Hamas’ mass murder gambit | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Mass murder gambit

Hamas has the world’s attention. But can it reignite Arab sympathies?

Abandoned and torched vehicles sit at the site where Palestinian militants attacked the Supernova desert music festival on Oct. 7. Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Mass murder gambit
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

On the morning of Oct. 7, Israel Pochtar awoke to sirens and a country in crisis. Although he didn’t yet know the full extent of the horrors his country was about to face, he could see dozens of rockets heading his way from Gaza.

Rocket attacks are nothing new for the city of Ashdod, whose 220,000 ­residents live just 23 miles from the Palestinian enclave where Hamas took control in 2007. Pochtar, pastor of Beit Hallel Congregation, can see Gaza from his 30th-floor apartment and occasionally films Israel’s Iron Dome shooting down incoming rockets. This time, he went straight to his bomb shelter.

Israel’s air defense systems stopped the majority of the 2,200 rockets launched that day but failed to stop thousands of Hamas terrorists from crossing the border and committing acts of violence that included sexual assaults, brutal murders, and the capture of around 240 hostages, including women, children, and the elderly.

The son of an elder in Pochtar’s church was one of approximately 1,200 people who died that day. He was serving on the front lines when thousands of armed militants flooded the border. “It was the first time ever we lost a young guy, 20 years old, in the battle. But he saved so many lives,” Pochtar said.

In November, Hamas leaders explained the rationale behind the brutality of their attack, telling The New York Times they have succeeded in “putting the Palestinian issue back on the table” and hope “the Arab world will stand with them.” These statements pose a direct challenge to Arab countries that once championed the Palestinian cause but have since signed peace accords with Israel or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, are discussing a reset of relations.

As Israelis bury their dead, exchange hostages, process the mass atrocities, and struggle through the daily constraints of a country at war, a wider regional conflict threatens to ignite. Israel in October evacuated 42 Arab and Jewish communities in the north due to Hezbollah threats and rocket attacks from the group’s base in Lebanon. In the south, Yemen’s Houthis have launched drone and missile attacks near the Red Sea port city of Eilat. Both terrorist organizations are funded by Iran, as is Hamas.

Meanwhile, Israel launched a second round of strikes and an expanded ground incursion in the Gaza Strip, leaving many Palestinians trapped in the sealed-off territory that shares ­borders with Israel and Egypt. Hamas hides its command centers or stores weapons in mosques, schools, and ­hospitals, but images of Palestinian civilian suffering overtook those of Jewish anguish among many mainstream Western media outlets as the death toll from the bombardments continued to climb.

Israel’s ongoing campaign to wipe out Hamas will test the strength of the country’s 1979 Camp David Accords with Egypt, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and the 2020 Abraham Accords that strengthened Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. But ­perhaps just as importantly, Israel’s endgame in Gaza threatens to push its already tense relationships with Western allies past the breaking point.

Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, destroy a tank belonging to Israeli forces in Gaza City on Oct. 7.

Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, destroy a tank belonging to Israeli forces in Gaza City on Oct. 7. Hani Alshaer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

HAMAS LEADERS knew their act of terror would invite an unprecedented Israeli retaliation and a net loss for Palestinian civilians. The history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict illuminates some of their thinking and explains the complex dynamics surrounding this small piece of real estate.

The conflict remained local between 1882 and 1948, according to Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes, an expert on Islam and the Middle East. But in 1948, the year Israel declared independence, Arab states joined the conflict and for 25 years were Israel’s primary enemies.

“It was existential,” Pipes said. “You didn’t know who was going to win.” Despite being far outnumbered, Israel pulled off military victories in 1948 and 1967 and narrowly won the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Since then, Arab countries have sidelined the Palestinian cause due to more pressing matters. “Fifty years ago, the Arab states peeled off, and it’s back to the Palestinians now with Iran and Turkey as their state supporters,” Pipes said. “But they’re not exactly fighting Israel in the same way that Egypt, Jordan, and Syria did.”

The October terrorist attacks underscored Israel’s ineptitude in dealing with the Palestinians and Hamas tactics, added Pipes, who finished a book about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict only weeks before the war broke out.

