Hamas Ambush of Israel Could Escalate into Regional Conflict Depending on U.S. Response

Over much of 2023, Hamas and Hezbollah have been escalating rhetoric threatening military action against Israel. Now, on October 7, 2023, the day after the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the most devastating surprise attack on Israel, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Hamas has achieved its own strategic shock by launching a large-scale land, sea, and air offensive against Israel. Hamas’s objective – or, more likely, that of their patrons in Tehran and Beirut – is almost certainly based on a perception of Israel’s military deterrent eroding and is aimed, in the near term, to disrupt the ongoing Israel-Saudi normalization process. Their lethal objection to this attempt to bring peace and stability to the Middle East has, in less than a day of fighting, already made this the deadliest attack by Hamas into Israel in at least the last 15 years. With a death toll of over 200, and with over 1,000 injured, October 7, 2023 may be the single deadliest day in Israel’s history since the Yom Kippur War.

Iran and its proxies have consistently threatened attacks on Israel, making difficult any forecasts on the basis of rhetoric alone of how this conflict will unfold, including whether it will include other fronts and possibly even Iran itself. It seems certain, however, that, unlike the 5-day long Operation Shield and Arrow in May 2023 or 3-day long Operation Breaking Dawn in August 2022, this will not be a short conflict.

Recent rhetoric from both Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah over the last week suggests concern regarding Israel-Saudi normalization and the reconfiguration of regional power dynamics that portends, with Khamenei threatening that governments supportive of Israel-Saudi normalization “will incur losses” and Nasrallah labeling normalization a threat to al-Aqsa (one of Islam’s holiest sites, in Jerusalem) and an abandonment of the Palestinian people. Ominously, the leadership of Hezbollah and Hamas – the Iranian regime’s key proxies in the Middle East who do not act without Tehran’s blessing and certainly act on its orders – began talking of total war against Israel over the summer and did so in the wake of multifront attacks this spring that sought to gauge and erode Israeli deterrence. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported in April of this year that Esmail Qaani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- Quds Force (IRGC-QF) has been secretly meeting with Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leadership to coordinate attacks on Israel. In May, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi met with Hamas and PIJ officials in Syria after militants fired rockets from Gaza into Israel. Iran and its proxies might now be acting on those threats precisely to try and bring to a stop the Israel-Saudi peace process, which reportedly has made major strides in recent weeks and months.

On August 14, Nasrallah indicated the ability of Hezbollah, whose rocket and missile arsenals dwarf those of Hamas in scale and sophistication, to threaten catastrophic destruction against Israeli critical infrastructure and society, when he said his group can produce a map or a list of “civilian airports, military airports, the air force bases, the power plants, and electricity distribution grid, the water plans, the main communications centers, various infrastructure,” and went on, including mentioning Dimona, the site of Israel’s supposed nuclear program. “All of these are located in a small territory,” Nasrallah explained, contrasting Israel with Russia and the United States. He dismissed the fact that Iron Dome intercepts their missiles, so long as some can enter. Several days later, another Hezbollah official warned of targeting IDF sites in the Galilee.

The same month, Lebanon-based Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri talked of “total war” with Israel, but emphasized that “it will not be like the war in 1967.” Referencing the new precedent of the war in Ukraine, he underscored “precision weapons, smart weapons, cyber weapons” – whether showing they have those capabilities or merely bluster for propaganda sake is unclear, though it raises concern amid reports from several years ago about the possibility that Hezbollah may have access to Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. He noted however that Israel’s “superiority [is] in classic warfare. Therefore, we are convinced that if a total conflict begins, the airspace, seaports of this entity [Israel] will be shut down, and they will not be able to live without electricity, water, and communications. In an open war, they will have a curfew and their economy will come to a standstill.”

It is hard to judge merely on this rhetoric of what their course of action will be, but based on the actions Hamas has already undertaken – not just massive rocket fire into Israeli civilian areas, which it also has launched in its short but increasingly sharp attacks against Israel from Gaza in recent years, but also a ground incursion into Israeli territory surrounding Gaza, killing civilians, kidnapping civilians and perhaps soldiers – it appears that they might be pursuing the total war strategy they described.

Whether or not Iran and Hezbollah get involved directly remains to be seen. The potential for a multi-front escalation against Israel – as Iran’s proxies have already practiced recently, albeit at lesser intensity – is worrying given the timing of this war to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War anniversary, when Israel confronted the very real possibility of multifront collapse in Sinai and Golan. This month is also the 40th anniversary of Hezbollah’s attack on the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, the deadliest single Iran-directed terrorist attack on Americans to date, and a strategic shock to the United States, which had not suffered so many Marine casualties in a single day since Iwo Jima. Regardless of whether a similar multifront offensive to what Israel confronted 50 years ago materializes in this war, and whether it might broaden to include Iranian and Hezbollah attacks, the symbolism of the anniversaries provide an important branding opportunity for Iran and its proxies to reinvigorate their status as the “axis of resistance” seeking to destroy Israel, and threaten the United States and its Arab partners. Or, at the very least, derailing or distracting from progress toward peace between Israeli and Arab states.

Much like how the Yom Kippur War resulted not in Israel’s destruction but in historic peace between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, this war, too, should expedite the normalization process. As explained in a recent JINSA report, No Daylight: U.S. Strategy if Israel Attacks Iran, any perception of daylight between the United States and Israel could embolden Iran and its proxies to act aggressively while – similarly – by perception of alignment between the United States and Israel can not only deter the Iranian regime but mitigate its actions. U.S. leaders should quickly recognize Israel’s right to defend itself against this illegal attack, and to ensure that the terrorist threat is neutralized, as well as pledging to resupply Israel immediately with any supplies it needs – particularly Tamir interceptors for the Iron Dome missile defense system that defends Israeli, and Palestinian, civilians from indiscriminate rocket fire – immediately. Given the possible intensity of Israel’s response and the potential for escalation, the United States should proactively defend the Israeli Defense Forces and their compliance with the law of armed conflict, especially since Hamas and Iran’s other proxies intentionally violate the law of armed conflict by placing civilians in harm’s way. Washington should also vigorously emphasize its continued commitment to Israeli-Saudi normalization. Indeed, rather than derailing that process, this war should have the opposite effect, giving more reason for the United States to provide defense guarantees to Israel and Saudi Arabia, as has been reportedly discussed as part of these negotiations.

Jacob Olidort is Director of Research at the Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).