A Dark Colonial Past: Why Hamas’s Unprecedented Attack on Israel Isn’t All That Surprising

In the early morning of Saturday, October 7, Hamas began firing missiles on targets throughout Israel. An hour after the missile strikes, Hamas militants infiltrated various Israeli towns and military bases near Gaza after breaking through the border wall at six different points, killing soldiers and civilians and taking hostages, sparking retaliatory strikes from Israel. As of October 17, more than 1,400 Israelis have been killed, with at least 199 taken prisoner as hostages by Hamas, and 2,800 Palestinians have been killed, with over 11,000 wounded. One Palestinian child is murdered every 15 minutes by the Israeli military. 

It is now clear that the attack was planned well in advance, and that the fighters were well-prepared, with color-coded maps of military bases and using drones to destroy surveillance towers. This has led to questions about the security of Israeli intelligence, and the Israeli government has said it will conduct an investigation into how Hamas was able to acquire this information. The attack was shocking in its ability to overpower the Middle East’s dominant military power and Israel’s carefully cultivated image of invincibility. 

Shortly after the attack began, Mohammed El Deif (a nickname meaning “guest” because he slept in a different house each night to avoid assassination), leader of the Al Qassam Brigades — the military branch of Hamas — claimed responsibility for the attack. Israel began to respond about four hours after Hamas first breached the walls of Gaza, launching retaliatory airstrikes on residential buildings and a mosque. Just after Israel began airstrikes, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made a public statement declaring that “Israel is at war.”

On October 9, Hamas announced that it would begin executing the hostages one by one on film if Israel did not halt the airstrikes; however, neither has occurred. As of October 16, the Al Qassam Brigades have announced the deaths of 22 hostages due to the Israeli airstrikes, but the Israeli government has denied these claims. On the morning of October 17, Hamas released for the first time a video of a captured hostage. In addition, Hamas has said that, should conditions permit, they will release all non-Israeli hostages without need for negotiation. 

However, it is rapidly becoming clear how quickly the humanitarian situation has deteriorated within Gaza’s closed borders, with water, power, fuel and other supplies cut off by the Israelis in retaliation. Hospitals are at a breaking point, and food supplies are estimated to run out within the month, with almost half a million people unable to access food rations. The Gazans have run out of morgues for the bodies of those killed by Israel’s unrelenting air bombardment, and have resorted to using children’s ice cream trucks. 

On October 16, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to Israel to pledge the continued support of the United States for Israeli military action. U.S. President Biden visited Israel on October 18 to further emphasize American support — hugging Netanyahu and Israel’s president on the tarmac — while also reportedly intending to recommend restraint in an attempt to calm a rapidly escalating conflict. However, Biden arrived in Israel the day after an attack on a hospital in Gaza that has reportedly led to the murder of over 500 Palestinians, many of them children. Hamas has blamed the IDF, whereas the Israeli military and U.S. officials have blamed the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, claiming it was a failed rocket launch. 

As a result, Biden’s planned summit in Jordan after his trip to Israel, where he was supposed to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Abbas, was canceled. As Israel prepares for a potential ground invasion of Gaza, it is becoming clear that the rest of the world — particularly the Middle East — has become more unsure if Israel’s punishment of two million innocent Palestinians is warranted and worth the risk of a more widespread conflict, especially as the more far-flung accusations against Hamas that dominated the news cycle early in the week remain unconfirmed. 

What is most important to understand is that although Hamas’s assault on Israel was awful in scale and nature, and Hamas was the immediate instigator in this instance, these actions did not occur in a vacuum. We can acknowledge the horror of these attacks while simultaneously understanding the extraordinarily repressive actions that led to it. This is not to justify the attacks, but rather to paint a more accurate picture of the unimaginable oppression of Palestinians in Gaza before the attacks, and the truly dismal fate that now awaits millions of civilians trapped behind the barbed wire of Israeli fences. 

What is the Gaza Strip and Who is Hamas?

The UN Partition Plan was passed in 1947, creating a divide in historic Palestine between an Israeli state — which was awarded a majority of Palestinian territory — and an Arab state, with Jerusalem to be an international territory. The Zionist leadership accepted this plan and the Palestinians — who had had no representation at the UN when the decision was made — rejected it. To the Zionists, the gain of any land was a win for their cause, while the loss of any of their homeland was unfathomable to the Palestinians. After an unsuccessful attempt by a coalition of Arab armies to retake Palestinian territory following Israel’s declaration of independence, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homeland. 

