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Business News/ News / Israel’s Challenge in Responding to a Brutal Surprise Attack
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Israel’s Challenge in Responding to a Brutal Surprise Attack


Hamas staged a shockingly successful operation against the Jewish state, but history shows that wars are seldom won by such tactics.

The Oct. 7 attack, in which Hamas fired some 3,500 rockets at Israel and militants invaded by air, land and sea, has been described as Israel’s 9/11 moment. Premium
The Oct. 7 attack, in which Hamas fired some 3,500 rockets at Israel and militants invaded by air, land and sea, has been described as Israel’s 9/11 moment.

“Surprise attacks happen so often," former U.S. deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz once observed, “that the surprising thing is that we are still surprised by them."

But history shows that the tactic almost always backfires. Nations subjected to surprise attacks may be weakened in the immediate days and weeks afterward, but they tend to be more unified, more resolute and more focused on righteous vengeance than nations that drift into war. Hamas’s attack on Israel last weekend fits this pattern.

The Oct. 7 attack, in which Hamas fired some 3,500 rockets at Israel and militants invaded by air, land and sea, has been described as Israel’s 9/11 moment. But in per capita terms it is much larger: Approximately 1,200 Israeli deaths, out of a population of 9.4 million, is equivalent to some 40,000 Americans killed, well over six times the number killed in Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined. In both of those cases, the U.S. response was rightly devastating, and so should be Israel’s today.

Wars often begin with surprise attacks to gain immediate advantage over the enemy, however short-term that advantage might be. They were used by Adolf Hitler against the U.S.S.R. in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, by Kim Il Sung against South Korea in 1950 and by Saddam Hussein against Kuwait in 1990. Israel began the Six Day War with a surprise attack on Arab nations in 1967, and Egypt and Syria took revenge with a surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. Hamas chose the 50th anniversary of that attack for its assault on Israel last weekend.

With the exception of Israel’s attack in 1967, surprise attacks tend to be initiated by totalitarian leaders and movements, rather than by democracies, which need to win over the opinion of the public or dissenting politicians before going to war. And in every one of these cases, again with the exception of the Six Day War, the perpetrator of the surprise attack wound up being comprehensively defeated or having its capabilities massively degraded. The lesson of history is simple: Surprise attacks do not work in the long run.

This is partly because victory in war usually goes to the side that can outlast the enemy, continue to provide logistical support to its troops and survive economically. As military historian Cathal J. Nolan pointed out in his 2019 book “The Allure of Battle," individual battles—including initial surprise attacks, however spectacular—are almost never the decisive factor in wars. Amateurs may concentrate on battles, but professionals focus on the logistics of campaigns.

Once the present crisis is over in Israel, there will be much soul-searching and official investigation into how Israel’s intelligence agencies, military and politicians could have failed so dismally in anticipating Hamas’s attack. It is to be hoped that the failures of intelligence and military readiness will be examined rationally and fairly, however rancorous the state of Israeli politics in the lead-up to the war.

History shows that surprise attacks often appear predictable in hindsight. Israel’s decision to attack preemptively on June 5, 1967 should not have been a surprise to its Arab neighbors, considering the warlike language that Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab leaders had been using in the preceding months. On May 17, Nasser ordered U Thant, the U.N. Secretary General, to withdraw the U.N. Emergency Force that had been guarding the Sinai frontier, which he did. Nasser moved 100,000 troops to Israel’s southwestern border and publicly informed the Arab Trade Union Congress that it was his intention to destroy Israel. At the same time, the president of Iraq said that “Our goal is clear, to wipe Israel off the face of the map. We shall, inshallah, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa." Why Israel’s massive pre-emptive attack came as a surprise is therefore hard to comprehend.

Major surprise attacks can take place even in wars that have been going on for some time. On the evening of Jan. 30, 1968, during the week-long Vietnamese celebration of the Tet holiday, nearly 85,000 North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong soldiers struck targets throughout the South, including Saigon, where numerous military bases, government buildings and the U.S. Embassy were assaulted. The communists hoped that simultaneous attacks throughout the country would prompt the people of South Vietnam to rise up and support the insurgency—which it did not. Similarly, Hamas must be hoping today that Arabs in the West Bank and Israel itself, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah and Syria, will open up further fronts against Israel to take pressure off Gaza.

Hamas’s choice of timing for its attack was a direct reference to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and indeed it has led to the largest loss of Israeli life since that war. It is worth examining the 1973 war, which ended in the comprehensive defeat of the Egyptians and Syrians, to ask what Hamas could possibly want to emulate.

At 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6, 1973—Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement—the Egyptians and Syrians achieved impressive tactical surprise in opening hostilities. Some 32,000 infantry crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai Desert at five separate places over a 50-mile front, supported by almost 4,000 artillery pieces. Egypt and Syria had an overwhelming demographic advantage, with a combined population of more than 40 million to Israel’s 3 million.

