Hamas’s large-scale breakout from Gaza into surrounding Israeli kibbutzim and military bases—where fighters killed more 1,300 people and took nearly 200 hostage, including large numbers of civilians—has inflicted grave suffering on many Israelis. It has also shaken Israeli society to the core, revealing the deep strategic complacency and tactical chaos into which the country’s long-vaunted security system had fallen.
Israel’s military commanders struggled for two days to regain control of terrain Hamas fighters had breached. The retaliatory bombings of Gaza have now killed more than 2,500 Palestinians. And the deep political and security crisis sparked by the breakout will haunt Israel for a long time to come—regardless of whether it is contained to the region or spreads to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, or Iran.
The breakout has also reminded the whole world that the Palestinians’ claims for rights and an independent national state, which have been endorsed by the United Nations since 1947, can no longer be ignored. Over the weeks and months ahead, the more harshly Israel’s military continues to visit punishment on Gazans (including large numbers of civilians), the more clamorous will grow the campaign in the global community for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza—and therefore, for Israel’s withdrawal from the lands it has occupied since 1967.
Leaders of the Arab states, China, South Africa, Brazil, and others have called loudly for a complete ceasefire—something that Washington has thus far notably refrained from doing—and for urgent international negotiations to implement the UN’s two-state plan. This campaign poses a significant challenge to the position of the United States in global politics. Since 1973, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger adroitly excluded the Soviets from any say in Arab-Israeli diplomacy in the aftermath of the October War, Washington has monopolized all external control over Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking; and successive presidents have used that control to endlessly postpone attainment of any final-status peace. The current crisis also comes at a time when the NATO campaign in Ukraine is in deep trouble, and when Washington itself is roiling with political dysfunction.
At this point, little is clear about the scale or direction of Israel’s future military operations. What is clear is that relationship between Israel and Palestine—and between the nations arrayed on either side of the conflict—has entered a new, dangerous phase. The only way forward is to try to understand how a negotiated peace can be carved out of the wake of the past week’s violence. And doing so demands a much fuller picture of Hamas than has been offered in U.S. corporate media—including as clear an understanding as possible of the goals of the October 7 operation and of the organization’s longer-term political vision and capabilities.
What were the Hamas fighters who streamed into Israel actually trying to achieve? New reports show they had ambitions beyond simply committing mass violence. Within days after October 7, an analyst for Israel’s right-wing Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies concluded that Hamas had executed a carefully coordinated plan to seize Israeli territory. “Hamas intended to hold on to the ground it had won in the first rush, not only massacre the population,” he wrote.
The report also provided information from the text of an Israeli military interrogation of a captured Hamas fighter. According to the interrogation, “Hamas had been preparing the attack for more than a year,” and was surprised at the Israeli military’s lack of preparedness to their plan. Fighters “operated inside Israel for about five hours before they met armed resistance,” it concluded.
The New York Times reported that Israel’s long-vaunted security services had been lulled into complacency by the months-long quiet along the Gaza-Israel frontier. It found that destroying Israeli forces’ ability to coordinate was part of Hamas’s plan: before breaching the border fence, military members used drones to destroy the cellular towers that the Israeli military units surrounding Gaza had used for their communications. This “allowed more than 1,500 Gazan fighters to surge through nearly 30 points along the border, some of them in paragliders . . . and reach at least four Israeli military bases without being intercepted.” IDF members in the bases were caught completely off-guard: many of those shot were still sleeping when the attacks started.
There are significant indications that Hamas’s political wing—which operates largely independently from the group’s military wing—was also taken by surprise at the timing and details of the breakout. It took them some days to prepare and present the kind of public information campaign that in previous crises would have been rolled out in a timely manner to accompany military actions.
The first explanation of the operation came instead from Deif. On the morning of October 7 Deif released a ten-minute video, as reported by the Times of Israel, in which he said that the operation was launched in retaliation for Israel’s “desecration” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and called for Palestinians from East Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight and “expel the occupiers and demolish the walls.” The Times further reported that “he also called on the ‘Islamic resistance in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon . . . to merge their resistance with that of the Palestinians today’ and ‘start marching towards Palestine now’.”
