Israel Thought It Had Deterred Hamas, While in Fact Hamas Had Deterred Israel

November 21, 2023 | Assaf Orion
About the author: Assaf Orion is a retired Israeli brigadier general and the Liz and Mony Rueven international fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Last week, Assaf Orion came on our podcast to speak about the IDF’s air campaign in Gaza. In this essay, Orion takes a careful look at how Israel underestimated its vulnerability to Hamas, and how Jerusalem should imagine its strategic goals. He begins by looking at how strategists failed to draw the correct lessons from the many short wars with Hamas between 2006 and May 2023:

In each of these operations, it became clear that Hamas was acquiring stronger and better weapons, including longer-range rockets with larger warheads, along with drones that could pose aerial and naval threats. It was also apparent that Hamas was building a large and increasingly sophisticated network of underground tunnels. During each conflict, Hamas did its best to punch through Israel’s defenses and reach the communities around Gaza’s border. But . . . Hamas operations mostly failed—on the ground, underground, in the air, and at sea.

Despite Hamas’s growing capabilities, these failures convinced Israel that its defense strategy was working: Hamas was unable to strike Israel’s population effectively; and it faced significant retribution for attempting such strikes and could be rewarded with material support for keeping calm. Israeli officials also concluded that trying to destroy Hamas’s forces outright would be too costly and might create dangerous new problems. . . . But this approach also allowed Hamas, supported by Qatar, to acquire the resources it needed to transform its military into a highly capable army of terror.

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