Why the Israel-Hamas War Broke Out?

Hiroyuki Suzuki

1. Introduction

In the early morning of October 7, 2023, at around 6:30 a.m., an estimated 3,000 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. At the same time, some 3,000 Palestinian armed combatants launched a cross-border attack into Israel from the Gaza Strip, fighting with Israeli security forces in the urban areas and kibbutzim (farming villages) around Gaza. The death toll confirmed by the Israeli side reached 1,200, including over 800 civilians. As it gradually became clear that another approximately 240 Israeli people were abducted to Gaza, Israel was greatly shocked by the scale of the "10.7" attack.

Map 1: Gaza Strip and surrounding Israeli urban areas

Prepared by the author from sources from UN OCHA, BBC, and The Wall Street Journal.

In response to this cross-border attack, Israel began bombing the Gaza Strip on October 7, and the following day imposed a complete blockade on the Gaza Strip, cutting off electricity, water, and fuel supplies. Israeli ground forces began a large-scale deployment in the Gaza Strip from around October 28.

In considering why this war occurred, it is necessary to clarify what motivated Hamas and its allies to launch the "10.7" cross-border attack. This paper is intended to examine the background to this war based on openly available sources that suggest their "motives."

2. Hamas's "Motives" Described by Them

Releasing several statements and documents, Hamas has provided explanations about the October 7 operation, which it dubs the "Al-Aqsa Flood." The first of these is a 10-minute audio message allegedly by Mohammed Deif, the commander-in-chief of Hamas's Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. This message is likely to have been prerecorded since its contents differ in some respects from the actual development of the operation. For example, it boasts of "5,000 mortar shells and rockets" fired against Israel, but Israel has so far confirmed that some 3,000 of them were fired.1 Although the message says that the attack targeted Israel's military installations, it is a tell-tale fact that Palestinian armed combatants invaded and fought in Israeli towns and kibbutzim around Gaza.

Nevertheless, Dief's video message is worth analyzing due to the passage in which he talks about the motives for launching the operation. After sending at the outset greetings to his friends and allies "from Tangier (Morocco) to Jakarta (Indonesia)," Deif continues as follows:2

The Zionist entity (Israel) has occupied our land, displaced our people, destroyed our towns and villages, trampled on the rights of our people, and committed a lot of massacres. They have killed children, women, and the elderly, destroyed the homes of innocent people, ignored all international norms and international humanitarian law, and violated international law.

We have warned the occupiers who continue their criminal acts and have called on world leaders to act to put an end to their crimes against our holy places, our people, our prisoners, and our land and to force them to comply with international law and international resolutions. However, there has been no response from the occupiers, and world leaders have failed to take action. The occupiers have escalated their criminal acts, crossing all the lines, starting with Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque, which is the first qiblah and the third most significant sanctuary of Islam (after Mecca and Medina).

The occupying forces increasingly entered the al-Aqsa mosque, trampled its sanctity with their boots, and violently attacked and removed the believers who gathered to protect it. They drive away the elderly, children, and young stars, preventing them from entering the mosque and securing room for Jewish groups instead. Wearing priestly garb, Jews conduct Talmudic rituals and prayers, blow trumpets, and thus desecrate the mosque day after day.

From the outset, there is much mention of the "violation" of the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque, located in the Old City of Jerusalem. After elaborating on Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel, Deif explains the leadup to the decision to launch the operation:

While the occupiers carry on their criminal blockade of our (Gaza) Strip;

While the occupiers continue their criminal acts of trampling on the rights of our families and people;

While the occupiers gain momentum and ignore international law and international resolutions;

While the occupiers enjoy support from the United States and the West, taking advantage of the silence of the international community;

Under the protection of Allah, we decided to put an end to all this to make our enemies aware that the day is over when they can flourish without paying the price. We declare the beginning of the "Al-Aqsa Flood" operation. As a first strike, we unleashed 5,000 rockets and mortar bombs in the first 20 minutes of the attack, targeting enemy bases, airports, and military fortifications.

Dear masses, Arabic people, and people in the world;

Today, the anger of al-Aqsa has erupted;

This is the anger of the masses, the anger of Arab nations, and the anger of freedom-seeking people in the world.

