Operation al-Aqsa Flood, which Hamas launched on 7 October 2023, has set off one of the largest military confrontations in history between Israel and Palestinian movements. The operation was a surprise attack that reflects various shifts taking place in Israel and Palestine. On the Israeli side, the operation drew attention to significant military and intelligence failures in the country’s early warning and preparedness systems. It also demonstrated the extent of the heated political conflict that Israel has faced in recent months amidst the judicial reform crisis, which produced divisions within Israeli military institutions. Some Israelis have refused to serve in the country’s military due to their opposition to Netanyahu’s policies. This contributed to the challenges that Israeli political and military institutions faced in dealing with Operation al-Aqsa Flood. The operation has also been enormously costly for Israel in terms of material resources and human lives.
On the Palestinian side, the operation has revealed major developments in Palestinian capabilities, particularly those of Hamas and its military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades. The operation penetrated various regions of Israel outside the Gaza Strip, reaching a total of 22 locations as far as 15 miles away from Gaza. The Palestinian attack also involved members of Hamas infiltrating areas within Israel by both land and sea using paragliders and boats. These developments have raised many questions about how Hamas was able to successfully ramp up its military capabilities, the nature of regional support for the movement, and whether this regional backing might expand further.
The military conflict between Hamas and Israel entered its third day since the former launched Operation al-Aqsa Flood on 7 October 2023. There are several important dimensions of this operation, including the following:
1. Tactical developments in Hamas’s military: The military operation that Hamas launched sent shockwaves through Tel Aviv. The Times of Israel reported that Israel had been subjected to another surprise attack, fifty years after the 1973 war, this time at the hands of Hamas. Hamas successfully embarked on major shifts in its military tactics, including regarding the timing of the operation. It carried out the operation during the Jewish Simchat Torah holiday, a day when the Israeli military was less likely to be on alert. Hamas also employed various tricks and maneuvers during the operation, which began at dawn on 7 October 2023 after launched thousands of rockets into southern Israel.
The launching of rockets into Israel provided cover for other Hamas groups to infiltrate Israel. It was able to destroy parts of the separation barrier and cross from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Members of Hamas reached 22 locations within Israeli territory as far as 15 miles away from Gaza, via land and sea routes using paragliders and boats. The al-Qassam Brigades indicated that 35 Zouari kamikaze drones from its air force were engaged in arenas of fighting from the earliest hours of Operation al-Aqsa Flood. As part of these attacks, Hamas seized Israeli military equipment and also took a large number of hostages. It even gained temporary control of some Israeli military bases, including Re’im military base, the headquarters of the Gaza Division of the IDF. Israeli forces retook the base on the evening of 7 October.
It is worth noting that during Hamas’s military operation, it carried out attacks on several different levels rather than only launching rocket attacks. Furthermore, the movement devised new methods of attack, such as paragliders, kamikaze drones, and motorcycles to get militants from the Gaza Strip into Israel. It tried to take the battle inside Israeli settlements, which helped to neutralize the Israeli air force’s ability to target Hamas fighters.
2. Rising human costs of the operation for Israel: Hamas’s military operation led to unprecedented losses for Israel, perhaps the highest number killed in any confrontation with Palestinian groups. An estimated 800 Israelis have been killed so far, with more than 2000 others injured. According to the IDF radio, Israeli military commanders were among the casualties, including the commander of the Nahal Brigade, the deputy commander of the Maglan unit, the commander of the multidomain ("Ghost") unit, the commander of the 481st Signal Battalion, and a company and a platoon commander from the Home Front command.
It is worth noting that Hamas focused on taking Israelis hostage, both civilians and soldiers. The organization announced that it had taken a large number of Israeli hostages including top officers. Abu Obaida, the spokesperson for the al-Qassam Brigades (the armed wing of Hamas) released a recorded audio message stating that the total number of Israelis who were taken hostage by Hamas during Operation al-Aqsa Flood was many times more than Benjamin Netanyahu might imagine. He warned the Israeli government against continuing airstrikes against the Gaza Strip, because he said the hostages were scattered throughout Gaza and would therefore meet the same fate as the Gazan people. He did not reveal the precise number of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, although there are estimated to be up to 100.
