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What did Hamas aim to gain by its brazen attack on Israel? Here's what to know

Rockets are fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza toward Israel on Oct. 10.
Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images
Rockets are fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza toward Israel on Oct. 10.

The surprise attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7 has brought the militant group back into the spotlight. In the attack, Hamas fighters flew paragliders from Gaza and used bulldozers to poke gaping holes in a barrier fence to gain access to Israeli territory. They killed more than 1,000 people and seized at least 100 hostages.

Hamas' attack was unprecedented. A senior Hamas official tells NPR that its planning was kept a close secret. Since Hamas' formation more than three decades ago, the armed, hard-line Islamist group has been a major presence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are some key points:

What is Hamas?

Hamas was formed in 1987 at the start of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel. It is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Islamist group that first formed in Egypt. Hamas, the Arabic acronym for "Islamic Resistance Movement," wants to create a Palestinian state. It rejects any peace deal with Israel, which it refuses to recognize.

It is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and a number of other Western countries. "Hamas has only one agenda, to destroy Israel and to murder Jews,"Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Thursdayat a press conference in Israel.

A fighter from the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, is pictured amid long-range 50-caliber sniper rifles during an anti-Israel military show in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, Nov. 11, 2019.
/ Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images
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Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images
A fighter from the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, is pictured amid long-range 50-caliber sniper rifles during an anti-Israel military show in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Nov. 11, 2019.

The organization's political chief is Ismail Haniyeh, who is based in Doha, Qatar. He took over from longtime leader Khaled Meshaal. The U.S. State Department has designated Haniyeh a terrorist, noting his "close links" with Hamas' military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

The military wing is currently overseen by Marwan Issa, reportedly born in a Gaza Strip refugee camp, and Mohammed Deif, who is said to be the mastermind of the latest assault on Israel. Israel has previouslytried to assassinate Deif.

The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades have been responsible for numerous attacks against Israel, including bombings and rocket attacks, since the 1990s.

The State Department says Iran provides money and weapons to Hamas.

The Islamist group has long been active in the Gaza Strip, a tiny Palestinian exclave situated on the Mediterranean Sea and hemmed in by Israel and Egypt. It also maintains a presence — and popularity — in the West Bank. In 2006, Hamas won legislative elections in Gaza and the West Bank but refused to join a coalition government with the opposition Fatah party — a key constituent of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO. Hamas later seized control of the Gaza Strip.

In response to attacks by Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, also supported by Iran, Israel has fortified schools and bus stops, instituted a coded alarm system, deployed a sophisticated Iron Dome missile shield and constructed a high-tech fence to stop incursions across its border with Gaza. It also imposed a punishing economic blockade and restricted movement between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Hamas responded by constructing a series of smuggling tunnels.

What did Hamas hope to accomplish with this attack?

A Hamas flag, top, and a Palestinian flag fly at sundown in the Jabalia refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, April 15, 2010.
/ Bernat Armangue/AP
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Bernat Armangue/AP
A Hamas flag, top, and a Palestinian flag fly at sundown in the Jabalia refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, April 15, 2010.

Most experts agree the surprise attack was a well-orchestrated offensive that required considerable planning. Unsurprisingly, it has triggered a massive retaliation, with Israel launching airstrikes deep into Gaza and vowing a "complete siege."

So, what did Hamas hope to accomplish?

In an interview with NPR, Ali Barakeh, a senior Hamas official based in Lebanon, said the Oct. 7 attack came in response to "Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people in Jerusalem and the West Bank" and to "break the blockade on the Gaza Strip." He said it was also meant to free thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Well before the latest attack on Israel, Hamas said it wanted to resist Israeli occupation and to seek revenge for Israel's 2021 raid on Islam's third-holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the Old City of Jerusalem. Conditions in the Gaza Strip have worsened since the blockade was imposed in 2007. Most Gazans live in poverty and are dependent on aid. Unemployment is high.

For many in Hamas, opposing Israel is the organization's reason for existing, says Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. "There's a core constituency in Hamas that this is what they live for ... what they're trained for, what they want to be doing."

It may also be a case of Hamas trying to maintain relevance and its leaders looking over their shoulders — concerned that they still need to show they can bring the fight to Israel, says Panikoff, who is a former deputy national intelligence officer for the Middle East. "You have even more militant jihadist groups in in the Gaza Strip. You don't want [defections] to those groups," he says.

The strike by Hamas could also serve as a touchstone for others who want to fight against Israel, says C. Ross Anthony, a senior economist at Rand Corp. and co-author of Alternatives in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. "They were able to capture people and kill Israelis in a way they never had before," he says. "So that will inspire people in the Middle East, unfortunately, and probably some of the people on the West Bank."

Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, says he doesn't think Hamas expected the attack to lead to an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank or other territorial concessions. Instead, the hostages Hamas seized during the operation are a means to an end, he says, giving the extremist group "bargaining space with the Israelis" for the release of some or all of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

The hostages will "significantly complicate [military] operations for the Israelis," Panikoff says.

Dennis Jett, a retired U.S. ambassador and professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University, says Hamas learned an important lesson after abducting Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. Five years later, Shalit was turned over in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian and Arab-Israeli prisoners held by Israel.

"That," Jett says, "wasn't lost on Hamas."

How much support does Hamas have among Palestinians?

Following the 2021 Israeli-Gaza conflict, an opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and Gaza Strip showed a dramatic surge in support for Hamas.

In the poll, 53% of the 1,200 Palestinians surveyed said they believed Hamas is "most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people." By contrast, just 14% said the same of Fatah.