At the same time, articles swirled around Western media detailing the atrocities committed against Israeli civilians by gunmen from Hamas. The reporting made little mention of the many casualties inflicted on Israeli soldiers in those hours, leaving the impression that Hamas’s only intent had been to slaughter or capture civilians. Deif’s broadcast call to arms only fueled that view.
It was not until the morning of October 12 that Hamas’s political leadership responded, sharing a prerecorded press conference. In it, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad and Hamas Minister of Health in Gaza Dr. Basem Naim claimed that “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” had targeted only Israeli military bases and compounds and that there were clear instructions to Hamas fighters to avoid harming civilians. But the “swift collapse” of the Israeli military bases had led to chaos in the area, Naim said, in which civilians “found themselves in the middle of the confrontation.”
Regardless of the truth of these claims, it is clear that the broad operational success of Hamas’s initial breakout proved to be—paradoxically—fairly catastrophic. The number of large breaches that Hamas fighters made in the once-terrifying walls that Israel had built around Gaza allowed thousands of extremely angry young Palestinian men to surge out of the Strip and into the neighboring Israeli communities. Some of the videos of the events show fairly disciplined and well-organized groups of Hamas fighters: convoys of motorbikes, each with two Hamas-uniformed men on each, with the one riding behind carrying two AK-47s, one for each of them; well-armed pickups driving with similar discipline. Other videos showed much more disorganized groups: grinning men hamming for the cameras, brandishing guns and knives.
Clearly, the Hamas squads had no evident plan for imposing discipline on the chaos. I am not saying the Hamas men committed no atrocities. I am, however, questioning the idea that they committed all of them—or that committing senseless atrocities against Israeli civilians was the sole or even the main aim of the breakout.
Among most Western media today, the idea that Hamas may have political goals seems quite absent. Over the decades since its founding in late 1987, Hamas has nearly always been portrayed as intrinsically violent and deeply anti-Semitic. They are held to be unalterably opposed to the existence of Israel. And they are described as having a vice-like hold on a captive Gazan people, reigning over them through fear and intimidation. It is not too hard to understand why this is: most of these portrayals are written by people who have never met, interviewed, or interacted with Hamas leaders.
But I have. I first interviewed some Hamas leaders in Gaza and the West Bank back in 1989 during the height of the First Intifada. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s I conducted interviews with them as parts of reporting and research projects I undertook for this magazine, The Nation, and other outlets. And from 2004 through 2011 I interviewed Hamas leaders several times, both inside the occupied Palestinian areas and in Damascus, where the organization’s leadership was headquartered until around 2012 when the support it gave to Syria’s opposition led the government to expel them.
Here is my current assessment of their capabilities and positions.
First, Hamas as an organization is much broader and more deeply rooted in Palestinian society than most Western portrayals of it would admit. It has broad, longstanding alliances throughout Gaza (obviously) and the West Bank, as well as with the sizable Palestinian communities in Jordan and the Arab Gulf countries. It has started to rebuild its once-robust grassroots organizations in the large Palestinian communities in Syria and Lebanon. And it has significant ties with the governments of Iran, Qatar, and Turkey and intermittent ties with other regional governments, like those of Jordan or Egypt.
Second, Hamas leaders have always kept a strong focus on the issue of Jerusalem. For example, their name for the October 7 operation, “Al-Aqsa Flood,” refers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem that has for years been the site of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. This focus has allowed the group to starkly distinguish itself from the PLO, which effectively surrendered the Palestinians’ historic claim to the holy city after its leadership, as part of the Oslo Accords, agreed to establish the capital of the new Palestinian Authority in nearby Ramallah, not in Jerusalem. Hamas knows that Jerusalem is a cause that speaks powerfully both to the yearnings of Palestinians everywhere and to the sensitivities of the Arab and Islamic worlds—and is a thousand times more compelling than anything connected with Ramallah.
And last, Hamas has proven remarkably resilient, weathering Israel’s assassinations of dozens of its prominent leaders since the 1990s. Hamas leadership has long-engrained traditions of using a collaborative, broadly consultative approach to decision making. Hence, even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should succeed on paper in realizing his stated aim of “wiping out” Hamas in Gaza by taking out its leaders there, the organization would still survive in the robust networks of leaders and supporters it has built up in the West Bank and among Palestinian communities in Jordan, the Gulf countries, Lebanon, and just about everywhere else in the world where large numbers of Palestinians are found. These communities have already been deeply mobilized by the first few days of Israel’s post-October 7 assault on Gaza.