Deif's message was one that first indicated that the "10.7" attack was a planned military action named the "Al-Aqsa Flood" operation and that at its background was the Israeli desecration of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the Gaza blockade, and the international community's oblivion of the Palestine issue. However, as noted earlier, Deif's video message contains several differences from the actual military action, such as the number of rockets fired. In this context, we should look into the announcements by Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu Ubaida, which were publicized after the Hamas military operation.

Abu Ubaida's statements were released in succession on October 10 and 12. His October 12 statement, in particular, refers to the number of rockets and mortar bombs fired as 3,500, indicating that the statement in question was prepared after the actual development of the military operation. What is noteworthy about this statement is that it provides the first detailed description of how the "Al-Aqsa Flood" operation was planned and executed. In particular, the statement reveals for the first time that the number of combatants involved in the military operation was 3,000, that there were 1,500 logistical support personnel, and that the operation planning had been going ahead since the first half of 2022. The high level of the planning of this operation is demonstrated by the pinpoint attacks targeting Israeli military surveillance networks (cameras and sensors) and by the proper consideration of climatic conditions of the day. The following remark deserves special attention:

The current battle began as soon as the "Sword of Jerusalem" operation ended, which united the Palestinian people.

The "Sword of Jerusalem" operation refers to the battle that unfolded in May 2021.3 During this battle and in the leadup to and in the wake of it, many significant changes took place in the situation surrounding Jerusalem. What were the circumstances that fueled the sense of crisis among Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip, represented by Hamas?

3. The Situation in Jerusalem

The 2021 "Sword of Jerusalem" operation was not a very large-scale military operation. Clashes broke out in the Old City of Jerusalem in May 2021, or that year's Ramadan (the Islamic fasting month). Hamas and its allies fired rockets against Israel; military clashes lasted about ten days in the Gaza Strip. In Israel, 12 people, including foreigners, were killed, while nearly 230 people perished in Palestine. Ultimately, a cease-fire was concluded between Hamas and Israel, and the fighting ended.

Table 1: A Chronology of Fighting in the Gaza Strip
2008 2012 2014 2021 May 2023 Oct. 2023
Palestinian Deaths 1,391 167 2,185 233 34 30,200
Destruction of Houses 6,400 - 1,2000 - - 140,000-180,000
Israeli Deaths (Soldiers) 8 (5) 6 (2) 68 (63) 7 (1) 2 1,430 (530)
Combat Period 23 days 8 days 50 days 12 days 5 days -

Prepared by the author (as of March 4, 2024).

The 2021 clashes were distinct from the 2008 and 2014 battles, accompanied by the Israeli ground invasion, in that what happened in Jerusalem, located in the West Bank, prompted armed groups in the geographically distant Gaza Strip to take action. In other words, the 2021 clashes highlighted the symbolic nature of the city of Jerusalem.

Why was the symbolic nature of Jerusalem focused on in the 2021 battle, unlike past battles? The reason is that the situation had changed dramatically during the five years leading to 2021 over the status of Jerusalem. The change began with the "recognition of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital" announced by US President Donald Trump in December 2017.4 President Trump recognized Israel's claim to "Jerusalem as its capital" and declared the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, which had been in the commercial capital of Tel Aviv since the founding of the state of Israel. The status of Jerusalem is one of the most intractable issues to negotiate between Israel and Palestine.

The cease-fire line resulting from the War of 1948 runs through the middle of Jerusalem, although subsequent redevelopment has rendered it almost invisible. With its founding in 1948, Israel occupied the western urban area of Jerusalem to incorporate into its territory. According to the UN Palestine Partition Resolution of November 1947 (General Assembly Resolution 181), Jerusalem was to have become an internationally administered territory belonging neither to a Jewish nor an Arab state. Consequently, Israel's occupation of the western urban area of Jerusalem was not approved for a long time by the international community, including the United States; many countries located their embassies in the Tel Aviv area. This remained intact for some time after Israel occupied the eastern urban area of Jerusalem (East Jerusalem) during the War of 1967. Trump's "recognition of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital" caused a major change to the issue of Jerusalem's status, which dates back to the founding of Israel. The US Embassy was moved to Jerusalem in May 2018 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel's independence.

