Fire and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. The militant Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip carried out an unprecedented, multi-front attack on Israel at daybreak Saturday, firing thousands of rockets as dozens of Hamas fighters infiltrated the heavily fortified border in several locations, killing hundreds and taking captives. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
The war that now besets Israel is a stark reminder that we live in a complex and dangerous world. Winds can shift quickly. We need serious leaders apt to make serious decisions.
The seven-day Jewish festival of Sukkot—a period of thanksgiving for their historic liberation from Egypt—drew to a close Friday night. Saturday marked the Simchat Torah, a holiday which caps off the Sukkot with the public reading of the Jewish holy scripture.
In a rural area along the Israeli-Gaza border, revelers at the Tribe of Nova outdoor music festival had been dancing all night.
Instead of solemn observance of the Torah, instead of a sleepy end to an all-nighter, the people of Israeli got air raid sirens. Shortly before dawn, rockets fired by the Palestinian militant group Hamas began raining down from Gaza on Israeli civilians.
While the people of Israel are tragically accustomed to rocket attacks, they were not prepared for the level of coordination, severity, and carnage that followed.
Accounts have varied from intelligence agencies, and Hamas itself, on the number of rockets fired into Israel. At least 2,200 have been confirmed, though Hamas claims it fired more than 5,000.
Rockets hit targets in central and southern Israel, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israeli officials reported one missile hit a hospital in the town of Ashkelon.
In addition to the rockets, over 1,000 armed Hamas fighters crossed into Israel on bulldozers, trucks, motorcycles and even paragliders. In small communities along the border, they raped and pillaged, abducted and killed Israeli civilians.
So far, over 700 Israelis deaths are being attributed to the attacks on Saturday. 2,300 injured have been reported. Bodies are still being recovered and counted.
At least 260 of the counted fatalities came from the Tribe of Nova music festival, according to the Israeli rescue agency ZAKA. Among the deaths were law enforcement that formed a human shield to protect concertgoers from gunfire.
More than 100 people were taken as hostages during the attack. According to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Hertzog, there were Americans among them. Reports Monday morning indicated that 9 Americans were among those who died in Saturday’s attacks.
The attack is the most significant incursion into Israeli territory since the 1973 Yom Kippur War that saw Egypt and Syria fail in a bid to retake land from Israel. It is the 50th Anniversary of that conflict, which began on October 6th.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Saturday’s bloodshed as a “dark day” for Israel and as “our 9/11.”
In his first public statement, Netanyahu said “Israel is at war. This is not a so-called military operation, not another round of fighting, but war.”
Within hours of the first rockets, Israel scrambled jets and began retaliatory strikes in Gaza. Palestinian officials in Gaza claim over 550 fatalities from Israel’s response.
To compound the problem, on Sunday, Hezbollah—a militant group out of Lebanon—fired rockets into northern Israel in an “act of solidarity with Palestinian resistance.”
The U.S. and Iran
The U.S. has made supportive overtures to Israel since the Hamas attack.
In a televised statement, President Joe Biden said, “I made clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel. Terrorism is never justified. Israel has a right to defend itself and its people. The United States warns against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation. My Administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.”
While unnamed, the President’s warning to other parties hostile to Israel presumably includes Iran.
Citing senior members of both Hamas and Hezbollah, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iranian security officials helped plan and ultimately greenlit the Hamas attack at a meeting in Beirut last Monday.
Iran has provided Hamas with both funding and arms over the years. Just days before the attacks Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech promising the “usurper Zionist regime” would “soon come to an end.” Referring to Israel, Khamenei told the International Islamic Unity Conference, “this cancer will definitely be eradicated, God willing, at the hands of the Palestinian people and the resistance forces throughout the region.”
In the wake of the attack, Iran denied direct involvement in Hamas attack, while simultaneously praising it. “We emphatically stand in unflinching support of Palestine, however, we are not involved in Palestine’s response, as it is taken solely by Palestine itself,” Iran’s U.N. mission said.
Iran’s involvement in the attacks could become a political liability for the Biden administration. In August, details emerged on a deal struck by the administration for a prisoner swap with Iran. Under the terms of the deal, five U.S. prisoners would be released from Iranian prison and five Iranian prisoners would be released from U.S. prison. The U.S. would also unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian assets held in a South Korean bank.
Republicans, who were highly critical of the deal at the time it was announced, seized upon it in the aftermath of Saturday’s attacks. Former President Donald Trump told a rally in Iowa that the attacks occurred because “we are perceived as being weak and ineffective, with a really weak leader.” He also directly attributed the attacks to the $6 billion in released funds.
One of Trump’s chief Republican rivals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, likewise took the opportunity to criticize Biden. “Iran has helped fund this war against Israel, and Joe Biden’s policies that have gone easy on Iran has helped to fill their coffers,” he said. “Israel is now paying the price for those policies.”
Downplaying reports of Iranian involvement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN “we have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack, but there is certainly a long relationship.” Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in a statement, “These funds have absolutely nothing to do with the horrific attacks today, and this is not the time to spread disinformation.”
What Comes Next?
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that “over the coming days, the Department of Defense will work to ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself and protect civilians from indiscriminate violence and terrorism.”
In a statement released on Sunday, Austin announced:
I have directed the movement of the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean. This includes the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60), as well as the Arleigh-Burke-class guided missile destroyers USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116), USS Ramage (DDG 61), USS Carney (DDG 64), and USS Roosevelt (DDG 80). We have also taken steps to augment U.S. Air Force F-35, F-15, F-16, and A-10 fighter aircraft squadrons in the region. The U.S. maintains ready forces globally to further reinforce this deterrence posture if required.
The move is being touted as a deterrent to the war in Israel expanding beyond its borders.
The war that now besets the Middle East, and the U.S.’s closest ally in the region, Israel, is a stark reminder that we live in a complex and dangerous world. Winds can shift quickly.
In recent years, the political left’s posture on Israel has been infiltrated by “whataboutism” and calls for proportionality when Islamic militants attack Israeli civilians. They draw false equivalencies between acts of aggression on the part of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and acts of self-preservation on the part of the Israeli people.
Since Israel gave Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005 and Hamas took control in 2006, almost every major conflict has been a result of direct attacks on Israelis by Hamas. Weakness invites evil.
Conversely, the political right is struggling to identify its own foreign policy philosophy—stuck somewhere between “NeoCon” interventionism that never saw a conflict we shouldn’t stick our nose in and a new breed of reckless isolationism. Conservatives would do well to jettison unserious populist grifters within the movement and adopt a cohesive foreign policy strategy.
On both sides, we need serious leaders apt to make serious, sober-minded decisions.