Israel’s 9/11, but how to avoid the mistakes of the preceding one?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Authors of weekly commentaries (myself included) often have to scratch their heads to find a theme or topic to write about. Barely have they put the finishing touches to one piece when it is time to start writing the next one. Yet, occasionally the news cycle is dominated by events of such magnitude that the topic imposes itself and indeed is unavoidable. As difficult or controversial as it may be, we simply have to tackle it. 

That is certainly the case this week with the Hamas attack against the army and civilians in Israel, which began on Saturday 7 October and was still continuing several days later. At the time of writing, 1,200 Israelis were killed in this Hamas operation, both military and civilian, and often in gruesome circumstances with (verified) rapes, beheadings and other mutilations. The death toll may go even higher as the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) clear the Hamas fighters out of their remaining pockets and discover more bodies. The IDF claims that 1,500 Hamas fighters were also killed. The death toll on the Israeli side is the highest in the country’s history since the foundational years of 1947 and 1948 when the state of Israel was being born and confronting not only the hostility of the Palestinian population but also an invasion by its Arab neighbours, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The brevity of the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, or the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, largely spared the Israeli civilian population.

While we lament the 1,200 Israelis killed in recent days, we must also spare a thought for the over 5,000 who have been injured, whether seriously or more lightly, and the thousands more who have been traumatised by what President Biden called “an act of sheer evil” by Hamas. Moreover, we must spare an equal thought for the 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza who, according to UN, NGO and media reports, have been killed in retaliatory air and artillery strikes by the IDF. 5,000 have also been wounded. They cannot all be Hamas fighters and it is clear that women and children are among the victims. The UN reports that 340,000 Palestinians have so far been displaced in Gaza. Israel has been encouraging them to leave, but where can they go? A humanitarian corridor for these people is desperately needed. 

Deaths and casualties on this scale have made some Israeli commentators speak of “Israel’s 9/11 moment”, recalling Al Qaeda’s attacks against New York and Washington DC 22 years ago. There are certainly similarities in terms of the impact on the national psyche and the desire for an overwhelming response. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has spoken of “transforming the Middle East”. Hamas certainly used terrorist tactics and indiscriminate targeting worthy of the worst of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. As on 9/11 in the United States, citizens and dual nationals from dozens of countries are among the dead, the wounded and the hostages taken by Hamas. This spreads the human impact across the globe and makes the Hamas operation, as with Al Qaeda previously, come across as an assault against humanity as much as against a specific country such as Israel. 

Negotiations for a two-state solution are at a dead end

As Israel has now declared war on Hamas and is seeking its total destruction, the Israelis will almost inevitably go beyond air strikes in Gaza and launch a ground operation to eliminate the Hamas fighters and support network, proceeding building by building, street by street and tunnel by tunnel. This will no doubt be a lengthy and bloody operation, given that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world with 2.3mn Palestinians crowded into a 25km long and 10km wide rectangle – the size of the Isle of Wight. Hamas has no doubt carefully prepared its defence strategy to exact a maximum number of IDF casualties and there is no shortage of civilians to use as human shields. Hamas has every cynical interest in turning the narrative from its own massacres and killings to the Israeli response, thereby provoking mounting international criticism of Israel for alleged violations of international law. It was the difficulty of policing a labyrinth-style place such as Gaza that drove Ariel Sharon, then-prime minister of Israel, to withdraw the IDF and the Israeli settlers from the strip in 2005 and hand it over to the Palestinian Authority. No matter how much Israelis wish to punish Hamas, they will not be looking forward to Israel re-establishing a permanent military occupation over a resentful and impoverished Gaza population. 

In the wake of Hamas’s deadly attacks, many have speculated why Hamas chose to attack now and in the way it did, knowing full well that it would lose hundreds of its fighters and bring the full might of the IDF down on top of it. Some see this as a move to drive Saudi Arabia away from Israel before the two countries, under the mediation of the US, were able to conclude an Abraham Accord to normalise their relations. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco have already made such an agreement with Israel, and the UAE was one of the few Arab countries to explicitly condemn Hamas for its actions. The Saudis are traditionally more supportive of the Palestinian cause and so the Israeli reaction to the Hamas attack will undoubtedly delay, if not torpedo, the rapprochement between Israel and Riyadh. Israel will hope that the other Abraham Accords will not unravel and will be counting on US diplomacy to help it to shore them up. 

