The incursion into Israel was textbook terrorism and the response appears to be exactly as Hamas and its backers will have hoped.
I n many ways Hamas’s attack on Israel sums up the essence of terrorism. The group’s mass incursions have seen its operatives storming Israeli towns, killing and kidnapping hundreds. This appears to have been done by the book when it comes to creating feelings of terror and escalating the situation.
Yet it’s also a reminder, as pioneering terrorism scholar Martha Crenshaw teaches, that terrorism depends on the specific context of the situation from which it arises, and at the same time, its implications often go well beyond national boundaries.
Among the many observations that could be made, three are worth flagging. First and foremost, terrorism is in its nature a highly developed form of psychological warfare. Number-wise, terrorism kills far fewer people than malaria, car accidents and cardiovascular diseases, but polls consistently show that many people remain highly concerned about terrorism.
Terrorism is built upon secrecy, deception and surprise. Whenever feasible, it should be spectacular, lethal and indiscriminate, because terrorism is like a stage for seeking media attention.
Striking on symbolic dates and flooding the web with graphic, bone-chilling videos (including fake ones) is vital for terrorists. It enables them to blow things out of proportion and bring people’s worst nightmares to life. In this sense, Hamas did it all.
Motivation and capability
Second, as prominent counter-terrorism researcher Boaz Ganor has argued, the likelihood of a terrorist attack depends on the motivation and capabilities of terrorists.
In spite of the ceasefire agreed at the end of the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas clearly still has an uncompromising, partly religious motivation. Its violence is in line with its founding charter, which states:
“There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time.”
But not only does Hamas have very strong motivation that justifies mass killing, it also has much capability, including weapons, funds, intelligence and diplomatic coverage, much of which comes from Iran. The group’s arsenal includes rockets, drones and small arms, but also less conventional ways to maximise casualties, such as bulldozers to tear down fences and paragliders to elude more technologically sophisticated defence systems.
In previous conflicts, Hamas has allegedly used tunnels, booby-traps and hundreds of people not necessarily affiliated with the group but still ready to fight to the death to create fatal resistance to Israeli troops. Israel should expect something similar if it invades Gaza again.
In this respect, it has the motivation to kill as many people as possible and the capabilities to fight a prolonged war, so its terrorist attacks are very likely to continue cyclically.
Terrorism is in its nature a highly developed form of psychological warfare.
Provoking a reaction
Third, the attack reiterates terrorism’s lust for overreaction and escalation, especially in the face of waning domestic and international support for the group that commits it.
In a twisted way, Hamas arguably needs this escalation. In the past weeks, growing numbers of Gazan residents have reportedly been protesting the group’s leadership, accusing it of corruption and failing to improve living conditions. But most importantly, the growing possibility of an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a tremendous blow to Hamas’s credibility within the Islamic world because it would directly contradict its anti-Israel position.
Now that it has successfully provoked Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing “mighty revenge”, Hamas can divert Palestinian attention away from its problems and score points in its competition with the rival Palestinian Authority (PA). If Israel attacks, Hamas will silence criticism coming from PA and others in the West Bank, who will never side with Israel, rallying the Palestinian population around its flag. The Israeli-Saudi deal is likely to collapse.
There is more. The seemingly upcoming war could spill over to southern Lebanon as Hezbollah (the terrorist group that controls the region) also wants escalation. Like Hamas, Hezbollah has been losing grip over various segments of Lebanese society due to allegations of corruption, intervention in the Syrian conflict, and tampering with the judicial investigation into the 2020 Beirut port blast.
Iran might also see war as a golden opportunity to weaken Israel and seriously compromise accords with Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s other key regional competitor.
Israel risks getting dragged in a bloody, prolonged conflict in which its troops have to go door-to-door looking for Hamas operatives. This would result in hundreds if not thousands of deaths and do exactly what Hamas and Hezbollah want by making them into Palestine’s only, real defenders in its people’s eyes.
Large-scale and sensationalised terrorist attacks often bear soul-searching questions. In the case of Israel and its allies, this will mean re-examining intelligence sharing and analysis capabilities.
But also, what are truly effective counterstrategies to this sort of terrorism, and what does victory really look like? As winning becomes an increasingly blurred concept, they may conclude that a military response is paramount. But no one is going to police or bomb their way out of this.
Did Iran support plan for attack on Israel? | BBC News
Timeline: The Israeli and Palestinian Conflict, Explained | The New York Times
The Israel-Hamas conflict in maps | Financial Times