General Eli Zeira, director of Israeli military intelligence, had no doubt, up until a few hours before it was unleashed, that an attack was “very unlikely.” They would have been crazy to do it, they would have done it knowing they could not win, that defeat was inevitable. Ariel Sharon, at the head of the Southern Command, promised that by the time of the next clash the Arab defense line would lie just outside Cairo. Prime Minister Golda Meir argued that it would have been totally “illogical” for Egypt’s President, Sadat, to court an armed conflict, because it was obvious who would win. Her Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, victor of the previous war, in 1967, later admitted his surprise and bewilderment at the Arabs’ ability to put up a fight, and his despair at the Israeli army’s lack of preparation. The government and military brass all shared the same contagious overconfidence. In their comedy sketches, the Hagashah Hashiver trio asked if Egyptians could conceive of “a more idiotic plan than crossing the Suez Canal” (the western shore of the canal had been Israeli since the 1967 war).
They didn’t realize that they were all playing into the enemy’s hands. Falling into a trap. One prepared with great care. The National Commission of Inquiry investigating errors in the days preceding the Yom Kippur War identified General Zeira as the man principally responsible for that disaster. He was reprimanded for choosing not to tell the Premier that his calculations were essentially based on a single source: Nasser’s son-in-law, Ashraf Marwan, who had been working closely with Sadat. It remains unclear whether Marwan was a double agent. He certainly shared information with Israel. But he also shared misinformation. He can no longer tell us. A few years later he fell or was thrown off the balcony of his apartment in London.
What is Hamas’s game this time? The seemingly most absurd thing is that Hamas’s propaganda machine is the one that is spreading and amplifying news of the horrors. Not the ones committed against Gaza, but those their own militia have been perpetrating in their assaults against the kibbutzim. The earliest, chilling images were captured from agents embedded within Hamas: Noa screaming in despair as she’s taken away on a motorcycle; armed militias cheering over the naked, broken legs of a young woman – perhaps unconscious, or wounded, or dead – hanging off the back of a truck; the brutalized grandmother lying in a pool of her own blood; the execution of fleeing civilians, their corpses lying on the streets or hanging off bullet-ridden cars; young people and white-haired women led away as if to the slaughter. All accompanied by Arabic writing.
This horror show began with Hamas. It was something they wanted, not something they lost control over. Images and videos that have been repeatedly captured and shared online. Not by the victims, but by the perpetrators. They imply the existence of a hardened crew, tasked with editing and spreading these images on behalf of Hamas, an almost cinematic care in what to show. And an army of trolls has been spreading these images further. Making them go viral, eliciting millions of clicks. Especially on X (formerly Twitter), less so on other platforms, whose moderators have opted to filter them. Only later did the stories emerge, and then the images, of something even more horrific: the massacre of children at the Kfar Aza kibbutz. And finally, the TV stations assembled it all into one long montage of atrocity, in which it is no longer possible to distinguish who shot and posted what.
Why does Hamas deliberately flaunt the horrors it perpetrates? To demonstrate Israel’s lack of preparation and Hamas’s own military prowess? To spread terror? To disorient, to humiliate, to foster a sense of paralysis and powerlessness? To say: look, we can get you when and how we want? Or perhaps to say: yes, we are the beasts you say we are, come and avenge yourselves, come and get us in Gaza?
Be wary of assuming that they are making it up as they go along. They have been preparing this assault on Gaza for at least two years. And they have been practicing their shrewd manipulation of messaging and the media for decades. They have been studying, calculating possible reactions. They have trained themselves to anticipate what Israelis may think, how their government and military brass may react, what decisions they might make. They painstakingly examine “open-source intelligence,” i.e., publicly available information. There is a whole new field of analysis right there. “The enemy teaches us how to operate,” they boast. Their specialists are all well-versed in Hebrew and English. ‘The enemy teaches us how to operate’: Palestinian Hamas use of Open source intelligence (OSINT), in its intelligence warfare against Israel (1987-2012), a study by Israeli analyst Netanel Flamer, published online in May 2023, is enlightening in this regard.
They did not need spies to know that Israel was divided. That the government had removed all inconvenient judges and heads of the military and intelligence. That Netanyahu had shifted most of the army to the West Bank, to defend the new settlements there, which constitute the core of his constituency and his majority – thus making the Gaza kibbutzim more vulnerable. All of this was in the papers.
Only a few days before that terrible October 7, on the September 30 issue of the newspaper Haaretz, Israeli scholar Michael Milshtein reminded readers of that time, fifty years ago, when Israel almost fell, due to miscalculation, overconfidence from past military successes, and, above all, arrogance, and the contemptuous underestimation of its Arab foes. Milshtein’s prompt had been the latest revelations to emerge from archives, the memories of those who had been there, and, most precious of all, transcripts of Israeli government meetings held in the days preceding as well as during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which had been made public only a few weeks prior. What is striking about those transcripts is the pervasive conviction that there would be no war. And the subsequent astonishment in the face of the Arabs’ daring and determination. And the shock at the realization that the Arabs had managed to anticipate the Israeli’s very thought processes to a much greater extent than the Israelis had managed to understand and access the Arabs’ way of thinking.
