It is now a month since the shocking events, and more shocking aftermath, of the October 7th attack on Israel by Hamas. In its wake, the fog of war prevented clear analysis of exactly what occurred with rumors and disinformation from both sides creating confusion on important topics. While some have become clearer, other questionable details are still taken as fact by people on either side. With Israel still refusing to initiate a ceasefire, the carnage seems likely to continue. Here, I aim to outline some of the contested information and highlight some related points that are frequently overlooked or distorted. A lot of discussion on this issue has become incredibly partisan, so much so that many people have displayed dramatic shifts in their preexisting core principles, as I explore here. The following is presented in good faith as a search for common truth rather than an effort to excuse one side or demonize another. Any inaccuracies are entirely unintentional and open to correction.
1. How was the attack not preempted?
The attack on the 7th of October was certainly a surprise for the world, but there are legitimate questions regarding to what extent Israeli military leadership was aware that something was going to occur. Both Egypt and the USA warned Israel of an increase in Hamas activity and the likelihood of a major attack in the days before the event. Troops in Israel’s own military also said their warnings were also ignored. Documents recovered from attackers suggest the meticulous planning had been done within Hamas’ ranks over the space of at least a full year.
In the days before the attack a story revealed how an Israeli spy, with strong connections in Gaza, had infiltrated the highest ranks of Hamas. Previously, in 2020, Hamas arrested 16 alleged Israeli spies, including the leaders of its electronics, telecommunications, and security training units. It is still unclear how to explain the failure of Israel’s Human Intelligence, Signal Intelligence, and its ‘Iron Wall’ along the border, running 65 kilometers with hundreds of cameras, radars, and other sensors. What we can infer is that with all of Hamas’ meticulous planning, they could not have anticipated the extent of the Israeli intelligence failure and the delays in response it caused. As such, it is highly unlikely that Hamas could have predicted the scale of devastation their attacks would cause, both against the military and civilian targets.
2. Was it intended as a massacre of Jewish people?
Hamas declared the aim of Al-Aqsa Flood to be the liberation of Muslim holy sites and prisoners, and there is little reason to doubt that Hamas planned solely to attack Israeli bases and seize hostages, not to massacre civilians, although this clearly occurred in numerous incidents. In the aftermath, Hamas’ ludicrous claims that they had not attacked civilians, nonetheless, lends some support to the idea that this was not their primary intent as they are often quite open in claiming responsibility for intended civilian deaths. Framing the attack as a whole as an orchestrated effort to inflict maximum casualties on the Jewish population, or even claiming its “constitutes genocide”, is patently untrue. This is obvious from the efforts made to take civilians back to Gaza unharmed and by statements from survivors and released hostages that they were treated humanely. Obviously, they were the lucky ones, perhaps even constituting an extreme minority who escaped violence. The age dispersion of victims also seems to indicate children were not deliberately targeted as a general policy, though clearly some were killed (by itself, barbarism enough to justify any denunciation of Hamas). However, had the goal been pure slaughter, given the hordes of militants, and the lackluster initial response, the number of dead would certainly have been far greater.
It is estimated that 1,500 militants took part in the attacks. However, not all of these were Hamas fighters. Some belonged to other militant factions and others were simply armed civilians who took the opportunity to use the breaches in the barrier to extract revenge. A significant number of those involved engaged in indiscriminate violence against Israeli civilians but, without questioning the severity of those crimes, it appears as an unintended corollary rather than intentional element of the plan. To say that Hamas’ leadership did not plan this to be a massacre of civilians in no way excuses them from culpability for the actions of those they commanded in an operation that appears to have chaotically expanded beyond its initial targets, partly due to the unexpectedly weak Israeli border response.
3. But don’t Hamas seek the elimination of all Jews?
Those who present the entire attack as being a planned large-scale massacre typically refer to this being in keeping with Hamas’ very raison d’etre. The Hamas’s Charter has undergone revisions to reflect changes in the views of its leadership but, surprisingly, drafts of the latest 2017 version are hard to find online. The first results returned by Google are all from pro-Israeli perspectives (foremost being the Israeli embassy) which selectively quote only small sections of the larger charter, omitting many very important pieces of information, in a manner designed to present it in the most negative manner possible.
They typically omit sections 16, 17, and 20 of the Charter which make the following several very important statements:
16. Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine.
It also states that it is the Zionist minority which conflates all Jews with their smaller group of political and religious extremists.
