The Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, will go down as one of the worst terrorist attacks in history. Recognising its impact, however, involves understanding the many dimensions of the attack, its consequences for a small state like Israel and a small area like the Gaza Strip, and its global ramifications.
In this commentary, CSIS researchers in the Transnational Threats Project present 10 figures to illustrate different dimensions of the attack. These include comparisons of the attack’s fatalities and the hostages taken with other such terrorist operations in other countries, comparisons between October 7 and past attacks on Israel, and images of Hamas’s tactics on October 7. Taken together, these visualisations and images can help illustrate why Israeli leaders felt compelled to launch a devastating response to the October 7 attacks, how the casualties Israel inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza compares with past operations, and the difficulties Israel faces regarding the hostages taken and other challenges.
The October 7 Attack in Historical Context
Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 is the third-deadliest terrorist attack since data collection began in 1970, based on number of fatalities, with the 9/11 attacks representing the worst mass fatality terrorist attack. Islamic State attacks are three of the top nine deadliest attacks, with two attacks in the top five. Since the October 7 attack, Israeli officials compared Hamas’s tactics with the scale of the violence to the Islamic State’s campaign in Iraq and Syria. Although Hamas’s attack was brutal, the Islamic State undertook multiple mass casualty attacks across several years—a level of violence Hamas has not equaled. Estimates of fatalities from Islamic State terrorist attacks and military operations are greater than 33,000 people.
Attacks from 1970 to 2021 were chosen from the Global Terrorism Database (START Maryland University) and supplemented with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database for events from 2021 to 2023. Incidents in these databases were further narrowed based on the following four criteria of exclusion: (1) attacks against military targets, such as the Islamic State’s assault in Syria on the Tabqa Airbase in 2014, (2) attacks that were part of a broader military campaign to gain or hold territory, such as the Taliban’s 2018 Ghazni offensive, (3) attacks that were part of a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing, such as massacres during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 2014 Yazidi genocide, and (4) attacks that were part of insurgent or guerrilla fighting tactics in an active conflict, such as fighting from Contras groups in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. Each attack was attributed to a country based on the physical location of the attack.
The October 7 attack was the deadliest terrorist attack against Israel since the state’s establishment in 1948, and the scale of the death toll was unprecedented in Israeli history. The Israeli government’s most recent fatality estimate of 1,200 people killed in the October attack is more than 31 times as large as the number of people killed in the next most fatal attack—the Coastal Road Massacre of 1978, in which Fatah militants hijacked a bus and murdered 38 Israeli citizens. Fatah carried out the Coastal Road Massacre to disrupt peace talks between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
The next most fatal terrorist attacks against Israel include the 1974 Ma’alot Massacre, in which the DFLP took 115 people hostage and killed 31 people, including 22 schoolchildren; the 2002 Park Hotel Massacre, in which Hamas killed 30 civilians with a suicide bombing inside a hotel restaurant during Passover; and the 1972 Lod Airport Massacre, in which the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) recruited militants from the Japanese Red Army terrorist organization to conduct a shooting spree, killing 26 people.
The scale of fatalities in the October 2023 attack provides insight into Israel’s decision to invade Gaza, as well as how far it may take its operations. Previous attacks with far fewer casualties were used to justify military operations, including ground invasions. Three days after the Coastal Road Massacre, the IDF launched Operation Litani, invading Lebanon and attempting to push the PLO back beyond the Litani River. This operation resulted in several hundred Lebanese fatalities and displaced more than 200,000 Lebanese civilians. More recently, the Park Hotel Massacre, which followed a series of smaller attacks in early 2002, resulted in the launch of Operation Defensive Shield, an Israeli invasion of the West Bank that led to the deaths of nearly 500 Palestinians and widespread destruction of property and infrastructure. All of this suggests that there will be strong political support in Israel for continued military operations in Gaza even if they continue to inflict numerous civilian casualties.
