In the great reckoning that took place in Israel a bit less than 50 years ago, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, one word constantly arose – ha’konseptzya – the concept.
The concept of both the military and political establishment had been that following Israel’s brilliant victory in the Six-Day War, the Arab nations would not challenge Israel again on the battlefield.
The konseptzya lasted for just over six years, until Egypt and Syria launched their simultaneous attack on the most sacred of days. And while there were other failures and oversights that had led to Israel being caught by surprise, the konseptzya was the foundation of the disastrous opening to that war in which Israel would ultimately win, but at the cost of more than 2,000 soldiers’ lives.
The death-toll in the war that began on Saturday morning on the borders of Gaza, 50 years and a day since the previous time Israel was caught so unprepared is already in its hundreds.
Smoke rises over Gaza City on October 7, 2023 during Israeli air strikes (Photo: Getty)
The exact number will remain unclear for a while as Hamas in its lightning attack on the communities in southern Israel seem to have also snatched bodies, along with dozens of hostages of all ages.
They will taunt the families of those missing with the uncertainty of whether their loved ones are alive or dead in captivity.
And the many casualties of the first day of warfare will not be the last ones in this war that will continue for weeks, perhaps months to come.
But even at this early stage, it is clear already that three concepts that have been at the foundation of Israel’s military and political policies regarding Gaza and Hamas (some would say with a large degree of justification, Israel’s lack of policies) collapsed at 6.30 in the morning, as hundreds of Hamas fighters stormed across the border and began their bloody rampage through kibbutzim and towns.
The first concept was that Hamas has a greater interest in bolstering its rule over Gaza and improving the economy there than in once again inviting destruction on the coastal enclave’s hapless inhabitants. It was a concept that held, even when in 2021 Hamas fired thousands of rockets on Israel in an 11-day campaign. It held partly because in other flare-ups in recent years Hamas remained on the sidelines while allowing the Islamic Jihad to fire rockets instead. And it held largely because it was convenient for Israeli politicians and general to believe that Gaza was a problem they could relegate to the bottom of their agenda.
The second concept was that Israel had already succeeded in denying Hamas nearly all avenues of attack on Israel. The massive border fence would prevent incursions over ground. A network of underground sensors would detect tunnels which would then be destroyed. And the shining jewel in Israel’s military-tech crown, Iron Dome, would eliminate the missile threat.
All these systems worked brilliantly, until on Saturday morning they weren’t enough to hold back a concerted and coordinated attacks on multiple points at the fence, motor-gliders above it and jet-skis from the sea, all taking place under the cover of a barrage of rockets. Most of the rockets heading for built-up areas were intercepted by Iron Dome, but it didn’t detract from their usefulness as a diversion from Hamas’s real intention.
The third concept was that Israel can “shrink the conflict” instead of trying to solve it. That it can minimise points of friction between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. That it can create sufficient economic incentives to disincentivise violence and totally marginalise, or even change, groups like Hamas who are sworn to destroying Israel.
There was a seductive charm to the “shrinking the conflict” concept. After all Israel had tried both making peace with the Palestinians and destroying Hamas and failed at doing both. So why not just try and minimise the problem? Many Israelis had reached the conclusion that conflict won’t go away, but at least you can try and reduce it to a minor nuisance. That has now also failed spectacularly.
So much for Israel’s failed concepts. But what about Hamas’s concept for this war?
They launched this operation with one main objective – snatching as many Israelis, soldiers and civilians, dead or alive, into Gaza. And have succeeded at that beyond their wildest imagination. They have yet to issue their demands but it is not hard to predict they will insist on the release of all 5,200 Palestinian prisoners Israel is currently holding. Releasing the prisoners, they believe, will establish them as the premier Palestinian movement and sweep away their Fatah rivals in their West Bank strongholds.
Hamas’s concept is based on their knowledge of Israeli society. They have seen in the past how difficult it is for Israelis to accept that their own people are being held captive by the enemy. Israel, under a previous Netanyahu government, was prepared to release over a thousand Palestinian prisoners, including dozens of murderers, one of whom Yihya Sinwar, is now Hamas chief in Gaza and one of the men directing this operation, in exchange for one IDF sergeant, Gilad Shalit. So how can Israel act otherwise when Hamas now holds dozens of prisoners, including women and young children? Surely they will have to give in.
Perhaps. But Israel may not conform to Hamas’s concept this time. Israel is reeling from the worst military setback and tragedy most of its citizens can remember. Israel is under a very different type of government with far-right ministers and a prime minister who does remember the Yom Kippur War and the fate of Israel’s political leadership in its aftermath – a fate he is determined to avoid.
It is much too early to predict how this war will pan out. Hamas has won the first round, of that there is no doubt. But despite its devastating operational success in the opening stage, Israel has overwhelming military power and this time it seems that Israel is not going to limit its forces when it embarks on the inevitable attack on Gaza, at least not to the extent it has in the past.
The civilians in Gaza will suffer greatly, but this time Hamas and its leaders, who are undoubtedly already hunkered in their bunker under Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, may also end up paying a terrible price for their concept.