So in one form or another, Hamas is here to stay. And yes, it is undoubtedly politically hardline. It has never completely disavowed the founding charter that called for Palestinian rule in the whole area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean—just as Israel’s ruling Likud party has never disavowed its claims that all of that same area is part of the “Land of Israel,” working to expand Jewish control over the occupied West Bank.
But unlike the PLO and PA, Hamas has refused concessions to Israel’s expansionist mission—causing a deep rift between the two groups. The cleavage goes back to the early 1990s. In 1991, in the aftermath of the stunningly successful U.S.-led war that pushed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein back out of Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush launched a broad, multilateral peace negotiating system with the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991, cosponsored by the Soviet Union. The conference included PLO designees, but none from Hamas, which had not been invited.
But Bush soon turned his attention to campaigning for reelection, which he lost. And in late spring 1993, leaders from Israel’s Zionist Labor Party approached the new U.S. president Bill Clinton with a plan, backed by Norway, to “split off” the always vulnerable and easily manipulable PLO from the Arab states that had been most heavily in the success of Madrid (Syria and Jordan). The idea was to deal with them one on one. The Clinton administration jumped at the idea. And thus Oslo was born: a process firmly controlled by the United States and by Israel from the very start.
Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders reached the Oslo Accords for an interim agreement with Israel in September 1993. Under the agreement, they returned to the occupied territories and established the PA as an interim ruling body. Hamas was strongly opposed to that whole process. And in 1996, after PLO/PA leaders held their first parliamentary and presidential elections in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas strongly opposed that too, instead stepping up its violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians in an attempt to derail Oslo.
Arafat and Clinton’s Oslo process led nowhere. The accords’ establishment of the PA in 1994 was intended to inaugurate a five-year process of negotiation over a “final status” agreement with Israel. But 1999 came and went with no such agreement. More recently, the United States has given up even any pretense of seeking a final-status peace.
Meanwhile, in the thirty years since 1994, successive Israeli governments supported the continued building of illegal settlements throughout the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, and launched periodic raids against Palestinian institutions in the West Bank and (especially) Gaza. Washington never held Israel accountable in any meaningful way for the many gross violations of international law it committed in those projects. In many ways, they have done the exact opposite. In 2017 President Donald Trump gave Israel the recognition it had long sought for its annexation of Jerusalem—and Biden has not reversed the decision.
Back in 2005, shortly after Arafat’s death, the situation appeared more open. The PA agreed, in coordination with the governments of Israel and the United States, to hold new elections for its presidency and its parliament (both of which have tightly limited powers under Oslo). This time around Hamas’s leaders agreed to take part in the parliamentary election. It was the first time Hamas showed a willingness to work within the Oslo framework, the clear goal of which was always understood by the PLO and all other Palestinian and Arab leaders to be the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
When those elections were held in January 2006, Hamas won them handily, taking 74 of the council’s 132 seats. The victory stunned the traditional Fatah leaders of the PA and their backers in Washington and Tel Aviv. In a reporting trip to the region soon thereafter, I found that Hamas’s success reflected a combination of skills: a history of having provided helpful community services to different grassroots constituencies; a reputation for generally “clean hands” (unlike Fatah); effective organizing through women’s networks, with several Hamas women leaders getting elected to the parliament; and good electoral discipline, not running more candidates than there were seats in multi-seat constituencies, as Fatah and its allies did in several places.
The elections gave the PLO and its U.S. and Israeli allies a great opportunity to work to find a way to draw Hamas into the political process. Hamas was willing, too, initially making inroads to form a “government of national unity” with Fatah. But the reaction from Israel and Washington was harsh. They threatened to kill any of the newly elected legislators who would agree to join such a government—which I know because I was the conduit for conveying one such threat.
