Even in the wretched history of terrorism, the assault that Hamas carried out in Israel on October 7 stands out. Hamas fighters viciously murdered more than 1,300 Israeli citizens, including elderly people, toddlers, and babies. It was an act of intimate barbarism that revealed a total lack of moral restraint and evoked memories of the Holocaust.
Comparisons to another surprise attack on Israel—the Arab assault that launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War—are misleading in one important respect: the 2,656 Israelis who died then were exclusively soldiers. One must go back to the 1948 War of Independence to find comparable Israeli civilian casualties. The attack also involved hostage-taking on a massive scale, with roughly 150 people (mainly Israelis, but also Americans and other foreign nationals) captured and taken to Gaza; one Hamas leader vowed that the group would distribute video recordings of hostage executions if Israel launched a counterattack.
There is no defending or explaining such sadism. Repeated injustice and repression cannot excuse atrocity. Israelis’ outrage and desire for vengeance is understandable. Israel’s goal, according to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, is to wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Emmanuel Nahshon, called for “the complete and unequivocal defeat of the enemy, at any cost.”
But as the saying goes, “Hope is not a strategy”—and neither is anger. Destroying an enemy’s fighting force is a core principle of military strategy, but killing with little discrimination or restraint places revenge ahead of logic. Instead of merely reacting, Israel must make hard strategic and political choices not because it is weak but because it is strong. As the United States learned after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, how a government responds to a major terrorist attack can set a country’s trajectory for decades. And although this attack was particularly gruesome, it was not unprecedented. In 2008, the Pakistan-based jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba launched an assault on Mumbai that likewise came from land and sea, involved armed strikes against soft targets, and killed many civilians (though not as many as the Hamas attack). Even as Israeli officials lament, they can learn from what other governments have done in the aftermath of massive terrorist assaults.
Terrorism is incredibly challenging for democracies because it is an accelerator for war. Elected leaders must regain the upper hand and replace fear with resolve. Dispassionate strategic thinking in the aftermath of terrorist attacks is difficult, but it is the only way to end a group—which Israel says it wants to do. The history of modern counterterrorism holds a clear lesson: only through the strict targeting of a terrorist organization can a state permanently crush it and avoid a wider conflict. For that reason, in addition to using its traditional playbook of airstrikes, targeting leaders, and deploying troops, Israel must protect innocent civilians, including Israeli hostages. This is not merely a matter of morality and law; it is a strategic imperative. If it conducts this campaign in a way that targets all Gazans, Israel risks a calamitous failure.
DOES HAMAS HAVE A STRATEGY?
Hamas’s foundational aim is the eradication of Israel. But Hamas does not have the means to directly bring about Israel’s demise. To believe otherwise would be delusional; Israel is militarily strong and has the backing of the United States. So what did Hamas think this bloodshed would achieve?
All terrorist groups adopt at least one (and sometimes two) of the following strategies: compellence, polarization, provocation, and mobilization. A superficial reading of the October 7 assault might suggest that Hamas sought to compel Israel to alter its behavior by inflicting pain—as Hezbollah did in 1983 with its attacks on American and French personnel and civilians in Beirut, which led Washington and Paris to withdraw their forces from Lebanon. But compellence does not fit the context of today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005, and no Israeli policy change could advance Hamas’s long-term goal. What is more, if all Hamas wanted to do was kill Israelis, its fighters would not have filmed their operations or taken hostages, actions that reflect the fact that the attack on Israel was aimed at audiences beyond the Israelis and was thus advancing a strategy other than compellence.
Terrorist groups often attempt to polarize the polities they target, carrying out attacks that will pit one part of society against another and hoping that the state will rot from within. Examples of this include the Armed Islamic Group’s atrocities in the late 1990s against entire Algerian villages full of civilians who rejected their extremist principles, and suicide attacks that al Qaeda in Iraq launched in Shiite strongholds and against moderate Sunnis from 2004 to 2006. But Israeli society was already deeply divided politically before the Hamas attack—which, if anything, has at least partially unified Israel. Hamas did not need to polarize Israeli society; in recent years, the Israelis have accomplished that feat themselves.
