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This Was Never Supposed to Happen
October 7th was a catastrophe for Israel’s people—and its government.
At approximately 6:30am on October 7th—on the holy sabbath of Shemini Atzeret, the eighth and final day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot—air raid sirens went off all across Israel. Before the day was done, more than 3,000 rockets, missiles, and mortar shells were fired by Hamas, as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), from Gaza into Israel. As with all recent attacks, the barrages were fired from within densely populated Palestinian civilian areas into densely populated civilian areas inside Israel, constituting a double war crime.
But this time things were different. This time the salvos of rocket fire—as intensive, indiscriminate, and far-ranging as they undoubtedly were—were not the attack itself. They were primarily a diversion meant to obfuscate, and provide cover for, a Hamas invasion, slaughter, and kidnapping operation.
This is broadly what we know happened: Shortly after launching the intensive early-morning rocket attack, elite Hamas units simultaneously rushed multiple military outposts on the Gaza-Israel border. They quickly overwhelmed the posts, killing or kidnapping virtually all the soldiers in them. They then destroyed the observation and communications networks on which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) depended for identifying breaches of the border fence.
In parallel, Hamas launched an aerial and naval attack using several dozen motor-powered hang gliders, armed drones, and small speed boats. In the ensuing chaos, the fence was breached by bulldozers, explosives, and wire-cutters in up to 80 spots along the northern and eastern border between Gaza and Israel, facilitating the main thrust of the attack.
Over 1,500 armed militiamen on pickup trucks, motorbikes, and SUVs rushed across the border into adjacent Israeli kibbutzim, moshavim, and towns. Several dozen militiamen also headed to the scene of a youth music festival where around 3,500 revelers were camped in tents and cars. This became the epicenter of a massacre. Some 260 bodies—overwhelmingly 18-30 year olds—have been recovered from the site. Dozens more are still missing, presumed killed or kidnapped into Gaza.
Over the next several hours, militants rampaged through around two dozen Israeli towns—killing, looting, burning, kidnapping, and reportedly raping civilians. They managed to penetrate as far as Ofakim, 20 miles into Israel. They effectively controlled several main roads, on which they gunned down passing traffic. It took the IDF 6 hours to begin seriously engaging the militants. 18 hours after the incursion began, fighting was taking place in 22 spots. It took over 48 hours before the last of the major clashes with this first wave of the militants’ incursion was over and the militants neutralized.
In total, as of the morning of October 11th, over 1,200 Israelis are confirmed killed, almost 3,000 wounded (hundreds critically), and somewhere between 100 and 150 kidnapped, including whole families with toddlers and senior citizens. Hamas/PIJ have carried an unspecified number of corpses with them into Gaza. According to sources in Gaza, at least 950 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory IAF air strikes.
The events of October 7th represented a colossal intelligence failure. With or without substantial Iranian assistance, it is now clear that Hamas had been preparing the attack for over a year. Astonishingly, it apparently did so without major leaks. The few tell-tale signs of an impending attack that did surface appear to have been ignored. Israel was lulled by Hamas into complacency. In a stark failure of imagination, it assumed that Hamas was effectively deterred and mistakenly discounted the possibility of a major attack from the south. The IDF concentrated the lion’s share of its regular troops on the West Bank, in the center and east of the country, leaving Israel’s Southern Command thinly protected. Taken by surprise, and made to fight for their lives in understaffed outposts, the IDF was operationally incapable of adequately responding to the militants’ land maneuver. Unarmed civilians were left to fend for themselves for long hours, with horrific consequences.
What will make October 7th uniquely egregious in the eyes of many Israelis (perhaps most) is the fact that events of this sort were not only reasonably foreseeable but were repeatedly foreseen and repeatedly ignored by Israel’s current leadership. According to the Associated Press, Egypt’s Intelligence Minister, Abbas Kamel, had warned Prime Minister Netanyahu ten days before the attack that “something big” was brewing in Gaza, a charge the Prime Minister’s Office vehemently denies. For months, Netanyahu has been cautioned that his divisive “governance reforms” represented a reckless gamble with the country’s national security. He received numerous private (and then public) warnings from every major security chief that his policies were eroding IDF preparedness and provoking Israel’s enemies to test its readiness. Netanyahu ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed every one of these warnings. He and his acolytes have systematically castigated those who voiced concern as disloyal “agents of the deep state” or, worse, “leftist traitors.”