The October 7 attack is the deadliest per capita terrorist attack since the Global Terrorism Database started data collection in 1970, with a rate of slightly over one person killed per every 10,000 Israelis. This metric adds context for the national impact of the attack and sense of loss for Israel. As President Biden invoked in his reaction to the attack, it is as if 40,000 to 50,000 Americans had died on 9/11. High-fatality attacks that occurred in countries with small populations are prominent on the fatality-per-capita chart, with three of the nine attacks occurring in Lebanon.
Attacks from 1970 to 2021 were chosen from the Global Terrorism Database and supplemented with the ACLED database for events from 2021 to 2023. The study team attributed an attack to a country and its population based on three factors: the physical location of the attack, the primary nationality of the targets (so an attack on U.S. facilities in Lebanon would be counted as an attack on the United States, not Lebanon), and the attacking group’s intent. The graph does not distinguish between citizens of the country in which the attack took place and foreign nationals killed in the attack, as such information was not consistently available for all attacks.
The unfolding conflict between Hamas and Israel is responsible for the greatest number of both Palestinian and Israeli fatalities in decades. So far, this conflict has killed more Palestinians than all Palestinian-Israeli clashes since the outbreak of the First Intifada combined. These numbers will grow as Israel continues its ground offensive deeper into Gaza and the humanitarian crisis escalates. Israelis have also suffered tremendous losses. Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack killed approximately 1,200 Israelis (and more have died in subsequent operations in Gaza and against Hezbollah), which is nearly 1.25 times the total number of Israeli fatalities during the entire five years of the Second Intifada.
These figures represent total fatalities in each conflict and do not differentiate between deaths of civilians, armed forces, or individuals that participated in hostilities. For the current conflict, the CSIS Transnational Threats Project drew fatality figures from the Gaza Health Ministry and official Israeli government sources, respectively, as there are no third-party institutions in place to reliably check current fatality rates at this time. For previous conflicts, CSIS drew fatality figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and B’Tselem, an Israel-based nonprofit responsible for documenting human rights abuses in Palestinian territories. Both organizations have an analytical process for verifying their historical estimates against official sources. When discrepancies arose, the two sources’ casualty figures were averaged.
The Hostage Situation
The hostage crisis in Gaza has few precedents. It involves mass hostage-taking of many countries’ citizens, efforts to negotiate during a major military operation, and the distribution of hostages across many locations. It may not approach the largest or longest hostage incident in history, but such an incident defies easy comparisons. Indeed, many of the comparable cases have involved authoritarian governments such as Russia, which have historically accepted greater loss of life among their own citizens in both wartime and hostage situations. The Israeli government can look to history to find worst-case scenarios, but there are no straightforward analogues that it can draw on as it considers its response.
The bewildering variety of hostage crises is one thing that makes responding to hostage-taking extremely difficult. Some of the world’s largest hostage crises include insurgent or terrorist takeovers of major religious sites, government buildings, or entire cities. Others have involved the capture of aircraft, sometimes multiple planes in a coordinated attack. Most of these large hostage crises have been short, but other smaller crises have lasted for months, if not years. These have also varied significantly by number of hostages, type of perpetrator, and the site or sites at which the hostages have been held. Some of the largest have been resolved through negotiations, while some of the longest have been resolved violently. The result is that each hostage crisis is unique, requiring a tailored response from authorities.
That said, all hostage crises are characterized by extreme danger to the hostages posed both by the hostage takers and by any rescue effort. Hostage-takers frequently kill hostages to communicate their resolve to their adversaries or to keep the incident in the news. Security forces have also frequently killed hostages in operations intended to resolve the crisis. Governments that have committed to the safety of their citizens must therefore tread extremely carefully, balancing the desire to resolve the crisis without giving in to the demands of hostage-takers with the desire to return the hostages safely home.
Israel appears to be balancing these concerns through a talk-and-fight approach in which negotiations over hostage releases are carried out as Israel continues its ground offensive in Gaza. So far, this approach has resulted in the release of hostages in exchange for a temporary ceasefire and the release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
Hamas’s Innovative Tactics
The attack on October 7 is unprecedented from Hamas both in scale and sophistication, displaying characteristics of a special forces operation that employed small units with bespoke training, equipment, and tactics to achieve outsized strategic results. On that day, over 1,000 Hamas fighters entered southern Israel through nearly 30 breach points in the country’s border wall with Gaza. The 40-mile-long barrier, which cost over $1 billion and was upgraded in 2021, was designed to prevent infiltration with a variety of surveillance and defense technologies. These include cameras, radars, and other sensors, as well as barbed wire and an underground concrete barrier to prevent tunneling. In addition to the 20-foot-tall fence, observation towers with remote machine gun turrets were positioned, in some areas, every 500 feet along the border.
