017 it released a new political document that “affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion” and mentions “anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews,” which it describes as “phenomena fundamentally linked to European history.” And after conducting interviews with Hamas leaders located throughout the occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora, Baconi found that many of them do distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. “I very much sympathize with and understand the worries that Jews or non-Jews have about the charter. But I do think that the charter isn’t representative of Hamas’s political thinking today,” he said on the 2019 podcast.
Since Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2006, its leadership has been controversial among Palestinians. The party is repressive, harshly punishing dissent and enforcing a religiously conservative social order. “I’ve seen how those who have political power in Gaza are fighting to control every aspect of our lives there, and only fueling hatred,” the Gazan photographer Jehad al-Seftawi said in a 2021 interview in Jewish Currents. “And they are especially opposed to any forms of dissent or calls for change.” Hamas faces frequent protests from Gazans over the widespread poverty and regular power outages in the territory. This is partly because “a lot of times Hamas’s governance gets deprioritized for military goals, either to build military infrastructure or to engage in escalations with Israel, which [cost] lives in Gaza,” Hamas scholar Tareq Baconi told Jewish Currents.
Yet many Palestinians see Hamas as their best hope for resistance to the Israeli occupation—especially compared to Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank and is often seen as a corrupt participant in administering the occupation. “Hamas is the only military power that is organized in a way that can get actual concessions from Israel,” Baconi said. “Hamas occupies this unusual space of not always necessarily being ideologically appreciated by Palestinians, but at the same time, providing a model of resistance that has advanced certain protections for the Palestinian people.” For instance, in ceasefire agreements in response to Hamas rocket fire, Israel has at times agreed to lessen blockade restrictions and provide more work permits for Gazans; in 2011, Hamas won the release of more than 1,000 prisoners after Israel agreed to a swap for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
Since 2021, Hamas has especially emphasized that it sees itself as a protector of the Palestinian people, rather than just residents of Gaza. In May of that year, it launched rocket attacks on Israel in response to attempts to evict Palestinians in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and Israeli police violence against Al-Aqsa mosque worshippers. “Hamas was successful in linking the suffering in Gaza and the suffering in Jerusalem,” said Imad Alsoos, a scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. “It was a turning point for Hamas popular support.” Still, that shift does not seem to have translated to resounding support for Hamas’s governance. In a poll of 1,270 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in September by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 27% said they believe that Hamas is the most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people today, while 24% said that description applies to Fatah. However, the plurality—44%—said they believe both parties are “unworthy of representation and leadership.” Indeed, such polls consistently show that Palestinians, who have not had national elections to vote in since 2006, are frustrated with their available political leadership.
Historically, Baconi said, Palestinians have had significant disagreements over armed resistance and the targeting of civilians, especially during Hamas and other groups’ suicide bombings amidst the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Since then, however, these discussions have often been deferred due to Hamas’s relative incapacity, in part due to the blockade. “[Hamas] hasn’t been in a situation where you can even get to Israeli Jewish civilians,” he said. It could launch rocket fire, which Baconi called “indiscriminate and obviously a war crime,” but that “wasn’t as powerful.” He believes that Hamas’s October 7th attacks are likely to bring Palestinian debates about these tactics back to the forefront. “Given the scale of this offensive and how gruesome these atrocities are, I would imagine that it would be impossible to ignore it,” he said.
Hamas’s October 7th attack and Israel’s subsequent bombing of Gaza have unfolded against the backdrop of an ongoing process of normalization between Israel and nearby Arab states. Since 2007, the 22 Arab countries that make up the Arab League have maintained that they would not normalize relations with Israel until it ends its occupation and allows the establishment of a Palestinian state. In recent years, however, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Bahrain have established official diplomatic relations with Israel under the guidance of US negotiators, and in the past few months, Biden administration officials have pushed Saudi Arabia to do the same. Such a pact would be a major win for Israel because it would mean the most influential Muslim country in the world recognizing the Jewish state even as it maintains its decades-long military occupation of Palestinian land. Though US officials have been cautious in their statements about an agreement, in the past few weeks both Saudi and Israeli leadership have stoked speculation that a deal was imminent. On September 20th, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that “every day,” his country was getting “closer” to striking a deal with Israel; two days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations that his country was “at the cusp” of an agreement.