Following the 1948 war, which was termed the Nakba (catastrophe) by the Palestinians because of the devastation Israel had wrought on the Palestinian homeland and people, Israel controlled 78% of historic Palestine, 50% more territory than the original agreement had allotted. What became the West Bank and East Jerusalem were annexed by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip was placed under Egyptian military and administrative rule. 

Gaza remained under Egyptian control until the Six-Day War, which began on June 5, 1967, when Israel attacked Egypt as tensions rose as a result of defense pacts between Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israel only attacked Egypt after assurances from US President Johnson that there would be no American objections, another instance in a historic pattern of American deference to Israel. Israel defeated the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies and seized the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, although the latter territory was returned during the Egyptian-Israeli peace process in the late 1970s. 

The 1967 war also marked the beginning of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, leading to decades of clashes between invading Israeli settlers and Palestinians trying to protect what remains of their country. These settlements are considered illegal by most of the international community, and Israeli settlers continue to encroach rapidly on the West Bank. The 1967 war also initiated the creation of an Israeli sense of invincibility and led to the re-emergence of Palestinians as notable players in their country’s future through the creation of organizations such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was a direct result of the Arab failure to liberate the Palestinians in 1967. 

After the realization that other Arab countries had failed to free the Palestinians and likely would be unable to do so in the future, groups such as the fidayeen, which were Palestinian freedom fighters, surged in popularity. In addition, the PLO began to rise and was welcomed by a summit of the Arab states in 1974 as a representative of Palestine, and later that year was given UN observer status as a representative of Palestinian interests. Israel eventually recognized the legitimacy of the PLO in the Oslo Accords in 1993. 

In addition, Hamas, a religious nationalist Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip, also began to gain power, and was formally established in December of 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin before the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada. Hamas is an acronym for Harakat Al-Muqawama Al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas was established originally as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group founded in Egypt that advocated for the application of Islamic law throughout society. The organization continued to rise in power and influence throughout the peace processes of the 1990s as it carried out various attacks, culminating in the second Intifada in 2000.

Hamas advocated for a liberation of Palestine from Israeli occupation as every Muslim’s religious duty, and carried out its first attack on Israeli soldiers in 1989. This led to Yassin’s arrest, who was eventually released in a prisoner exchange in 1997 and then assassinated in an Israeli air strike when leaving the mosque after praying in 2004. Fateh, the major political party of the PA, has historically been at odds with Hamas because of Fateh’s preference for negotiation over military action. Now, both the United States and the EU classify Hamas as a terrorist organization, while others view it as a righteous resistance movement against apartheid and oppression. 

After the repeated failure of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, in 2005 Israel decided to withdraw from Gaza to improve their security and international status.The Gaza Disengagement Plan involved the dismantling of the 21 Israeli settlements that had encroached on Gaza and the removal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip. This decision involved a withdrawal from what the Israelis call West Samaria — its biblical name and a part of the West Bank — although settlements have since continued to encroach on this land. 

However, after Yasser Arafat, former president of the PA, died in 2004 and Mahmoud Abbas was elected to take his place, Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Gaza in 2006, with 74 out of 132 seats. This Hamas-led government was not recognized by the United States or Israel. Hamas claims that a plot to overthrow Gaza’s new government was created between Fateh, the political party of Abbas, and Israel, the United States, Egypt and Jordan. However, Hamas preempted this plan by taking over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, after which Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza, with Israel designating it a “hostile territory.” 

Gaza has been termed by human rights organizations “the world’s largest open air prison,” with 2.3 million people trapped behind barbed wire fences in an area of 140 square miles, and is one of the most densely populated places on earth. 40% of Gaza’s population is under the age of 15, with a 45% unemployment rate. 1.7 million of the Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, and were displaced when Israel declared its independence in 1948. 90% of severely food insecure Palestinians live in Gaza, and from 2007-2010, the Israeli government tracked the minimum calories required to avoid malnutrition when restricting food imports into Gaza in an attempt to starve the population into overthrowing Hamas. 

Hamas certainly does not represent the beliefs and values of all Palestinian people, but for the two million Palestinians living in Gaza, Hamas has provided some semblance of social protection and governance within the unimaginable reality of Gaza under siege, forgotten by the world. 

