The Israel-Hamas War: Frequently Asked Questions
The scholars of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, based in the United States and Israel, have provided a wealth of analysis and policy recommendations for government officials, journalists, and the public since the horrific Hamas attack against Israel on October 7.
At a time when clear, unbiased information is hard to find, below is a selection of frequently asked questions based on the Institute’s research.
The Washington Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization supported exclusively by U.S. citizens and foundations. Its mission is to advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East and promote policies that secure them.
The questions are:
- What happened on October 7?
- What is Hamas and what does it believe?
- Is Hamas respected in the Arab world?
- What is the history of the Israel-Hamas relationship?
- Why sid Hamas launch the attack when it did?
- How is Iran involved?
- What are Israel’s objectives?
- Why hasn't the West Bank erupted?
- Who will rule Gaza when the war is over?
- How can college students and their parents navigate the complex politics of Israel on campus?
What Happened on October 7?
By any measure, the Hamas attack is one of the worst acts of international terrorism on record. Aided by small numbers of terrorists from other groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas operatives murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and wounded over 4,200. They also kidnapped over 200 people from twenty-two countries, including children as young as ten months old.
Hamas itself produced some of the most damning evidence of its atrocities, including documents found on the bodies of attackers instructing them to kill and kidnap civilians, footage from body cameras to document their carnage, and images posted on the group’s Telegram channels. Read more.
According to the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, which collects data from numerous sources, 136 hostages remained in Hamas hands as of January 23. The group has also fired at least 9,000 rockets at Israel, of which 900 were launched from civilian locations and 1,300 fell within Gaza. As a result of these and other attacks, between 100,000 and 200,000 Israelis have been displaced from their communities along the borders with Gaza and Lebanon. In Gaza, an estimated 25,490 Palestinians have been killed, of whom some 9,000 were terrorists. An estimated 1.8 million Palestinians have been internally displaced.
An Institute study of Gaza statistics concludes that although thousands of Palestinian noncombatants, including military-age males, have undoubtedly been killed in the Hamas-initiated conflict, the world must also recognize that the group has manipulated and exploited civilian fatality claims for its strategic benefit in an attempt to truncate Israel’s air and ground operations and stir international outrage. Read more.
What Is Hamas and What Does It Believe?
In 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine created Hamas, which is an acronym for the “Islamic Resistance Movement.” Today, Hamas is connected to a wider network whose constituent groups are influenced or controlled to varying degrees by Iran, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Assad regime in Syria, the Houthi movement in Yemen, and most of Iraq’s Shia militias, who collectively pose a multifaceted threat to the United States and its allies in the region. Read more.
Hamas has been driven by violence from its inception. Article 12 of its 1988 charter declared, “Nothing in nationalism is more significant or deeper than in the case when an enemy should tread Muslim land. Resisting and quelling the enemy become the individual duty of every Muslim, male or female.” Today, Hamas remains the only Brotherhood-linked group that has not denounced violence.
Its updated 2017 charter states, “Resistance and jihad for the liberation of Palestine will remain a legitimate right, a duty, and an honor for all the sons and daughters of our people and our umma.” While Hamas has said it is willing to accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, it also specified, “we will never accept Israel.” Read more.
In 1993, Hamas distinguished itself from the Palestine Liberation Organization by rejecting the Oslo Accords. In particular, it came out strongly in opposition to the idea of settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict diplomatically through a two-state solution, preferring instead to renew its commitment to violence and terrorism.
In 1996, Hamas launched suicide bombings against buses in Jerusalem, killing forty-five people. The U.S. State Department designated the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997, but the attacks continued. In 2002, Hamas suicide bombers struck a hotel in Netanya, killing thirty.
The violence persisted even after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the withdrawal of all settlers and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) units from Gaza in September 2005. Hamas attacked crossing points into Israel multiple times in the first six months after that decision was implemented.
The group defeated its Palestinian rival Fatah in an election in 2006, but because it would not accept the terms of the Oslo Accords, Washington and most European countries refused to deal with Hamas officials or provide assistance. In June 2007, the group ousted the Palestinian Authority and Fatah in a military coup, seizing Gaza’s governing institutions and causing Israel to close border crossings, airspace, and sea access to the Strip.
After taking power, Hamas provoked conflicts with Israel in 2008-9, 2012, 2014, and 2021, with more limited skirmishes occurring in the years between. The group rejected every opportunity to renounce “resistance” in favor of a governing partnership with Fatah and entry into PLO institutions. At the same time, it used construction materials imported into Gaza to create a homegrown weapons arsenal and a vast subterranean network of military tunnels. Read more.
Is Hamas Respected in the Arab World?
Over the years, Hamas has made an effort to maintain relations with all Islamic countries—Sunni and Shia, Arab and non-Arab—to bolster its claim that it is solely focused on opposing Israel rather than undermining regional governments. The group also needed the assistance of Arab states for financial support, mediation with Israel, and a safe haven for its leaders.
But Arab support has not been unanimous. In recent years, senior Arab officials, public figures, and prominent journalists have frequently criticized Hamas. In 2018, for example, Saudi minister Adel al-Jubeir called the group “extremist and terrorist.” That same year, Emirati minister Anwar Gargash lambasted the group’s Iran ties: “Hamas’s solidarity with the Iranian government does not take into consideration the Gulf and Arab anxiety over Tehran’s regional interference. It is unnecessary. It pushes the Palestinian issue into a maze and confirms the opinion that the movement, in its orientation, is nothing more than an Iranian regional tool.” Read more.
