Like pretty much everyone else, I was taken by surprise at the sudden assault launched from Gaza by Hamas forces into Israel. The sheer scale of the attacks, coming from land, sea, and air, was shocking given that Gaza has been described as ‘the world’s largest open-air prison’, with Israel controlling pretty much every aspect of life there, including entrance and exit from the territory. And yet, there it was, and Hamas even managed to capture Israeli soldiers and tanks and civilians to hold as hostages.
While before Hamas was able to periodically launch small-scale attacks, the idea that they could do this on such a large scale and take Israel completely by surprise has caused consternation within Israeli political and military circles as to how there could have been such a failure of intelligence, given that it was believed that the highly-thought-of Israeli intelligence services had deeply infiltrated Hamas and Gaza society and thus should have had at least some inkling of these plans, since there were thousands of Hamas fighters involved.
Then there is the question of what Hamas hopes to gain by this attack. Their leaders must have known that they are no match for Israel’s military and that Israel would unleash massive retaliatory attacks that would seek out and destroy Hamas fighters, however many civilians may get in the way, and destroy whatever meagre infrastructure there is, making the lives of Gazan residents even more miserable than what it already is. So what was the point?
In trying to interpret surprising political events, one reaches for historical analogies and my first reaction when I heard this news on Saturday morning was to recall the Tet offensive that took place all over South Vietnam in January 1968. It was launched by the National Liberation Front where its cadres that had been embedded among the South Vietnamese population suddenly came out into the open and attacked US and South Vietnamese government forces and buildings, even in the heart of Saigon. The attack took place on a holiday in the country when defenses were not on alert, just like this one took place reportedly during a holiday in Israel..
The NLF and the North Vietnamese did not expect this one assault to expel the US forces and bring down their puppet South Vietnamese government. Indeed, militarily, the Tet offensive could be construed as a defeat since many of their secret cadres had been exposed and killed or captured. But that did not seem to be the main effect of the offensive. What it achieved was psychological, destroying the impression that the US government had been presenting that they were on the way to ‘winning’ the war (though what victory meant was never clearly defined) and the commander of US forces General Westmoreland kept saying that he only needed a few hundred thousand more troops to finish the job. After Tet, that view was no longer believed and the political classes in the US began to realize that the war was unwinnable by any standard and what was needed was to find a way out of the quagmire. It also led to Lyndon Johnson, deeply identified with the highly unpopular war, deciding to not run for re-election and to begin the process of withdrawing troops. So the Tet offensive achieved important political goals even if it did not achieve significant military ones.
So perhaps the goal of Hamas is similar, to inflict a psychological defeat on Israel, showing that the extent of their military dominance was much less than was thought and that the sense of security felt by Israelis was illusory. There have already been calls within Israel for explanations for what is being referred to to as one of the most colossal failures of intelligence.
All historical analogies have limits and so it is in this case. There is no chance that Hamas can wear Israel out, the way the NLF and the North Vietnamese army could hope to do with the US and expel them from the country. Another complication is the large number of hostages (estimated at around one hundred) that have been captured by Hamas. The typical Israeli response to any attack is to use disproportionate force but in this case that will risk the lives of the hostages so there is no telling what will happen.
What we can be sure of is that there is going to be a lot of death and destruction, at least in the near term.