Australian Outlook

In this section

Hamas’ Attack on Israel: Realistic Assessment Requires Attention Beyond Gaza

20 Oct 2023
By Benedict Moleta
Hamas women rally for Palestinian detainees and martyrs in Gaza. Source: Joe Catron /

While Hamas’ 7 October attack on Israel has provided an opportunity for partisan commentators to condemn or to advocate, one Australian contribution suggestively points beyond polarisation, and beyond fixation on Gaza. Broadening our perspective may be the most useful way forward.

One Australian contribution to the commentary on Hamas’ 7 October attack has been notable for its lack of hyperbole and for its swift attention to matters beyond Gaza. This is Ian Parmeter’s piece, published in The Conversation on 9 October. Parmeter’s measured conclusion is that Hamas’ attack only makes more forcefully evident what has been the case for decades; that Israel’s “non-policy” on Palestine – through which “hardline militants are contained in Gaza, while Israeli forces curtail the actions of Palestinians living in Israel and the West Bank” – is not a solution. Parmeter served as Australian Ambassador to Lebanon in the 1990s, during his more than thirty-year career with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. His survey of Hamas’ motivations and objectives shows the benefit of practical diplomatic experience in the balance of details and broader trends, and in the mix of local catalysts and regional implications covered.

What Parmeter calls Israel’s “non-policy” is essentially what Tareq Baconi described in his 2018 book Hamas Contained: that Israel’s approach since its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and especially since Hamas’ isolation in Gaza from 2007, has been one of management rather than solution; since “[t]hrough Hamas’ effective containment in Gaza, Israel can forfeit the viability of any final resolution that would address Palestinian demands while blaming Hamas’s terrorism as the underlying cause of unrest.”

The new order of sophistication evident in Hamas’ tactical violence on 7 October, and the successful taking of 200 or more hostages, has illustrated that Israel can no longer pursue a “non-policy” of containing Hamas militancy in Gaza. Simultaneously, Hamas has forced into international prominence the inefficacy of approaches to militant Palestinian nationalism that are based on refusals to engage in dialogue, and that are therefore limited to suppression and confinement. Israel initially reacted by switching to a more decisive policy, announcing an imminent and overwhelming counter-attack. But the hostage situation made such a drastic course of action unlikely, and, as no land invasion materialised in the week following 7 October, regional tensions increased while the humanitarian effects of Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza became dire.

Locally, Hezbollah’s activity in southern Lebanon the day after Hamas’ attack was followed on 14 October by Israel issuing a warning to Hezbollah not to take action that could lead to Lebanon’s “destruction.” Warnings and threats from heads of state increased in severity and scope as the risk of a broader, regional war became much more pronounced. By 17 October, despite intensive shuttling by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and after a mix of proposition, conciliation, and then firm rejection of Palestinian resettlement by King Abdullah II of Jordan and President al-Sisi of Egypt, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had stated that “The US must be held responsible for this situation,” noting further that the United States had made 2000 military personnel ready for deployment. The failed “non-policy” of containing Hamas had become amplified in a “non-policy” of failed international diplomacy, and the potential for a major military conflict increased.

Moving beyond simple reactions, an approach to Hamas that is formulated positively and productively would require comprehending Hamas in relation to aspects of local Palestinian politics beyond Gaza. It would also require recognising Hamas as an actor in the international diplomatic arena. Such an approach could be informed by attention to three areas.

Firstly, regardless of Hamas’ own intentions in attacking Israel and taking civilian hostages, the repercussions of its attack may catalyse not only regional and international unrest, but also matters specific to Palestinian politics that are only temporarily inactive. Leadership succession in the Palestinian Authority is one of these potentially febrile matters. The widely discredited President Mahmoud Abbas will be 88 years old in November 2023, and it is not clear that even senior members of the Palestinian Authority (PA) such as Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh will galvanize support for a newly credible PA. Meanwhile the figures of Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti still loom large politically, despite Dahlan’s polarising reputation, and the fact that Barghouti remains in prison. Israel and the United States will not deal with the leaders of Hamas as political representatives of the Palestinian people. But nor is it clear what relationships are being developed with other feasible – and acceptable – successors to President Abbas.

Secondly, analysts have been talking about the possibility of a “third intifada” for some time, and events in the West Bank in the past two years have made manifest various forms of such popular agitation. Ian Parmeter mentions the Lion’s Den movement, localised in Nablus, whose purported leader Wadi al-Houh was assassinated in an Israeli operation in October 2022. While Lions Den members have said they are not beholden to any of the four established Palestinian factions (Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), the establishment of a movement such as this shows a new generation of militancy among young people who are not satisfied with the Fatah-led PA’s leadership of Palestinian nationalism, and who evidently consider violent resistance preferable to the PA’s security cooperation with Israel. At the same time, the popular legitimacy of Hamas itself seems renewed in the West Bank, apparently having not come to an end in Hamas’ abortive 2006 election victory. One recent indication of this is the majority support Hamas received in student elections at Birzeit University in Ramallah in May 2022, where 28 seats were won by the Hamas-aligned bloc, to the Fatah-aligned bloc’s 18. While generational change in internationally-recognised Palestinian leadership may proceed with growing ambiguity, generational change in popular West Bank agitation may be more volatile in its development and less predictable in its outcomes.

Thirdly, in recent years one form of Hamas’ activities has not been localised in Gaza, and will not be nullified by any military attack on Gaza or by the targeted killing of Hamas leaders there such as Yahya Sinwar or Mohammed Deif. This is the international diplomacy cultivated by Hamas’ external leadership, beginning after the presentation of Hamas’ new Document of General Principles and Policies in 2017. From meetings with heads of state and senior politicians in Turkiye, Iran, and Russia by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in December 2019, and the attendance of former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal at Malaysia’s Islamic Summit in the same month, to the joint visit by Haniyeh and Meshaal to Saudi Arabia in April 2023 (the first Hamas visit to the Kingdom since 2015), the expanding measures conducted by Hamas’ political leaders cannot simply be disregarded as insignificant or denied as illegitimate. Any such disregard or denial is a form of “non-policy” that may discredit Hamas’ activities, but will not necessarily put an end to those activities.

With or without a massive extermination of Hamas militants in Gaza, an approach to Hamas that is politically realistic in the long term will require attending to Hamas in all its dimensions – military, political, and diplomatic – and in all its scales of operation; local, regional, and international.

Benedict Moleta received an MA (Research) from the University of Sydney in 2020, with a thesis on relations between the European Union and Palestine. He is currently researching Australia’s criminal listing of Hamas. His BA was in German and European Studies, with interests from Lessing to Lenin.

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