Brutality of Surprise Attack Unites Israel Around One Goal: Crush Hamas

The nation has come together, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu risks succumbing to the same fate as his predecessor 50 years ago.

(Bloomberg) — The normally bustling streets of Tel Aviv are empty, schools shut, flights canceled and a major gas field closed. Men of all ages are getting called to their reserve units, hundreds of thousands throwing on uniforms. 

Israel is preparing to destroy the Hamas military infrastructure in the Gaza Strip after the horrific attack that killed hundreds of Israelis, most of them civilians. Political divisions, which have driven anti-government protesters into the streets for nine months, have vanished in the face of Hamas’s slaughter at the weekend and fears the conflict could spread to Lebanon.

The opposition is talking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about forming an emergency war government. The protest movement opposing the government’s efforts to weaken the Supreme Court has shifted its focus to raising money and helping families and soldiers in the south, working with authorities they disdained.

Yet how long the country remains galvanized behind what promises to be a grinding campaign lasting months remains in question. While Netanyahu will stay in power, the intelligence and security failures have also shocked the nation. He’s likely to end up paying the political price for it just as Golda Meir did in the 1973 war when Syria and Egypt surprised Israel. She stepped down in disgrace months later. 

Political differences are set aside in times of war, but Netanyahu might be on borrowed time because of the lapse, according to Yoel Esteron, founder and publisher of Israeli business daily Calcalist and a former media and politics lecturer in Tel Aviv.  

“Protests brought Meir down, but only after the war,” Esteron said on Monday. “I think this will happen here. There is a good chance for an emergency unity government. But will it last after the war? I don’t think so.”

Given the nature of the challenges ahead — the campaign against Hamas has started by air but is likely to lead to a ground war — Israelis are focused less now on what went wrong and more on how to proceed. The investigation into why it wasn’t prevented will follow. 

International scrutiny of Israel’s response is already under way. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday that he was concerned by Israeli plans for a retaliatory siege of Gaza, with electricity, fuel and food supplies severed. As of Tuesday, the UN said that some 180,000 people in Gaza were displaced, many of them sheltering in the organization’s facilities.

One reason talk of unity has grown is the fear that the surprise from Hamas will be followed by a similar assault from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are heavily supported by Iran, Israel’s main enemy, and both have thousands of missiles in underground launchers, some long enough range to reach Tel Aviv.

There is a growing concern that if Israel goes all in to Gaza, Hezbollah will take the opportunity to attack from the north. The Biden administration has sent the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier and accompanying war vessels to the Mediterranean to thwart any such possibilities. 

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“The sheer scale and brutality of the attack has unified the entire nation,” said Joshua Hantman, a former government official and now a public relations executive and protest activist. “I have spent the last two days watching videos of kids being kidnapped and of summary executions on the streets of Israel. You don’t forget that in a hurry.”

The attack came on Saturday, the Sabbath and a Jewish holiday. As 2,000 rockets and missiles flew into Israeli cities, setting cars and houses alight, 1,000 fighters from the militant Palestinian group Hamas cut through the border fence, crossed into Israel via paragliders, motorbikes and boats.

Footage showed the scale of the slaughter, including several hundred young people at an outdoor music festival. Those they didn’t kill were grabbed as hostages, according to eyewitnesses speaking to Israeli media.

“They went from house to house,” Danny Fuchs of Kibbutz Beeri, a settlement just east of Gaza, told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Monday. “They went into the bomb shelters and either kidnapped people or killed them. Sometimes they killed everyone. Sometimes they took the children and killed the parents, or the other way around. We have an attic in our home and shut ourselves inside.”

Two days after the attack, there were still a few families marooned inside their homes in southern Israel with Hamas fighters preventing them from leaving. Talk in Tel Aviv is of Hamas fighters finding their way north and hiding in the city. There are some 100 Israelis, from toddlers to elderly women, who’ve been taken into Gaza as hostages. One group, Islamic Jihad, says it’s holding 30 of them until their prisoners held by Israel are released. 

Israel has a long history of protecting its soldiers and civilians when held in enemy hands and returning many prisoners to get them home. But the fury seems so great just now that military analysts say the hostages could become victims of the attack. 

“We should say no to negotiations,” said General Yaakov Amidror, a former National Security Adviser to Netanyahu. “Israel cannot negotiate about them.” A senior Israeli official said on Monday that there were no such discussions under way.

