Hamas attack on Israel is a ‘major strategic mistake’ for the Palestinian cause, expert says. Will it escalate to war with Iran?

From a distance, smoke rises over buildings in the Gaza Strip into the sky
Smoke rises from an explosion caused by an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. The militant Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip carried out an unprecedented, multi-front attack on Israel at daybreak Saturday, firing thousands of rockets as dozens of Hamas fighters infiltrated the heavily fortified border in several locations by air, land, and sea and catching the country off-guard on a major holiday. AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

An unprecedented surprise Hamas attack on Israel early Saturday during a major Jewish holiday might appear operationally successful, but “it will be a major strategic mistake for these Palestinian groups,” says Northeastern University professor Max Abrahms.

“Israel’s reprisal will be fierce, and it will be extremely damaging for the Palestinian cause,” says Abrahms, an associate professor of political science who is an expert on the Middle East, international security and terrorism.

Reports on Sunday said at least 600 Israelis had been killed and over 2,000 injured after Hamas militants fired thousands of rockets and sent dozens of fighters into Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip, taking hostages along the way.

“We’ve never seen an attack of this level of sophistication involving thousands of rockets,” not to mention militant infiltration by boat and paragliders, Abrahms says.

Israel’s response to the Hamas attack was swift, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring that the country was at war, and the launch of airstrikes on Gaza, where the Palestinian Health Ministry said Sunday nearly 370 Palestinians had been killed and 2,200 injured.

The Hamas attack on Israel is going to have devastating consequences for Palestinian civilians, Abrahms says.

“It’s going to shut down the border. Palestinians will not be able to work in Israel. They will not be able to support their families,” he says.

“Hamas will impoverish even more the Palestinian people. Thousands of Palestinians will be jobless. Israel is going to go into Gaza and create an enormous amount of infrastructure damage.”

Israel’s reprisal will be fierce, and it will be extremely damaging for the Palestinian cause.

Max Abrahms, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern

And the carnage likely will not stop with Gaza and the southern part of Israel, Abrahms says.

“The war will most likely spread. It will spread into the West Bank. And it could spread into Israel’s northern border.”

One dangerous possibility is that Hezbollah could open a northern front against Israel, Abrahms says.

“Hezbollah is even more capable than Hamas and can do substantially more damage to Israel.”

Under those circumstances, Israel would conduct numerous sorties to protect the north, which could result in an “enormous amount of destruction” in southern Lebanon and Syria, Abrahms says.

“It’s possible that if things escalate, Israel will retaliate directly and militarily against Iran,” he says. Abrahms says Iran backs Hamas and is considered by the U.S. and Israel to be the number one sponsor of terrorism in the world.

“Iran is also on the cusp of nuclear weapons development. Israel is very much worried about that and has been for many years. It’s not unimaginable that this war could extend into Israeli planes striking Iranian nuclear facilities.”

Americans with close ties to Israel are closely following the news coming out of the country.

‘It’s a tragic situation’

“It’s a tragic situation, terrifying,” says Lori Lefkovitz, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Northeastern.

“I have a lot of family in Israel,” she says. “We’re concerned about our friends and our families and our colleagues’ safety.”

Lefkovitz says her heart goes out to people listening to the sounds of sirens during the Jewish sabbath and the normally joyous holy day of Simchat Torah, when Jews complete the annual cycle of reading the Torah.

“Things are complicated in Israel,” she says. “Right now, it’s not complicated. Right now it’s simply tragic and devastating. Israel is under attack.”

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’Everybody will be connected’

Simon Rabinovitch, an associate professor of Jewish history at Northeastern, says Israel is a small country, and all its citizens will know of someone hurt, killed or going off to battle due to the attacks that are still ongoing.

“Israel is geographically, physically small. You have to think about it in the context of Boston being Tel Aviv and Cape Cod being Gaza,” he says.

“Everybody will be connected to a civilian who was killed or kidnapped in this horror. Everybody will be touched by the tragedy there,” says Rabinovitch, who has led Dialogues of Civilization in Israel.

A colleague of his at Brandeis University, where Rabinovitch received his Ph.D., lost his daughter and son-in-law to Hamas attackers as they tried to protect their teenage son.

Israelis awaiting military response

Israelis are waiting to see what the extent of their country’s military response will be, and what the future holds for their sons and daughters in the armed forces and reserves, Rabinovitch says.

“This is still a tragedy that’s going on right now,” he says. “It’s still unfolding. We’re at the beginning. Not the end.”

On the world stage, the attack by Palestinian militants could harm attempts that have been made to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but not necessarily, Abrahms says.

Saudi Arabia has said progress with the Palestinians is a precondition for stronger ties, he says.

“On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Israel share the same adversary in Iran. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, has been struck by Iranian backed terrorists. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it has been struck by terrorists out of Yemen,” Abrahms says.

“If this does become an open conflict between Israel and Iran, it could actually strengthen Saudi ties.”

Abrahms says he doesn’t see Israel requesting U.S. military support – unless the war widened to include direct conflict between Israel and Iran.

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at c.hibbert@northeastern.edu or contact her on X/Twitter @HibbertCynthia.