“Babies, women, the elderly were dragged outside of their homes, were taken hostage. Civilians were shot and most were massacred in cold blood walking on the streets. This is something that, I mean, is truly unprecedented.” This is how Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan described the surprise attack Hamas launched on Israel by air, land, and sea early Saturday morning.
“This is our 9/11,” he added.
At this writing, more than 700 Israelis and about 413 Palestinians have died in the conflict; more than 2,200 have been injured. After declaring war for the first time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel launched retaliatory strikes against military compounds and locations connected to Hamas’s leadership in Gaza. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) announced this morning that it has retaken control of all communities around the Gaza Strip.
I have led more than thirty study tours to Israel, taught world religions at several graduate schools, and written books and numerous articles on Israel and Islam. In this context, I will view this tragedy with you today through the prism of geopolitical and religious narratives. Let’s ask why this is happening, then close with a practical and urgent way we must respond today.
Why did Hamas attack Israel?
Hamas called its attack “Operation Al-Aqsa Deluge” and claimed it was acting in retaliation for Israel’s “desecration” of the Temple Mount, but we should look beyond its words to its foundational beliefs.
“Hamas” is an Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement.” The terrorist group is part of a movement of radical jihadists who claim that the State of Israel stole its land from its rightful Muslim owners. They believe the Qur’an requires them to defend Islam by attacking Israel and anyone who supports the Jewish people (cf. Qur’an 2:190; 9:5). Since Israel is a democracy, they view its Jewish citizens, whom they consider “apes and swine” (Qur’an 5:60; see 2:65; 7:166), to be complicit in this “attack” on Islam.
Hamas has therefore been in conflict with Israel since seizing control of Gaza in 2007. Its goal is more than aggression against Jews, however.
Hamas published its official charter in 1988, calling for the destruction of Israel and raising “the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” Its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, stated that “reconciliation with the Jews is a crime” and claimed that Israel “must disappear from the map.”
To accomplish this goal, Hamas would need to do three things.
One: Prevent Muslim nations from supporting Israel.
The Abraham Accords brought the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain into normalized relations with Israel in 2020. More recently, Saudi Arabia has been considering steps to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a defense pact with the US.
Saturday’s attacks were clearly intended to sabotage such talks. They apparently achieved their goal, at least in the short term, when the Saudi government issued a statement blaming the conflict on “the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights.”
Two: Provoke a response that draws other Muslims into the conflict.
Hamas says its attacks are only the beginning and stated, “It is possible that the battle would involve regional parties.” How could this happen?
By committing horrific atrocities, including taking dozens of hostages, Hamas is inciting a response it can characterize as an attack on all Palestinians and Muslims. Since the Qur’an requires Muslims to defend Muslims (4:75; 22:39), Hamas apparently hopes other Muslims in the region will then join its war on Israel.
This could include Hezbollah, a heavily armed militant group controlling southern Lebanon that briefly exchanged artillery and missile fire with Israel after the attacks began. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the north and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank are other jihadist groups that could join the conflict.
A former Israeli security advisor warned that Israel will face an “existential threat” if Hezbollah, Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria, and Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank join the fighting. It will be crucial to see if the conflict with Israel expands beyond Hamas in the coming days.
Three: Engage other nations in the widening conflict.
Senior Hamas and Hezbollah members said Iranian security officials helped plan the attack on Israel and gave it the green light last Monday. According to the Wall Street Journal, these officials described their broader plan to create the multi-front threat I described above.
Many Iranian leaders believe the Mahdi (the Twelfth Imam, their version of a Messiah) will appear to govern the world for Islam after the Muslim world destroys the Jewish state. Some believe that this war with Israel will occur after a world war, viewing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as this necessary prelude.
However, Iran does not stand alone: its military and economic ties with Russia have strengthened significantly since the latter invaded Ukraine. How could the war with Israel benefit Russia? New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted: “If Israel is about to invade Gaza and embark on a long war, Ukraine will have to worry about competition from Tel Aviv for Patriot missiles as well as 155-millimeter artillery shells and other basic armaments that Ukraine desperately needs more of and Israel surely will, too.”
Friedman quoted Vladimir Putin’s statement last Thursday that Ukraine was being propped up “thanks to multi-billion donations that come each month.” Putin added, “Just imagine the aid stops tomorrow.” In that case, Ukraine “will live for only a week when they run out of ammo.”
Last, there is China, whose relations with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine are now at a “historic high.” China clearly seeks to take Taiwan and its high-tech manufacturing so essential to the global economy. According to Atlantic writer Graeme Wood, “If war breaks out generally around Israel, and questions arise about Israel’s very survival, the United States will have to start counting its ammunition. How much is left for Israel, after Ukraine has taken its share? And what about Taiwan, now third in line?
“These are hard questions, and Iran, Russia, and China would be thrilled, collectively and separately, to force them on the United States.”
“A Pearl Harbor and a 9/11 all together”
We will obviously continue this conversation tomorrow. For today, I will close by asking you to join me in praying urgently for the innocent victims of this horrific war.
I have very dear friends of many years living in Israel; one of them has a grandson who began his military service just a week ago. A pastor friend and a group of university colleagues were also in the country when the attacks began; I am praying for their safety and safe return.
They are just a few of the multitudes of people who are affected by this war. Hundreds are dead, thousands are wounded, and the atrocities by Hamas now being reported are horrifying. A spokesman for the IDF said, “We have had the worst day in Israeli history when it comes to casualties. . . . In American terms, this is a Pearl Harbor and a 9/11 all together.”
God’s call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) has never been more urgent than it is today.