Another explanation for the attacks, this time mainly on the Palestinian side, points to the mounting frustration of the Palestinians hemmed in Gaza in what they consider to be an ‘open air prison’ with Israel controlling what goes in and out. They also reference the growing violence between extremist Israeli settlers and Palestinian farmers and herders on the West Bank, as they compete for land and the settlements continue to expand, reducing ever further the territory for a future Palestinian state. The coming to power in Israel of the country’s most right-wing government, in no mood to compromise with the Palestinians and condoning inflammatory moves such as Israelis encroaching on the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, has only increased hostilities. Over 200 Palestinians on the West Bank have been killed so far this year, and a number of the settlers too.

The Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas has not held an election in years and has forfeited the little credibility it once enjoyed, and negotiations for a two-state solution are at a dead end. The Hamas attacks were certainly planned as a form of revenge and, in the eyes of some, an attempt – no matter how irrational and cruel – to refocus international (and Israeli) attention on the Palestinian cause. There are also many Western and Israeli experts who see the hand of Iran behind last weekend’s events. Tehran is committed, like Hamas, to Israel’s destruction and it is an open secret that it has been funding, training and arming Hamas for many years. This does not mean that Iran gave Hamas the order to strike and Ayatollah Khamenei has denied this while extolling the actions of the Hamas gunmen. US and Israeli intelligence will now be hard at work to establish the exact degree of Iranian complicity. Yet, whatever the results Hamas will have been looking for a propaganda victory at the very least, demonstrating its power to hurt Israel and to catch it off guard.  

Israel is preparing for a long operation and the fighting, in one shape or form, seems destined to last for several weeks yet. Policymakers and strategists need to draw some initial conclusions and understand the full consequences of what has happened thus far. 

For Israelis, how the attacks happened is a more urgent question than why. There was first and foremost an intelligence failure as neither the Shin Bet, Mossad or IDF military intelligence picked up the warning signals, or if they did, the Israeli leadership failed to take them seriously or join up the dots. There will no doubt be a major investigation, as Israel has always prided itself on the competence of its intelligence agencies and has spent billions of dollars on signals intelligence, computer hacking skills and establishing a network of informants across Gaza and the West Bank.

Massive loss of life on one side does not justify massive loss of life on the other, particularly when we are talking about non-combatant civilians

Clearly, Hamas was successful in maintaining operational security and probably avoided electronic communication and mobile phones in favour of old-fashioned word-to-mouth tradecraft. Yet experts believe that planning such a large-scale attack and manufacturing thousands of rockets to fire into Israel must have taken the best part of a year, giving Israeli intelligence plenty of opportunity to suspect that something was being hatched. Undoubtedly, some painful lessons and agency reforms lie ahead for the country in the field of operational intelligence similar to the overhaul that the Congressional 9/11 Commission imposed on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the other 16 US intelligence agencies after the New York and Washington attacks.

One area to come under scrutiny will probably be political assumptions. Although Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction, the movement had shown restraint in its operations, mindful of the fact that Israel supplies Gaza with water, fuel, electricity, medical supplies and income from its few exports, namely agriculture and fish. Many cross the border from Gaza into Israel every day to work. Hamas could lose popular support in the strip if it put this humanitarian and economic lifeline at risk. Israel’s problems seemed to be more with the radical offshoot of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, than with the main group itself and in recent months also more with the Palestinians on the West Bank, unhappy at the Israeli settlement activity. The recent siege of the Jenin refugee camp by Israeli forces only reinforced this perception.

A second failure lies in security with Israel believing falsely that it had constructed an impenetrable barrier along its border with Gaza supported by multiple watch towers and sensors. The ease with which lightly armed Hamas fighters broke through this barrier and in many places will impose a reflection on the cost-effectiveness of this type of protective shield and the utility of lightly defended military bases in the immediate vicinity of the barrier, allowing Hamas to capture Israeli tanks and weapons, as well as kill dozens of Israeli soldiers. Again, the troubles in the West Bank – with the more exposed Israeli settlements demanding more protection from the IDF – may have induced the latter to take its eye off the ball. The wisdom of establishing towns like Sderot or Ashkelon right on the Gaza border, where they have been consistently vulnerable to Hamas rocket fire and are vulnerable to cross border raids, will also be called into question. These towns like the kibbutz in northern Israel along the Lebanese border or the settlements on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights need to be rapidly evacuated when conflict erupts.

