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Hamas' Attack on Israel: A Lesson in Contemporary Hybrid Warfare

12 Oct 2023
By Professor Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann
The Aftermath of a Rocket Attack in Israel. Source: Israel Defence Forces /

The deadly weekend attacks by Hamas against mainly young people at a musical festival in Israel reveals a new and challenging shift in how terrorist organisations are approaching their political goals. Hybrid forms of warfare are not new, but their characteristics are likely to trouble state responses. 

This past Saturday Australians awoke to the news that the Palestinian terror group Hamas had launched thousands of rockets on Israel, along with the invasion of over a thousand terrorists to murder as many (Jewish) Israeli civilians as possible and to take multiple hostages for the purpose of hostage diplomacy.

This attack by Hamas on the fifty-year anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 seems to have caught Israel’s military and security services by surprise, as it was the case back in 1973.

Some political and military commentators have already compared the events of 7 October 2023 with the US 11 September attacks, implying that the same potential for future conflict with similarly seismic changes to the Middle East is in tow. One day later, Israel’s government confirmed the total number of Israeli victims at 700 murdered and 100 abducted. The number of murder victims alone makes this massacre of Jewish Israelis the worst since the Nazi Holocaust of over 75 years ago. As a consequence, Israel declared a state of war and called up 300,000 reserves.

Hamas’ surprise attacks developed along various modes and intertwined vectors of warfare (land, air, and sea) and incorporated both overt and covert methods. They seem to have been planned well in advance and their coordination and execution was well practiced. According the Washington, Iran has been complicit but not involved directly in these attacks.

Australian retired general and military analyst Mick Ryan credits Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, with having been able to plan, integrate, and execute military operations across multiple domains – a simultaneity of operations mostly associated with the capabilities of an advanced state actor’s military.

These attacks were multi modal and combined elements of conventional (rocket barrage) and unconventional warfare (insurgency operators and paragliders) to achieve its main objective of spreading fear and terror through the employment of ISIS-styled acts of barbarity:

They shot people in cars & at bus stops, they rounded up women & children into rooms like Einsatzgruppen and machine-gunned them. They went house to house to find & murder civilians hiding in their closets, and they dragged the bloody, dead bodies of Israelis back into Gaza.

This deliberate murder of mostly Jewish Israelis by Hamas death squads and the taking of hostages inserted a new and even more perfidious dimension to previous attacks by Hamas on Israel in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014. Then the main “modus operandi” was the indiscriminate shelling of Israeli towns, kibbutzim, and cities from Gaza by Hamas leading to defensive and retaliatory action by Israel, which took place mainly in the air domain with only limited land operations (for example Operation Cast Lead of 2008/9).

The two new dimensions of terrorism in the form of mass murder and hostage taking, in addition to the conventional rocket attacks, highlights the use of cognitive warfare – to influence public support for “for Hamas and Palestinians, and also reignite hatred for Israel. Early signs that this part of Hamas’ plan is going well [include] “victory” celebrations… in countries in the Middle East and even in Berlin and New York, with pro-Palestinian groups cheering Hamas’ killings and other atrocities.”

This development in the narrative space plays out well for Hamas as it aims to disrupt the current Israeli peace process with the Arab world, namely the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, “that was being brought about by a growing realisation of the common danger from Iran and its terrorist proxies Hamas and Hezbollah.” Such a rapprochement would have had a significant impact on the continuation of both political and economic support for the Palestinian cause. Any robust Israeli military response, including the expected land operations and occupation of Gaza, will have a significant impact on such Israeli peace initiatives, including the Abraham accords with a number of Arab states.

Besides the political signal of being able to attack Israel on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, the current operations by Hamas highlight the emergence of Hybrid Warfare as a concept of modern conflict. Such concepts were discussed as early as 2005 by the US military and then developed further by NATO in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression by proxy in the Donbas of 2014. Analysing lessons learned from Israel’s costly war with Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war, US military analyst Frank Hoffman defined Hezbollah’s approach to warfighting as “Hybrid threats/warfare” which “incorporate a full range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder. Hybrid Wars can be conducted by both states and a variety of nonstate actors [with or without state sponsorship].”

It seems as if Hamas has shown its ability to learn from Hezbollah’s approach to fighting Israel in 2006. Military analysts regarded the outcome of the 2006 war as a defeat for Israel’s defence forces.

Whether Hamas will be able to emulate Hezbollah’s “success” with its attack on Israel remains to be seen. What is a more likely outcome is that the brutality and the sheer barbarity of Hamas’ attack will lead to its overall demise: Israel’s “9/11” could very well turn into Hamas’ very own Waterloo.

Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann is Professor in Law and Co-Convener National Security Hub (University of Canberra), University of Canberra, and a Research Fellow with the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa, Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.