As Omar Ghraieb, a Palestinian journalist living in Gaza, wrote in an article for CNN, “I yearn for the world to see us, too —  to hear us, and acknowledge our humanity and our right to live in freedom and safety like everyone else. . . It’s impossible to forget or ignore that these decades of Israeli military occupation color every facet of our existence and fragment our land and our people.” But the Palestinians are a people who have never been acknowledged or heard internationally, and have been left to suffer for generations in the shadow of deliberate global oversight. 

Israeli Response

In response to Hamas’s attack, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) formed a national unity government, creating a coalition with opposition groups to form a wartime cabinet to lead the country. This is especially significant, showing the depth of state distress, considering the political turmoil that has enveloped the Knesset since 2018, and the domestic unrest caused by legislative changes earlier this year. 

On October 10, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced a “full-scale response” to Hamas’ attack and that he had “removed every restriction” for Israeli soldiers, saying that “Hamas wanted to see a change in Gaza — the reality is Gaza will make a 180.” An Israeli official claimed that Gaza will be reduced to “a city of tents.” Later that day, Israeli airstrikes began targeting the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s border with Egypt, which was the only potential exit point for fleeing Palestinians, as the two crossings on Gaza’s border with Israel were closed following the attack. This crossing has been opened periodically since the blockade that Egypt helped to enforce beginning in 2007, but remains closed for now.  

On October 13, the Israeli government ordered the evacuation south of civilians living in northern Gaza within 24 hours, which even if civilians had been able to comply, created a major humanitarian crisis and may even amount to the war crime of forced displacement. While in the short term this appears to be an unprecedented kindness from a regime who had never had any qualms about the mass murder of Palestinians when in pursuit of enemy targets, with the eyes of the world on them, Israel appears to be a merciful oppressor. However, Egypt has refused to open the border for anything other than aid and the passage of foreign citizens, and Israel has not yet made it clear that they will not target aid convoys passing through the border. In addition, with the Palestinian side of the Rafah border rendered completely inoperable by Israeli air strikes earlier this week, an immediate evacuation via this crossing seems unlikely. Both Palestinians and Egyptians were concerned that Israel was planning to expel the Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and as history has shown, once Palestinians are removed from their land, it is permanently lost to the Israeli colonizers. 

As Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President El-Sisi have warned, this evacuation of civilians could give Israel the permission it needs in the eyes of the world to raze Gaza to the ground, ensuring there is nothing left for these Palestinians to return to, permanently displacing more Palestinians. In addition, a convoy of more than 70 Palestinians who had heeded the Israeli order and were moving to the south were killed by Israeli air strikes. Palestinians from the north face a perilous trek through miles of war-torn territory. Whatever Israel’s response to Gaza, it was always going to be disastrous regarding the numbers of Palestinians displaced by the conflict, but if Israel can make conditions in Gaza so harsh that the Palestinians will be unable to return, the Zionists will have won yet another victory in their century-long quest for Palestinian land. 


The origins of the first conflict between the Zionists — who eventually became the Israelis — and the native Palestinians, lies in Europe and the antisemetic and colonialist developments throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries that impacted European Jews, leading to the creation of the Zionist ideology. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, this conflict grew to encompass surrounding Arab nations, forever altering the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. This conflict between the Jewish colonial settlers and native Arabs that eventually became a conflict between Israel and Palestine, as well as the historic tensions between the Arab states and Israel, can be traced back to the creation of Zionist ideology, and its roots in European anti-Semitism, nationalism and colonialism. 

Zionism as an ideology consists of three key beliefs: that all Jews everywhere constitute a single nation, that antisemitism is inevitable wherever Jews and non-Jews live together and cannot be eradicated and that there is an irredeemable abnormality of Jewish life in exile. 

With encouragement from antisemitic Restorationist entities in Europe in the early 20th century — such as the Anglican church — Zionism incorporated the reclaiming of Palestine as their ancestral homeland as central to the ideology, and a key goal of Zionism became the desire to form a Jewish state on Palestinian land. The establishment of the state of Israel is often justified as being “a land without people for a people without a land.” However, like other former Ottoman territories, the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River was already occupied by a distinct nation of people. The only difference was a deliberate failure to recognize Palestinian statehood by the British who oversaw the Mandate of Palestine. 

In response to the difficulties of creating a state of immigrants on land already occupied by a native population, Revisionist Zionism emerged as a solution to account for the native Palestinian response to the Zionist occupation. 

