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A Second October War in Israel-Palestine

In the early hours of 7 October, Hamas launched what it called Operation al-Aqsa Deluge, a multi-pronged attack on Israel, including Israeli border towns ringing the Gaza Strip. Thousands of rockets rained down on areas in Israel in the first few hours. These gave cover to Hamas militants, who sent armed drones to hit parts of Israel’s electronic border alarm system, broke through Israeli military posts and the security fence around Gaza, or flew over the barrier in motorised hang gliders, penetrating urban areas and killing or kidnapping Israelis, many of them civilians, including children and elderly people. Some militants tried to infiltrate Israel by sea.

By mid-morning the same day, Israeli aircraft had launched strikes on suspected Hamas facilities in the Gaza Strip, including several residential high-rises that were brought down. These operations continued through 8 October and into the next day. Israel also began deploying army units to the south; their first priority appeared to be to recapture the border communities under Hamas fighters’ control. This operation was reportedly nearing completion by the end of 8 October. The next phase has yet to start, but Israel appears to be preparing for a ground invasion to free Israeli hostages held by Hamas, cut the group down to size or even remove it from power. It has called up 300,000 reservists.

Numbers of dead and injured on both sides rose quickly: on 9 October, Israeli sources said at least 800 Israelis had been killed and more than 2,300 wounded. The dead include over 200 civilians apparently gunned down at a desert music festival. On the Palestinian side, health authorities have reported more than 500 Palestinians killed and over 2,700 injured, mainly by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. Many on both sides remain unaccounted for.
The human toll is certain to rise further as the fighting continues. Civilians will inevitably bear the brunt as the conflict escalates, especially in the likely event of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. On 9 October, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant announced that Israel would allow “no electricity, no food, no fuel” into Gaza, promising a “full siege”. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously vowed to reduce parts of Gaza to rubble. He warned Palestinian civilians to leave, but as they have no access to Egypt, on one side, or Israel, on the other, they have nowhere to go.

Caught unawares on the holiday of Simchat Torah, which in 2023 coincided with the Jewish Sabbath, Israeli political and military leaders were slow to respond. Gallant was the first to speak publicly several hours after the start of the Hamas operation, stating that the Islamist movement had made a “grave mistake” and that Israel would prevail. Netanyahu appeared shortly thereafter, affirming that Israel was in a state of war. The next day, Israel’s security cabinet approved a formal declaration of war, invoking Article 40 of the Basic Law, for the first time in half a century.

In the long view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hamas’s actions on the morning of 7 October were unprecedented. It was the first time that its militants were able to break out of the confinement of Gaza in numbers, and the first time that they stormed and took control of adjacent Israeli communities, something no Arab army had ever done. It is also the first time that Palestinians have taken hostage scores of Israeli soldiers and civilians, transporting an unknown number, possibly over a hundred, back with them into Gaza. Strikingly, Israel’s extensive border sensors proved useless in preventing the breach. The events left many Israelis feeling numb and vulnerable, as well as shocked by the intelligence and security failures that the Hamas attacks exposed. Many were angry with the government’s shortcomings in communicating with families in harm’s way, in getting soldiers deployed where they needed to be and even in making sure the troops had basic equipment. Western politicians and commentators expressed horror in traditional and social media outlets as pictures and stories emerged of young children taken hostage and families murdered in their homes by militants conducting door-to-door searches.