Oct 17, 2023 - World
Axios Explains: Israel-Hamas war

Behind Israel's high-risk push to eliminate Hamas

And Israeli soldier drives an army tank near the Gaza border.

Israeli soldiers move tanks and armored vehicles near the Gaza border Monday. Photo: Saeed Qaq/Anadolu via Getty Images

As Israel's military prepares for a massive, unprecedented ground war in Gaza that carries huge risks for the Middle East and beyond, it's important to understand why: Israelis haven't felt this threatened since their war of independence in 1948.

Why it matters: Hamas' terrorist attack on Israel killed more Jews in one day — more than 1,300 — than any other day since the Holocaust. For a country that vowed "never again," the brutal killings and video-documented kidnappings were a shock to the national psyche — and a stunning breach of a trusted security system.

  • Israelis have seen horrific images of dead soldiers and babies who were shot and their bodies burned, as well as video of elderly Holocaust survivors, young women and entire families kidnapped.
  • For days, the shocks rippled across Israel — scenes from a massacre at a music festival where 260 young Israelis were killed, and from ransacked and bloodied villages near the Gaza border, strewn with bodies.
  • Israelis' outrage was exacerbated by videos with alleged Hamas operatives telling authorities that kidnapped women and children were taken to Gaza to be raped.

Zoom in: Support for a war whose goal would be to eliminate Hamas' military capabilities appears to have broad support across Israel's political spectrum — including among liberals most sympathetic to Palestinians.

  • "The state of Israel was established so that Jews will not have to hide defenseless in closets and basements," Yuval Noah Harari, a history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote on Ynet, a Hebrew-language news website based in Israel.
  • Some peace activists who've expressed concern about Israel limiting rights and economic opportunities to Palestinians in Gaza — and about Israel's occupation of the West Bank since 1967 — say they understand the calls for swift retribution in Gaza.
  • "Even Israel's conduct and its crimes in the occupied territories for 56 years cannot justify or soften what has been laid bare: the depth of hatred towards Israel, the painful understanding that we Israelis will always have to live here in heightened alertness and constant preparedness for war," author and peace activist David Grossman wrote in Haaretz, a liberal Hebrew-language newspaper.

Between the lines: Hamas — which took over Gaza in a military coup in 2007, ousting the Palestinian Authority follows an ideology that calls for the destruction of Israel.

  • Hamas didn't try to occupy territory like an army in a war. Written secret orders captured on the bodies of Hamas commanders indicated the militants' intent was to kill and kidnap as many civilians as possible.

Many Palestinians — including those in Gaza — haven't backed Hamas, but support for the Islamic movement has increased in recent years. Some Palestinians see Hamas as freedom fighters, striking back against years of oppression by Israel that followed the 2007 coup.

  • After the coup, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza that resulted in dire humanitarian conditions, growing poverty — and simmering anger among Palestinians.

Hamas, with help from Iran, has raised and spent billions of dollars building up its military capabilities — including tens of thousands of rockets and a tunnel system used to smuggle goods and launch attacks.

  • Much of its military infrastructure is in residential areas — which would be one of the many complicating factors in a ground assault by Israel.

What's next: Israel's stated goal in the war is to dismantle Hamas' military and topple its rule in Gaza, so that an attack like the one on Oct. 7 won't be possible again.

Yes, but: As determined as Israel is to deter others from attacking as Hamas did, there is enormous risk for Israel in pursuing an invasion of Gaza to root out Hamas militants.

  • Israel's bombing of Gaza already has killed an estimated 2,700 people, and its call for more than 1 million residents to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip — signaling an imminent ground attack — has added to what UN officials are calling a humanitarian crisis.
  • And then there will be an inevitable battle for world public opinion, as casualties increase.
  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Monday urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza to maintain international support for the Israeli operation to dismantle Hamas, two Israeli officials said.

There's also the significant risk of the war expanding in the Middle East.

  • The U.S. already is sending additional military aid to Israel in the Gaza conflict, and is positioning two aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean to try to discourage other nations in the region from getting involved.
  • Iran has warned Israel that it will have to intervene if the Israeli operation in Gaza continues — and Monday, Iran's foreign minister warned that militants it supports could launch a "pre-emptive" attack on Israel.

Go deeper ... Blinken urges Bibi to allow aid into Gaza to maintain wider support for invasion

This coverage is part of our continuing "Axios explains" series, answering big questions about the war. Coming soon:  A companion piece about the Palestinian view.

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