3. Israel at war: Only a few hours after the Hamas attack, the Israeli prime minister announced that the country was at war, and called on civilians to follow the orders of the IDF and Israeli security forces. On 8 October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office stated that the Security Cabinet had approved an official declaration of war against Hamas. This is the first time in fifty years—since the war of 6 October 1973—that Israel has declared itself to be fully at war. This means that it will call up reservists and put all possible resources at the disposal of the IDF. It also means that Israeli reservists will be deployed throughout the areas where clashes have taken place along the border with the Gaza Strip. A state of civil emergency was declared outside a radius of 80 kilometers from the Gaza Strip, while Israel has limited the size of gatherings and placed restrictions on movement.
Israel announced that it will launch Operation Iron Sword against the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu promised to eliminate all Hamas militants and to turn the Gaza Strip into "rubble," warning Palestinians in Gaza to leave. Netanyahu said that he would use all the IDF’s fighting capabilities to destroy Hamas, adding that "the war will take time." However, he said that the Israeli army would use all its strength to eliminate Hamas and would continue to strike them until the end. Netanyahu said that retribution for the terrible day that had befallen Israel and its people would continue. As a result, Israel has carried out airstrikes for the past three days on various targets in the Gaza Strip.
4. Underscoring Israeli intelligence failures: Hamas’s military operation reflects a crisis within Israeli intelligence institutions. Hamas succeeded in surprising Israel with attacks in several locations without Israeli intelligence detecting its plans for this huge operation and without the government increasing military preparedness in advance. As a result, there was sharp criticism leveled against intelligence agencies in the hours following Operation al-Aqsa Flood. Although these agencies have extensive resources, they were not able to detect Hamas’s plans or to neutralize the operation before it was carried out.
Some reports have shed light on the challenges that Israeli intelligence is facing. Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on 7 October 2023 that leading IDF officers and security officials had issued assessments during the days immediately leading up to the operation indicating that Hamas wanted to avoid total war with Israel. According to Haaretz, top Israeli officials had previously affirmed the Hamas did not want to put earlier gains at risk, since this had led to improved quality of life for Gazans.
5. Failure of Israeli air defenses: In recent years, Israel has made much of its Iron Dome air defense system. It has claimed that it was capable of defending Israel’s security, but the recent strikes from Hamas have demonstrated significant issues with Israeli air defense: The Iron Dome was unable to detect the paragliders that Hamas militants used to reach deep within Israeli territory.
The waves of rocket attacks that Hamas launched also uncovered crucial deficiencies in the Israeli Iron Dome. According to some estimates, Hamas launched more than 5000 rockets in a twenty-minute period, which exhausted the system’s capabilities after it repelled the first rounds of rockets. This left Israeli air defenses open as it began to reload. During this period of time, Israeli airspace was open to Palestinian rockets. The large number of Hamas rockets overpowered the dome’s capabilities repel them. Reports also indicated that using rockets of differing altitudes meant that the Iron Dome was not able to repel all rockets over this dispersed area, and had to choose which to focus on.
Reports indicate that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked US President Joe Biden for emergency US funding to bolster the Iron Dome during a phone call on the evening of 7 October.
6. Israeli military and security forces exhausted: The al-Aqsa Flood Operation highlighted the extent of the exhaustion among Israeli military and security forces. In recent months, these forces have dealt with major crises including ongoing protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms. The divisions within Israeli society have quickly seeped into military institutions as well. Some Israelis have refused to serve in the IDF while Israeli media reported earlier this year that 161 Israeli air force officers and commanders resigned to protest the government’s proposed judicial reforms.
Furthermore, Israeli military and security forces have been engaged in recent months in dealing with growing Palestinian protests against Israeli policies in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Meanwhile, they have needed to fend off numerous armed attacks in various areas of Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and to deal with clashes with Palestinian militant groups such as the Lions’ Den in the West Bank. There is no doubt that these factors weakened Israeli military capabilities in the current conflict with Hamas.
7. US shock regarding state of Israeli intelligence and military: Operation al-Aqsa Flood came as a major shock for Tel Aviv’s allies as well, especially the US, which was disappointed in the performance of Israeli intelligence agencies and its military. On 8 October, CNN quoted a top US intelligence official as saying that "the capability of Hamas to coordinate terrorist attacks on Israeli towns without detection has raised concerns about technological blind spots for US intelligence officials."
In this regard, US President Biden has affirmed that the US will provide support for Israeli military operations. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated on 8 October that the US was "looking at specific additional requests that the Israelis have made" and that "you’re likely to hear more about that." Blinken added that "President Biden’s direction was to make sure we’re providing Israel everything it needs in this moment to deal with the attacks from Hamas."