Israel has already invested massively in missile and rocket defence systems like its Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow systems. They have performed consistently well, particularly against the low-tech and short-range rockets that Hamas is able to produce. But given that Israel now faces the threat of Iranian-sponsored militias on multiple fronts – Gaza, Lebanon-Hezbollah, Golan Heights and Syria – Israel needs to think harder about how it organises itself to protect its more exposed population centres. The IDF cannot be everywhere all the time. To what extent will Israelis need to learn to defend themselves? Yet the settlers on the West Bank have been doing this for some time already, taking the law into their own hands with very mixed results. So, no easy answer here. Israel has proved to be resilient against minor attacks like bombs on buses or the occasional rocket landing at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. How does it now become more resilient against larger-scale attacks from organised para-military groups? 

The third failure is the slowness of the reaction of the IDF, which was not only caught off guard but took some time to grasp the scale of the Hamas incursion and the gravity of the situation. People facing mortal threats will always think that the emergency rescue services arrive too late. Health professionals tackling outbreaks of disease and firefighters combating wildfires know that already. Also, we cannot be certain that a faster reaction by the IDF would have saved many lives or stopped hostages from being taken, given the number of Hamas fighters engaged, their sheer ruthlessness and the multiple locations that were attacked simultaneously. Once the IDF mobilised, it managed within two days to kill 1,500 Hamas gunmen and reseal the northern border with Gaza. Still, reaction time and the way in which the IDF responded – taking into consideration adequate information, right priorities and right locations – will inevitably be trawled over in the future Israeli investigation. 

Yet, beyond Israel’s immediate responses and challenges, what about the international reaction?  

The first priority needs to be finding a balance between support for Israel in its hour of need and urging Israel to exercise restraint in its response. The country’s Western partners have justifiably condemned the barbaric Hamas attacks and acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself and to respond. The same right was accorded the US after it suffered nearly 3,000 fatalities on 9/11 in 2001. Yet, Israel has to be careful that its retaliation does not replace the earlier Hamas outrage as the main story and dominant narrative. Israel has gained enormous international sympathy as a result of its suffering. It must not forfeit it. Massive loss of life on one side does not justify massive loss of life on the other, particularly when we are talking about non-combatant civilians.

Beyond the moral argument and the need for all states to uphold international law, especially the democracies, there are strategic arguments too. Israel has no interest in a Palestinian population sunk even deeper into impoverishment, despair and hatred, particularly one that it may have to rule directly if it succeeds in breaking the lock hold of Hamas over Gaza. Israel is currently preparing a major force and calling up reservists before it enters Gaza. Already 360,000 reservists have spontaneously reported for duty. But careful planning and surgical operations are more important than speed. Israel needs to devote this time also to preparing a humanitarian plan to restore the electricity and water supplies that it cut off after the Hamas attack. Provisioning the hospitals in Gaza with adequate medical supplies will be equally important, as will food and shelter for those displaced by fighting. The Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza was rapidly eliminated by Hamas after the 2005 handover with PA officials being thrown from buildings; restoring the PA to power is probably the only way forward, and this could be coupled with the Palestinian elections that are long overdue. The PA may be corrupt and not particularly effective, but it is better than Hamas and at least has a track record of cooperation with the IDF and Israeli police in the field of security. Israel has also cooperated with Egypt on Gaza in the past, particularly in periodically rolling up the Hamas tunnel network. Egypt controls the Rafah border crossing, which is a vital conduit for humanitarian aid into Gaza and the evacuation of civilians. It also has influence with the Palestinians. So, keeping the channels of communication open to Cairo is a key task of Israeli diplomacy in the weeks ahead. 