Yet Israel soon rebounded, and the war turned into a devastating defeat for the Arab nations. By the time it ended on Oct. 25, Israeli forces were within artillery range of Damascus and over the Suez Canal, well on the road to Cairo.

If militant Arabs remember the Yom Kippur war as a victory, it is solely because of those initial stunning successes. The decision to attack on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur was reflected in Hamas’s attack last weekend on the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, when many soldiers were on leave and Israelis were gathering for religious and musical events. Just as in 1973, this cynical tactic has only served to infuriate Israelis even more.

It is important to remember the difference in scale between the attacks of 1973 and 2023. Hamas presently poses no threat to the survival of the Jewish state, as Syria and Egypt did in the early days of the Yom Kippur War.

Yet the situation in Gaza has been made fiendishly complicated by the fact that as many as 150 hostages are now in Hamas’s hands, including reportedly citizens of the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany and Nepal. Hamas has no doubt distributed the hostages around Gaza to serve as human shields so that they cannot be liberated en masse, the way Israeli commandos rescued hostages held by Idi Amin at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.

Beyond that, Gaza is a densely built-up area where 2.3 million people live in only 140 square miles. Hamas and Islamic Jihad conceal themselves in this civilian population: Their fighters generally don’t wear uniforms, and the terrorist groups have positioned their headquarters, bases and facilities in the midst of schools, hospitals and apartment buildings.

The reason why the Islamist fundamentalists’ threat to kill hostages works is that democracies hold themselves to higher moral standards than their enemies do and, correctly, will not retaliate in kind. However often Hamas’s leaders accuse Netanyahu of being a fascist, they know that it would not cross his mind to behave like true fascists did in World War II, when it was German policy to shoot 10 hostages for every German soldier killed by the French Resistance. Other reprisals included razing entire villages, such as Oradour in France and Lidice in Czechoslovakia. Democracies fight with a higher moral code.

The Hamas attack is a reminder that the era of terrorism is not over. The U.S. may now be less interested in Islamist extremists than in China and Russia, but that does not mean the Islamist extremists have lost interest in us. Their lust for blood is undiminished. As soon as they have an opening, they will strike. As we saw with Islamic State following the final withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq in late 2011, when military focus and pressure are removed, extremist elements can reconstitute. The attack from Gaza is as much a warning for Americans, Europeans and Indians as it is for Israelis.

The varied methods of attack used by Hamas also show that warfare is always evolving in ways that are hard to predict. In an era when militaries are focused on high-tech AI and robotic weapons, Hamas scored a success using motorized hang-gliders, windsurfers, golf carts, powerboats, bulldozers and motorbikes, as well as drones that knocked out cell towers critical to Israel’s sophisticated surveillance systems.

Those who argue that the present situation might be resolved peacefully have failed to appreciate that Hamas is so powerful precisely because it is an irrational death cult whose agenda is entirely different from other organizations. A terror group that has the killing of as many Jews as possible built into its DNA is exceedingly difficult to negotiate with, except in short-term parleys to arrange specific deals. Even the Taliban seem masters of reason and logic by comparison.

The current calls for Israel to to observe the laws of war in responding to Hamas are appropriate and must be heeded. But restraint will be exceedingly difficult as Israel seeks not just to punish the present attack but to change the dynamics on the ground and deter future attacks.

Sending ground forces into Gaza to destroy Hamas bases and capture or kill the group’s fighters, as Israel has every right to do, will inevitably result in substantial Palestinian civilian casualties. There are likely to be serious Israeli losses as well. The difficulties of the military operation ahead cannot be overstated.

But however enormous the challenge, Israel must maintain its long-standing commitment to its ethical code of the “purity of arms," while also making clear that it is fighting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, not the Palestinian people. As U.S. and coalition forces learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, operations need to be scrutinized carefully during the planning phase to ensure that they will not create more enemies because of how the war is conducted.

Moreover, as major urban combat operations begin, the residents of Gaza—and the West Bank too—need and deserve a way forward. They must be told not only what Israel’s military objectives are but what sort of future they and their children can expect after the war. As the U.S. was reminded in the wake of capturing Baghdad and toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, considerable thought and planning need to be devoted to the post-conflict phase, not just to combat operations.

To that end, Israel must have a plan for what to do if it decides to occupy the Gaza Strip for months or even years, as it did up until 2005. When the several-day battle for Najaf, Iraq, was complete on April 3, 2004, I (Gen. Petraeus) radioed my boss, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, that I had good news and bad news. “The good news," I reported, “is that we own Najaf." “What’s the bad news?" he asked. “The bad news," I responded, “is that we own Najaf. What do you want us to do with it?"

Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. Army (ret.), commanded the surge in Iraq, U.S. Central Command and NATO/U.S. forces in Afghanistan before serving as director of the CIA. Andrew Roberts is the author of 20 books, including “Churchill: Walking with Destiny," and is a member of the House of Lords. Their new book, “Conflict: The Evolution of War from 1945 to Ukraine," will be published on Oct. 17 by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).

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