The Simchat Torah War

The Simchat Torah War

Hamas’ attack on Israel is a watershed moment not only for the Middle East but also for the rest of the world.

 

In early August, I visited Kfar Aza—a kibbutz in southern Israel only two kilometers from the Gaza Strip. This is a community where residents have mere seconds to seek refuge once loudspeakers go off, signaling an imminent Hamas rocket or mortar attack. One of these residents, Chen Kotler Abrahams, invited my colleagues and me to her home, served lemonade, and pulled out body-height remnants of these rockets for us to see. Despite the grim conversation, life in Kfar Aza appeared fairly normal: children played in groups, adults gardened, and the like.

As of the time of this writing, there is a chance that many of the people I met are dead.

 

As many recall, Israel was caught off-guard fifty years ago during one of its holiest days, Yom Kippur. The war that followed was one of the hardest fought in Israel’s history, with repercussions that still shape the Middle East today. Half a century later, history has a grim way of rhyming, if not repeating. Today, on the holiday of Simchat Torah, as Jews worldwide were completing the annual reading of the Torah and dancing in celebration, Hamas launched an unprecedented and massive surprise attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip.

This operation has sent shockwaves around the world. This isn’t just another episode in the Israel-Hamas conflict or a bold attack by terrorists; it is a watershed moment that might reshape the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape.

Yom Kippur War Redux

The situation is still unfolding, but developments thus far have been shocking. Hamas fired over 5,000 rockets, overwhelming Israel’s Iron Dome system. Multiple Israeli communities near the Gaza border, including two military bases (Re’im and Kerem Shalom), faced not only the terror of rocket fire but also on-the-ground incursions. Dozens of Israeli civilians have been killed in their homes and communities, with graphic recordings of these heinous acts circulating on social media as gruesome propaganda. Meanwhile, an undetermined number of Israeli civilians and soldiers—including, supposedly, an Israeli general—have been kidnapped and reportedly taken back to Gaza, amplifying the atmosphere of terror. That this attack came on a Jewish religious holiday devoted to celebrating the Torah—a vital part of the Jewish connection to God and, by extension, their historical connection to the land of Israel—makes it more than a military maneuver; it’s a symbolic gesture.

Yet, unlike the Yom Kippur War, which was a conventional conflict involving state actors, this Simchat Torah offensive is marked by the asymmetric warfare that has come to define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years: Hamas fighters taking off from Gaza in paragliders and descending onto Israeli settlements, drones dropping bombs on vehicles and guard posts, and more.

Why now? Why on this particular day?

The answer lies in the realm of geopolitics. Hamas’ attack, besides its obvious goal of inflicting pain on Israel, aims to “veto” the budding rapprochement between Israel and other Muslim Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Though in its nascent stages, the recent thawing of relations between the countries is a monumental shift in Middle Eastern geopolitics. For decades, the prevailing trend set Israel and the Arab states on opposing fronts. But shared concerns, especially about the United States’ military drawdown from the region and Iran’s growing influence, have made former adversaries reconsider their stances.

For Hamas itself, the assault is due to a variety of reasons. The group has long positioned itself as the uncompromising vanguard of the Palestinian cause but has seen its legitimacy questioned and regional influence wane in recent years. Moreover, any hint of normalization between Israel and Arab states is regarded as a betrayal and a death knell for the Palestinian cause. By launching this brazen, massive attack and taking numerous hostages, Hamas has not only proven its resilience and competence as a fighting organization and put its political rival, the Palestinian Authority, on the back foot, but also it has placed Arab states under the spotlight—especially if Israel launches massive retaliatory attacks. Moreover, the 1973 conflict holds an iconic status in the Arab psyche. It is seen as a moment when Arab forces, even if momentarily, regained their dignity against the Israeli military might. By choosing this symbolic date, Hamas aims to rally the wider Arab world around its cause, invoking memories of past glories.