Key to Revisionist Zionism, which informed the policies of the Israeli government after the state was formed in 1948, was a concept called the Iron Wall, created by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Russian Jewish nationalist. The Iron Wall doctrine necessitated the creation of Israeli military superiority and argued that the Arabs — stating “culturally they are 500 years behind us, spiritually they do not have our endurance or strength of will” — could not be negotiated with diplomatically and would only respond to repeated shows of force. 

Jabotinsky actually makes a comparison to the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers as justification for his doctrine, which is a much weaker argument in historical hindsight. Gallant said last week that “we are fighting human animals and act accordingly” when justifying the Israeli siege on Gaza. When addressing the Knesset on October 16, Netanyahu labeled Palestinians “the children of darkness” ruled by “the law of the jungle.” The Israelis have consistently utilized dehumanizing rhetoric in official capacities to belittle the Palestinian cause and justify their treatment at the hands of their Israeli oppressors.


Because Zionism has led to the creation of Israel as a Jewish state, criticism of Israel or the belief that the country has no real right to exist beyond that of an ancient religious text and a biblical prophecy is deliberately misidentified as antisemitism and discrimination against the Jewish people as a whole. As sympathy for Palestine has been increasing in the U.S., particularly amongst younger generations, there has been a concerted effort amongst pro-Israeli groups to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with antisemitism. The label of “self-hating Jew” has also been created to demonize Jewish people who criticize Israel and support Palestinian freedom. 

U.S. presidential candidate Ron DeSantis inserted himself into discussions on the Hamas-Israel conflict on Sunday, saying that the United States should not accept refugees from Gaza because, “If you look at how they behave, not all of them are Hamas, but they are all antisemitic. None of them believe in Israel’s right to exist” — conflating a refusal to acknowledge Israel’s statehood with antisemitism. 

Let’s be clear: humanitarian and political and territorial criticisms of Israel are not inherently antisemitic. To make this blanket stipulation cheapens a term meant to define real discrimination on the basis of religion, and prevents productive conversation regarding Palestinian rights and Israeli oppression. Israel is the only state in the world formed on the sole basis of a religious identity — based on the Zionist claim that Jewish people must establish their own state because they are incapable of coexisting with non-Jews without discrimination — which makes it easy for Israel and its supporters to claim that to oppose Israel is to oppose the Jewish people, or that an attack on the country is an attack on all Jews. 

As Palestinian activist Yassar Dahbour said in an interview I conducted in February of 2023, the key issue with the Western approach to the Israeli occupation of Palestine is “conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel, and the effort by the Israeli government to redefine antisemitism from discrimination against a religious group to anti-Israel policies. This is the weaponization of antisemitism as a tool to silence all criticism of Israel and its crimes.”

“It’s a fact that Palestine is occupied, it is a fact that Israel was built on lands that are part of historic Palestine, it is also a fact that Israel is a Jewish state. But as Palestinians we are fighting the occupier regardless of their religious background or identity. We are not fighting the Jewish identity, we are fighting the inhumane and criminal actions of the state of Israel.”

The truth is, to oppose Israel is to oppose colonialism, to oppose human rights abuses and to oppose the attempted erasure of an entire nation of people. But now is not the time for opposition or retaliation — it is a time for grief. To mourn the atrocities committed by Hamas against the people of Israel, and to mourn the horrors the Israeli government has only just begun to inflict upon the people of Gaza. We must also mourn the end of Gaza as we know it, a home and a cage for over 2 million Palestinians who have never known peace. 

This is not a win for Hamas or the Palestinian cause, and to construe these horrors committed against Israel as a victory is inhumane. But we must also remember that Israel’s very presence excludes and oppresses the Palestinian people whose land they have stolen and whose identity and culture they have appropriated and whose existence and history they have sought to deny. This is a loss for both sides of a conflict old enough that few can remember life before it. 

Why Attack Now?

The attack occurred on Saturday, the Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath), at the end of the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot, which is a national holiday in Israel. Strategically, the timing of the attack was intended to catch the Israeli Defense Forces off guard. However, the date of the attack is ideologically significant, as it was just after the 50th anniversary of the October 1973 war (also called the Yom Kippur War or Ramadan War). The significance of this day makes it all the more surprising that the IDF hadn’t anticipated an uprising, with U.S. intelligence reports as far back as September 28 warning of a likely attack. The most shocking aspect of Hamas’ attack on Israel was that it was so unprecedented because of the severity of Israel’s security and intelligence failures, and the weaknesses in Israel’s military capabilities that the attack exposed. 

