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How Israel and Hamas reached this point — and what comes next


To be clear, there is regular violence between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. Hamas lobs rockets at Israel, which has a very sophisticated missile defense system known as the Iron Dome, and the impact in Israel is usually minimized. Israel retaliates with airstrikes on the densely populated Gaza Strip. That is how it often goes. This past weekend was different.

AHUVA MAISEL: I don't know if she's alive. I don't know if she's dead. I don't know if she's hurt. I know nothing. I don't know if somebody captured her. We started getting phone calls, like, from Arabs, from Hamas, that they are keeping my daughter. And they say that they have my daughter, my beautiful daughter, and I hear screaming of girls.

KELLY: That is Ahuva Maisel, whose 21-year-old daughter was at a music festival when Hamas militants paraglided over the border and started shooting civilians. Hamas killed more than a thousand people, took others hostage and assumed control of several Israeli communities. Israel's military was caught completely unaware.

Now, the Israeli military has laid siege to Gaza. Retaliatory Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 800 Palestinians and displaced around 200,000 people. They have cut off fuel, electricity and food supplies into the area. Residents of Gaza say they are used to conditions like these. Eman Abou Saeid lives in Gaza with her two kids, ages 11 and 12.

EMAN ABOU SAEID: In Gaza, seconds - seconds between life and death. You can't expect - how long will you live? Every single moment, we have loud bombing from F-16 and from warships at the sea, from the sea, from the air, from everywhere. Many of the buildings surrounding us have been bombed. We're trying to escape, but we don't know where to go.

KELLY: Hamas attacks on Israel over the weekend came as a surprise to many, even those high up in Israel's government and military. But experts who closely follow the region point to key developments over this past year that have set the stage for this explosion of violence. We called two such people. From just outside Tel Aviv is Tal Schneider, the political and diplomatic correspondent for The Times Of Israel, and Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland. I started by asking Tal Schneider to recap the last year in Israeli politics, which saw the return of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

TAL SCHNEIDER: You know, the prime minister has been prime minister for so many years. This time around, he was having a hard time getting elected, and we ran through five election cycles. At the latest of them, almost a year ago, he actually won and then nominated a person who himself was convicted for eight times in inciting against Arabs. So this is someone who was outlawed - who was, you know, for us Israeli, was someone who was not supposed to sit in government. Netanyahu made him a strong leader, and the public in Israel erupted.

For the judicial reform, they wanted to change the judicial, you know, stand of Israel and for this specific nomination. And the cabinet, war cabinet of Netanyahu was completely dysfunctional with those extreme ministers above him and another minister named Smotrich. They got high-level ministerial jobs, and the cabinet was completely dysfunctional.

KELLY: Is it fair to say - and this is a development that will be familiar to Americans listening - is it fair to say that Israeli internal political chaos has been so pronounced this year that Israelis have been distracted from what's going on outside of their own politics?

SCHNEIDER: It's more than fair to say that. You know, Israel's reservist communities erupted against the government, specifically for the judicial change. They wanted to change - we don't have a constitution. They wanted to change Israel's balance of power, the way Israel, as a democracy - the way the democracy functions. And you saw many groups of Israel - you know, here, many people are doing reserve duty. They erupted. They went out to demonstrate. And some of them announced that they would not serve anymore under dictatorships, and here we are with a weakened military.

KELLY: Shibley Telhami, let's look at what was happening in this same window - the last 12 months in Gaza - with Hamas.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, first of all, I think that, you know, the surprise and the shock isn't that Hamas would carry out an attack. I think it was more about that they had the capability to do it and the Israelis would fail to anticipate that. And this has to be clear to everyone. Nothing justifies attacking civilians or recklessly jeopardizing them, no matter how just the cause is. What happened, though, is that, if you look at the context in which this was taking place, they were exploiting what they sense is deep despair among not only the Gazans who are - been under siege for, you know, many years, but on the West Bank.

I was there in Israel, on the West Bank, last week. You know, what you see is total despair - obviously after the rise of the Israeli far right, but even before that because it had been under occupation 56 years. With this far-right Israeli government, what you have seen is obviously increasing settler violence - settlement encroachment, in a way. And they were counting on first Biden to do something after Trump - didn't happen. They were counting on Arab states to do something instead. The Saudis and Israelis are trying to make peace without them, in a way, and so there was a sense of despair. And Hamas probably read a political opportunity for them to do it in a horrific way to reshuffle the deck and to also neutralize the influence of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which has already been neutralized quite a bit.

