The Logic of Shock

On the possible aims of Hamas’ invasion.

The practice of war, per Omar Bradley’s famous summation, is logistical. The mobilization and sustaining of violence requires immense material support in its production, transfer, and deployment. The experience of war, however, is emotional and psychological, and one of the most common shortcomings of military planners throughout history has been a failure to recognize how morale and disarray can trump even the most seemingly brilliant on-paper strategy or the most well-stocked military apparatus.

In light of this, Hamas’ ongoing offensive - which both myself and others seemed to at first assume was reckless and shortsighted - may have been far more rational than it initially seemed, and could prove quite impactful. Particularly in light of its clear aims to be as unforeseen and jarring as possible.

In an apparent blindside to the IDF and the Israeli security apparatus as a whole, Hamas launched an offensive starting October 7, 2023 that marked the most aggressive and successful invasion of Israeli territory since 1973. It was the shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that has arguably been one of the greatest shapers of Israeli security culture and military posture ever since, particularly the focus on avoiding unforeseen breaches into claimed territory, and has informed a highly modernized and extensive security apparatus designed to ward off the same. This now intertwines with a regime of lockdowns and surveillance throughout the Occupied Territories, executed as part of an open counterinsurgency program.

One of the cornerstones of contemporary Israeli politics is confidence, arguably even arrogance, around this surveillance and intelligence apparatus, one the Israelis themselves have built into a source of national pride and informs an image of the country’s military-security complex as uniquely sophisticated, effective, and near invulnerable. Israelis are often brought in as consultants by foreign powers looking to develop their own surveillance programs, and the country’s intelligence industry tends to draw some of the best (and most ruthless) minds in the region. The assumption at hand is that this ongoing investment in various forms of monitoring will allow Israel to foresee possible uprisings or incursions, and quash them before they even have a chance to launch.

The expansion of the Israeli security state has also served as a simultaneous accelerant and mirror to the brutality of occupation and the corrupting impact it has wrought on Israeli society. A program under which an occupied population is kept under boot, and subject to humiliation and violence to do so, tends to dehumanize those under heel while brutalizing those tasked with sustaining this regime, who have to find means both material and political to justify - or at least endure - the program they have tasked themselves with overseeing.

This dynamic is also a breeding ground for fascism among those wearing the jackboot, and this has played out with grim predictability across Israeli politics. I am not calling these officials “fascist” as a hyperbolic insult, but purely as a rote description. Upper-level policymakers like Israeli security minister Itamar Ben-Givir is an open adherent of Kahanism, a brand of religious ethno-nationalism that owes its origins to Rabbi Meir Kahane, a far-right intellectual and political organizer who advocated for the wholesale expulsion of all non-Jews from the occupied territories, and who left an ideological legacy that has only surged in popularity since his 1990 assassination.

Some of the most powerful and ambitious figures within Israeli politics are Kahane acolytes, true believers in his violent contempt for Arabs and calls for their wholesale removal. As the surveillance and subjugation of the Palestinians has only deepened, and its cruelty becomes all the harder to ignore, then Kahanism becomes one of the only feasible vectors through which this can be rationalized and sustained. While Kahane's original Kach party was banned from the 1988 Israeli elections, members of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party now occupy major cabinet positions. The rise of Kahanism is not an aberration, but rather the logical endpoint of an Israeli politics that has chosen to deepen apartheid and occupation, and must find a political basis upon which to do so.

One of fascism’s essential postures are displays of menace and power in order to cover fears of weakness and humiliation. Kahane himself was an ardent proponent of this mode. It informs everything from the castrated neuroses that American white nationalists have around non-white men taking “their” women (as well as analogous fixations among contemporary Hindu nationalists and Kahane's own loathing for Jewish-Arab marriages) to the declarations from Israeli officials as to their ability to turn Gaza into rubble at the slightest provocation if they so choose.

Hamas’ surprise attacks struck at this central paradox with a shocking amount of force, one that will likely unnerve - and therefore enrage - policymakers at the upper level of the Netanyahu administration. Irrespective of culture or place, fascists tend to fall back on the argument that the groups under their boot are simultaneously threatening and subhuman. Both menacing savages and unsophisticated morons. For them to actually do something threatening, and do this so quickly and unexpectedly, inflicts the exact kind of humiliation and disequilibrium prone to infuriating officials like Ben-Givir and others of his political cohort. This kind of offensive is jarring enough for everyday Israelis, let alone hardened idealogues with their hands on the levers of power.

The human beings living in Gaza have almost nothing left to lose, and face little more than continuing to be surveilled, humiliated, beaten, murdered, and displaced under the Israeli occupation and settler movement. Among those living in Gaza there is little use trying to go into abstractions about “good guys” or “bad guys”, what you simply have are people who have been traumatized damn near out of their minds with no hope for mercy or relief, and who seem to understand all too well that their fate is arcing further in that same horrible direction. Despite the attempts of the Israeli right wing to portray the Palestinians as somehow uniquely barbarous and depraved, the actions of Palestinians under occupation - including a resort to insurgent violence as retaliation - are a very typical response to their circumstances.