8. Concerns about Hamas receiving support from Iran and Iranian proxies: Hamas’s military operation signaled a major leap in capabilities, which has raised significant concerns about whether Hamas received external support, particularly from Iran or Hezbollah. In recent years Hamas has developed close ties with Tehran and Hezbollah, and Tehran could have played a role in expanding Hamas’s armaments. Israeli President Isaac Herzog noted that the attacks that Hamas carried out were "supported and directed" by Iran, while Tehran issues statements in support of Operation al-Aqsa Flood. Yahya Rahim Safavi, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stated on 7 October that Iran supported Operation al-Aqsa Flood and that it was certain that the "resistance front" did as well. On 8 October, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi also made phone calls to the leader of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
9. Hamas’s political calculations in timing the operation: The timing of Operation al-Aqsa Flood raised questions about Hamas’s political calculations in choosing that exact timing of the attack. It is significant that the operation occurred in October, which is linked in Arab collective memory to the 1973 October war. This has enabled Hamas to draw upon the historic trajectory of military conflict with Israel. At the same time, the operation occurred at a time when Israeli-Arab relations have become more open. Hamas might have carried out the operation to prevent these shifts from progressing further, which aligns with Iran’s interests in avoiding Israeli-Arab normalization.
Operation al-Aqsa Flood will have various implications across multiple spheres, including the following:
1. Likelihood of prolonged military conflict: It is probable that the current clashes between Hamas and Israel over the last three days will continue for a longer period of time. Tel Aviv has issued statements indicating that this will be a protracted conflict, while some sources suggest that Israel wants to exert total control over the Gaza Strip, and ensure that it has fully neutralized the capabilities of armed groups there.
It should be noted that the fact that this was a humiliating attack for Israel will be a key driver for Tel Aviv in continuing military operations against the Gaza Strip during the coming days. According to Thomas Friedman, Operation al-Aqsa Flood was "worse [for Israel] than the Yom Kippur surprise attack [of 1973] . . . [because of] the sheer humiliation of it for the Israeli military." He noted that the October 2023 attack was carried out by a "tiny force" that "not only invaded Israel, overwhelming Israeli border troops; it took Israeli hostages back to Gaza across that same border—a border where Israel had spent roughly $1 billion erecting a barrier that was supposed to be virtually impenetrable."
Furthermore, confusion prevailed in the IDF in the wake of the Hamas operation, to the extent that there were areas of Israel where armed clashes with Hamas continued for the two days since operation was launched. The huge number of Israeli casualties as well as US support for Israel also make it more likely that this military conflict will continue.
2. Heightened pressure on Netanyahu’s government: The current state of war that the Israel government has declared will give Netanyahu a way out of a months-long political crisis around his judicial reform plan. This is particularly true since Washington has set aside its differences with Netanyahu and announced it will stand fully behind Israel. However, Operation al-Aqsa Flood and its enormous human costs could put tremendous pressure on Netanyahu’s government and undermine his public image.
In the last several hours, media and social media criticism of Netanyahu has escalated. He has been blamed for these recent developments, given the major divisions that he has sown within Israeli society in recent months by pursuing his judicial reform plan. Critics claim that these divisions have depleted Israeli military and security institutions.
3. Potential for increased US military involvement in the conflict: After Operation al-Aqsa Flood, Washington announced that it would ramp up intelligence and military support for Israel. Reports indicate that Hamas’s attack was also a surprise for the US, which has led Washington to expand the intelligence it shares with Israel. It was also announced that the US would send an aircraft carrier from its navy to the Mediterranean Sea in a show of support for Israel. US Secretary of State Blinken indicated on 8 October that he had seen "reports that several Americans are among the dead" following the operation by Hamas. On 9 October, the US Department of State announced that nine Americans had been killed in the attacks on Israel.
Although these factors increase the likelihood of US involvement in the conflict, there are also limits to the scope of US engagement, which remain unclear at this point in time. Direct intervention on grounds of defending US nationals would have grave consequences, including immense political costs for Washington in the Middle East.
4. Conflict fronts could expand: There are concerns in Israel at the moment that conflict fronts with Hamas could expand beyond Gaza, particularly if the Israeli military operation continues for a longer period of time. It is likely that the situation could escalate in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The Lions’ Den, a Palestinian armed group, announced on 7 October that it would be targeting points of contact with and entrances to settlements and attack settlers. On 8 October, a general strike was declared in the West Bank to denounce Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip.