KELLY: That gets to where - what I wanted to push you on, which is a lot of people have been asking the why now question. It sounds like you would say, first of all, they had military capability that they didn't before, but also this deep despair both among Palestinians and grievances that Palestinians have felt and also dysfunction within Israel's government.

TELHAMI: Yeah. I mean, look, as I said, this is not a justification - right? - of what they did.

KELLY: Understood.

TELHAMI: So keep that in mind. It's just a question of, why would they want to deploy their attack now to maximize their influence and reshuffle the deck? The Saudi-Israeli talks obviously were critical because it clearly could have come at the expense of the Palestinians.

KELLY: You're referring to talks that the U.S. has been deeply involved in in promoting...


KELLY: ...To try to...

TELHAMI: The U.S. has been trying to make peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia with likely minimal impact on Israel-Palestine, something that, of course, the Palestinians had been counting - that any such peace would come tied to what the Saudis traditionally have said is the end of the Israeli occupation, which obviously wasn't going to happen.

So you have that taking place at the same time, and you have an increase in settler violence and encroachment in East Jerusalem, which is really critical. People don't understand how important Jerusalem is to Palestinians, to many people in the Arab and Muslim world. That's why, in fact, Hamas named this as Al-Aqsa Flood, referring to the holy mosque in Jerusalem. So they're trying to capture that mood, you know? And, as I said, you know, just being in the West Bank last week, many of us have been saying there's going to be an explosion of some kind. It's not - doesn't mean that people are going to be spontaneous. It means sometimes somebody's going to exploit it to their advantage politically. Someone is going to do something because it was clear it was an explosive situation.

KELLY: Let me turn us to the second question, the - what does winning look like? Shibley Telhami, you take this first. For Hamas, do they have a long-term strategy?

TELHAMI: I don't think so. I mean, obviously, they're trying to reshuffle the deck - they're desperate in some ways, just like most Palestinians are - and see where they go from there. For now, of course, they think they've already won in the sense that they think they've undermined Israeli deterrence. They've shown Israel to be weaker than it claims to be. They've - they're becoming more popular in the Arab and Muslim countries. You can see people rallying behind them in places like Morocco that have already made peace with Israel, and Egypt. You know, so it's - they are obviously getting popularity.

Now, on the ground, what it means would be probably to withstand the Israeli counterattack and survive and generate a different kind of reaction, perhaps draw others in. In the end, there is no real military solution to this. I mean, the Israelis could prevail and destroy Hamas and, you know, destroy Gaza. And then what? Then what? And in the end, I think this is what the United States should be thinking. I would already start laying out knowing that there's going to be a deadlock. Even if there's a military outcome that ends the military part of the conflict, there's going to be a need for some political shift that's dramatic - far more than they were anticipating - and they need to plan it now.

KELLY: Tal Schneider, what does this look like from where you sit in Tel Aviv? What does winning look like for Israel? Shibley Telhami just said they can crush Hamas. Then what?

SCHNEIDER: Mary Louise, I'm a woman. I'm a mother of three here in Israel. And I have to tell you, everybody is losing. There is no winning here. Israel has already lost with 1,000 people slaughtered, communities - 25 communities set on fire. Nobody's left there. Women taken at gunpoint, elderly women, babies all taken captive. American citizens are captured in Gaza. We never had - I mean, not for many years - we never had a war on our - inside Israel, right? It's not - the war is not outside of Israel. It's inside Israel. I don't think - I don't ever recall that in my - in recent history. And I have to tell you, we are losing big time. They're losing big time. It's a vicious circle of blood with no end in sight. So just lose-lose - completely lose-lose situation, and it's just horrific.

TELHAMI: And I'm in complete agreement with that. It's a lose-lose, and most of the people who are losing are the innocent civilians on both sides. Look at the hundreds of people who were killed - obviously, those Israelis who were killed by Hamas and now the bombings that that ensued in Gaza that has brought hundreds of people dead and thousands wounded as well. The overwhelming majority is innocent civilians, and there are no winners. Everyone loses, and we need to focus on this human dimension of the conflict.

KELLY: Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland. He's also a fellow at the Brookings Institution. And on the line from Tel Aviv, Tal Schneider, correspondent for The Times Of Israel. Thanks to you both.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you, Mary Louise.

TELHAMI: Pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.