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Why Hamas attacked a power it knew it couldn't defeat

Bakar Mohamed | Middle East and North Africa Fellow

Left image: Benjamin Netenyahu. Credit: Jolanda Flubacher via Flickr. Right image: Ismail Haniyeh. Credit: Council of the Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation via Wikimedia Commons.


Hamas’ attack on Israel has left many grappling with the motive behind this engagement. Why did Hamas attack a power it knew it could not overpower? Yet, well before the outbreak of the war, the leader of Hamas explicitly provided the answer. Conceptualising the past decade, Hamas leader Ismai’il Haniyeh says in an interview with Al-Jazeera:


“In 2009, victory manifested by a show of unwavering resilience. The year 2012 was characterised by a projected capacity to assail Tel Aviv. The year 2014 witnessed a conflict aimed at shattering the esteemed reputation of the Israeli Army. As for 2021, it was a rehearsal, a prelude to the prospective liberation of the Levant”


This suggests a strategic oversight by Haniyeh over Hamas’ attacks and alludes to two motives for the current attack, one explicit and one subtle. The first is freeing the hostages, and the second involves a broader aspiration - emancipation from Israeli authority and the pursuit of freedom for Palestinians.


A brief history


The Palestine-Israeli conflict has its roots in the early 20th century. The flowchart below summarises the milestones throughout this conflict, conceptualising October 7 as an episodic exacerbation.



Image credit: Article author (Bakar Mohamed)


Important to this piece is the distinction between the two ruling parties of Palestine and the two distinct regions of Palestine. In the West Bank, the secular party ‘Fatah’ currently rules whereas in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, an Islamist political party leads. The October 7 conflict exclusively involved Gaza and Israel.


Image credit: West Bank and Gaza Governotates. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


This difference is crucial because Israel perceives Hamas as the primary threat, unlike Fatah. This is due to Hamas' rejection of the Israeli state and the absence of the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip, contrasting with the West Bank where cooperative ties are maintained


An unsurprising shock


There is no denying the debilitating conditions under which Palestinian civilians were and are living in Gaza. With a population of over 2 million placed under a blockade from the East, and a Southern border that fluctuates between open and closed depending on Egyptian and Israeli terms, the daily life of a Gazan is one of imprisonment, unemployment and poverty. Two-thirds of the population are unemployed, 80 percent live in poverty and leaving the city is a distant possibility. 


Classified by Human Rights Watch as an open-air prison, it would be an understatement to describe the Gazan State as being under existential threat. Consequently, it is no surprise that the Palestinian representatives in Gaza, Hamas, reacted. It is the channel of this reaction that shocked many.


On October 7, Hamas launched a barrage of missiles onto Israeli territory and took hundreds of hostages. This marked a military response to the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the blockade on Gaza and the imprisonment of Palestinians. Importantly, however, Hamas’ motives go beyond a decolonial venture. As described in the Hamas 2017 charter, an Islamic imperative drives their pursuit of freeing the Aqsa mosque, alongside their belief that the modern land of Israel-Palestine is native to the Palestinian people and ought to be returned to them.


Re-defining Victory - How Hamas measures success.


Hamas’ attack was classified by some as unstrategic, naive and counterproductive. A force that does not compare to Israel’s might, their attack was certain to attract a heavy response. But Hamas’ definition of victory is not restricted to overwhelming their opponent militarily. As indicated in the opening quote, Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, categorises all four preceding conflicts with Israel as victories despite substantial losses on the Palestinian side. Consequently, Hamas has two primary reasons for initiating this attack despite facing daunting odds:


1) Necessity: The harsh conditions in Gaza necessitated a rebellion. Despite the chances that this would turn against them, John Mearsheimer, a prominent realist scholar, outlines the Gazan situation as one necessitating rebellion. From a realist’s standpoint which views state actors as rational and primarily motivated by state survival, Hamas was expected to lash back due to the inhumane conditions the people of Gaza were experiencing. The attack was not about overwhelming the enemy. It was a statement to the international community of the inability to tolerate the status quo.

        

2) Freeing Palestinian prisoners: In a 2022 interview, Haniyyeh says:


“Hamas's foremost goal is the release of prisoners, particularly the six (soldiers) currently held. Just as we successfully liberated our detainees in the Gilad Shalit Prisoner Exchange (Wafq Al- Ahrar), we have the capability to achieve this again. If our adversaries doubt our capability, we will compel them to recognize our ability to act.”


This is further evidenced by the immediate call for freeing Palestinian prisoners after Hamas took hundreds of Israeli hostages.


Other reasons have been given for the Hamas attack. A primary attribution is the Saudi-Israeli peace process that was being negotiated at the time. It is argued that Hamas sought to disrupt this normalisation due to its wide-ranging implications. However, this appears a tertiary reason, perhaps influencing the timing of the attack and not the attack itself. Placing this as a primary objective disregards the preparation required for the Hamas attack.


Additionally, narrowing the motive of the attack to one of ‘instigating terrorism’ overlooks the broader context of the Gazan struggle and the challenging conditions its inhabitants endure. It fails to account for the humanity of the Gazans and the underlying factors that led to the creation of Hamas and the cause that they claim to be fighting, one of decolonisation.


Conclusion


In all, Hamas’ attack on Israel, despite facing overwhelming odds, is to be viewed as part of an overall timeline between Palestinian and Israeli clashes. The motives behind October 7 were explicitly disclosed by Hamas leader Haniyeh who referred to the freeing of Palestinian prisoners and a broader objective of Palestinian emancipation. While other factors like the Saudi-Israeli peace process may have played a role, they appear secondary to the overarching goals stated above. But what next? It is expected that this escalation will attract a regress in Arab-Israeli normalisation in addition to lessening Israeli popularity globally.



Bakar Mohamad is the Middle East & North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. Alongside his Master of International relations, Bakar is a content creator on Middle Eastern affairs and has a particular interest in Lebanon.


He recently completed an internship with a political party in Lebanon and is working on developing ties between local Lebanese and the diaspora for study and work exchanges. Bakar has also participated in a New Colombo Plan exchange in South Korea and a Western Sydney University sustainability program in Taiwan.


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