17. Hamas rejects the persecution of any human being or the undermining of his or her rights on nationalist, religious or sectarian grounds. Hamas is of the view that the Jewish problem, anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews are phenomena fundamentally linked to European history and not to the history of the Arabs and the Muslims or to their heritage.
20. Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea. However, without compromising its rejection of the Zionist entity and without relinquishing any Palestinian rights, Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967 … to be a formula of national consensus.
Does Hamas honestly adhere to these statements? Might they be disingenuous and bely a hidden goal of cleansing all Jewish people from the region? We can clearly question any group’s deeper motives. However, the evidence shows that their ‘stated’ aims are not what we are often told they are by the press, and the Charter suggests there is room for a negotiated settlement.
Some will point to individual Hamas members, including some in leadership positions, who make more extreme statements. This is akin to saying that recent genocidal statements by some among the Israeli leadership equate to Israel being a state founded on the extermination of the Palestinian people. This cannot be stated enough, it is never wise or rational to judge a broad group for the actions or words of its most extreme members.
4. Were all the victims killed by Hamas?
The figures generally reported for Israeli dead are 1,400. Whether this is accurate is unclear, but it does not matter in effect if the actual number is lower, even significantly lower. We know that a very large number of innocent Israeli civilians died, and this is enough. A more important question is what number of the dead were not civilians but military personnel. This matters very much in regard to the above issue of determining whether the Hamas attack was an operation with a specific strategic purpose, targeting Israeli bases and aiming to take civilians as hostages, rather than planned as an indiscriminate massacre of civilians. Israel itself states that more than 300 soldiers died during the attacks. This does not include the various security staff at the locations targeted or the armed civilians who fought back against the attackers in many areas. This is in no way intended to suggest their deaths were any less criminal but merely to highlight the fact that in many, if not most areas, there were ongoing battles rather than a cold-blooded culling of victims. This includes the music festival, at which the organizer states, “At the party there was already a police force, like any licensed party, and they were the first ones to try to give assistance by fighting … We are Israelites, so most of us have military experience, and a few from the production managed to kill some terrorists with their bare hands and their weapons.”
I, for one, applaud any civilian able to turn the tables on an attacker targeting the unarmed and innocent. The point to note, however, is that many of the incursion sites were in complete chaos with militants shooting it out first with security personnel and armed civilians, and later with the more heavily armed troops of the IDF. How many died as unintentional victims of crossfires is unknown, but the information available suggests it may represent a significant proportion. More significantly, ample evidence also exists to suggest that many civilian deaths were due to a deliberate disregard for civilian safety by the IDF. The Grayzone lay out a devastating indictment, including statements from both civilian survivors and Israeli soldiers, of Israel’s rules of engagement on October 7th. They make it clear that numerous civilian deaths could have been avoided if not for the application of what is commonly known as the Hannibal Directive. This is a policy that prioritizes elimination of potential hostages because of the danger they represent as a bargaining chip to be used against the state.
Why does this matter? Because if we look at the context of the response to the crimes of October 7th, it is incredibly relevant that many deaths on that day may have been the direct result of a failure to prioritize civilian life over the state’s strategic goals. It is also important because, in efforts to justify its response, Israel has attempted to portray the attacks ‘as a whole’ as utterly barbaric. While barbaric incidents occurred, it is unclear to what extent they were part of a larger pattern or localized aberrations. Typically, that is what an enquiry would determine but in the aftermath of the attack, there was no time for any analysis. On the very same day the attacks occurred, Israeli jets were already flattening apartment buildings in Gaza. Does it matter to say 1,400 Israelis were killed? Would it make a difference to deduct from that the 300 soldiers? Or perhaps another 100 security staff and armed civilians? Or possibly several hundred killed by ruthless IDF protocols? Possibly. Comedian Bassem Youssef highlighted the fact that Palestinian lives seem to have a poor exchange rate in relation to Israeli ones and that Israeli casualties might be used by some as an offhand calculus for how many Palestinian deaths will be acceptable to ‘balance things out’. The fact that Israel’s own actions caused, and continue to cause, Israeli civilian deaths, is an important point to factor into such grotesque calculations.
