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October 7, 2023
Early this morning, Eastern Daylight Time, Hamas militants broke out of the Gaza Strip, where approximately 2 million Palestinians live, largely unable to leave because of the extensive restrictions Israel has imposed. They pushed as far as 15 miles (about 24 kilometers) into Israel, taking over at least 22 towns and firing at least 2,500 rockets. They have killed at least 250 Israelis, wounded more than 1,500 others, and taken hostages. The attack was a surprise, having an effect on Israelis that observers are comparing to the effect of 9-11 on people in the U.S.
Hamas is a group of Palestinian militants that make up one of the two major political parties in the Palestinian Territories, which consist of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Hamas was established in 1987 and gained control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Since then, Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have periodically exchanged fire. In May 2021 that tension turned into an 11-day conflict that has simmered along the security fence between Israel and Gaza ever since.
In a video address to Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We are at war and we will win it.” Israelis have killed at least 232 people and wounded more than 1,700 in retaliation for the attack. He promised the Israeli military will “take revenge for this black day” but that it “will take time.” He warned that Israel would turn “into ruins” the places where Hamas operates, and told residents of Gaza to “get out of there now,” although they have no way to leave.
There are serious questions about how the Netanyahu government did not see this attack coming. It was either a spectacular intelligence failure or a security failure or both, and it strikes at the heart of the Netanyahu government’s promise to keep the country safe. At the same time, the attack is making Israelis rally together. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been protesting Netanyahu’s strengthening hold on the government have said they would come together in this dangerous moment.
A number of countries, including the U.S., have designated Hamas a terrorist organization. It is backed by Iran, which provides money and weapons, and last month high-level Iranian officials apparently met with Hamas leaders in Lebanon. Today Iran praised Hamas for the attack. Iran has opposed the recent talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel about normalizing relations. Since the decline of Iraq as an independent power, Iran has viewed the combination of Israel, its main enemy, with Saudi Arabia, its main rival for power, as the greatest threat to its security in the region.
Iran and Russia are allies whose relationship has strengthened considerably as the Russian war against Ukraine has pushed the two increasingly isolated countries together to resist Western sanctions. Former Russian president and deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said the attack was “expected,” and used it to accuse the U.S.
The Middle East, rather than Ukraine, was “what Washington and its allies should be busy with,” he said. “But instead of actively working at Palestinian-Israeli settlement,” he went on, “these morons have interfered with us, and are providing the neo-Nazis with full-scale aid, pitting the two closely related peoples against each other. What can stop America’s manic obsession to incite conflicts all over the planet?”
Today’s assessment of the Russian offensive in Ukraine by the Institute for the Study of War said: “The Kremlin is already [exploiting] and will likely continue to exploit the Hamas attacks in Israel to advance several information operations intended to reduce US and Western support and attention to Ukraine.”
Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have contextualized the attack by calling out Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people but also are calling for restraint and for the violence to stop.
India, too, has expressed solidarity with Israel.
In the U.S., the administration suggested that it sees a larger hand behind this attack and is working with partners and allies to contain the violence. In a statement, President Biden said the United States “unequivocally condemns this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, and I made clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel.” It went on with a warning—“The United States warns against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation”—and a threat: “My Administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.”
Biden told reporters that he has been in contact with the King of Jordan, has spoken with members of Congress, and is in close touch with Netanyahu. He says he has directed the national security team to engage with their Israeli counterparts—“military to military, intelligence to intelligence,...diplomat to diplomat—to make sure Israel has what it needs.” He has also directed his team “to remain in constant contact with leaders throughout the region, including Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, the UAE, as well as with our European partners and the Palestinian Authority.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke today with the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, urging Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to condemn the attack and to work to restore calm. He also spoke with the foreign ministers of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Türkiye, as well as the European Union’s High Representative for foreign affairs. Blinken urged the EU, Türkiye, and the so-called Quint countries—France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., and the U.S.—to continue to engage on the issue, and he promised to stay in close contact with all the parties he talked to today.
In the United States, Republicans used the moment to attack President Biden. In an echo of a similar lie from Trump, who falsely claimed the Obama administration had paid $150 billion to Iran for a nuclear agreement, they took to social media in a flood to say that the U.S. had funded the attack on Israel because it had recently “paid” $6 billion to Iran.
The statement was wrong across the board: the U.S did not pay Iran anything. It helped to ease restrictions on Iranian money that had been frozen in South Korea, enabling Qatar to take control of the money and use it for humanitarian aid. In any case, the money has not yet been transferred. Still, it was a surprising decision to attack the U.S. government at a time when the country would normally be united behind Israel.
Nonetheless, the attack has made the national implications of Republicans’ own troubles even more clear. In times of crisis, the executive branch briefs the so-called Gang of Eight on classified intelligence matters. The Gang of Eight is made up of the leaders of each party in the House and the Senate, and the leaders of each party in each chamber’s intelligence committee. But without a House Speaker, this leading intelligence group is missing a key member. It is not clear if the acting speaker, Representative Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who was tapped by former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and not elected, can participate.
The lack of a speaker is a problem. Although House committees can still meet, the House can’t do much. McHenry is responsible mostly for overseeing the election of a new speaker; he does not have the authority to bring bills or even resolutions to the floor.