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Why Hamas Launched A War It Knows It's Bound To Lose

Hamas has launched an unprecedented attack against Israel, killing at least 700, mostly civilians, and taking scores of hostages. Even if the Islamist group has always made clear it sought Israel's destruction, the questions loom as to why now, and how it managed to pierce the enemy's defenses.

Photo of a man sitting down next to bodies wrapped in white bags

Man sitting next to bodies wrapped in white cloth in Jabalia, Gaza, on October 9, 2023.

Stefano Stefanini

Updated October 9, 2023 at 6:15 p.m.


With a surprise attack by land, sea and air, Hamas has opened a new bloody chapter in the Palestinian armed confrontation against Israel. Saturday morning's offensive is unprecedented in its means, breadth and immediate ability to inflict massive loss of life of civilians on Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu is not overstating it to say Israel has now fully entered a war against Hamas. The Prime Minister's "we are at war" serves to call up almost half a million reservists and to mobilize Israeli society, to emphasize the state of emergency that is in the DNA of the Jewish State. It is also a simple statement of fact.

The Hamas leader declared the start of "Operation Al-Aqsa Flood" — referring to great mosque that stands on the disputed Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Yet this conflict has begun as a border war, or guerrilla war, with terrorist tactics in the attacks against villages, far from Al-Aqsa, or the Holy City.

Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif appears to have borrowed the euphemism "operation" from Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Vocabulary aside, the question is "why now?" There’s never been the slightest doubt about Hamas's desire to wage war on Israel, just as there is no doubt about the impossibility for Hamas to win it. For nearly 20 years, since Hamas took power in Gaza by force, ousting the Palestinian Authority, there has been an armed truce broken by recurring attacks on Israel with volleys of rockets that have mostly failed thanks to the Israeli Defense Force’s anti-air Iron Dome system, as well as the inevitably massive Israeli response with bombardments on Gaza, always followed by a new truce negotiated by Egyptian or Qatari or some other mediation from the Arab world.

No easy solutions

This same script probably remains the only one available to put an end to the war that began Saturday, but this time it becomes far more difficult, and the bloodshed will almost certainly be longer. For this time the Hamas attack hit Israel to the core, causing, according to initial estimates, more than 700 killed, mostly civilians, a very heavy toll especially for the Israeli psyche. Apart from isolated terrorist attacks, Israel has not been exposed to internal vulnerability to enemy war offensives since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, exactly 50 years ago. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Hamas attacked the day after the anniversary of that war (evidently waiting for Saturday to coincide with the Jewish Shabbat) .

Before accepting any truce, Israel will want to ensure that Hamas is unable to repeat such an attack. There are no easy solutions. To disarm the Palestinian military group, it would be necessary to reoccupy Gaza, which would entail enormous risks and drain major resources.

What also sets the attack apart is the unexpected military capacity demonstrated by Hamas.

From the outside, no one will rush to back Hamas apart from Iran, from which it immediately received a message of support Saturday. The most likely scenario is Israel’s systematic destruction of capabilities and infrastructure, which will require a relatively long war that will mean a heavy toll on Palestinian civilians and ultimately the likelihood that the Israel army enters Gaza with ground troops to engage in lethal urban warfare, a scenario that Israel has long avoided.

What also sets Saturday’s attack apart is the unexpected military capacity demonstrated by Hamas; with the infiltration of its fighters into seven locations along the entire perimeter thought to be sufficiently fortified and protected — though only near the border and the Erez crossing. The incursions were accompanied by the launch of more than 2,000 rockets. We do not know whether Israel was aware of this threat or whether there was a major lapse in intelligence.

photo of soldiers near a car

Israeli officers secure an area in the border town of Sderot following the attacks of Hamas.

Ilia Yefimovich/dpa via ZUMA

The Saudi factor

Netanyahu has always worried more about Iran than Hamas, or Hezbollah, the other non-state or quasi-state threat, based across Israel’s northern border in Lebanon.

But what we’ve learned now is that Hamas has a military-terrorist option that it will not want to give up; if decimated by the Israeli retaliation, it will want to rebuild it.Still, Hamas knows very well that it cannot win the war it has started. Deadly as they were, Saturday's attacks are pinpricks in the face of the Israeli state; and Israel’s response will be far more destructive.

The answer to ‘Why now?’ must be sought rather in the broader Middle Eastern political framework.

The military-terrorist option is an utter and dramatic dead end. Why use it now, sure to suffer the inevitable retaliation? It is difficult to enter the minds of Hamas leaders who have evoked the frustrations of the long Israeli blockade of Gaza, also thanks to Egypt. It so happens that the attack occurred a week after Israel had reopened the gates, also allowing several thousand Palestinians from Gaza to return to work in Israel. It was a small sign of détente mediated by Qatar that is now a moot point.

The answer to ‘Why now?’ must be sought rather in the broader Middle Eastern political framework. U.S. diplomacy, and President Joe Biden himself, have been fully engaged in attempting to achieve a historic normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Informal relations have already become more than cordial, including the Israeli Tourism Minister’s recent visit to Riyadh.

Yet a formal agreement between Saudis and Israelis requires the initiation of a solution to the Palestinian question. With the war that started Saturday, Hamas put a major wrench in the entire process. The path of Middle East diplomacy now becomes doubly complicated: to secure Israel's total defense against Hamas terrorism, while completing the rapprochement between Riyadh and Jerusalem.

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