Masked members of Hamas hold Islamic flags during a march in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip to protest against the U.S. position on Jerusalem, Oct. 4, 2002.
Abid Katib / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Masked members of Hamas hold Islamic flags during a 2002 march in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip to protest against the U.S. position on Jerusalem.

What has Israel's policy toward Hamas been?

Israel has had a complicated past with Hamas — at certain times simply hoping to contain the extremist group, at other times attacking the group, and even seemingly acquiescing to its control of Gaza, some experts say. It has fought several wars with the group since 2007, the most recent in 2021.

Some Israelis areblaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for emboldening Hamas by focusing disproportionately on the West Bank and engaging in policies that have served to weaken the Palestinian Authority.

"Hamas has been a problem for Israelis for a long time, going back to their assumption of power in Gaza," says Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And the Israelis have had different ways of dealing with it. They have had a blockade. They have tried to isolate it periodically. They have had military incursions back and forth between the two parties."

In 2014, after the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas-affiliated militants in the West Bank, Israel Defense Forces arrested hundreds of Hamas militants in the territory. In response, Hamas stepped up rocket attacks from Gaza, triggering a weeks-long war that killed dozens of Israeli soldiers and more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many civilians.

The 2021 Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip lasted a dozen days and resulted in the deaths of more than 250 Palestinians.

After the conflict, Israel thought it had denuded Hamas and limited its potential for continued violence, Panikoff says. Israel, he says, "had a policy colloquially known as mowing the grass. Going after Hamas, getting a lot of the rockets, [going after] their militant leaders, either killing them or capturing them."

More recently, however, Israel "hoped that by loosening the embargo and giving more work permits to Hamas, to the Gazans to come back or forth for work, that would give Hamas some cover incentive for tempering its militancy," Takeyh says.

How did Hamas manage to surprise Israel?

"This battle was very secretive; the planning and execution were kept secret," Hamas representative Barakeh tells NPR. "The zero hour was confidential, and no one outside of Hamas knew about it."

Palestinians take part in training organized by Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Jan. 11, 2014.
/ Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images
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Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians take part in training organized by Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Jan. 11, 2014.

In the lead-up to the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas made an effort to throw Israeli officials off the scent, including "two years of subterfuge by Hamas that involved keeping its military plans under wraps and convincing Israel it did not want a fight," according to Reuters.

Israel thought it was containing a "war-weary Hamas," while all the while Hamas fighters were "being trained and drilled, often in plain sight," the news agency said, quoting an unidentified Hamas source.

"So the Israelis were not worried about what Hamas was going to do, but this was all part of the [Hamas] plan, and that's why [the Israelis] had all their eyes on what was happening in the West Bank," says Saab, of the Middle East Institute.

Jett of Pennsylvania State University says in addition to turning its attention away from Gaza and toward the West Bank, Israel was also overly confident of the defenses it had put in place against a Hamas attack.

"They built this very expensive wall with an Iron Dome missile system, and the wall failed and it was not heavily manned because they have concentrated a lot of effort in suppressing people in the West Bank," he says. "And the Iron Dome was overwhelmed."

How much influence does Iran have?

There is disagreement among experts as to the extent of Iran's possible involvement in Saturday's surprise attack on Israel.

Iran has denied direct involvement in the Hamas attack. And Hamas' Barakeh tells NPR that while "Iran knows that Hamas fights Israel and offers us support, which we do not deny ... we don't take orders from anyone. In Hamas, specifically the Qassam Brigades, we were the ones who planned this operation, determined the zero hour, and once the operation began, we immediately informed all allies and friends. There was no prior coordination regarding this operation."

Training for the attack, Barakeh says, "took place in the Gaza Strip. Everything in Gaza, and manufacturing is in Gaza."

But there's little doubt Tehran provided at least indirect support and "is heavily involved," Jett believes.

"It has had relationships with both Hamas and Hezbollah for years and supported them in all sorts of ways," he says. "I think Hamas couldn't have done this without extensive training, arms and support from Iran."

Panikoff believes that Hamas would probably have required "Iranian acquiescence" for such an operation, but says it's unclear whether Tehran would have helped with specific planning.

Israel's Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets launched from Gaza on Wednesday.
/ Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images
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Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images
Israel's Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets launched from Gaza on Wednesday.

Saab thinks it's likely Hamas itself was largely responsible for planning and carrying out the attack. "They certainly have gotten a lot of advice in terms of how to rehearse. And they certainly got a lot of equipment [from Iran] over the years. But I would say this is [was a] local decision," he says.

What comes next in the conflict?

Israel has already begun large-scale retaliatory airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of people and laying waste to sections of the territory. That is likely to continue and intensify.

"Israel is going to inflict massive punishment on Gaza in retribution. And this thing is, it'll take weeks for it to end," says Jett.

If Hezbollah launches more than symbolic rocket attacks from southern Lebanon, there's also the possibility of escalation, Jett says.

"Israel is going to continue to attack anything that it can identify as related to Hamas," he adds. In that climate, he says, there's almost no prospect of a diplomatic solution.

Barakeh, the Hamas official, tells NPR, "There are promises from our allies that they will not leave us alone," but declined to provide details, saying, "There's no need to reveal all the cards now, so the enemy won't know."

Takeyh says Israel "seems to be preparing for a ground attack" and that its intent will likely be to dismantle Hamas altogether, meaning thousands more Gazans will lose their lives and their homes.

And that, he says, raises even more difficult questions about Gaza's future.

"Then the question is who governs Gaza? What happens to it? Because I think they would want to dislodge Hamas, but not necessarily to govern Gaza themselves," he says.

Jawad Rizkallah contributed reporting from Beirut.

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

Scott Neuman
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Jawad Rizkallah