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Israel’s Strategy in Gaza: Strengthening Hamas instead of defeating it

Despite its losses, Hamas remains in de facto control of large swaths of Gaza, including those areas where the territory’s civilians are now concentrated...

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Israel’s Strategy in Gaza: Strengthening Hamas instead of defeating it

Nine months of Israeli air and ground combat operations in Gaza have not defeated Hamas, nor is Israel close to vanquishing the terrorist group. To the contrary, according to the measures that matter, Hamas is stronger today than it was on October 7.

Since Hamas’s horrific attack last October, Israel has invaded northern and southern Gaza with approximately 40,000 combat troops, forcibly displaced 80 percent of the population, killed over 37,000 people, dropped at least 70,000 tons of bombs on the territory (surpassing the combined weight of bombs dropped on London, Dresden, and Hamburg in all of World War II), destroyed or damaged over half of all buildings in Gaza, and limited the territory’s access to water, food, and electricity, leaving the entire population on the brink of famine.

Although many observers have highlighted the immorality of Israel’s conduct, Israeli leaders have consistently claimed that the goal of defeating Hamas and weakening its ability to launch new attacks against Israeli civilians must take precedence over any concerns about Palestinian lives. The punishment of the population of Gaza must be accepted as necessary to destroy the power of Hamas.

But thanks to Israel’s assault, Hamas’s power is actually growing. Just as the Viet Cong grew stronger during the massive “search and destroy” operations that ravaged much of South Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 when the United States poured troops into the country in an ultimately futile bid to turn the war in its favor, Hamas remains intractable and has evolved into a tenacious and deadly guerrilla force in Gaza—with lethal operations restarting in the northern regions that were supposedly cleared by Israel only a few months ago.

The central flaw in Israel’s strategy is not a failure of tactics or the imposition of constraints on military force—just as the failure of the United States’ military strategy in Vietnam had little to do with the technical proficiency of its troops or political and moral limits on the uses of military power. Rather, the overarching failure has been a gross misunderstanding of the sources of Hamas’s power. To its great detriment, Israel has failed to realize that the carnage and devastation it has unleashed in Gaza has only made its enemy stronger.

The Body Count Fallacy

For months, governments and analysts have fixated on the number of Hamas fighters killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as if this statistic were the most important measure of the success of Israel’s campaign against the group. To be sure, many Hamas fighters have been killed. Israel says 14,000 of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fighters Hamas had before the war are now dead, while Hamas insists it has lost only 6,000 to 8,000 fighters. U.S. intelligence sources indicate the real number of Hamas dead is around 10,000.

A focus on these numbers, however, makes it hard to truly assess Hamas’s power. Despite its losses, Hamas remains in de facto control of large swaths of Gaza, including those areas where the territory’s civilians are now concentrated. The group still enjoys tremendous support from Gazans, allowing militants to seize humanitarian supplies almost at will and easily return to areas previously “cleared” by Israeli forces.

According to a recent Israeli assessment, Hamas now has more fighters in the northern areas of Gaza, which the IDF seized in the fall at the cost of hundreds of soldiers, than it does in Rafah in the south.

Hamas is now waging a guerrilla war, involving ambushes and improvised bombs (often made from unexploded ordnance or captured IDF weapons), protracted operations that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser recently said could last through the end of 2024 at least. It could still strike in Israel; Hamas likely has some 15,000 mobilized fighters—roughly ten times the number of fighters who carried out the October 7 attacks.

Further, more than 80 percent of the group’s underground tunnel network remains usable for planning, storing weapons, and evading Israeli surveillance, capture, and attacks. Most of Hamas’s top leadership in Gaza remains intact. In sum, Israel’s fast-moving offensive in the fall has given way to a grinding war of attrition that would leave Hamas with the ability to attack Israeli civilians even if the IDF presses ahead with its campaign in southern Gaza.

Failed counterinsurgencies in the past often fixated on enemy body counts. The IDF is now engaged in the familiar game of whack-a-mole that bogged down U.S. troops in Afghanistan for years. Slavish attention to body counts tends to confuse tactical and strategic success and ignore the key measures that would show whether the strategic power of the opponent is growing even as the group’s immediate losses mount. For a terrorist or insurgent group, the key source of power is not the size of its current generation of fighters but its potential to gain supporters from the local community in the future.