When backed into a corner like this, with nothing but more violence and trauma awaiting you, the only hope is to outlast your opponent's will to inflict force and encourage them to somehow degrade themselves so as to further hasten their own dysfunction and collapse. And Israeli society has clearly become more demoralized and unhappy under its right-wing political drift, in a classic iteration of the demands of subjugation starting to degrade the lives of the occupiers and those around them in turn. Hamas’ attacks also proved that even Israel’s much-vaunted security apparatus was potentially brittle, that it can be taken wholly by surprise in ways that shatter certain mythologies and images of militant invulnerability that right-wing nationalists have always tried to accrue and trade as political currency - and which they will go to the most violent lengths to regain.

Take Hamas’ mass shooting of partygoers at a rave near Kibbutz Reim at the start of the offensive - an objectively horrifying act. Except horror was likely the entire point. From a cold-blooded perspective, if Israelis feel safe enough to hold a music festival near a militarized border fence, nothing will be more unnerving than shattering that illusion of safety behind walls.

This inflicting of a psychologically destabilizing event also harkens to the methods of one of the post-Cold War era's most clear-eyed insurgent strategists - a certain Osama bin Laden. While the history of Palestinian subjugation is a radically different mode than the aims and tendencies of a salafist insurgent group like al-Qaeda, the broader intent of Hamas’ offensive and the 9/11 attacks might prove thematically similar.

As Osama bin Laden knew all too well, it would be impossible for a ragtag group of fundamentalists hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to militarily defeat a hegemonic power like the United States. Rather, the 9/11 attacks were intended to shock American society so deeply that it spurred the U.S. to reorient its resources, spending, and infrastructure around military overextension and security state buildup that corroded our politics, financially gutted us, and degraded American domestic life, and almost certainly accelerated America’s decline as an uncontested global hegemon.

Many of the actions taken by Hamas so far during the offensive appear designed to confound and unsettle Israel from both an operational and political standpoint, and only complicate a potential response in ways that further diminish Israel’s sense of power and authority. Hamas successfully captured multiple Israeli military officials alongside over fifty civilians so far, and is almost certainly going to place their hostages throughout priority targets to make it all the more difficult for the IDF to fall back on its usual tactics of remote bombardment.

These measures will likely force some degree of ground invasion through densely packed urban territory with narrow streets and generous ambush space - one that provokes notable Israeli casualties as well as losses of vehicles and armor. (Netanyahu himself declared war on October 7.) It will prove grinding and ugly for the IDF even in victory, the sort of harrowing engagement that degrades morale and confidence among Israeli military personnel. This is disfavored terrain for the IDF both physically and doctrinally, one that leaves little room for triumphalism no matter the outcome.

Will Hamas’ attack cause Israel to collapse as a political entity overnight? Obviously not. Israel is a well-resourced and technologically advanced nation that will continue to receive financial and material support from the United States. The Netanyahu administration has built affectionate relationships with right-wing governments throughout both America and Europe, an ugly but valuable currency to possess, and is on increasingly friendly terms with the Saudi monarchy. Hamas, if anything, has fewer allies than it ever has, and the Palestinians as a whole seem more forsaken than any time since the Nakba.

But over the longer term, this attack could either harm the prestige of right-wing governance, or will lead the country to double down on militarized occupation and settler violence in ways that prove further corrosive to Israeli social and political life. Possibly both.

As for the human beings living under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, not just the armed militants among them, this is as close to a victory as they’ll get right now. From an insurgent perspective, it is also an unambiguous morale boon. When groups like Hamas are looking to build their ranks, young men who lost their favorite grandparent in an Israeli bombing will look at this attack for decades to come as an example of the revenge that militant enlistment could provide them. The Israeli response to this offensive will almost certainly be wide-ranging and brutal, and for the young men left alive this only gives further credence to picking up arms.

The Palestinians seem to understand all too well they will likely never be integrated into a kind of pluralistic state that grants them full rights, at least not under this current trajectory. No amount of nonviolence or passivity would halt the Israeli settler movement and its ongoing displacement of Arab communities. All that is left is to either be expelled, whether piecemeal or in a wholesale ethnic cleansing per the Kahanists' vision, or for the militants among them to continue lashing out. Even if groups like Hamas cannot marshal anything near the force and power that the Israeli military can, they can continue to unnerve those who would bomb them and kick down the doors of their family homes. When you have nothing left, driving your far more resourced and comfortable opponent increasingly angry and insane - one that gives credence to your cause and might even lead your adversaries to hurt themselves - isn’t a question of moralizing about right or wrong. It’s purely strategy.