But the war in Gaza has dampened these expectations, partly because Israel and the US are now focused on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, but also because of the way this military assault is likely to shift the Saudi political calculus. “The Palestinian issue will now be much more central,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute who focuses on Gulf Arab states. “The Saudis cannot be seen as going against the Palestinian interest at a time like this.” After the Hamas attack, the Saudi Foreign Ministry did not condemn the Islamist group, and instead warned “about the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation,” angering US lawmakers keen on securing Saudi–Israeli normalization. However, Coates Ulrichsen predicted that such a deal will still happen eventually, if only once the crown prince’s 87-year-old father King Salman—a longtime proponent of the Palestinian cause—has died or is otherwise unable to obstruct such a deal.
The events following October 7th have also put a strain on the relationships forged under existing normalization deals between Israel and Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, better known as the 2020 Abraham Accords. “As the devastation in Gaza escalates, there will likely be more public outpourings of support for the Palestinians in the Arab and wider Muslim worlds,” said Daniel Levy, president of US / Middle East Project, adding that such solidarity “may place some of the already normalized countries in an uncomfortable position.” Yousef Munayyer, a senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, said that while “these are autocratic regimes who don’t care very much for the rights of their own people, let alone the Palestinians,” they “have to manage public sentiment.” “The longer this goes on,” he said, “the harder it’s going to be for these countries to maintain relations with Israel.” But others doubt that the war will ultimately threaten the Abraham Accords. Coates Ulrichsen noted that these agreements “have already survived several rounds of fighting” between Israel and Palestinian militant groups, and that these countries have continued to pursue economic and military relations, even if their political relationships have suffered because of Israel’s far-right government.
Even if the Abraham Accords survive this round of conflict, Munayyer said that the war in Gaza has disrupted the US view that the Abraham Accords, and normalization more broadly, can bring calm to the region. “The approach by Biden administration officials was to assume that they can achieve peace and stability while ignoring the issue of Palestine altogether,” he said. “That has now been exposed as patently absurd.”
The events of October 7th have been considered a resounding failure for Israel’s security establishment—and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A survey published on Thursday by Dialogue Institute, led by one of Israel’s leading pollsters Camil Fuchs, found that 84% of Israelis hold Netanyahu and his government responsible for the Hamas incursion, including 79% of those who voted for the current government.
Mairav Zonszein, an analyst on Israel/Palestine at International Crisis Group, told Jewish Currents that public opinion in Israel is “palpably against Netanyahu” in a way that extends beyond partisan lines. Left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz called for the prime minister’s immediate resignation in its first editorial after the massacre, and even Netanyahu loyalist Channel 14 has featured victims’ families erupting in outrage at him. “He’s seen as unfit to continue to lead,” Zonszein said.
Before October 7th, Israel was already deeply polarized over the Netanyahu government’s plan to gut the country’s judiciary, with protests involving hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking place each week. Those protests have now been put on hold. At the time of the protests, politicians outside Netanyahu’s ruling coalition were also expressing their discontent with his government, with former defense minister Benny Gantz labeling Netanyahu untrustworthy and unfit for office just a month ago. But Gantz—an ex-army chief who boasted about bombing Gaza “back to the stone age” during his 2019 campaign for prime minister—announced on Wednesday that his party would join an emergency wartime government with Netanyahu, a shift meant to signal to the Israeli public that the war effort is in steadier hands. Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition, has also offered to join the temporary coalition, although he has conditioned his entry on the removal of far-right politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich from their posts—something Netanyahu has not consented to.
Since October 7th, the worst excesses of the violence have been weaponized in the war for public opinion. While new details are still coming to light, it is already clear that Hamas militants committed atrocities including killing women and children and taking others hostage during the massacre. However, another claim that has been widely circulated around social media—and was eventually reported by CNN, and featured on the front page of several British and American newspapers—is that Hamas “beheaded babies.” The story originates from Nicole Zedeck, a journalist at i24, who reported from Kfar Azza that Israeli soldiers told her they saw babies with their “heads cut off.” In another part of the news segment, a deputy IDF commander, David Ben Zion, said that Hamas “chopped the heads of children and women.” On Wednesday, Yossi Landau, the head of operations at Israel’s voluntary emergency response group, Zaka, told CBS that he had “personally” seen adults, children, and babies that had been beheaded. Foreign correspondents from several newspapers, however, including The Guardian and The Independent, as well as other Israeli journalists on the ground, said that reports that babies were beheaded were not verified. On Wednesday, the White House walked back an earlier comment in which US President Joe Biden said that he had seen images of “beheaded children”; a spokesperson clarified that the president had heard about such images from the Israeli government, but had not in fact seen them or independently confirmed their existence. On October 12th, CNN’s Sara Sidner apologized for reporting that Netanyahu’s office had confirmed the allegation. “I need to be more careful with my words and I am sorry,” she wrote on X. That same day, Netanyahu shared images of the attacks’ aftermath with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other NATO leaders during their visit to Israel; Blinken said that he saw pictures of “soldiers beheaded.”