What Is the History of the Hamas-Israel Relationship?
Like many other observers, Israeli officials believed that as Hamas governed Gaza, it would gradually become more moderate and focus on civil affairs. They therefore created a modus vivendi: Israel accepted Hamas governance, and Hamas provided a period of relative quiet. Throughout this period, however, the group kept sending arms to the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, East Jerusalem, and Arab Israeli communities, fomenting further terrorist activity.
Meanwhile, Israel gradually reduced the scope of its Gaza blockade, and Hamas exploited this shift by upgrading its local military capabilities. Indeed, on the eve of the October 7 attack, negotiations were underway to admit more Gazan workers into Israel. Read more.
Why Did Hamas Launch the Attack When It Did?
October 7 was both the Jewish Sabbath and the holiday of Simchat Torah. It was also near the fiftieth anniversary of the surprise Arab attack that set off the October 1973 war. Hamas commander Muhammad Deif justified the operation as a defense of al-Aqsa Mosque, referring to September incidents in which Israeli forces ejected Palestinian worshippers from the site so that Jewish worshippers could safely visit their own holy places on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif. Yet this was clearly not the sole reason, since the attack had been planned for years.
Indeed, the operation’s timing was at least partly driven by Hamas’s fear that growing Israeli-Saudi normalization efforts would marginalize the group. Hamas commanders were also eager to exploit Israel’s preoccupation with its domestic political and social disarray, not to mention the IDF’s gradual troop reductions along the Gaza border. After years of preparation, Hamas leaders determined that their forces were ready, and they struck with murderous intent. Read more. icy
How Is Iran Involved?
While some experts doubt that Tehran knew of or approved the October 7 attack, the Islamic Republic has long funded, armed, trained, and provided intelligence to Hamas, and the operation could not have been conducted without this long-term assistance. United in their anti-Israel, anti-American ideology, officials from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force have been meeting regularly in Iran and Lebanon for years. The October attack appears to have been based on a template provided by Hezbollah. Read more.
Notably, Iran also gave Yemen’s Houthi movement the weapons, training, and intelligence needed to attack international shipping in the Red Sea. Read more.
What Are Israel’s Objectives?
To safeguard its citizens, Israel is fighting to eliminate Hamas as a terrorist army and governing authority in Gaza. This means preventing the group from rearming and reorganizing, as well as finding an alternative authority that is moderate and supported by regional and international entities. Israel is also fighting to return the dozens of hostages still held captive in Gaza. Read more.
In response to constant attacks along the Lebanese border, Israel has sought to push Hezbollah forces north of the Litani River, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which has not been honored or enforced since it was adopted after the 2006 Lebanon war. Read more.
Why Hasn’t the West Bank Erupted?
Palestinians in the West Bank have largely refused to heed calls for mass violence over the past several years, including exhortations by Hamas leaders after October 7. Many political, social, and economic factors help explain this reluctance, but the most important motive stems from the second intifada (2000-2005), an uprising whose outcome showed Palestinians that violence does not guarantee political dividends and can actually damage their national goals and personal lives. Read more.
Even so, Iran and Hamas have steadily increased the flow of arms and funds into the West Bank and recruited growing numbers of terrorists who are younger than those seen during the last intifada. After October 7, Hamas strived to open a second front against Israel by activating its West Bank cells and inciting other attacks outside Gaza. During the first three weeks of the conflict, such attacks nearly tripled in number compared to the same period in 2022. In response, the IDF stepped up its daily operations in the West Bank and succeeded in reducing the violence, including attacks by Jewish extremists.
According to INSS, as of January 23, 2024, approximately 353 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank during the war. Another 2,700 have been detained, 1,300 of them Hamas activists. Israel also struck a major blow against the group through its January 2 operation in Beirut targeting Saleh al-Arouri, the Hamas commander responsible for liaising with Hezbollah and Iran and directing terrorist activity in the West Bank. Read more.
Who Will Rule Gaza When the War Is Over?
Postwar plans for the future of Gaza are the subject of intense discussion. Washington Institute experts have proposed ideas to bring the war to a halt and govern Gaza thereafter. Read more.
Israel has implemented numerous operational procedures to keep the tragically high civilian death toll from climbing even higher, and it is allowing humanitarian goods to flow into the warzone so long as they are inspected. Israeli leaders have also ruled out permanent occupation of Gaza and the forced expulsion of its civilian population. Yet they do plan to maintain a security presence there for the foreseeable future.
The White House should consider advocating a Hamas surrender as an alternative to the binary choice of war or ceasefire. Read more.
Once the fighting ends, Institute experts recommend the establishment of an interim administration to run Gaza until the Palestinian Authority is able to assume that role. The duration of this interim period depends on meaningful, substantive PA reform, without which neither local Palestinians nor international donors would have confidence in the PA’s ability to extend its authority to Gaza. Such reform would also have the crucial benefit of boosting the PA’s legitimacy in the West Bank.
How Can College Students and Their Parents Navigate the Complex Politics of Israel on Campus?
In this video, the Institute’s Segal Executive Director and Howard P. Berkowitz Chair, Dr. Robert Satloff, advises students and parents on how to address today’s charged Middle East debates: “On too many campuses, space has narrowed for students to express their pride in Israel, or find some objective, thoughtful discussion of current Middle East issues, or voice their criticism of policies of the government of Israel without having to join a crowd of radical anti-Zionists.”