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Why Hamas and Israel reached this moment now — and what comes next

Rockets fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza are intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defense missile system in the early hours of Sunday.
Eyad Baba
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AFP via Getty Images
Rockets fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza are intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defense missile system in the early hours of Sunday.

It's not uncommon for violence to break out between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. It typically goes like this: Hamas throws rockets over the Gaza border into Israel, most of which are intercepted by the Iron Dome — Israel's very sophisticated missile defense system. The impact in Israel is usually minimized.

Israel then responds with airstrikes on the densely populated Gaza Strip.

But what happened last weekend was unprecedented in its scale and coordination.

Militants attacked Israeli communication towers with improvised explosives, they breached the Gaza-Israel border fence within minutes and assumed control of several Israeli communities. They paraglided over the border and gunned down civilians at a music festival.

Hamas killed at least 1,200 people in the attack and took dozens hostage, including women, children and the elderly — all while Israel's military was late to respond. It was the deadliest attack Israel has seen in decades.

In retaliation, Israel has laid siege to Gaza with hundreds of airstrikes that have killed at least 1,000 Palestinians and displaced more than 200,000 people. It has cut off electricity, food and fuel supplies.

Speaking to mayors of the southern border towns that were hit by the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel's response "will change the Middle East."

Troops have now amassed for a possible ground invasion of Gaza, which last happened in 2014 and resulted in at least 2,000 Palestinians killed, and more than 70 on the Israeli side. It's the biggest escalation in the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in recent years.

But experts who follow the region closely point to key developments over the past year in Israel and the Palestinian territories that set the stage for this explosion of violence.

Israel was distracted by political turmoil

Netanyahu was reelected less than a year ago and formed a government by aligning with ultranationalists and religious conservatives.

Tal Schneider, the political and diplomatic correspondent for The Times of Israel, told NPR that Netanyahu's appointment of two controversial figures into his Cabinet intensified tensions within Israeli politics.

"He nominated someone who was convicted for eight times in inciting violence against Arabs," Schneider said, referring to Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security. "This is someone who was outlawed, who was for us Israelis, someone who was not supposed to sit in government. Netanyahu made him a strong leader and someone who is fully engaged in politics."

Ben-Gvir, along with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, pushed for more settlements in the occupied West Bank, escalating tensions with Palestinians.

"The war Cabinet of Netanyahu was completely dysfunctional with them," Schneider said.

Palestinians rescue a young girl from the rubble of a destroyed residential building following an Israeli airstrike on Tuesday.
Fatima Shbair / AP
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AP
Palestinians rescue a young girl from the rubble of a destroyed residential building following an Israeli airstrike on Tuesday.

Then there is Netanyahu's plan to overhaul Israel's judiciary, which has been delayed, but not abandoned, due to support from the far-right politicians, after mass protests broke out for months as Israelis rejected the proposal to weaken the country's supreme court.

"They want to change Israel's balance of power, the way Israel functions as a democracy. People here erupted, especially those who are doing reserve duty in the army. They went out to demonstrate and some of them announced that they will not serve anymore under a dictatorship. So, obviously, the military was very weakened," Schneider said, adding that all of this contributed to Hamas perceiving a weaker Israel.

Hamas responds to Palestinian despair

With the most far-right, ultranationalist and religiously conservative government Israel had seen in power, Hamas saw an opportunity as conditions worsened for Palestinians — not only those in Gaza, who have been living under a blockade for 16 years, but the West Bank as well, according to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

There has been an increase in violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers this past year, which has displaced hundreds of Palestinians, according to the United Nations. Israeli police also increasingly conducted raids in cities like Jenin and Nablus and at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem — a flashpoint in the conflict.

"You have an increase in settler violence, an encroachment in East Jerusalem, which is really critical," Telhami said. "People don't understand how important Jerusalem is to the Palestinians, to many people in the Arab and Muslim world. That's why, in fact, Hamas named this operation Al Aqsa Flood, referring to the holy mosque in Jerusalem. So, they're trying to capture that mood."

Telhami, who was in the West Bank last week, said he observed total despair and desperation after 56 years of occupation by Israel.

"At first [the Palestinians] were counting on Biden to do something after Trump. That didn't happen. Then they were counting on Arab states to do something. Instead, the Saudis and Israelis are trying to make peace without them, in a way," he said.

Telhami said Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European countries, saw the "perfect political opportunity for them, in a horrific way, to reshuffle the deck" and to also neutralize the influence of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, led by Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu emboldened Hamas over the years

Another thread that contributed to this moment is the way in which Netanyahu has dealt with Hamas over his years in power.

"He didn't have a straight-out policy and the prime minister obviously now denies it in hindsight," Schneider said. "But we know as reporters who have been following this for many years. They wanted to weaken the Palestinian Authority."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured here in September.
Abir Sultan / pool photo/AFP via Getty Images
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured here in September.

The goal for Netanyahu, according to Schneider, was to avoid the building of a future Palestinian state at any cost. And he did that in the way he approached Hamas, by allowing cash to flow into Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, and making deals with the militants via Egypt.

"Netanyahu, in order to get Mahmoud Abbas to be smaller and to humiliate him politically, they managed to give Hamas some sort of leverage," Schneider said.

No military win for either side

As the conflict is expected to escalate even further in the coming days, the long-term strategies for both Hamas and Israel remain to be seen.

For now, Hamas sees itself with the upper hand.

"They think they've undermined Israeli deterrence. They've shown Israel to be weaker than it claims to be," Telhami said. "They're becoming more popular in the Arab and Muslim countries, you can see people rallying behind them in places like Morocco that have already made peace with Israel and Egypt too."

But, in the short term, Hamas' ability to survive and withstand an Israeli response is in question. And even with its military superiority, Telhami and Schneider see no winning military strategy for Israel.

"I mean, the Israelis could prevail and destroy Hamas and destroy Gaza. And then what? Then what?" Telhami said, adding that the Biden administration, which has been focused on brokering a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, needed to rethink its approach as well.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to "stand with Israel."
Evan Vucci / AP
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AP
On Tuesday, President Biden vowed to "stand with Israel."

"If I were in the Biden administration's position, I would already start laying out knowing that there's going to be a deadlock," he said. "Even if there's a military outcome that ends the military part of the conflict, there's going to be a need for some political shift that's dramatic, far more than they were anticipating, and they need to plan it now."

"The war is not outside of Israel. It's inside Israel," Schneider said. "I don't ever recall that in recent history. And I have to tell you, we are losing big time. They're losing big time. It's a vicious circle of blood with no end in sight. A completely lose-lose situation. And it's just horrific."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.