Regardless of the precise strategy of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, or any other Palestinian faction for that matter, the daring military campaign deep inside Israel on Saturday, 7 October was only possible because Palestinians are simply fed up. Israel, remember, has imposed a hermetic siege on the Gaza Strip for the past 17 years.
The story of the siege is often presented in two starkly different ways. For some, it is an inhumane act of “collective punishment”; for others, it is a necessary evil so that Israel may protect itself from so-called Palestinian terrorism. Largely missing from the story, however, is that 17 years is long enough for a whole generation to grow up under siege, enlist in the Resistance and fight for freedom.
According to Save The Children, nearly half of the 2.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza today are children. This fact is often infused to delineate the suffering of a population that has never stepped outside the tiny, impoverished Strip of 365 square km, approximately 141 square miles. Again, although numbers may seem precise, they are often employed to tell a small part of a complex story.
This Gaza generation, which either grew up or was born after the imposition of the siege, has experienced at least five major, devastating wars, in which children like them, along with their mothers, fathers and siblings, were the main targets and thus the main victims.
“If you surround your enemy completely, give them no chance to escape, offer them no quarter, then they will fight to the last,” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War, the ancient text that is still used in military academies the world over. Yet, year after year, this is precisely what Israel has done. This strategy has proved to be a major strategic miscalculation.
Even attempts to protest against the injustice of the siege by gathering in large numbers at the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel, was not permitted by the occupation state. The mass protests, known as the Great March of Return, were answered with Israeli sniper bullets. Images of youngsters carrying other young people bleeding from gunshot wounds and shouting “God is Great” became a regular feature at the fence. As the casualties mounted, the media interest in the story simply faded over time.
The hundreds of fighters who crossed into Israel through four different entry points at dawn last Saturday were the same young Palestinians who know nothing but war, siege and the need to protect one another. They have also learned how to survive the hard way, despite the shortages or complete lack of almost everything in Gaza, including clean water and proper medical care.
This is where the story of this generation intersects with that of Hamas, or Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian groups.
Yes, Hamas chose the timing and the nature of its military campaign to fit into a very precise strategy. This, however, would have not been possible if Israel did not leave these young Palestinians with no other option but to fight back.
Videos circulating on social media showed Palestinian fighters yelling in Arabic, with that distinct, often harsh Gaza accent: “This is for my brother,” and “This is for my son.” They shouted these and many other angry statements as they fired at panic-stricken Israeli settlers and soldiers. Many of the latter, apparently, had abandoned their positions and run away.
The psychological impact of this war will most certainly exceed that of October 1973, when Arab armies made quick gains against Israel, also following a surprise attack. This time, the devastating impact on the collective Israeli thinking will prove to be a game-changer, since the “war” involves a single Palestinian group, not a whole army, or three combined.
The October 2023 surprise attack, however, is linked directly to the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. By choosing the 50th anniversary of what Arabs regard as a great triumph against Israel, the Palestinian Resistance wanted to send a clear message: the Palestine cause is still the cause of all Arabs. All of the statements made by senior Hamas military commanders and political leaders were loaded with such symbolism and other references to Arab countries and peoples.
This pan-Arab discourse was not random, and was delineated in statements made by the Commander of Al-Qassam Brigades, Mohammed Deif; the founding commander of Al-Qassam, Saleh al-Arouri; the Head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh; and Abu Obeida, the Brigades’ masked spokesman. They all urged unity and insisted that Palestine is but one component of a larger Arab, Islamic struggle for justice, dignity and collective honour. Hamas called its campaign “Al-Aqsa Flood”, re-centring Palestinian, Arab and Muslim unity around Al-Quds, Jerusalem, and all of its holy places.
Everyone seemed shocked, including Israel itself, not by the Hamas attack per se, but by the coordination and daring of the relatively massive, unprecedented operation. Instead of attacking at night, the Resistance attacked at dawn. Instead of striking at Israel using the many tunnels under Gaza, they simply drove, paraglided, paddled by sea and, in many cases, walked across the nominal border.
The element of surprise became even more baffling when Palestinian fighters challenged the very fundamentals of guerrilla warfare: instead of fighting a “war of manoeuvre” they fought, albeit temporarily, a “war of position”, holding for many hours the areas that they had gained control of inside Israel.
Indeed, for the Gaza groups, the psychological aspect of warfare was as critical as the physical fighting. Hundreds of videos and images went viral on social media, as if hoping to redefine the relationship between Palestinians, the usual victims, and Israel, the military occupier.
The insistence on not killing the elderly and children was stressed by field commanders. This was not just intended for Palestinians. It was also a message to an international audience, that the Palestinian Resistance will play by the universal rules of war.
The number of Palestinians that Israel kills, and will kill in the future, in retaliation for Al-Aqsa Flood, will be tragic, but it will not salvage the tattered reputation of an undisciplined army, a divided society and a political leadership that is focused solely on its own survival.
It is too early to reach sweeping conclusions regarding the outcomes of this unprecedented war. What is crystal clear, however, is that the fundamental relationship between the Israeli occupation and the occupied Palestinians is henceforth altered, probably permanently.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.