5. Were babies beheaded?
One of the most shocking, widely shared, and persistent early claims regarding the attack was that up to forty infants had been beheaded by the attackers. No evidence of this ever existed, but the story made front page headlines in numerous Western newspapers who opted for sensationalist jingoism over fact-checking. The London Times, once a paper with a sterling reputation for reliability and even-handedness, issued an incendiary front page headline proclaiming, “Hamas ‘cut the throats’ of babies in massacre,” without any evidence other than hearsay to back it. In the US, Biden claimed to have seen “confirmed photos of terrorists beheading babies” before the White House had to distance itself from the story. Eventually, the rumors were tracked back to a single Israeli extremist with a history of promoting racial hatred. The widespread media dissemination of the story prior to verification has echoes of the “Kuwait Incubator Hoax” which also used the deaths of infants in an effort to stir violent emotions and subdue more analytical thinking in the build-up to US involvement in the 1990 Gulf War.
6. Were people raped?
As with the above rumor, this one also began early and travelled fast without any evidentiary support. Again, the story was promoted by the White House and various media before the IDF itself stated that there was no evidence to support the claims. Later the IDF would reissue claims that evidence of rape existed but, at the event hosted to show global journalists video evidence of Hamas’ worst atrocities, they stated, “You won’t see rape, there’s no rape in this video … We won’t show you beheaded babies.” Is it possible rape occurred? I would say it is probable rather than merely possible. Yet, I can uncover no hard evidence that it did and certainly not on the widespread scale promoted by the early rumors.
7. Did Israel bomb al-Ahli hospital, or was it Hamas?
Both sides traded blame for an attack that likely killed several hundred civilians. The answer is, in the wider context, irrelevant. In the highly unlikely event it was Hamas, who have no weapons that have ever created such devastation in a single strike, it was unintentional. More importantly, the huge amount of attacks taking place each day on schools, universities, water supplies, ambulance convoys, refugee camps, and other hospitals, make the issue moot. Raising the question of culpability for al-Ahli has no bearing on Israel’s wider crimes, in the same way that Israeli civilian deaths due to crossfire in no way absolve Hamas of responsibility for the many deliberate killings that occurred that day.
8. Does Israel have a special right to defend itself due to the Holocaust?
Israel’s actions would not be tolerated if done by any other country in the world. Thanks to the protection of US vetoes it has avoided sanctions regarding more than 50 resolutions brought against it at the United Nations. This week South Africa, the only country that received more UN condemnatory resolutions than Israel (for its own decades of apartheid), recalled its Ambassador in protest at what it considers genocide.
Frequently, Israel puts responsibility for their own illegal actions on Hamas. This is akin to seeing a terrorist running into a school, then seeing the police bar all the doors and windows, set the building on fire, and say that the ensuing deaths are the terrorist’s responsibility; it is patently absurd. Yet, Israel often receives irrational leeway, in part due to its use of the Holocaust as justification for draconian retribution.
This is a smokescreen callously used by political ideologues. The policies of the Zionist political faction toward Palestinians were on display well before the events of World War Two with far-right militia such as Irgun embracing terrorism to promote claims of Jewish ownership. One of their maxims was that while, “every Jew had the right to enter Palestine; only active retaliation would deter the Arabs.” During WWII, another Zionist militia was formed known as Lehi, who had the distinction of seeking an alliance with Hitler and, “came to be perceived by conventional eyes as the most violent and unrestrained terrorist organization of the modern era.”
This preference for force over efforts at peaceful cohabitation has been an ongoing core element of political Zionism; something which has frequently turned against other Israeli Jews, such as in the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing extremist due to his role in the Oslo Peace Accords. This came after several far-right rabbis proclaimed Rabin ‘din rodef’, effectively the Jewish version of a fatwah calling for death. The Holocaust was an obscene crime against humanity, but the people leading the current bombing of Gaza are devotees of figures like Ze’ev Jabotinksy whose extremist views regarding the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians predate WWII.
9. Is support for the citizens of Gaza the same as support for attacks on Jewish people?
The campaign to return the kidnapped hostages has hundreds of thousands of supporters around the world. I assume the vast majority of these people do not support the killing of Palestinian children despite the fact that some within this group do. Likewise, the fact that a very small segment of extremists engage in legitimate antisemitism cannot be used to tar all members of the pro-Palestinian rights movement, or the countless people who oppose this specific instance of grotesquely disproportionate violence. Despite this, Israel has made every effort to defame any protest of its military policy as being an expression of antisemitism. Their not-so-insignificant influence has seen its political allies in France, which has already banned pro-Palestinian protests, propose a bill that would make opposition to Zionism itself illegal.
