The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is marked by repeated cycles of violence. This is especially true with regard to Gaza that has experienced multiple rounds of violence since Hamas took over in 2007. As recently as May 2021, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and in May 2023 tensions were high after Israel assassinated several prominent Islamic Jihad leaders.
Despite this bloody history, the Hamas attack came as a complete surprise, which was unprecedented in its scope and brutality and has been called Israel’s 9/11 moment. In hindsight, it implies that Israel’s policy of deterrence has failed vis-à-vis Hamas.
What factors explains this failure of deterrence? To help answer this question, I explore three factors: the limits of technology for solving political problems, the shortcomings of Israel’s current deterrent strategies, and the difficulty of deterring religious actors such as Hamas. These explanations rely on the academic literature on terrorism and some of my own research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Limits of Technology
The conflict with Hamas highlights the limits of using military technology to solve a political problem. For instance, consider the use of rockets by Hamas. After Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, it became harder to launch direct attacks against Israeli army bases or settlements. In response, Hamas started launching rockets at Israel and gradually expanded their range. In response to the Hamas rockets, Israel developed the Iron Dome system. In addition, it built a smart and sophisticated fence to prevent infiltrations from Gaza. These responses worked well for several years. However, Hamas was not idle in response to these developments. It acquired drones that were able to disable the smart fence and then destroyed the fence in multiple locations. Instead of rockets, it relied on a ground invasion to inflict devastating damage on the army and the southern communities.
Thus, the Hamas attack highlights the how technology is useful for helping Israel solve short-term deterrence problems (such as building the Iron Dome to stop rockets). However, they should not be thought of as long-term solutions. Rather, only political or diplomatic solutions – that include Hamas – can act as a long-term solution.
Ineffective Counterterrorism Strategies
Hamas’s successful attack also implies that Israel’s current counterterrorism tactics have been ineffective. This may be due to the fact that Israel’s strategies are overly punitive and not selective enough in their application.
In response to terror, countries can choose two counter-terrorism responses. One strategy aims to deter future attacks (deterrence) while the other strategy primarily aim is to punish terrorists (punishment). Sometimes these tactics can be pursued jointly, but other actions are more likely to emphasize one goal over the other. In addition, security forces need to decide on how selective a given policy is – a given policy is selective if that policy targets opponents on an individual level (such as drone strikes), versus policies that are less selective (such as curfews).
In a recently published article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Esteban Klor and I discuss the dangers of counterterrorist efforts backfiring and leading to additional cycles of violence. Specifically, we study the use of selective and indiscriminate house demolitions by Israel during the Second Intifada. We find that indiscriminate counterterrorism can lead to political radicalization among the Palestinian population, which in turn leads to an increase in terror attacks. Yet, despite the fact that house demolitions do not seem to deter future terrorism, they are still employed. This suggests that certain tactics may be pursued even if they do not deter future terrorism.
Likewise, it appears that Israel’s blockade on Gaza has failed to prevent Hamas attacks. Instead of deterring Hamas from committing future attacks (by restricting the free transfer of weapons), many view it is as a punitive policy (to punish Gazans for supporting Hamas). In addition, it seems to be overly indiscriminate in its application. It may hurt the average Gazan, but not prevent weapons from getting into Gaza.
Religious Motivations of Hamas
Finally, the Hamas attacks show that is very hard to defer a religious and determined actor. On the surface, it made sense for Hamas to keep the peace and not engage in conflict with Israel. Past rounds showed that violence achieved little and Israel was happy to let Hamas rule in Gaza. However, this ended up being an erroneous belief. Strategies of deterrence assume rational actors who share similar beliefs about the relative benefits and costs of war. However, this becomes more complicated with religion actors (such as Hamas or Israel’s religious settlers), who may have different values or not be as easily deterred. For instance, consider the centrality of the Al Aqsa Mosque. In its justification of the attacks, Hamas said it had launched the attack on Israel in part to defend the holy site. This suggests that the motivation for the attacks may be partly religious and not just nationalist in nature. In turn, it may be harder to deter religious motivations using strategic tactics since religious actors are less likely to agree to political compromise and are less likely to be swayed by material concessions (although symbolic concessions may be more effective).
In response to 9/11, the US attacked Afghanistan, and afterwards Iraq. Both these campaigns ultimately failed, suggesting important limitations to deterrence, counterterrorism, and the difficulties of state building. If this was Israel’s 9/11 moment, it can try to avoid post 9/11 mistakes by acknowledging the limitations of deterrence, military force, and more forcefully pursue political solutions.
Michael Raphael Freedman is an assistant professor (lecturer) in political science at the University of Haifa, Israel.
Cover photo: rockets fired from the Gaza City are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence missile system on October 10, 2023 (photo by Eyad Baba / AFP.)
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