Maintaining a laser focus on Ukraine while managing crises elsewhere is bound to make NATO and EU politics more complicated in the weeks ahead

The next priority is to contain the conflict and prevent it from sucking in Israel’s other opponents, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the pro-Assad Syrian militias and, of course, Iran. Since the Hamas attacks, the Palestinians on the West Bank have also become restless and eight of them have been killed in clashes with Israeli security forces. The last thing Israel needs at the moment is another general Palestinian uprising or intifada, which would stretch Israeli forces between the West Bank and Gaza simultaneously. Hezbollah has fired rockets and anti-tank weapons across the border, killing three Israeli soldiers. Yet, since the last major Israeli-Hezbollah clash in 2006, Hezbollah has been cautious in launching an outright aggression against Israel. Lebanon is in appalling political and economic shape and another Israeli invasion would probably push it over the edge into complete disintegration. Hezbollah, as in 2006, would probably get the blame for provoking an unnecessary war.

So, it is important for Israel, with international help, not to fall into the trap of widening the conflict by overreacting to the inevitable provocations from Hezbollah and Iran-sponsored groups in Syria. Similarly, the government of national unity that Netanyahu has now formed with Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and the opposition needs to reign in the extremist Israeli settlers on the West Bank and prevent them from provoking the Palestinians. A halt to further settlement construction or land acquisition needs to be among the first decisions of the new coalition. What Iran will try to do to exploit the situation is less clear. Iran might encourage Hezbollah, also sustained by Tehran, to become more involved or try to take advantage of Israel’s preoccupation with Gaza to reinforce its position with its Revolutionary Guards in southern Syria. Meanwhile, with the Iran nuclear deal all but dead, Tehran is unconstrained in developing its nuclear weapons programme, which poses a long-term existential threat to Israel. So, anticipating Iranian behaviour and cutting off the supply chains, whereby Tehran sustains the anti-Israel militias in the region, will be a key objective for Western policy in the weeks ahead. The US has usefully sent a carrier task force to the eastern Mediterranean, headed by its largest aircraft carrier, the Gerald Ford, to warn Iran against any temptation to escalate the conflict. Another aircraft carrier, the Dwight Eisenhower, is also on its way. EU member states and NATO allies can also consider sending forces to the region to provide Israel with additional deterrence capabilities during this tense period ahead. Finding temporary bases in Turkey or the Gulf states may be difficult, but the United Kingdom has access to airbases in Cyprus and NATO member Greece could also make maritime and airbases available. The purely defensive and deterrent purposes of these temporary deployments need to be robustly communicated, both to Iran and the Arab states. 

In third place is to manage the demands from Israel for military re-supply in the coming weeks with other key Western security objectives, notably assistance to Ukraine as it pursues its counter-offensive. The Biden administration has given its wholehearted backing to Israel, at least in public, and the first planeloads of US military equipment, notably rockets for the Iron Dome launchers and artillery shells, have landed in Israel. Within the US Congress, there is strong and almost universal support for Israel, including amongst those right-wing Republicans who have opposed further US assistance for Ukraine. In any case, the US has a legal obligation to supply Israel with weaponry in the event of conflict, which dates back to the Obama administration. The Israelis are asking for essentially the same things as the Ukrainians, namely air defence and artillery. This has raised anxieties in Kyiv that the remaining US stocks could be diverted to Israel, undermining the Ukrainian counter-offensive at a crucial moment when Kyiv is still hoping for more advances before winter.

Both the Pentagon and the US Ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, have been on the record to confirm that the US is able to supply both countries simultaneously. Yet if Israel becomes involved in a protracted struggle against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza or a second front against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon or Iranian proxies in Syria, the US will shift the burden of arming Ukraine to the Europeans. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was sufficiently mindful of this risk to make a surprise visit to NATO headquarters this past week to intervene in the meeting of NATO defence ministers. He made a strong pitch for more air defence to help Ukraine survive another Russian onslaught against its electricity grid and critical infrastructure during the winter. The US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, announced a new package of $200mn and Germany a further $1bn. Yet, Zelensky can see that the days when Ukraine was the only major topic on the NATO agenda are now over. As the war drags on, inevitably other crises and conflict zones can no longer be put on hold. Moreover, the biggest backers of Kyiv outside of the US, such as the UK, Germany or France, are also strong supporters of Israel, so they may well supply Tel Aviv with equipment as well. Additionally, NATO has recently had to step up its presence in Kosovo, with Turkey, Romania, Germany and the UK all sending extra troops to reinforce the Kosovo Force (KFOR), albeit in modest numbers for the time being. Thus, maintaining a laser focus on Ukraine while managing crises elsewhere is bound to make NATO and EU politics more complicated in the weeks ahead. The EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, has already said that the EU cannot by itself substitute for the assistance that Washington has been providing to Kyiv. 

