The Guardian view on the Hamas attack: a new and deadly chapter opens in the Middle East

Editorial Sun 8 Oct 2023

Israelis inspect the rubble of a building after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip.
Israelis inspect the rubble of a building after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip. Photograph: Oded Balilty/AP

The murderous rampage carried out by Hamas across southern Israel on Saturday was not just shocking and horrifying but seismic. It was not merely the most deadly assault in decades, with militants firing thousands of rockets and then attacking from land, sea and air. It targeted civilians, with fighters taking as many as 100 Israelis hostage, including elderly women and young children. At the time of writing, at least 600 Israelis had been killed and more than 2,000 injured.

How Hamas was able to do this is not yet known. What is certain is that the attack has already brought further disaster on Gaza. As of Sunday afternoon, Israeli retaliation had killed 370 Palestinians and wounded more than 2,000. A ground invasion looks increasingly possible. Benjamin Netanyahu, no longer “Mr Security”, talks of a “long and difficult war” and reducing the places where Hamas hides to rubble. He ordered Palestinians to “leave [those areas] now”, knowing that there is nowhere to go in this tiny, densely packed territory. All this will have been in the militants’ calculations; as ever, civilians pay.

This was an extraordinary military and security failure, especially given Israel’s extraordinary acumen in surveillance technologies and extensive human intelligence networks. Not only did it fail to predict the assault, but desperate civilians waited for hours for the army to arrive. It echoes another notorious intelligence failure, the Yom Kippur war, almost exactly 50 years before. Inevitably, there are questions about the impact of the political turmoil Mr Netanyahu’s far-right government has wrought with its “overhaul” of the judiciary.

The biggest failure, however, is not of intelligence and security, but of politics. Less than a year ago the UN Middle East envoy told the security council that matters were reaching boiling point. Last year was the bloodiest on record in Israel and the West Bank and Jerusalem since the second intifada ended in 2005. A third has been widely predicted. Israel Defence Forces raids have soared; this summer saw the largest on the West Bank in two decades.

Palestinians have endured decades of occupation, the erasure of a viable future state by settlements, and growing violence by settlers, emboldened by impunity. The decade-and-a-half long blockade has destroyed Gaza’s economy and left half the population in poverty. A modest recent economic uplift is no fix for the political crisis begat by a moribund Palestinian leadership which lacks both power and legitimacy – and, above all, by Mr Netanyahu, who has overseen massive settlement expansion, handed extreme nationalists and overt racists not only a veneer of respectability but key positions, and promised annexation.

Just over a week ago, President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” This weekend’s events have not only proven that judgment spectacularly wrong but have underscored the cost of US disengagement. There is the risk of intensified violence in the West Bank and of a wider conflagration drawing in Hezbollah in Lebanon. On Sunday morning, an Egyptian police officer shot dead two Israeli tourists in Alexandria. Hamas has not only destroyed the path towards the normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. It has also demonstrated, at immense human cost, that deals with Gulf states which sideline Palestinians and their needs are not a solution, and that the status quo before Saturday was neither sustainable nor containable.