Late Monday, a Hamas spokesman said on broadcaster Al Jazeera that if Israel struck civilian buildings without warning, the group would kill Israeli hostages.

Impoverished Gaza has long been a flashpoint of conflict. Unlike the West Bank, which is overseen by the Palestinian Authority that has negotiated with Israel over a two-state solution, Gaza is run by Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist. That caused difficulty with nations seeking to send aid.

During the 16 years of its control, Hamas initially established a network of charities to tackle poverty and build infrastructure with the backing of countries such as Qatar. It also fought half a dozen major confrontations with Israel, firing thousands of rockets at its towns while the Israeli military has repeatedly bombed the strip and killed thousands.

The plans for taking out the Hamas infrastructure are being presented as ending the possibility the group could ever attack Israel ever. The crowded Gaza Strip will be bombarded; civilian casualties will be extensive.

Already, some 560 Palestinians have been killed. Israel is hitting buildings in populated areas, making it hard for residents to find safety. “Gaza will be under complete closure,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told troops on Monday.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, declined to say if there would be alerts to residents in Gaza before bombing. Responding to a question at a briefing on Monday, he said this is war and Hamas militants who entered Israel on Saturday felt no need to offer a warning. 

Until Saturday, the 73-year-old Netanyahu — although comfortably in power with a ruling majority made up of religious and right-wing parties — was in political trouble for his populist policies, causing the street demonstrations. But he also seemed on the way to possible political redemption, sealing a complex deal with the US and Saudi Arabia for Saudi normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for US security guarantees for Riyadh.

Those talks will be on hold as Israel puts all its efforts into the military campaign. Whether they will then be revived — with or without Netanyahu — is hard to say. Both the US and Saudi Arabia want the deal to proceed. But when the area is aflame in combat, it can’t. 

There will be countervailing pressures from the war with Hamas. If it drags on and many people die, Arab public opinion will make it hard for the Saudi leadership to return to the talks. But if Israel wins relatively quickly, some analysts think that will ultimately help the deal proceed.

Domestically, the government is taking fierce criticism for claiming that it was doing a better job than others at keeping the country safe. Some have said that Netanyahu’s focus on protecting and promoting Jewish settlements in the West Bank led it to base more troops there and not enough near Gaza. 

Like the 1973 war, the failure to anticipate the attack is also viewed as a conceptual one — the widespread belief that the enemy was too timid or deterred to dare attack. In the case of Hamas, its leadership spent the past couple of years giving the impression of seeking to be more of a governing body in Gaza and less of a fighting force. It stayed out of several recent skirmishes between Israel and Islamic Jihad, focusing on job opportunities in Israel for Gazans.

With now a fresh war in the Middle East, it isn’t clear whether Hamas was planning all along to carry out the attack. It may have been inspired only recently to try and block the Saudi deal — which might have left the Palestinians in the cold — and take advantage of internal Israeli divisions.

It’s also not clear how strong an influence Iran had. The Islamic Republic leads the anti-American and anti-Israeli forces in the Middle East and has recently decided to invest effort in supporting the Palestinians, according to Amos Yadlin, a former director of Israeli military intelligence. Iran finances Hezbollah with $1 billion a year and Hamas with $100 million, said Yadlin.

Within Israel, the attack has effectively ended the protest movement for now. Lee Moser, a venture capitalist who volunteers to help run Brothers and Sisters in Arms, an organization with more than 1 million members that led demonstrations, said her group has switched to helping the war effort.

Moser said she raised $10 million in five hours for equipment and supplies, and has many millions more being offered. “We are working with the government and the army,” she said. “Everyone understands that to win this, we need to stick together.”

Politicians across the spectrum are also weighing in. Opposition leader Benny Gantz said on Monday it was time to unite and “emerge victorious.” 

Netanyahu, who has run Israel for longer than any other prime minister and is now in his sixth government, hasn’t yet announced a unity deal. On Tuesday, his coalition partners said they’d agreed to form an emergency administration with the opposition and authorized Netanyahu to do so. The betting is that some version of one will emerge. And equally, that this will be his last. 

–With assistance from Galit Altstein, Adrian Leung, Jin Wu, Christopher Udemans and Samuel Dodge.

(Updates with people displaced in Gaza in eighth paragraph. An earlier version corrected a reference to hostages being killed every hour and a number in the chart.)

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