We must hope that the new sense of unity in Israel in both government and society will last beyond the campaign to eradicate Hamas

Finally, the Hamas attacks have pulled Israelis closer together. A more balanced and traditional Israeli cabinet has been formed with more experienced and seasoned politicians replacing at least some of the ideologues and religious zealots. This may not initially moderate the Israeli response to Hamas, given that emotions are still running high. The former IDF general, Benny Gantz, has said that “this, now, is the time for war”, not peace. Yet, it is still helpful that the country will put aside, at least for now, the bitter divisions over the government’s proposed changes to the constitution and the role of Israel’s Supreme Court that have polarised Israel for much of the past year, leading to massive demonstrations and splits within the armed forces and the security establishment. Indeed, the perception of Israel’s polarisation and weakness might have encouraged Hamas – and Iran if it was indeed involved – to launch its attack at this particular time. Yet, a period of national togetherness and political power-sharing is also an opportunity for Israeli society to take a deep look at itself. Polarisation at home between secularists and the nationalist, religious right has gone hand in hand with a commitment to a total security solution to keep the Palestinians and other threats at bay. As Israel has turned away from negotiations with the Palestinians and from the two-state solution even as a long-term goal, it has dealt with the threats by building walls, watch towers and electronic fences, coupled with the promise of massive retaliation to deter its adversaries. Yet the Hamas attack shows that there is no total security and even the threat of massive retaliation does not deter groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, which seem content to sacrifice the lives of their own people if they can blame Israel for these casualties. Israeli commentators have a point when they speak of how the aid and income coming into Gaza could have been used to build schools, housing and hospitals rather than missiles.

The fundamental choices that Israel faces have not gone away but have only become more severe over time. What kind of state does Israel want to be? Religious or secular? How is it going to integrate, both politically and socially, its growing Arab minority? What will be its relationship with the Palestinians, and can it ever be a cooperative and peaceful one without a separate Palestinian state? On which territory and subject to which security arrangements and modalities of economic integration? How can Israel fully normalise its relations with its neighbours? How can it reduce Iran’s capacity to destabilise the region and instrumentalise Israel’s opponents? Israel needs international help from its many friends to solve all these complicated and painful dilemmas, but above all, it needs a debate among Israelis and a political leadership wise and courageous enough to take on this debate instead of retreating behind illusory total security and freeze the problem solutions. Yes, Israel has the right to destroy those who use hideous violence to try to destroy it; but destroying one’s adversaries alone will not bring real or lasting peace. So, we must hope that the new sense of unity in Israel in both government and society will last beyond the campaign to eradicate Hamas and translate into a new sense of national purpose and willingness to tackle the sources of Israel’s challenges head-on, rather than only the symptoms.

Twenty-two years ago, the day after the 9/11 attacks, Le Monde headlined: “Now we are all Americans”. Yet, just a few years later, that sentiment had largely dissipated as the US invaded Iraq under the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction, got bogged down in Afghanistan in an ill-fated nation-building programme and lost much of its moral credibility following reports of torture of Al Qaeda and other terrorist suspects. It cost Al Qaeda no more than $200,000 to organise the attacks against New York and Washington; but the US, according to academic research, has spent around $1.5tn in a response called the ‘Global War on Terrorism’ that was far too diffuse and ambitious in its goal to fundamentally transform the Middle East and the wider Arab world. Israel has tragically experienced its own 9/11. Yet, in these next few crucial and decisive days as the country plans its response, Israeli’s political and military leaders should take a moment to reflect on the lessons of the previous 9/11 moment and avoid making the same mistakes.


The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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