We should recall that the year 2023 began with the escalation of tensions over the status of Jerusalem. On January 3, Itamar Ben-Gvir of the "Jewish Power" party, National Security Minister in the Binyamin Netanyahu administration formed on December 29, 2022, visited the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem in defiance of opposition from Muslims. The visit drew vehement condemnation. At the time, a spokesman for the Hamas political bureau stated that "we will not resort to any hasty counterattack," while stressing that "al-Aqsa Mosque constitutes a non-negotiable line."5 Should Abu Ubaida's October 12 statement be true, Hamas was already steadily planning the "Al-Aqsa Flood" operation at that stage.

4. Plight in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Question Receding to the Background

As the question of the status of Jerusalem underwent major changes, the socioeconomic situation in the Gaza Strip deteriorated to unprecedented levels. In 2022, the unemployment rate in Gaza reached 47%; the percentage of residents living below the poverty line was 65%. In addition, 80% of Gaza residents had to rely on humanitarian aid to live.

Israel began the complete blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007. The reason cited for this was the presence of Hamas in the area. Hamas had secured majority seats in the previous year's elections for the Interim Palestinian Authority (PA) and had come to power as the ruling party. However, the Hamas-led Palestinian government failed to gain immediate approval not only from Israel but also from the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations due to Hamas's past involvement in suicide bombings. Taking advantage of this situation, Fatah, which had lost the PA elections, attempted to oust Hamas. It succeeded in eliminating Hamas in the West Bank but was driven out from the Gaza Strip. Hamas has since taken effective control of the Gaza Strip, and Israel sought to contain Hamas by blockading the area.

The problem is that while the socioeconomic situation in the Gaza Strip continued to worsen, the Gaza Strip was isolated from Palestinian politics, and the Palestine issue receded to the background in the Middle Eastern landscape. In particular, the normalization of relations between some Arab countries and Israel (the Abraham Accords), driven by the Trump administration in 2020, was achieved by shelving efforts to address the Palestine issue. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain declared normalizing their relations with Israel, followed by Sudan and Morocco. Furthermore, in early 2023, several reports surfaced that Saudi Arabia was considering normalization with Israel. In September 2023, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman stated in an English interview with Fox News, "Every day we get closer [to the normalization of relations with Israel]."

Alerted by the prospect that the Saudi-Israel normalization was imminent, the PA sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia on September 5, 2023, consisting of the Head of the General Intelligence Service, Majed Faraj, the PLO Executive Committee Secretary-General Hussein Al-Shaikh, and Senior Diplomatic Advisor Majdi Khaldi. Reportedly, they asked the Saudi government to present conditions to Israel and to the Biden administration, including a freeze on settlement construction and the reopening of the PLO representative office in Washington.6 The three delegates are close to President Abbas and are all leading PA officials who are considered candidates for the successor to the Palestinian presidency. However, there is no confirmation that lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip was taken up in their discussion with the Saudis. In the Arab-Israeli normalization process, not only does the Palestine issue recede to the background, but the plight in the Gaza Strip is neglected in Palestinian politics.

Asked in a CNN interview about the background of the "10.7" attack, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken replied, "[I]t wouldn't be a surprise that part of the motivation may have been to disrupt efforts to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel together."7 Saudi Arabia is said to have suspended its efforts to normalize relations with Israel in response to the Hamas-Israeli war. However, as seen in the above Hamas statement, there is no mention of the Arab-Israeli normalization, at least, as a motive. Therefore, we should remain cautious not to mix the situational outcome and the motive for action.

5. Conclusion

The current situation in Gaza will leave a lasting, medium- to long-term impact not only on the Palestinian-Israeli situation but also on the entire Middle East. US efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Arab countries, which could be called a "realignment of the Middle East," prompted strongly by the Trump administration and effectively taken over by the Biden administration, have reached an apparent impasse. According to a survey poll conducted with 8,000 people from 16 Arab countries by the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, all the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, are increasingly considering the Palestine issue as their own.8 Many respondents demonstrate a feeling of rejection against not only Israel but also the United States, which holds fast to supporting Israel. Obviously, the situation in Gaza is causing public opinion to boil across the Middle East.

Palestinians and Arab public opinion assert that Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip is a form of ethnic cleansing and genocide. As the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip is exacerbating, this perception is gradually shared by non-Arab countries and some Western public opinion. South Africa's suit against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing it of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, is an example of such a move. The current tension in Gaza has not only brought the Palestine issue back to the attention of the international community but also has opened a new phase involving non-Arab countries.

(Associate Professor, The University of Tokyo)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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