Haisam Hassanein is an adjunct ­fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies where he analyzes Israel’s relations with Arab states and Muslim countries. He said the normalization between Israel and its neighbors was a primary driver for Hamas’ October attack.

Since the Abraham Accords, Israel and Morocco have signed a defense pact, the Emiratis and Bahrainis have hosted Israeli officials, Arab-Israeli business deals have surfaced, and Saudi Arabia has started pursuing its own peace initiative with Israel.

Oct. 7 was jihad, pure and simple.

“So this was kind of a new phenomenon, and it started to reintroduce Israel and the Arab world in a different way—in a more positive way,” Hassanein said. “And obviously Hamas didn’t like that, and they wanted to stop that.”

The Oct. 7 attacks and the Israeli retaliation Hamas hoped to provoke served as a clarion call to Arab and Muslim states to rejoin the Palestinian cause. But so far, Arab reaction has been mixed.

Hassanein, who is Egyptian by birth, said he’s seen nonstop coverage of the conflict on Arabic television. “So anybody on the streets, sitting in coffee shops, restaurants, anywhere in the Arab world, everybody is just talking about it,” Hassanein said. But Hamas’ actions have prompted some moderate voices in the Arab world to ask courageous questions about the purpose of Hamas and Islamists and their responsibility to the people they rule.

Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya admitted to The New York Times the attacks were “not about improving the situation in Gaza” but rather to ­“completely overthrow the situation.” Hassanein said some Arabs have highlighted the inconsistencies of a group that attacks a much stronger and more sophisticated force and then hides in tunnels while its own population pays a steep price.

Pipes also noted a tempered response from Arab capitals: “This is not their issue. They don’t want to be dragged into this. They have to make the routine condemnations of Israel, but they’re very mild.” He believes Arab leaders paid a heavy price during 25 years of war with Israel and are fatigued by the Palestinian cause.

Economic challenges and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings dealt more blows to North Africa and the Middle East. And an increasingly belligerent Shiite regime in Iran has redirected the attention of the Arab world to a concern perceived as more urgent than the Hamas-controlled enclave.

Iran and its proxies are destabilizing the Middle East, and more moderate Arab states have witnessed what happens when Islamist groups like Hamas and its predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood, take control in places like Gaza and Egypt.

That has shifted the calculus for countries like Saudi Arabia, which is pursuing reforms under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Riyadh has expressed openness to formalizing a peace treaty with Israel, and Hassanein doesn’t see any sign of the war derailing those efforts.

“I don’t think it’s going to be negatively impacted because you have a leadership in Saudi Arabia that comes with a way bigger agenda. It has a vision for the future,” Hassanein said. “And this has frustrated Hamas and the resistance side because they just want to keep repeating the past, talking about how the Palestinian cause should be the main thing.”

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Saudi Arabia sent forces to fight under the command of the Egyptian military. Now, Riyadh’s focus is elsewhere.

Despite grievous human rights violations, Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest cities, has tried to clean up its image on the global stage by moderating its religious discourse, allocating more freedoms to women, and pursuing dialogue with Israel. In November, Riyadh won the bid to host the 2030 World Expo, and it’s also expected to host the 2034 World Cup.

Mourners at the funeral of an Israeli soldier killed during the Oct. 7 attack.

Mourners at the funeral of an Israeli soldier killed during the Oct. 7 attack. Francisco Seco/AP

AMID THE TECTONIC SHIFTS in the Arab world, the question of how the war will end looms large in the region and increasingly around the globe. Accusations of apartheid and genocide threaten to turn world opinion against Israel and shatter its traditional alliances.

In December, Israel faced increasing pressure from its Western allies over the mounting civilian death toll as it expanded its bombardment in the Gaza Strip—home to 2 million people.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry claims the death toll has surpassed 18,000. President Joe Biden on Oct. 25 cautioned against believing Hamas’ numbers, but given the massive scope of Israel’s bombardments, the suffering is undeniably immense.

