Pair of Middle East experts give insight into timing of Hamas attack on Israel

October 9, 2023

This article was originally published by CBS San Francisco on October 9, 2023. It features Professor Ron Hassner, HDI's Co-Faculty Director. 

The Hamas attacks on Israel were swift and brutal, but they were not without intention. A pair of Middle East experts in the Bay Area explained the timing of the assault and what the terrorists hoped to accomplish.

When Hamas fighters began pouring into Israel, it took a country, that has always been proud of its security apparatus, completely off-guard.

"I think the Israelis were very much caught by surprise by the really far reaching and extensive nature of this operation," said Stanford professor Allen Weiner. "And so, we are seeing Israelis say, this is their 9/11."

Weiner specializes in international conflict matters, and he believes the attacks were meant to send a message.

"I think the first thing Hamas wanted to do was remind the Israelis that they are there, and that they are a force to be reckoned with — a security force and a political force to be reckoned with," said Weiner. "This will almost certainly scuttle the prospects of any kind of rapprochement for the time being, between Israel and Saudi Arabia."

That may be the issue behind all of this. Lately, there have been negotiations for a defense pact between Israel and Saudi Arabia to combat a shared threat from Iran and its nuclear program.

Professor Ron Hassner, UC Berkeley Israel Studies Chair, said Iran is a known sponsor of Hamas and has a lot to lose if such an alliance occurs.

"I think it's more likely to see this as a last-ditch effort by Hamas to appear and be noticed on the world stage. Because it realizes it will not get a seat at the negotiation table, and that Arab states have moved on and they've moved on without the Palestinians," said Hassner.

But then, why were the well-coordinated attacks carried out with such extreme brutality?

"I have a very hard time wrapping my head around the brutality. I've studied terrorism my whole life, I've never seen scenes like these," said Hassner. "In so far as they're rational, their goal is to shake people up."

The Israeli response has been swift and violent, targeting buildings thought to house Hamas operations. In the wake of this, hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed or wounded. And Hassner thinks that's what Hamas wants, to provoke Israel into killing a large number of Palestinians in retribution.

"Here, the hope is that the Israelis will respond disproportionately, and will then be castigated by the rest of the world," he said. "And it's very hard when the goal of your enemy is to maximize civilian casualties. You're fighting with a hand tied behind your back."

Weiner agreed. "Hamas has sometimes made the calculation that it is prepared to incur tremendous suffering within Gaza, and subject the people in Gaza to tremendous suffering, because that actually can have the effect of generating sympathy for the Palestinian cause internationally," he said.

Both professors say it will be difficult politically for Saudi Arabia to enter into a security agreement with Israel while it is conducting a bloody war against a fellow Muslim community. To not take that bait, Israeli leaders will have to battle their own sense of outrage.

But either way, Weiner said it would be wise for them to at least understand the motivations of their enemy.

"To see the conflict through lenses other than our own point of view, that's really one of the required steps for being able to make progress in resolving this conflict," Weiner said. "Certainly, the prospects for that seem very bleak."

Meanwhile, the rest of world is watching to see how fragile the prospects for peace really are in a region that, for so long, has only known conflict.

CBS San Francisco