As of Wednesday morning, the initial report from Zedeck had about 44 million impressions, 300,000 likes, and 100,000 reposts, according to digital mapping by Marc Owen Jones, a research fellow at DAWN who focuses on digital authoritarianism. The two main accounts that boosted the posts belonged to i24 and the Israeli government itself, despite the IDF refusing on several occasions to confirm that babies were beheaded. (Israel has deliberately peddled disinformation in the past, explains Mona Shtaya, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.) When Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli forces in 2021, for example, an Israeli military spokesperson claimed she was killed by Palestinian gunmen.) The decision to boost the images, Jones told Jewish Currents, fits the narrative that Israel’s social media accounts have been pushing: “They wanted everybody to retweet this banner that equates Hamas with ISIS.” Jones argues that the unverified reports serve to “rally public support for Israel, which means fewer questions about collateral damage in Gaza.”
Another unverified claim is that Hamas militants raped Israeli women during the incursion. The American Jewish magazine Tablet was the first to publish what it claimed was an eyewitness account of rape on October 8th, citing only a single, unnamed source; its story was soon picked up by the British Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle. Separately, prominent pro-Israel influencers such as Noa Tishby and Yoseph Haddad circulated the allegation on social media. It was since cited as fact by The LA Times, but the newspaper later published a retraction, stating that the reports “have not been substantiated.”
On October 10th, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated the allegation in his phone call with US President Joe Biden, who in turn said that “women [were] raped, assaulted, paraded as trophies” in his condemnation of Hamas. On the same day, an Israeli official confirmed to MSNBC that women were raped, and one survivor from the musical festival attack, Raz Cohen, told PBS that “the terrorists, the people from Gaza, raped girls. And after they raped them, they killed them, murdered them with knives, or the opposite, killed [them] and after, they raped.” At this point, no mainstream Israeli media outlet has reported that rapes occurred.
Other videos of a limp female body on the back of a pick-up truck and a bloodied woman being bundled into the trunk of a car, which have both been verified as real, have also been circulated as proof of sexual violence; the latter was shared by Israel on its X account. The facts of what happened to the women in the videos are still emerging, however. The woman in the first video, who was identified as Shani Louk, a 22-year-old German Israeli citizen, was initially presumed to be dead. Her father has since said that she is alive and in hospital in critical condition in the Gaza Strip.
Some of the videos that have circulated online have been exposed as fake; a number have been spread by international groups with a clear anti-Muslim agenda. Ashlea Simon, the chairman from the far-right nativist party Britain First, shared a video on X of toddlers in cages with the caption: “This is barbaric but what do you expect from savages.” The video gained over 2.2 million views, even though the original TikTok video predates October 7th, according to FakeReporter, an Israeli group that monitors disinformation. Neri Kraus, a reporter for Channel 13 in Israel, has claimed that a pregnant woman was cut open by members of Hamas and her fetus removed from her body. So far, this claim has not been substantiated, but has been promulgated online, in large part by Hindu nationalists. One Indian journalist repeated the claim to over 6.3 million viewers, while another self-described “Hindu rights activist” received over 500,000 impressions when he shared it on his account. Jones notes that in the past, Hindu nationalists have been quick to amplify cases “where they can highlight Muslim violence.”
New facts and testimonies continue to emerge, and accounts that haven’t been confirmed may yet turn out to be true. But Jones warned that the circulation of unverified stories will only feed peoples’ preconceived narratives and bolster their skepticism toward facts that challenge them—even if those facts turn out to be true. “The rapid dissemination of information with questionable or limited sourcing—even if it might later turn out to be true—will just confound efforts to try and debunk it,” he said, in part because people who see a false story may not end up being exposed to a later, accurate one. “If people find information that confirms their own bias, it’s very hard to change their minds. It undermines the credibility of good reporting, and that’s a real problem.”