Arrogance always makes for a terrible counselor. Netanyahu had not anticipated Hamas’s attack on Gaza. Just as, fifty years before, Golda Meir had not anticipated that Egypt and Syria would attack Israel from their respective sides on Yom Kippur. But a graver mistake was made than simply failing to anticipate the attacks. A purely strategic mistake: failing to identify the most dangerous enemy. In 1973, Sadat did not wish to destroy Israel. He wanted to avenge his 1967 defeat and take back Sinai. Indeed, he eventually rushed to make peace with Israel, before Islamic extremists murdered him. Just as Yitzhak Rabin, who was negotiating a peace treaty with Arafat, was killed by an Israeli extremist.
People are saying: Hamas’s attack will benefit Iran. Are we sure about that? Fifty years ago, the greatest victor of the Yom Kippur War was Saudi Arabia. The price of its only product, oil, had skyrocketed. If they had decided to cease the export of oil to the United States, the American economy, indeed the Western economy in general, would have taken years to recover from the hit. Because of this, the custodians of Wahhabist fundamentalism became incredibly wealthy, and a country whose importance had been only secondary became an arbiter of global checks and balances. This time, hungry for fresh new money, Saudi Arabia had already started twisting the taps, raising prices to almost 100 dollars. Hamas’s attack led to a further increase of 5 percent. And futures have now reached past 16 percent. Right now, Saudi Arabia is winning again.
Choosing the wrong enemy is worse than choosing then wrong ally. For decades, Israel has seen Iran as its absolute nemesis. But Israel’s absolute nemesis should be Saudi Arabia. And yet, almost as if by mathematical logic, the US and Israel have both strengthened their ties with Saudi Arabia. Certainly, a choice. But not one that cannot be unmade. What is more dangerous to the future, the safety, the very existence of Israel: Shi’i Iran’s nationalism and hunger for regional hegemony, or Saudi Arabia’s Sunni, Arab fundamentalism? That may be up for debate, but when you are choosing between enemies who are also each other’s enemy, the most dangerous thing to do is to pick one to corner the other. Not to mention the possibility that, God forbid, one day the two enemies may team up against you. Trump had supported Netanyahu’s strategies all the way. Biden has been more cautious.
Ever since the Ayatollahs took over, Iran has never concealed or tempered its hatred for Israel. But so far Iran has only ever fought – fiercely and completely – Saddam Hussein’s Arab-and-Sunni-majority Iraq. If they ever manage to get nuclear weapons, they will point them at Saudi Arabia first, not Israel. In a televised speech, Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei denied Iran’s involvement in Hamas’s recent attack, while also saying: “We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack on the Zionist regime.” Grim propaganda. But also caution. Woven together. Reflecting the United States’ own caution. Yes, hatred toward Israel is one of the pillars of the Iranian regime. But it is one thing to bark, and quite another to bite. Khamenei knows very well that the vast majority of Iranians does not wish to die for Palestine. They are Persians, Shi’is, nationalists. They have always hated Arabs, Sunnis. In another video that has gone viral since the start of the conflict, spectators at a soccer match in Tehran loudly chanted for the removal of Palestinian flags from the pitch.
Historically, Iran has never wanted to “destroy the Zionist Entity,” as they keep saying, nor do they wish to get Hezbollah involved, nor, indeed, start a war with the US. What Iran wants above all is for Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia to never band together against Iran. In order for this not to happen, they would have no problem sacrificing Hamas.
The most damaging traps as those we make for ourselves. Yahya Sinwar, the mind behind the Hamas attack – Mohammed Deif, known as “the Guest” because every night he sleeps in a different place in Gaza, is nothing but the plan’s executor – had so far cultivated a reputation as a “pragmatist,” as “reasonable.” “I don’t want any more wars,” he said in 2018 in an interview published on Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “Who really wants to confront a nuclear superpower with four slingshots?” he added. As if to say: I’m not crazy. But what is his game then? What is the point of this obsessive, systematic display of the horrors perpetrated by his militias? Why lure Tsahal into the Gaza trap? Why involve Hezbollah, the most solid military force in Iran’s service and pay, with its 100,000-armed soldiers, and with ten times the number of missiles as Hamas, not to mention the fact that their missiles are also more sophisticated and reach farther? And why involve Iran? If this is Hamas’s plan, do we really want to indulge it? Biden is doing everything possible to ensure that Netanyahu will not fall head-first into Hamas’s trap.
Siegmund Ginzberg is a journalist and essayist born in Turkey to a Jewish family that came to Milan in the 1950s where he grew up. After studying philosophy he took up journalism and worked as a correspondent in China, India, Japan, North and South Korea, as well as New York, Washington and Paris.
Cover picture: Israeli soldiers block their ears as a M109 155mm self-propelled howitzer fires rounds from near the Israeli border with Gaza in southern Israel on October 17, 2023. Photo by Menahem Kahana / AFP.
In this page also: newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023. (Credits: Atta Kenare / AFP.)
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