There’s another layer to this strategy. By striking on Simchat Torah, Hamas seeks to challenge the spiritual narrative of the Jewish state. They aimed not just at bodies but at souls, attempting to dampen the spirit of a people celebrating their divine covenant. This act reveals the deep-seated ideological battle at play.

Moves and Countermoves

As Israel begins its retaliation and the search for its kidnapped citizens, there’s a realization that the Middle East stands at the cusp of another potential large-scale conflict. In a move that underscores the gravity of the situation, Israel has authorized a massive counterattack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a televised address to the nation, declared, “Citizens of Israel, we are at war. Not an operation, not a round [of fighting], at war!” The country’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, has stated, “We will change reality on the ground in Gaza for the next fifty years. What was before, will be no more. We will operate at full force.” The gloves may be coming all the way off.

For years, Israel has hesitated from launching a full-scale operation to take Gaza, primarily due to the sheer military cost, the international repercussions, and the humanitarian concerns such an assault might trigger. But the scale and audacity of the recent attack may have shifted the calculus in Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s coalition government, composed of hard right elements, will not accept anything less than the destruction of Hamas. Moreover, Israel’s political and military establishment now feels pressured to restore its reputation and prestige. The scale and audacity of Hamas’ operation raise alarming questions about the massive intelligence failure by Israel and, to some extent, the United States. For an operation of this magnitude, planning would have spanned weeks, if not months. How was it that the Israeli defense establishment missed the brewing storm on their doorstep?

At the same time, any actions Israel takes must take into account the protection of the diplomatic gains; winning the immediate war will not amount to much in the long run if Israel is once again left isolated in the region with an Iran that is growing ever stronger.

The Arab world, particularly the governments of the Gulf states that have pursued improved ties with Israel, is in a tricky situation. At present, the Gulf states have called for de-escalation (the UAE), restraint (Oman), or blamed the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar). This response must be understood in a broader context; if Israel’s past responses to Hamas attacks are any guide, then the Israeli response will be great and terrible, with casualties in thousands, if not greater. Urban warfare, particularly in a densely populated area like Gaza, is fraught with difficulties. Civilian casualties are practically impossible to avoid in such circumstances, especially if they—along with any kidnapped Israelis—are used as human shields by Hamas. Gulf states would be hardpressed by domestic politics to respond to the deaths of so many fellow Arab Muslims.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, is in a precarious position. Riyadh’s recent overtures for Israel have been driven by mutual concerns over Iran, along with a desire to access Israeli technology. A stable relationship with Israel could serve as a bulwark against Tehran’s regional ambitions. But the Kingdom, with its deep-seated historical support for the Palestinian cause, will find it challenging to navigate the currents without alienating its populace.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies are “assessing” the situation and testing boundaries. If Israel appears weak, then there is a strong chance these groups will also attack Israel via Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Syria. This would create a second front for Israeli forces and possibly set off a broader regional war.

Israel’s operation presents a double-edged sword for the Palestinian Authority, which has been losing its grip on power and influence to Hamas. On one hand, the weakening or removal of Hamas could restore the PA’s primacy in Palestinian politics. On the other, any large-scale humanitarian crisis in Gaza resulting from the Israeli incursion will undoubtedly stoke anti-Israel sentiments, making its own situation all the more challenging.

The United States, traditionally Israel’s staunch ally, is also in a precarious situation. That Washington also didn’t see this attack coming speaks ill of its intelligence capabilities, especially in signals intelligence. The Biden administration will find itself under fire. Only mere days ago, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan argued that “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades now.” On the same day, Semafor revealed that Iran built a significant influence network that reached deep into the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. Finally, the administration’s decision to release $6 billion to Iran in exchange for five American hostages hostage will only face harsher criticism in the coming days; it is not unlikely that some of that money funded or otherwise supported Hamas’ current operation. Pressure to support Israel will be immense, complicating an already delicate situation with a public already tired of supporting conflicts abroad.