By Neve Gordon
Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel is without doubt of historic proportions and will be remembered for generations to come. The Israeli death toll has reached 1,200 people and the number of people kidnapped and being held in Gaza is estimated at more than 100.
Israelis are realising that Hamas’s success is intricately tied to the government’s colossal failures. And that of course has brought up the key question of whether Netanyahu and his messianic government can survive the fallout of the brutal attack.
The accusations are beginning to mount, even as it might take months if not years before we fully understand what happened.
Netanyahu’s strategy has always been to allow Hamas room for manoeuvre in order to weaken the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Palestinian society more generally.
“Those who want to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state should support the strengthening of Hamas and the transfer of money to Hamas,” he stated at a Likud party meeting in March 2019. “This is part of our strategy, to differentiate between the Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.”
Following Hamas’s attack, this strategic framework has come increasingly under intense fire.
There is also a lot of talk of an “intelligence failure”, where Hamas outsmarted Israel’s famed Unit 8200, the general secret services – also known as the Shabak – and several other agencies responsible for surveillance.
These intelligence units appear to have been operating under a mistaken colonial paradigm, one that casts Hamas as weak and lacking strategic acumen, leading them to ignore fairly obvious warning signs, such as the military manoeuvres Hamas had been carrying out on Gaza’s beach over the past few months. Perhaps the best phrase for this failure is colonial hubris.
Then there is the “preparedness failure”. This, too, is the result of colonial hubris. More concretely, it has now come out that the military has been moving battalions away from the border with Gaza to secure Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
As of September, some 22 battalions were spread throughout the region while only two remained near Gaza. In Hebron, for example, 600 to 800 soldiers regularly protect about 800 settlers, while three battalions accompany Jewish “prayer” at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.
This past weekend an entire battalion that was supposed to secure the Gaza border was sent to protect Jewish settlers who went to pray in Huwara, the Palestinian town where settlers carried out a pogrom. As one commentor put it, the same battalion cannot simultaneously secure the southern region and a pogrom in the West Bank.
The lack of preparedness also bled into the hours and days that followed Hamas’s attack, with military units taking hours before they could reach besieged civilians. The families of those kidnapped feel completely abandoned by the government, while one person living not far from Gaza’s border expressed a sentiment increasingly shared by Israelis: “In this war, something cracked. The contract between us and the state had been clear: we guard the border, and the state guards us. We did our part bravely[…] the State of Israel did not fulfil its part.”
The right-wing government and its supporters have already established a defence. “Now,” they say, “is not the time to point fingers; now we must unite to defeat the common enemies.” Most liberal Zionists have readily adopted this position as well, vehemently criticising anyone who dares to break rank.
A broad unity government appears on the horizon, with former chief of staff and the leader of the opposition political alliance Blue and White, Benny Ganz, publicly indicating that he is willing to enter Netanyahu’s government until the fighting abates.
Yair Lapid, the leader of another opposition party, Yesh Atid (There Is Future), has set out strict conditions under which he would be willing to enter such a government. Some say Lapid is now wavering. Netanyahu knows full well that broadening the government will help stabilise his reign.
At the same time, there is little doubt that a defence playbook for the “day after” is being crafted. Netanyahu and his ministers will blame the different intelligence agencies, the pilots and elite military units who have been associated with those protesting against his government’s judicial overhaul.
They will blame Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the Palestinians. They will blame the Supreme Court judges, the media, the army chief of staff and their own defence minister. They will blame the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the anti-Zionist leftists, and the academic staff in Israeli universities. They will also blame the liberal Zionists leading the protest movement.
Netanyahu and his entourage of poodles will spurt their poison and spin the narrative, doing anything and everything possible to secure their seats in power. It is, however, too early to know if they will succeed.
As evidence of the widespread death and destruction comes to light, Israeli public anger will only increase. Thirty-six hours after Hamas’s attacks began, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir finally appeared on the political scene calling for the complete destruction of Hamas while trying to deflect attention away from the quite apparent governmental failures.
“The State of Israel is experiencing one of the most difficult events in its history. This is not the time for questions, tests and investigations,” he said.
A report on his statement in the Walla news outlet garnered over 1,400 angry comments, many of which expressed outrage and a desire to send Ben-Gvir to jail or to exchange him for the hostages Hamas had taken.
But let there be no mistake: despite the wide chasm between the far-right pro-government and the liberal Zionist camps, there are also areas of broad consensus. Both liberal Zionists and their messianic counterparts believe that Netanyahu has been too timid when dealing with Hamas.
Despite the growing criticism, outcry and fury, there also appears to be an agreement that following a massive aerial attack, Israeli infantry will need to enter Gaza to “reestablish deterrence” and get rid of Hamas once and for all.
Many also agree with Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant who recently revealed that he has ordered “a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly.”
A desire for violent retribution is the glue that holds Israeli society together at the moment, however tentatively. But this might also be the one key ingredient that Netanyahu needs to stay in power for years to come.
First published in Al Jazeera English