Hamas is likely hoping for an Israeli overreaction.
What Hamas was trying to do, instead, was to provoke and mobilize. Terrorists often try to provoke states into counterproductive overreactions. The nineteenth-century Russian group Narodnaya Volya used provocation effectively to undermine the tsarist regime, by killing Tsar Alexander II, which inspired a brutal state response. Killing the tsar also killed Narodnaya Volya, but the regime was unable to reform, and 30 years later the Russian Revolution overthrew it. Many other groups followed Narodnaya Volya’s example, notably the Black Hand, the Serbian nationalist group that lit the fuse of World War I by assassinating the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
In the present case, Hamas is likely hoping that an Israeli overreaction might reverse the diplomatic momentum toward “normalization” in the Middle East, which has seen a number of Gulf Arab states start to align with Israel even in the absence of any Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. An Israeli overreaction might also increase the chances that Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran will join the fray.
Mobilization strategies, meanwhile, seek to grab attention, draw recruits, and gather allies for a terrorist group’s cause. The Islamic State, known as ISIS, did that in 2014, carrying out some basic functions of government in the parts of Iraq and Syria it conquered to create the appearance of order, and also carrying out gruesome videotaped beheadings of hostages to create an image of uncompromising, fearsome severity. Seeming to take a page from the ISIS playbook, Hamas has threatened to kill a hostage each time Israel targets “people who are safe in their homes without prior warning,” in the words of Abu Obeida, a spokesperson for the Hamas military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades. Obeida also suggested that the group would broadcast the executions, probably on social media. Hamas leaders may be calculating that such ultraviolent spectacles would bring further attention to their cause and mobilize support—not only among Palestinians but also among sympathizers and anti-Semitic extremists throughout the region and around the world. In the long run, preying on humanity’s basest instincts through spectacles of dominance and vengeance will cause a global backlash and destroy Hamas. But like ISIS before it, the group may believe that such tactics will buttress it in the short term.
THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED
Facing an opponent that relies on provocation and mobilization, Israel has a limited number of strategic options. The one it seems to have chosen is repression, a time-honored but rarely successful approach to counterterrorism.
An overwhelming military response can successfully repress a terrorist group. In 2009, the Sri Lanka army crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an ethnic separatist group of some 10,000 to 15,000 members, in the process killing up to 40,000 civilians, according to the United Nations. That paroxysm of ethnic cleansing and extrajudicial killings devolved into a gruesome civil war, trapping Tamil civilians in the violence. Many remain internally displaced, with thousands of victims unaccounted for. In the 1990s, the Peruvian government defeated the Shining Path, a Maoist revolutionary terrorist group, by using indiscriminate military force. But Peruvian democracy suffered: President Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress and the judiciary, setting in motion a process that routinized extreme policies and eventually led to his own downfall. (Sendero Luminoso, meanwhile, survived as a political party.)
Repression has also been Russia’s preferred counterterrorism strategy. In 1999, when authorities blamed a series of bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk on Chechen terrorists, President Vladimir Putin vowed to “flush the Chechens down the toilet” and used the crisis to consolidate his power. He launched a vicious campaign that leveled the Chechen city of Grozny, killed at least 25,000 civilians, and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. Chechen terrorism was significantly diminished but not eradicated: in 2002, Chechen terrorists took 912 hostages in a Moscow theater (175 people ultimately died), and two years later murdered 344 people, mostly children, at an elementary school in North Ossetia.
Repression is a natural response to terrorism, and countries in every part of the world have resorted to repressive means before eventually learning more effective strategies. As a form of counterterrorism, repression is especially difficult for democracies to sustain, and it usually does not result in the destruction of its target. Repression also exacts an enormous cost in money, casualties, and individual rights, and works best in places where the members of terrorist groups can be separated from the broader population. Using overwhelming force tends to disperse the threat to neighboring region. So when Israeli government officials speak of destroying Hamas “at any cost,” one wonders whether they are considering not only the certain costs to Hamas, Gazan civilians, the hostages, Palestinians in the West Bank, and Arab Israelis but also the potential long-term costs to regional stability, Israeli democracy, and Jewish Israelis.