The conflict could also potentially expand into Lebanon since Hezbollah has affirmed that it stands with Hamas. On 8 October, Hezbollah launched artillery shells towards Israeli positions in Shebaa Farms. This was followed by Israel launching an artillery barrage into southern Lebanon, while the IDF stated that one of its drones had targeted a Hezbollah post in Har Dov within Shebaa. IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari made televised remarks in which he stated that "at this point, there is no further threat in Har Dov or the northern arena."
5. Targeting Israeli interests abroad: In the coming period we could also see increased targeting of Israeli-affiliated sites abroad, particularly in the Middle East, given the polarization and media furor in the region during intensive Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Tel Aviv has announced that all its embassies around the world are on high alert, and has sent instructions to all Israeli ambassadors not to leave their homes. It instructed Israelis not to travel to countries where the country’s embassies could be under threat.
6. Hamas to use hostages to bargain: During the coming days, Hamas will use the Israeli hostages it has taken to exert pressure on Tel Aviv. It hopes that this will make Israel more hesitant to launch a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. Hamas will also try to bargain with Israel for the release of Palestinian prisoners.
It is clear that Hamas has taken large numbers of hostages, which poses a major problem for Israel. In 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released 1027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Hamas is likely to ask Israel to release all Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails before it will set free the hostages it has taken in Gaza.
7. Increased Iranian involvement in Palestinian affairs: The confrontation between Hamas and Israel is likely to result in increased Iranian involvement in Palestinian affairs. Hamas is currently one of the main levers that Tehran is using to exert pressure on Tel Aviv and Washington, and perhaps also Riyadh. Given Hamas’s increasingly limited relations with many Arab nations due to its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, it will need major support from Hezbollah and Iran.
The question of Iranian involvement in the conflict is of great concern to the US. Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer announced on 8 October that Washington was closely monitoring the extent of Tehran’s current involvement in the attacks on Israel, and what it might do in the future. Finer added that the US was most concerned about the role that Iran or its proxies, such as Hezbollah, could play in the future.
8. Potential for escalation between Israel and Iran: Operation al-Aqsa Flood could lead to increased escalation between Israel and Iran in light of Israeli accusations that Iran is involved in supporting Hamas, although Iran has denied this. On 9 October, The Wall Street Journal, which also described Iran as supporting Hamas, quoted an Iranian official as saying that Tehran planned to respond with rocket strikes on Israel from Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iran. The official reportedly added that Iran would send its militants from Syria into Israel if Iran was attacked.
9. Fallout for Arabs in the West: Western responses to the military clashes between Hamas and Israel have underscored the extent to which Western countries stand with Israel. The West has accused Hamas of carrying out a terrorist attack targeting civilians, including nationals of Western countries. This is at odds with the prevailing view expressed in the Arab world, whether in marches or on social media, in support of Hamas’s attack. These highly divergent stances could have troubling implications for Arabs living in Western societies. Arab communities, especially those in Western countries, must call for a serious reconsideration of the Palestinian question. They should endeavor to change the narrative espoused in Western propaganda about the conflict, including the most recent war between Hamas and Israel.
10. Repercussions for regional economic initiatives with Israel: It is likely that Operation al-Aqsa Flood will have repercussions for regional economic initiatives that involve Israel alongside other regional actors. For example, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which was announced in September of this year, could be negative impacted. The recent military operation and confrontation between Israel and Hamas demonstrates that Israel is an unsafe setting for large-scale projects of this kind. This will make international and regional actors hesitant to engage, since they will be concerned that such projects could be targeted by armed groups.
In conclusion, the ongoing Operation al-Aqsa Flood will have enormous human and economic costs for both sides. Palestinians are likely to face heavier losses given Israeli air force capabilities, which will enable the latter to carry out extensive airstrikes against the Gaza Strip. However, Hamas has bargaining chips that it can use to navigate the conflict with Israel, especially as this relates to hostages. Hamas might also be able to manipulate the challenges that the Israeli security and military spheres are facing. Both Israeli escalation and Hamas’s ability to exert pressure in response mean that this conflict could reverberate elsewhere in the region. The recent expansion of relations between Arab countries and Israel is likely to be particularly affected, while Iran and its proxies will also feel these repercussions.