Dr Limor Simhony Philpott is former Director of Counter Extremism at TRD Policy.
When Hassan Nasrallah said last week that the war is “100 per-cent Palestinian, not regional,” this would not have pleased Hamas. Nasrallah, leader of the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based militant organisation Hezbollah, is reluctant to widen the organisation’s involvement in the war between Israel and Hamas.
When Hamas launched their attack, which killed over 1,400 Israelis, it knew that Israel will retaliate. Hamas believed that several ‘safety nets’ might limit Israel’s response to the attack. Unfortunately for Hamas, so far their assumptions have been proven wrong.
Hamas hoped that a heavy-handed Israeli military action would prompt the involvement of other regional actors, and force the Israeli Defence forces (IDF) to reallocated resources away from Gaza – Hezbollah being the main force able to distract Israel.
It has spent the years since second Lebanon war in 2006 building a considerable force that includes roughly 20,000 fighters and a vast arsenal of weapons including missile and drones. Its involvement in the Syrian civil war has boosted its fighters’ experience. Hezbollah is a formidable enemy that Israel has fought for 40 years with varying levels of success.
Its involvement in the war started on 8 October and has remained limited. Iran, the main force behind Hezbollah, may thus far be deterred by American deployment of forces in the region that include two aircraft carriers and a nuclear submarine. Israel’s slow and gradual increase of the intensity of ground operation in Gaza and measured responses to attacks by Hezbollah were done, in part, to keep Iran out of the war. Using mass forces inside Gaza and causing more civilian casualties while the Arab world is watching could have prompted Iran to step up its involvement.
It’s still uncertain whether a war with Hezbollah will be avoided. Israel has split Gaza into two parts; north and south, tightened its grip around northern Gaza and stepped up its efforts from the land, sea and air. This could result in an escalation of attacks by Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. To avoid this, Israel is agreeing to increase humanitarian aid into southern Gaza. Currently, it’s rejecting a humanitarian pause for fear it will diminish the momentum it has gained against Hamas.
Hamas also hoped that domestic unrest by Arab Israelis and by Palestinians living in the West Bank would distract Israeli forces. This, too, hasn’t happened. Although tensions are high, and there has been an increase in violence in the West Bank – some of which attributed to Jewish settlers – there have not been major rioting.
Hamas started the war at a time of deep political divisions in Israel. Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in December 2022, there have been mass demonstrations across the country and other forms of resistance to the government’s judicial reforms, which many believe undermine Israeli democracy.
The government’s far-right and orthodox ministers have been so divisive that divisions filtered into the IDF, with reservists that include pilots and commanders in elite units, refusing to serve. False reports indicated that this affected the army’s morale and readiness. In practice, it was the government’s decision to divert forces from Gaza to the West Bank that diminished the army’s response to the attack on 7 October.
Hamas – influenced by Nasrallah’s ‘spider web’ theory, by which Israeli society is held to fragile – saw this as a weakness. Instead, the war has united the Israeli public. Reservists’ enlistment rates reached 150 per cent. Those who do not serve volunteered to care for Israelis evacuated from their homes near Gaza or the Lebanon border. They provide emotional support, donate money and supplies, prepare and deliver meals for soldiers, and much more.
Volunteers come from all cross sections of civil society; secular and religious, left and right, Jews, Beduin, Druze and Muslim. Israelis have put their differences aside (albeit temporary) and came together in an immense show of solidarity and resilience. Although support for Netanyahu and his ministers, already unpopular before the war, has dwindled since its start, this has not impacted the nation’s resolve.
Hamas also assumed that holding a large number of captives, especially civilians, would force Israel into negotiating their release while employing limited force against Hamas. This has been a sensitive issue in Israel. The public would like to see Hamas eliminated but also wants the hostages back. Sadly these are contradicting goals that may not be able to coexist fully.
Israel’s gradual response has applied pressure on Hamas and allowed for negotiations over hostages to continue. However, the hostages are less of a priority compared with the main objective of the war, and as a result, Hamas are suffering considerable losses.
Hamas miscalculated. Its assumptions were proven wrong, and the scale and ruthlessness of its attack made Israelis, who for years lived under the misconception that Hamas’s threat is manageable, realise that Hamas cannot continue to exist on its borders. Israel is facing a tough battle against a heavily armed, capable terror organisation and it cannot afford a limited response. It has to establish considerable deterrence to stop similar attacks by Hezbollah or terror organisations in the West Bank, where a vulnerable Jewish population resides.