Later, Washington and Israel persuaded Fatah to start plotting to overthrow the newly elected leaders of the PA’s parliament and premiership. In 2007 Fatah tried to launch a violent coup against Hamas, but Hamas leaders in Gaza rebuffed the attempt. Afterward Hamas set about institutionalizing their position in Gaza while Fatah retreated, with their generous U.S. funding, to Ramallah in the West Bank. All the while, Hamas and its allies retained significant support in the West Bank and throughout the widespread Palestinian diaspora—and remained the democratically elected government in Gaza, although new elections have not been held since.
Though by 2005 Israel had withdrawn all its civilian settlers from Gaza, it has always maintained very tight control over all the crossings through which people or goods could pass in or out of the Strip—until October 7, that is. The United Nations continues to deem Israel the “occupying power” there, with all the responsibilities that status entails under international law. And since 2007, several Israeli governments have undertaken punishment raids into Gaza—actions that some Israeli commentators have cynically dubbed “mowing the lawn.” The raids of late 2008 and summer 2014 were particularly destructive, with thousands of Palestinians killed in total. Successive U.S. presidents have generally seemed happy to allow these incursions. And the United States’ position in the global political order has meant that its word is law.
But now, Washington can no longer effortlessly control all aspects of Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Other powerful voices in the international arena have emerged. In recent days, China, Russia, nearly all the Arab states (including Saudi Arabia), and several European governments have reiterated their view that the two-state solution must remain the international goal, and should be speedily attained.
How realistic is this? People who question the viability of this goal tend to use one of two main arguments. The first is that Israel will never agree to any solution that involves pulling out of East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied West Bank the million or so settlers it has implanted in those areas since 1967. The second is that Hamas will always oppose the many Palestinian concessions that a two-state formula involves.
But the 2005–2006 elections show that under the right circumstances, Hamas’s leaders might be persuaded to join a negotiation for a robust two-state outcome—one that would more or less return Israel to the frontiers it occupied from 1949 to 1967 and that would allow the ten million or so Palestinian refugees to exercise the “right to return or compensation” they were promised by the UN in 1949.
An early way to set the stage could be through a UN Security Council resolution that would reiterate its support for the earlier Resolutions 242 and 338, which stressed the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force and opposed all attempts to either implant settlers into territories held under military occupation or to annex such territories. For this to work, all parties would have to forswear the use of violence and to abide by all the provisions of international humanitarian law.
Is calling for such a policy unrealistic? In many Western countries it may currently seem so. But this is because we have all become so inured to Washington’s continued refusal to hold Israel to any decent international standards and its support for Israel’s campaigns of illegal territorial expansion. What seems far more unrealistic at this point is to expect Palestinians to give up any hope for a political path forward and to simply accept forever being rights-less untermenschen.
Two weeks ago, at the UN General Assembly, Colombian president Gustavo Petro issued a potent call, declaring that
the United Nations, as soon as possible, should hold two peace conferences, one on Ukraine, the other on Palestine, not because there are no other wars in the world—there are in my country—but because this would guide the way to making peace in all regions of the planet, because both of these, by themselves, could bring an end to hypocrisy as a political practice, because we could be sincere, a virtue without which we cannot be warriors for life itself.
This tremendous proposal touches on what must be two main features of today’s international scene. The first is that both these difficult conflicts, in Ukraine and in historic Palestine, need to be resolved through principles-based negotiations—not through the continued application of force. And second, the crass hypocrisy with which the United States seeks to rally support against Russia in Ukraine, while actively supporting Israel as it undertakes very similar actions in Palestine, needs to be called out.
What might this process actually look like? All Palestinian parties (including Hamas) and Israelis should endorse Petro’s proposal—and forget about the destructive Oslo process along the way. The principled and broad-based process of Madrid still holds promise, but with a few key changes. A new Arab-Israeli peace conference could be sponsored directly by the UN Security Council but should not punt, as Madrid did, on the issue of Palestinian representation. And it should not—as the Madrid process also did—allow itself to get distracted by side issues. It should address the issues of sovereignty, political independence, and national boundaries head on.
What about the challenges of pulling Israel’s settlers out of the West Bank? Facilitating settlements has been a clear policy of successive Israeli governments, and in many cases has been funded by U.S. institutions. But it is not impossible to consider that Israel should extract settlers—as France did with the one million settlers it had implanted in Algeria, or Portugal with its settlers in Angola and Mozambique.