10. Were people tearing down posters of the kidnapped Israelis because they hate Jewish people?
The common factor that supporters of Palestinian civilians and supporters of kidnapped Israelis must share is that the first step must be to end the bombardment. The Israeli attacks have so far killed scores of hostages and are clearly conducted with zero concern for their safety. From what I can see and logically assess, the ‘photos of the hostages’ campaign is purely a piece of propaganda used to deflect attention from Israel’s carnage against civilians. The key factor supporting this is that they do not also call for an end to the bombing, something that is a far greater threat to the hostages than Hamas. Opposition to the posters is, in some cases, simply due to people supporting the Palestinian cause over the Israeli one. However, it is also perfectly reasonable to oppose these posters as being a cynical exploitation of Israeli victims to shield their government from war crimes that will inevitably lead to the death of all hostages.
11. Is the chant, “From the river to the sea”, endorsing violence against Jews?
The Anti-Defamation League claims the chant is a call for the destruction of the entire Jewish state. We know from the aforementioned Hamas charter that this is not the case. They specifically refer to “from the river to the sea” when saying they seek the destruction of the Zionist state of Israel and its replacement with a new state based on the 1967 borders that will include both Jews and Palestinians.
My own country’s national anthem, that of Ireland, could be taken as a call to violence against British control of Northern Ireland; in fact, efforts have been made to change it in the past due to these very concerns. However, sensible people understand its usage does not reflect such intent, just as they realize that calls of “Palestine shall be free,” refers to bringing an end to decades of oppression of one people, rather than suggesting that this can only be done through similar violence to another. Despite this, people have been fired, and in the past week a British MP was suspended from their party, for using the phrase in support of Palestinian rights.
12. Does support for Palestinian people equate to support for unfettered immigration?
This might seem like a strange connection to make as the two appear to be completely unrelated issues. Even so, I have seen numerous people who have long protested against rising immigration or the Islamization of Europe, but claim they are ‘centrists’ or even ‘left-leaning’, suddenly swing to far-right stances in which they support Israel’s use of force and decry pro-Palestinian rallies as being support for anti-Semitism. The nominally pro-free speech website ‘Spiked’ was a surprising example, wherein their front page at the time of writing has seven separate pieces attacking pro-Palestinian speech as being anti-Semitic (and nothing regarding the equal level of vitriol directed against Palestinians by Zionists and other extremists). The ‘free speech’ site also provided zero coverage of the previously mentioned suspension of MP Andy McDonald for political speech.
It’s hard to reconcile these positions with anything but Islamophobia. I can even understand where such emotional concerns might be rooted, as there are rational discussions to be had about the impact Islamic migration is having on European society. I personally have significant concerns regarding poor immigration policy and a failure to support effective integration leading to social problems in Europe, of the kind now being responded to in Sweden and Germany. Yet, that has absolutely no bearing on how I respond to violence against defenseless people. Perhaps I lack the political acumen to realize that by supporting the welfare of Palestinian civilians I might, somehow, weaken stricter boarder control but I fail to see the connection. Even if it were to advance a policy I disagreed with, other issues — such as protecting children from indiscriminate bombing — would always take precedence. I once thought this point of view applied to all of us, but I have recently been disabused of this naivety. Some of us, it seems, have different priorities.
One month after the beginning of the current crisis, discussion has become increasingly polarized and significant distortion of the events continues to occur on both sides. Hamas are by no means averse to the use of propaganda, however, it is probably safe to say that Israel has by far the greater skill and influence in this field. With both sides being unreliable sources, its unsurprising that discussions often repeat things as fact that have either been disproven or called into question. Anyone hoping to better understand the issue needs to listen to a variety of perspectives on the matter, especially from people with deep experience of the region and its residents. I cannot offer that nuance, though I would recommend a recent episode of the Angry Planet podcast, featuring Lebanese scholar Joey Ayoub, which discusses the dangers of regional escalation if a negotiated peace is not achieved.
Personally, all I hope to do is to encourage more even-handed discussion of these contentious topics by highlighting how they have either been misrepresented, or, how they can be seen in a different way. The opinions here may strike you as incorrect or partisan, but they are not intentionally so. The only way any perceived inaccuracy or bias can be adjusted is through good faith dialogue and, hopefully, this is something which the growing threat of wider and more severe regional conflict will advance.