Israel is hurtling toward a lose-lose outcome.
Repression succeeds under certain conditions, but the situation in Gaza does not meet them. It will be impossible to kill Hamas leaders and fighters without causing huge numbers of civilian deaths, displacing hundreds of thousands, and immiserating the entire population of Gaza. These outcomes are already evident. Some 1,900 Gazans have already died in Israeli retaliatory airstrikes. Meanwhile, Israel has imposed a siege, cutting off supplies of electricity, food, and water to Gaza with apparent disregard for the effects on the vast majority of Gazans, who have nothing to do with Hamas. (“We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly,” Gallant remarked by way of justification—employing precisely the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that Hamas’s strategy of provocation aims to generate.)
On October 13, Israel ordered 1.1 million Gazans to evacuate to the south of the territory or face the brutal consequences of an Israeli military campaign they might not survive, thus creating more conducive conditions for repression but also risking a full-scale humanitarian disaster. The only way to leave Gaza now is through the Rafah transit point on the Egyptian-Gazan border. But Israel has repeatedly hit that crossing with airstrikes in recent days, making it difficult for anyone to cross safely or to bring in humanitarian aid or medical supplies, which are already exhausted.
If thousands more civilians die as a result of Israel’s response, Hamas (or whatever group takes its place) will publicize those deaths to build support and set off another cycle of violence that occupying Israeli troops will struggle to contain. Israeli commentators have called this a zero-sum situation: any loss for Hamas is a gain for Israel, they believe. But as the war unfolds, Israel is hurtling toward a lose-lose outcome.
HOW TO WIN BY NOT LOSING
Overwhelming military oppression in Gaza would backfire, stirring support for resistance and aligning Israel’s adversaries against it. A more nuanced political strategy would divide them. Israeli leaders must make clear that their enemies are the 30,000 Hamas fighters in Gaza, especially the Qassam Brigades, and not the two million other residents of Gaza. To legitimize its barbarity, Hamas has claimed that every Israeli is a combatant, just as al Qaeda and ISIS did in their campaigns in the West and in the Middle East. Israel must avoid doing the same thing and make clear that it is specifically targeting Hamas.
A successful Israeli military response would use discriminate force, making it clear through both statements and actions that Israel’s enemy is Hamas, not the Palestinian people. The Israeli government should help fleeing Gazans find somewhere to go, by either creating safe zones, helping the Egyptians to do so, or permitting regional or international actors to create a humanitarian corridor, and then allowing aid organizations to supply food and water to trapped civilians. Even in the north, they must avoid targeting Gazan hospitals from which the injured cannot be moved. Hamas will use those people as human shields—and when they do, such barbarity toward their own people will sap the group’s ability to mobilize wider support. The Israel Defense Forces will be fighting street to street; Hamas will not hold them off for long regardless.
No one is asking for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process now, but Israeli leaders must stop actively encouraging West Bank settlements to expand, a process that has gradually snuffed out any hope of a two-state solution. Israel must give the Palestinian Authority a reason to stand aside during this fight; otherwise, Israel will be flanked by fighting in both Palestinian territories. Israel must lean on its international partners to urge Iran not to encourage attacks by Hezbollah. The United States has already warned Tehran and the terrorist group not to attack Israel and has sent a carrier strike force to the region to deter them and any other parties from joining the conflict. Steps such as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s tour of six Arab countries and discussions with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas can help, but only if Israel does not further inflame its enemies with indiscriminate killing in Gaza.
Finally, the Israelis must come together politically, not just militarily. Before the attacks, Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary had divided the public and produced pushback among some military reservists and even some senior members of the security establishment, arguably making the country more vulnerable to attack. Without a clear endgame, a renewed occupation of Gaza could further split the country. Netanyahu has created an emergency unity government with one of his rivals, the former army general Benny Gantz. But Netanyahu has refused to fully sideline the far-right members of his coalition, suggesting that he is still unwilling to move past the divisive politics that paralyzed Israel and possibly invited this Hamas assault. Only a truly unified political leadership will fortify Israel’s democracy for the difficult military operations ahead, giving it the domestic mandate necessary to build a winning strategy and end Hamas for good.