The Sources of Strength

The power of a militant group such as Hamas does not come from the typical material factors that analysts use to judge the might of states—including the size of their economy, the technological sophistication of their militaries, how much external support they enjoy, and the strength of their educational systems. Rather, the most crucial source of power of Hamas and other militant nonstate actors commonly referred to as “terrorist” or “insurgent” groups is the ability to recruit, especially its ability to attract new generations of the fighters and operatives who carry out the group’s lethal campaigns and are likely to die for the cause. And that ability to recruit is rooted, ultimately, in a single factor: the scale and intensity of support a group derives from its community.

Israel's Strategy in Gaza: Strengthening Hamas instead of defeating it
Israeli soldiers near the border between Israel and Gaza, June 2024
Amir Cohen / Reuters

The backing of a community allows a terrorist group to replenish its ranks, gain resources, avoid detection, and generally have more access to the human and material resources necessary to mobilize and sustain lethal campaigns of violence. Most terrorists, including Islamist groups in the Middle East, are walk-in volunteers, often either angry over the loss of family members or friends or more generally enraged at a powerful state’s use of heavy military force.

These people often seek out recruiters whose identity could be revealed to security forces were it not for the willingness of community members to protect them. Terrorist groups tend to fight with weapons that have been either made by refashioning civilian materials or seized from state security forces, often with intelligence and assistance provided by members of the local community.

At the wreckage of Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, October 2023
Anas al-Shareef / Reuters

Most important, the support of a community is necessary for fostering a cult of martyrdom. People are less likely to volunteer for high-risk missions if their sacrifices go unnoticed. A community that honors the fallen fighters of a terrorist group helps sustain it; martyrdom legitimizes terrorist actions and encourages new recruits. Terrorists will act as they see fit, but it is the community that ultimately decides whether an individual’s sacrifice is accorded high status or whether it is broadly viewed as irrational, criminal, and worthy of contempt.

It is no surprise that terrorist groups often go to great lengths to curry favor with local communities. By embedding in social institutions, such as schools, universities, charities, and religious congregations, terrorist groups become a part of the fabric of communities, better able to win more recruits and the support of noncombatants.

Many cases showcase these dynamics. Hezbollah flourished with growing popular support among Shiites during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 1999, evolving from a small clandestine terrorist group into a mainstream political party with an armed wing of around 40,000 fighters today. Strong community support powered the prolonged terrorist campaigns of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Shining Path in Peru, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda in multiple countries.

Losing the support of a community can be devastating for terrorist groups. Following the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, the number of fighters in the Sunni insurgency grew from 5,000 in the spring of 2004 to 20,000 by the fall of 2004 to 30,000 in February 2007, according to U.S. estimates. The more people the United States killed, the faster the insurgency grew. Indeed, the insurgency did not collapse until the United States shifted to a new approach, offering political and economic incentives to encourage Sunni tribes to oppose the terrorists.

That shift ultimately decimated the insurgency, as the loss of local community support led to mass defections, actionable intelligence, and the rise of Sunni opposition forces called the Anbar Awakening. By 2009, the insurgency had virtually collapsed for one major reason: the loss of community support made it impossible for the terrorists to replenish their ranks.

Hearts and Minds

These dynamics help account for Hamas’s staying power in its war with Israel. To assess the group’s true strength, analysts should consider the various dimensions of its support among Palestinians. These include its popularity as compared with its political rivals, the extent to which Palestinians view Hamas’s violence against Israeli civilians as acceptable, and how many Palestinians have lost family members in the ongoing Israeli invasion of Gaza. These factors, more than material ones, provide the best gauge of Hamas’s power to conduct a protracted terrorist campaign going forward.

Surveys of Palestinian opinion can help assess the extent of community support for Hamas. To account for the challenges of surveying the population in Gaza since October 7, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), a polling organization established in 1993 after the Oslo accords that collaborates with Israeli institutions, included interviews of displaced people in temporary shelters and roughly doubled the usual number of interviewed respondents given the uncertain and changing population distributions in the territory.

Five PSR surveys from June 2023 to the most recent, completed in June 2024, present a striking finding: on virtually every measure, Hamas has more support among Palestinians today than before October 7.

But Israeli leaders appear no more willing to conceive of such a viable political plan than they were before October 7. There is little end in sight to the tragedy continuing to unfold in Gaza. The war will go on and on, more Palestinians will die, and the threat to Israel will only grow.

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