Nearly 50 years to the day after the Yom Kippur war of 1973, Israel has again been taken by surprise by a sudden attack, a startling reminder that stability in the Middle East remains a bloody mirage.
Unlike the series of clashes with Palestinian forces in Gaza over the last three years, this appears to be a full-scale conflict mounted by Hamas and its allies, with rocket barrages and incursions into Israel proper, and with Israelis killed and captured.
The psychological impact on Israelis has been compared to the shock of Sept. 11 in America. So after the Israeli military repels the initial Palestinian attack, the question of what to do next will loom large. There are few good options for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has declared war and is being pressured into a major military response.
Given that 250 Israelis have died so far and an unknown number been taken hostage by Hamas, an Israeli invasion of Gaza — and even a temporary reoccupation of the territory, something that successive Israeli governments have tried hard to avoid — cannot be ruled out.
As Mr. Netanyahu told Israelis in declaring war: “We will bring the fight to them with a might and scale that the enemy has not yet known,” adding that the Palestinian groups would pay a heavy price.
But a major war could have unforeseen consequences. It would be likely to produce sizable Palestinian casualties — civilians as well as fighters — disrupting the diplomatic efforts of President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu to bring about a Saudi recognition of Israel in return for defense guarantees from the United States.
There would also be pressure on Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group that controls southern Lebanon, to open up a second front in northern Israel, as it did in 2006 after an Israeli soldier was captured and taken prisoner in Gaza.
Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel, is an important backer of Hamas as well as Hezbollah and has supplied both groups with weapons and intelligence.
The conflict will unite Israel behind its government, at least for a while, with the opposition canceling its planned demonstrations against Mr. Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes and obeying calls for reservists to muster. It will give Mr. Netanyahu “full political cover to do what he wants,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution.
Nevertheless, he added, Mr. Netanyahu has in the past rejected calls to send thousands of troops into Gaza to try to destroy armed Palestinian groups like Hamas, given the cost and the inevitable question of what happens the day after.
“But the psychological impact of this for Israel is similar to 9/11,” he said. “So the calculus about cost could be quite different this time.”
The question will always be what happens afterward, said Mark Heller, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. Nearly every year there have been limited Israeli military operations in the occupied territories, but they have not provided any solutions.
“There is a lot of heavy pressure already for a large-scale incursion, to ‘finish with Hamas,’ but I don’t think it will solve anything in the longer run,” Mr. Heller said.
But Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, said a major Israeli assault on Gaza was almost inevitable, particularly if Israeli soldiers were taken hostage. “If Hamas has taken Israeli soldiers as prisoners and taken them to Gaza, a full-scale Israeli operation into Gaza looks highly likely,” he said on X. “Another war.” The same presumably would hold true for Israeli citizens.
Israel and Mr. Netanyahu have been wary of sending ground forces into Gaza. Even in 2002, when Ariel Sharon was prime minister and Israeli forces crushed a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, the government chose to avoid sending significant extra forces into Gaza, where it then had Israeli settlements.
Israeli unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and citizens from Gaza in 2005, while retaining effective control of large parts of the occupied West Bank. The failure of that withdrawal to secure any sort of lasting peace agreement has left Gaza a kind of orphan, largely cut off from other Palestinians in the West Bank and almost entirely isolated by both Israel and Egypt, which control Gaza’s borders and its seacoast. Palestinians often call Gaza “an open-air prison.”
After the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the conflict of 2006, an internal struggle between the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the more radical, Islamist Hamas movement ended with Hamas taking control of the territory in 2007, prompting Israel to try to isolate Gaza even further.
Even in an extended conflict of 2008 and 2009, Israeli forces entered Gaza and its population centers but chose not to move too deeply into the territory or to reoccupy it, with a cease-fire brokered by Egypt after three weeks of warfare.
Successive Israeli governments insist that after the 2005 withdrawal, it no longer has responsibility for Gaza. But given Israel’s control over the borders and its overwhelming military advantage, many groups like B’Tselem, which monitors human rights in the occupied territories, argue that Israel retains significant legal responsibilities and obligations for Gaza under international humanitarian law.
While Hamas has not been clear about why it chose to attack now, it may be a response to growing Israeli ties to the Arab world, in particular to Saudi Arabia, which has been negotiating a putative defense treaty with the United States in return for normalizing relations with Israel, potentially to the neglect of the Palestinians.
That is the view of Amberin Zaman, an analyst for Al-Monitor, a Washington-based news website that covers the Middle East. “Israel’s response to today’s attacks will likely be of a scale that will set back U.S. efforts for Saudi- Israeli normalization, if not torpedo them altogether,” she said in a message on X, formerly Twitter.
Saudi Arabia has not recognized Israel since it was founded in 1948 and until now had signaled that it would not even consider normalizing relations until Israel agreed to allow the creation of a Palestinian state.
But recently even the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has gone public with affirmations that some sort of deal with Israel seemed plausible. In an interview with Fox News last month, he said that talk of normalization was “for the first time, real.”
That will now be in question, depending on how long this conflict lasts and with what level of dead and wounded.
But Mr. Sachs of Brookings says that the goals of Hamas may be simpler — to take hostages in order to free Palestinian prisoners from both the West Bank and Gaza in Israeli jails.
Aaron David Miller, a former American diplomat dealing with the Mideast, said that Hamas has been frustrated with the amounts of money coming into Gaza from Arab countries and restrictions on workers getting permission to work in Israel. “In many ways this is a prestige strike, to remind the Israelis that we’re here and can hurt you in ways you can’t anticipate,” he said.
Israel, shocked, will now have to deal with the results of what Mr. Miller, now with the Carnegie Endowment, called its “overconfidence and complacency and unwillingness to imagine that Hamas could launch a cross-border attack like this.”
The ramifications of the war and its aftermath will be “far-reaching and take a long time to manifest,” Mr. Sachs said. There will be commissions of inquiry into the military and intelligence agencies “and the political echelon won’t escape blame, either.”
But first, as Mr. Heller noted, comes the war. “And these things tend to get out of control,” he said.