In the hours after Hamas launched a surprise offensive against Israel, several commentators—Israeli and Palestinian—invoked another unexpected attack from the last century: the Tet Offensive launched by North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops against American and South Vietnamese forces in 1968. While vastly different, the two offensives bear comparison not only in their scale and coordination but also in the speed with which they upended the assumptions under which their opponents thought they were fighting. In the case of Vietnam, the offensive awakened an American public to the fallacy of believing a victory could be secured. In that of Palestine, for decades Israel has operated on the pretense that it can provide security for its citizens while subjecting the Palestinian people to an apartheid regime. Now that pretense has been shattered.
For the first time since 1948, Israel found itself fighting a sustained Palestinian incursion on its own territory. Early Saturday morning, at the end of Sukkot and a day after the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the 1973 October War/Yom Kippur War, Hamas fighters converged on that territory by sea, air, and ground under the cover of rockets fired from the tiny sliver of land that comprises the Gaza Strip, breaking through and flying over the fence that Israel has constructed around Gaza. Within hours they had besieged and entered Israeli towns, where they broke into homes, killed at least 1,200 Israelis, and kidnapped at least 150 others to use for negotiating the release of thousands of imprisoned Palestinians (of whom hundreds are held without charge or trial).
It is the highest Israeli death toll from a single offensive since 1948, and no doubt the most gruesome. Israeli media outlets have yet to release a breakdown of the civilian and military casualties, but news quickly emerged that Palestinian militants had massacred Israeli partygoers at a rave just outside Gaza, with hundreds killed and others captured. More than forty-eight hours into the offensive, as I started drafting this essay, Israeli forces were still battling in towns surrounding Gaza, where Hamas fighters continued to roam between houses, taking some people captive and killing others. At the same time, Israel’s air force was starting to bombard the Gaza Strip, targeting the Shati refugee camp, marketplaces, and mosques, and leveling apartment towers.