How Hamas caught Israel by surprise and risked its future

7 min read
12 October, 2023

In the early morning of 7 October, Hamas fired a rocket barrage of at least 3,000 missiles into Israel. In tandem with other Palestinian militant groups, such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas forces crossed the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Upon arrival, they killed dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers in Sderot and carried out a massacre at an outdoor music festival in the border kibbutz of Re’im. Around 1,300 Israelis were killed in total and at least 150 were taken hostage.

Hamas has presented several justifications for the unprecedented scale of its attack on Israel. Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas spokesperson, claimed that it was a strike against Israeli settlers, who are “part of the occupation and part of the armed Israeli force”.

Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, linked the attack to Israel’s “desecration” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, the killing by Israel of hundreds of Palestinians this year, and Israel’s obstinacy on prisoner exchanges.

"Hamas saw vulnerabilities in Israel's seemingly impregnable defences and capitalised on them"

But regional factors also feature in Hamas’ justifications for the attacks. On 7 October, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh warned that Israel could not protect Arab states. Haniyeh’s comment was an implicit attack on the Abraham Accords, which saw Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) normalise with Israel in 2020, and Saudi Arabia’s negotiations on normalising with Israel. Deif claimed that Hamas’ actions would put an end to Israel’s air raids against Iranian and Hezbollah assets in Syria.

While these explanations reveal the sentiments that pushed Hamas towards unprecedented armed resistance, other factors also shaped Hamas’ course of action. Hamas saw vulnerabilities in Israel’s seemingly impregnable defences and capitalised on them.

It also reflected Hamas’ rejection of diplomacy and belief in the superior effectiveness of large-scale military action. Now that Israel has embarked on a devastating full-scale war to target Hamas, the organisation’s future is in serious jeopardy.

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Why Hamas saw an opportunity to strike Israel

Even though Israel’s intelligence services are widely esteemed as amongst the world’s most effective, Hamas capitalised on critical vulnerabilities within them. As Israel had not faced a large-scale ground assault since the 1973 war, it was inadequately prepared for a ground attack. Israel invested extensively in cyber-capabilities and air defences while underinvesting in terrestrial border defences. 

Hamas capitalised on this vulnerability and prepared extensively to exploit it. It constructed a mock Israeli settlement in Gaza and practised attacks against it. These preparations allowed Hamas to smoothly carry out a ground assault. The Qassami Engineering Corps reportedly laid explosives on wire fences and barriers and detonated them with ease. The al-Qassam brigades deployed a quadcopter drone over Israeli communication towers by the Gaza border and dropped an improvised explosive device on generators at the base of the towers. This allowed Palestinian militants to swiftly stream into Israel’s borders.

Hamas also believed that a combined ground, sea, and air offensive would catch Israel by surprise. This assumption proved correct. Dozens of Hamas militants briskly stormed Israeli beaches on motorboats and clashed with Israeli forces. While these militants kept Israel occupied at sea, other Hamas fighters entered Israel on paragliders, the first example of their military use anywhere in the world.

Israeli soldiers from an artillery unit stand ready near their position a few miles outside of Gaza, near Sderot, Israel on 9 Oct 2023. Israel was caught by surprise after Hamas launched its deadly attack, killing 1,300 Israelis. [Getty]

Even though paragliders are slow-moving and loud, they only needed to cover a short distance across the Gaza-Israel border and Israel did not have time to develop countermeasures.

In addition to exploiting Israeli defensive weaknesses, Hamas capitalised on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preoccupation with the occupied West Bank. Egyptian intelligence claims that it warned Netanyahu about an impending attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip but he downplayed the risk as the Israeli military was “submerged” in the West Bank.

While Israel denies these reports and the specificity of Egypt’s warnings is unclear, Hamas clearly saw Netanyahu’s diverted focus as an enabler of a surprise attack.