As long as Israel faces immediate danger, all hands will be on deck and party politics largely put aside. Despite the catastrophe, in the short term Netanyahu’s political fortunes have, if anything, improved. A National Emergency Government has just been announced, in which Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party will join Netanyahu’s existing government for the duration of the war. The expanded coalition will now form a war cabinet troika composed of the Prime Minister, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Benny Gantz (a former IDF Chief of Staff). This will allow Netanyahu some wiggle room in the attribution of responsibility for the conduct of the war going forward. The agreement forming the newly expanded coalition also contains a clause prohibiting the government from advancing legislation not directly related to the war effort. As long as the emergency continues, therefore, Netanyahu won’t have to face the pressure of public protests against his program to weaken the Israeli judiciary.
But in the longer term, it is difficult to see how Netanyahu, the great political survivor, will survive the events of October 7th. His reputation as “Mr. Security” is in tatters and it is impossible to see how it could possibly recover. With each day that passes, the magnitude of the debacle will become clearer, and Israelis will become angrier. Past precedent—Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned after the 1973 failure, as did Menachem Begin after the 1982 Lebanon War—indicates he will have to go. Extracting Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s office may take months or even more. In the process he will twist and turn. His acolytes will scream force majeure and seek to disperse responsibility. But if the most basic mechanisms of democratic accountability still function in Israel, Netanyahu will eventually discover that the buck really does stop with him.
Analysts keen to convey the magnitude of October 7th to American audiences have already tagged it Israel’s Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Neither label adequately captures the day’s true significance. A more accurate name might be something like “Israel’s civic Yom Kippur.” Why? Because the very existence of the State of Israel was supposed to guarantee that a day like this would never happen. In the Yom Kippur War of October 1973—when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise assault—Israel lost some 2,700 soldiers, but it managed to effectively protect its civilian population. No Israeli towns or villages were ever breached. The social contract was honored, albeit at a terrible price.
On October 7, 2023, it was primarily civilians who were killed, maimed, and kidnapped. This was the day when the IDF wasn’t there to defend the people it was created to protect. This was the day when—livestreamed on social media—distraught family members saw their loved ones carried away, like livestock, into Hamas captivity in Gaza. This was the day when—in a horrifying echo of the Holocaust—defenseless Jewish mothers, citizens of a sovereign Jewish State, tried to keep their babies from crying as armed men lurked outside, listening to ascertain whether anyone was alive inside the home, before setting it on fire. This was the day when many Israelis, already mistrustful of their elected representatives and worn out by internal divisions, may have finally lost faith in their national leaders or, worse, in the core institutions of their nation state. Where was the army when murderous gunmen broke into our homes deep inside Israel itself?
Over the coming days, Israelis will bury and mourn their dead. Military and civilian funerals will saturate the country in grief and anger. There will be calls for revenge alongside pleas for caution and mercy. Pressure will mount to release the kidnapped, especially the many children and women seized by Hamas and PIJ. At the same time, the residents of Gaza will suffer bombings and worsening humanitarian conditions. The IDF will scramble to prevent further infiltrations from Gaza, restore the border fence, hunt down Hamas operatives, and keep Hezbollah out of the fight. It will then, in all likelihood, conduct some type of ground operation inside Gaza; a maneuver that Israel will consider essential to restoring deterrence, but which may, paradoxically, compel other Iranian proxies—and possibly Iran itself—to enter the war.
Fifty years ago, in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel appeared broken, internally torn, and internationally isolated. Yet, it proved itself remarkably resilient. Can Israel gather itself again from the terrible blow it sustained on October 7th? I have no doubt that it can.
Amichai Magen is the director of the Program on Democratic Resilience & Development at Reichman University's Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy. He is a Visiting Professor and Fellow in Israel Studies at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
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