Hassanein believes Palestinian casualties would be much higher without Israel’s attempts to warn civilians, and he blames Hamas for hiding among its people. He also disagrees with those who claim Israel is an apartheid state: “It is not apartheid at all. Jews and Arabs live side by side.” Hassanein lived in Israel for four years while pursuing a graduate degree. “If you look at the medical sector in Israel, it’s led by many Arab citizens of Israel. The education sector as well,” he said.

But Gaza and the West Bank pre­sent a unique set of challenges. Israel has never quite figured out how to manage the exploding Palestinian ­population in Gaza, where Hamas built an elaborate system of tunnels, trained fighters, and has smuggled weapons since Israel withdrew from the area in 2005. The Israel Defense Forces in December said they had destroyed or sealed off 500 of the 800 tunnels they discovered in Gaza.

Smoke from a residential building in Ashkelon, Israel, following rocket fire from Gaza.

Smoke from a residential building in Ashkelon, Israel, following rocket fire from Gaza. Ilia Yefimovich/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

In the West Bank, Palestinian ­protests over illegal Israeli settlements have turned violent in recent years, and since October settler violence against Palestinians has ignited a new wave of clashes.

Israel will have to address the West Bank’s escalating violence, but eliminating Hamas will be its top priority in the months ahead. And that will require new leadership in Gaza.

Most of the options put forth by global leaders are “rubbish,” according to the Middle East Forum’s Daniel Pipes. Those include Israeli permanent occupation or a mix of Arab and non-Arab governance. Pipes said an international force is doomed to fail.

Another option on the table involves giving control back to the Palestinian Authority (PA)—a proposal Washington backs but Israel firmly opposes.

The PA lost to Hamas during Gaza’s only election, in 2006. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has held office in the West Bank for 18 years with limited power, but Palestinians widely view the 88-year-old leader as corrupt. He also has a long history of anti-Semitic comments.

Pipes has proposed a plan he hopes will gain traction among Israeli leaders: Israelis take control of the enclave and sponsor a Gazan police force that ­manages local utilities, hospitals, and schools. “I think there are Gazans who are willing to do this, and I think they have a legitimacy.”

A backhoe demolishes a police station that had been taken over by Hamas gunmen in Sderot, Israel.

A backhoe demolishes a police station that had been taken over by Hamas gunmen in Sderot, Israel. Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times/Redux

AFTER A SEVEN-DAY CEASEFIRE in late November, Israel resumed its bombardment in Gaza. But it’s fighting against the clock as much as the terrorists.

On Nov. 30, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Israel’s war cabinet that it had only months to complete its offensive against Hamas. That prompted criticism from analysts who say the Biden administration fails to understand both the scope of the mission and the nature of Hamas.

Pipes said the West has paid little attention to the religious component of the group’s ideology. The Hamas ­charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish people and leaves no room for a two-state solution. “Oct. 7 was jihad, pure and simple,” Pipes said. But he believes the West has grown weary of discussing jihad and shows signs of ­historical amnesia.

Israel Pochtar, the pastor from Ashdod, said Israelis are still processing the horrors of the Hamas attacks: “The level of violence was just demonic.” He said even Israeli atheists have said the attacks were fueled by “demonic powers from hell.”

But they propelled members of Pochtar’s congregation into action. The church holds two prayer services a day, one hour each, and sends teams to assist the elderly and young mothers whose husbands are away. Meanwhile, Israel has called up more than 350,000 reservists to augment its active duty military. It’s a substantial number for a country of 9 million people. Pochtar said 35 people from his congregation have been deployed, including his two sons, the youth pastor, the children’s pastor, and the worship leader.

Pochtar’s church has a volunteer committee of 120 people who deliver food, water, and other necessities when it’s too dangerous for people to leave their homes or bomb shelters. “We’ve been caught in rocket fire a few times in dangerous situations. So my team actually has the bulletproof vests and helmets, like the military,” Pochtar said. “And we shared the message of love and hope and encouragement, because in those times, people are stressed.”

For the last 18 years, Hamas has cultivated a hatred for the Jewish people in the school system and trained young children to kill Israelis, Pochtar said. He hopes Gaza can be rebuilt with different values after the war: “We really pray because it’s a great, great opportunity for Gaza to be changed.”

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.



Please wait while we load the latest comments...