Deif has thus far provided three reasons for the attack, intended so that “the enemy will understand that the time of their rampaging without accountability has ended.” The reasons include Israel’s continuing encroachment of settlements in the West Bank, Israeli police raids on the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the imprisonments of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails. In addition, Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s deputy head, stated that Hamas had received intelligence showing that Israel had planned an attack on Gaza after the Sukkot holiday week, so the attack was preemptive. 

During Ramadan earlier this year, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, the IDF stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during evening prayers for two consecutive nights, attacking the Palestinians with stun grenades and rifle butts as they were praying. The IDF dragged hundreds of Palestinians out of the mosque each night, with most of them — including children — released a few days later, having been beaten and interrogated while in detention. The IDF even prevented paramedics from accessing the wounded Palestinians on the scene by firing rubber bullets at ambulances. 

In addition, though not mentioned explicitly by Hamas, countries throughout the Middle East seem to have grown ever more ambivalent to the Palestinian cause. In recent months, both Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had indicated that a normalization agreement was in the near future, without mention of Israeli concessions regarding Palestine. There have also been reports that the week before the attacks, officials from Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard met in Beirut to receive the final go-ahead for the plot. Although unconfirmed, Iran is motivated to see a collapse of any talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia, since the foundation for any agreement would be made out of a desire to counter Iran’s regional power. Additionally, in January of this year, the Knesset began working to pass judiciary reform legislation that would limit the checks against Israel’s parliamentary branch of government and would allow for increased settlements in the West Bank, leading to months of protest and domestic turmoil that would have provided an opportunity for Hamas to take advantage of. 

Hamas’ decision to drag millions of innocent civilians in Gaza into a conflict with Israel may seem shocking and counterintuitive. However, key to understanding Hamas’ decision to sacrifice the safety of the millions of residents of Gaza is a focus on not just the martyrdom of Hamas militants, but of the Palestinian people as a whole. This belief was pioneered by Sheikh Yassin. During the second Intifada in 2000, as the IDF was murdering hundreds of Palestinian children, Yassin and Hamas celebrated their deaths as martyrs as a way to lead the population of Gaza through mourning. 

This is rhetoric that was frequently repeated during the Gaza war in 2014 and has recently resurfaced in the wake of the recent conflict. Controversial phrases such as “We love death more than you love life” have become political talking points to suggest comparisons of Hamas to ISIS and justify retaliation against Palestinian citizens. 

However, I offer an alternative interpretation. Israelis — like many of us in the West — have the luxury of life, of imagining futures for themselves and their children; whereas the Palestinians imprisoned behind the Israeli fences cannot even dream of a future, and all that Hamas has left to glorify is death in sacrifice of freedom or at the hands of their oppressors. This is not to justify the actions of Hamas’s militants in any way, but rather to explain the psychological effects of this generational oppression and dehumanization that could inspire the kind of hatred required for such acts.

While not much is certain about the future of this conflict, it is already clear that it will change Gaza and the lives of its residents forever. If Israel carries out a land invasion of Gaza, the conflict risks escalating to encompass Hezbollah in Lebanon, backed by Iran, as well as potentially drawing in the United States to back Israel. This would inevitably necessitate the intervention of countries neighboring Palestine, such as Egypt and Jordan, and could drag the entire Middle East into a protracted conflict. 

What is more clear now than ever before is that a two state solution was never possible, and Israel must make changes to the way it governs the Palestinian territories in the future if there is to be an end to this repetitive cycle of violent uprising and devastating retaliation.


Layla MoheyEldin
Layla MoheyEldin is a senior double majoring in International Relations and Middle East Studies. Having grown up in Saudi Arabia, her areas of interest include neocolonialism and security studies as they relate to the Middle East, specifically the Gulf region. In addition, she is particularly interested in the way Western intervention has shaped the domestic politics and international interactions of various nations in the region, and how this dynamic has contributed to proxy conflicts and power struggles between competing rising powers in the Middle East. Layla is a research assistant with USC Near Crisis Project Africa and has also interned for WeVote, Humanitarian Aid International, and California State Assemblyman Josh Hoover.