"The 7 October attacks underscore Hamas' complete loss of confidence in diplomacy and reversion to hardline militarism"

A loss of confidence in diplomacy

To corral domestic and international support for a potentially long war, Netanyahu declared “We have always known who Hamas is. Now the entire world knows. Hamas is ISIS.” The 1987 Hamas charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction and contains numerous antisemitic tropes, is often cited to provide context for its recent actions.

However, these assessments overlook Hamas’ long-standing involvement in diplomacy. Even though Hamas’ founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin declared that Israel “must disappear from the map”, he also advanced proposals for a long-term ceasefire if Israel accepted 1967 borders.

In May 2017, the chairman of Hamas’ political bureau Khaled Mashal unveiled a new charter which claimed that Hamas was not a revolutionary movement and would accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. Prodded by Egypt, Hamas signed a ceasefire with Israel in May 2021 after its war on Gaza and refrained from large-scale violence even as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delayed the prisoner exchange deal’s implementation.

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The 7 October attacks underscore Hamas’ complete loss of confidence in diplomacy and reversion to hardline militarism. The failed 30 July talks between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt was an early harbinger of this shift. At these negotiations, Haniyeh urged Palestinians to exploit the “window of opportunity” created by “unprecedented internal divisions in Israel” and to escalate its resistance.

The exact reasons for Hamas’ drastic shift away from diplomacy and small-scale escalations are unclear. It is possible that Hamas’ diplomatic involvement was always a time-buying measure. Ali Baraka, a senior Hamas official, claimed that Hamas tricked the international community into thinking that it was focused purely on administering Gaza and had delegated military activities to Islamic Jihad. Baraka claims that Hamas’ “rational approach” was a smokescreen for an eventual return to armed resistance.

It is also plausible that Hamas believed that smashing Israel’s aura of invincibility would convince it out of fear to compromise concerning ongoing settlement construction in the West Bank and the Gaza blockade.

This would prevent a repetition of the 2019-20 economic unrest in the Gaza Strip and further strengthen Haniyeh’s already advantageous position over Mahmoud Abbas in an eventual Palestinian election.

But Israel’s prosecution of a large-scale military intervention, which has already killed over 1,400 Palestinians, could render Hamas’ assessment a miscalculation of epic proportions. 

Israel has launched a devastating assault on Gaza following the attack, vowing to destroy Hamas. [Getty]

Hamas' uncertain future

As Israel embarks on a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, which will cause huge civilian casualties, Hamas faces the prospect of losing power and outright destruction.

Israeli airstrikes have already killed Hamas’ Minister of the Economy Jawad Abu Shamala and Hamas’ Head of Internal Relations Zakariya Abu Moammar. The assassination of much of Hamas’ senior leadership through airstrikes will likely accompany any Israeli ground invasion.

The extent of Hamas’ ability to resist an Israeli ground invasion is unclear. Hamas reportedly has between 30,000 to 50,000 rockets, which cost a mere $2,000 each to produce and could conceivably overrun Israel’s Iron Dome defences again.

Iran’s Quds Forces and Hezbollah have reportedly trained Hamas in using readily available products, such as pipes, fertiliser, and sugar, for military purposes. This allowed Hamas to domestically produce Qassam rockets inside the Gaza Strip.

"Now that Israel has embarked on a devastating full-scale war to target Hamas, the organisation's future is in serious jeopardy"

Despite its versatility, Hamas has serious material constraints on its long-term capacity to resist Israel through military means. The tightening of the Gaza blockade could preclude Iran from smuggling Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 missiles to Hamas. There is also no indication that Hamas has precision-guided missiles or anti-ship missiles like the Houthis and Hezbollah.

Given these constraints, Hamas’ survival prospects are amplified by a multi-front war that drags Israel into conflict with pro-Iran militias in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq and bolsters international pressure for a truce.

While the scale and success of Hamas’ 7 October attack caught the world by surprise, it was the culmination of the group’s meticulous preparations and lost faith in advancing its goals through political means.

It is a gambit that has plunged its survival into question and could end its seventeen-year rule over the Gaza Strip.

Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctorate in 2021. His research focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @SamRamani2