Gaza update: October 7 2023
A stunning attack by Hamas may have long-lasting repercussions for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Despite my need to step away from the newsletter this weekend, events in Gaza warrant a brief update. As is always the case with these kinds of posts I’m trying to cobble this together as news is still flying around so at least some of this will be out of date by the time you read it and please keep this in mind if there are details that seem to be missing or downplayed. I know the header says that this is a paid subscriber post but the free section is fairly substantial and includes everything I know about what’s happened thus far, so if you’re not a paid subscriber I hope you’ll still find some value in it.
Hamas, the militant group and governing power in Gaza, launched an unprecedented incursion, which it’s calling “Operation al-Aqsa Storm,” beyond the Gaza security fence early Saturday morning that has once again set the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an unpredictable escalation of violence. At time of writing Hamas fighters were still occupying several settlements and military outposts in the immediate vicinity of Gaza and casualty figures from Israeli authorities were at least 200 people killed and 1100 wounded. Inside Gaza, where residents are bearing the brunt of the Israeli military’s retaliation, the corresponding figures are over 230 dead and 1600 wounded. All of those figures probably underestimate the true extent of the casualties thus far and at any rate those figures are certain to rise considerably over the coming hours/days/weeks.
The Hamas operation was shocking not just in its extent but in the level of sophistication it entailed. Early Saturday morning the group began a massive barrage of rocket fire involving at least 2500 (the Israeli count) and as many as 5000+ (Hamas’s count) projectiles. That in itself was surprising, if not exactly unprecedented. But what followed was a Hamas ground assault on an estimated 22 Israeli military and civilian positions around Gaza that included insertions by land (via holes cut in the security fence) sea (via motorboat) and air (via paramotor units flying over the fence). Hamas has been releasing videos throughout the day showing its fighters seizing Israeli military sites and equipment, attacking settlements, and carrying out acts of violence. By Saturday evening it appeared that the fighting had peaked, but Israeli forces were still clearing Hamas fighters out of at least some of the positions they’d occupied and the combatants were still exchanging rocket fire and airstrikes. Civilians in southern Israel—those who hadn’t totally evacuated the area—were still under orders to remain in shelters rather than attempt to return home.
There are a number of immediate concerns stemming from this battle. The first is the most obvious: is this the beginning of a new Gaza war? The rhetoric from the Israeli government would seem to be unambiguously “yes,” and indeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plainly said “we are at war” in the early hours of Saturday’s conflict. Wars can last hours or they can last decades, so what “war” means in this context is still very much up for grabs. It would be shocking if Hamas has held anything back that it could use to escalate its offensive further, so it’s reasonable to expect that the bulk of whatever violence is to come will be committed by the Israeli military and will fall most heavily, as it always does, on the civilian population in Gaza. On that note, Netanyahu has advised civilians in Gaza to “leave now,” which is a cruel joke because the Israeli government has ensured (more on this below) that there’s no way for them to leave, now or ever.
There’s also been a good deal of attention on what’s happening along Israel’s northern border, where there are concerns that Hezbollah—either as part of a coordinated operation or to take advantage of the situation—might try its own incursion into Israel. Nothing like that has materialized so far. Speculation about a possible Hezbollah and/or Iranian role in facilitating Hamas’s operation is already running high, but aside from some statements of support for Hamas there’s no indication that either knew this operation was coming or had any plans to capitalize on it. Admittedly it seems likely that one or both had some inkling this was in the works but that’s purely speculation at this point.
The other significant immediate concern has to do with hostages. In addition to the scores of people they’ve killed, Hamas fighters have reportedly brought some number of Israeli captives back to Gaza. The intention will presumably be to negotiate their release in exchange for the release of Palestinians being held by Israel and/or concessions regarding the Israeli government’s years long Gaza blockade. Hamas officials claimed on Saturday that they’d brought back enough captives to secure the “release” of “all our prisoners.” It’s unclear whether “our prisoners” refers to all Palestinians being held by Israeli authorities or just those with ties to Hamas. If it’s the former, then on a one-to-one swap basis that would mean Hamas has taken some 5200 or more prisoners and that strains credulity to say the least. At any rate I’m skeptical the Israeli government will be prepared to deal on this issue, at least not until after the proverbial dust has settled. What the presence of these captives in Gaza might do, depending on how Hamas uses them, is cause the Israelis to be more circumspect in their targeting to avoid killing their own people.
The international reaction has been unsurprising, with friends of Hamas like Iran and Hezbollah expressing support for its offensive and the US and other Western governments expressing unconditional support for Israel. Arab states and Russia are mostly taking a middle road, ranging from calls for both sides to deescalate from governments that have relations with Israel to statements that shade more toward blaming Israel from governments that have not yet normalized with the Israelis. The United Nations Security Council looks set to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the situation on Sunday, which will likely be just as decisive as most other things the UN Security Council does.
I’m doing something a little different with this newsletter and making this a paid post with the paywall pushed well beyond where it usually is, with the “what we know” section above and a more analytical section below. In part I’m doing this as a thank you to Foreign Exchanges subscribers and in part because I don’t want to step on the American Prestige subscriber special we released earlier today. We recorded before I wrote this so the details are a little older and my thinking is a little less fleshed out.
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