To overcome these defenses, Hamas employed a combination of innovative tactics. Using commercial quadcopter drones, Hamas dropped explosives onto the observation towers, disrupting Israel’s sensors, communications, and weapons systems—a creative use of drones, which are also being used in new ways by Russian and Ukrainian forces. Hamas fighters also blew holes in the border fence with explosives and then used bulldozers to widen the gaps to allow vehicles to pass through.
Figure 7: Footage from Drone Attacks on Israeli Border Fence on October 7, 2023
Source: Video shared on Telegram by al-Qassam Brigades.
At the same time, some Hamas fighters flew on fan-powered paragliders across the border fence into Israeli territory. Although slow and loud, the gliders had to cover only a short distance. A video of the attack shows that some gliders crossed the border under the cover of rocket barrages from Hamas.
Figure 8: Footage of a Hamas Fighter Using a Paraglider during the October 7 Attack
Source: Video shared on Telegram by al-Qassam Brigades.
Hamas’s October 7 attack represents an evolution in the group’s capabilities and tactics. In the 1990s and 2000s, Hamas frequently conducted suicide bombing attacks against civilian targets, including universities, buses, and restaurants in Israel. Since taking control over the Gaza Strip, Hamas has conducted relatively fewer suicide attacks, stymied in part by Israeli border security measures, instead expanding its rocket and drone capabilities. As of October 7, Hamas fighters are now engaged in ground war against Israeli forces in Gaza.
Global Protests in Response
The conflict between Israel and Hamas has sparked a sustained global wave of protests. In addition to expressing their support for either side, these protests focus on calls for a ceasefire, an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the return of hostages taken by Hamas, and changes to the policies of host governments, among other issues. Although reactions have varied among communities across the world, protests in support of the Palestinians and calls for a ceasefire have grown in the wake of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and mounting Palestinian civilian causalities.
Figure 9: Protest Organised by Hezbollah in Beirut in Response to Violence in Gaza
Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
In Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere in the Middle East, protests have erupted following the October 7 attack in solidarity with the Palestinians, in opposition of Israel and its supporters, and, in some cases, in explicit support for Hamas. In major cities throughout Africa, protestors have expressed solidarity with Palestinians and denounced Israel’s actions. Asian states such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines have seen pro-Palestinian protests. In Europe, North America, and South America, countries such as France, Germany, Norway, Romania, Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have experienced both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protests. Some countries, such as France, Germany, and India, have tried to implement prohibitions on protests in support of Palestinians, citing concerns related to public order and anti-Semitic incidents, though several large pro-Palestinian demonstrations have still taken place in all three countries.
Figure 10: Protest in London in Response Violence in Gaza
Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images
The impact of these demonstrations is likely to vary. For one, they are unlikely to directly influence the calculus of the Israeli government. However, in countries with direct influence on the conflict, shifting public opinion—embodied by protests—may apply enough pressure to create changes in their government’s handling of the crisis. For example, in the United States, public support for Israel is eroding as the Biden administration faces increasing pressure to try to rein in Israel’s military campaign. In the Arab world, protests are pushing leaders to publicly distance themselves from Israel even though many strongly oppose Hamas. Under the right circumstances, protests and the public attitudes they represent may compel political leaders to reconsider their policies toward Israel and Palestine.
Daniel Byman is a senior fellow in the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Riley McCabe is a program manager and research associate in the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Alexander Palmer is an associate fellow in the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Catrina Doxsee is a fellow in the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Mackenzie Holtz and Delaney Duff are former interns with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. The authors would like to recognize and thank Lauren Bailey, associate graphic designer with the iDeas Lab, for her outstanding work designing the data visualizations in this piece.