What Does Hamas Do Now?

In its war with Israel, the Palestinian group has accomplished none of its aims.
Palestinian children wave Hamas flags on top of an abandoned Israeli vehicle. (Khan Younis/Reuters)

Updated 8/8/14

With a tense three-day truce on the ground in Gaza having expired Friday morning with rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes, Hamas faces a series of extremely difficult choices. On the one hand, a month of fighting with Israel has left the organization, so far, with no credible achievement. On the other hand, the level of death and destruction in Gaza—most notably the deaths of at least 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians and many of them children, according to the United Nations—made it politically impossible for Hamas not to go along, for about 72 hours, with a ceasefire that delivered them no results.

The situation is particularly humiliating and frustrating for Hamas because the “calm for calm” arrangement they briefly accepted was practically identical to the one offered to them by Egypt, and accepted by Israel, at the very earliest stages of the hostilities. Even though Hamas probably did not plan, or particularly desire, a confrontation with Israel this summer, both parties found themselves dragged into a tit-for-tat that exploded into a full-fledged and apparently unintended conflict. But once the fighting started and took on a life of its own, both Israel and Hamas had to craft strategic goals to define the conflict both politically and militarily.

Israel fell back on its long-standing doctrine of “mowing the grass” in Gaza—a non-policy of periodic spasms of violence in which Hamas’s capabilities are degraded, and the people of Gaza severely punished or killed, so that Israel can supposedly “re-establish deterrence” by demonstrating the costs to both the group and Gaza in general of Hamas using force. The problem is that this approach does not change the reality on the ground in Gaza, and explicitly and consciously does not seek to unseat Hamas from its rule over the territory. Although Israel's commitment to allowing Hamas to stay in power there has atrophied recently, the alternatives—generally seen as either anarchy or the rise of an even more extreme Islamist movement—look even worse to Israeli decision-makers. So what Israel buys itself through its deeply destructive behavior toward the civilian population of Gaza is simply a period of calm before the next round of carnage. In addition to degrading the moral fiber of Israeli society, the cost is the outrage and indignation of the world.

Still, just because Hamas has yet to achieve anything from this round of fighting doesn’t mean it has concluded that its strategy of armed struggle is fundamentally incorrect. On the contrary, internally and particularly in the paramilitary Qassam Brigades, Hamas may be largely satisfied with its military performance, despite the horrifying civilian toll. In 2008-2009, during the last major Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, nine Israeli soldiers died, four of them from friendly fire. This time, Hamas has killed 64 Israeli soldiers. Similarly, Hamas has demonstrated a greatly enhanced rocket and missile capability, with the ability to reach virtually any part of Israel, even the occupied West Bank. Hamas’s rockets remain crude and unguided, and almost entirely ineffectual, but they did kill three Israeli civilians and prompt many international carriers to stop flights to Ben-Gurion International Airport for two days. Hamas’s tunnel capability, particularly those tunnels running from northern Gaza into southern Israel, was apparently much greater than the Israelis had understood. Although Israel has now destroyed most if not all of the tunnels, Hamas could dig more, and additional innovations in the future are likely. Hamas’s leaders must be saying to themselves, "This time we did better, and next time it will be better still."

However, none of these actions translated into any exchangeable asset, such as a captured solider, nor did they yield any political or strategic benefit. Hamas has accomplished none of its aims. Not one. For example, Hamas sought recognition as the primary diplomatic representative of Palestinians in Gaza. But the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have kept that role, including on matters regarding Gaza, despite the fact that Hamas has held the territory since 2007. Indeed, the recent "unity deal" between Hamas and Fatah, which led to the formation of a new government with no Hamas ministers that adopted the PLO's policy of seeking peace with Israel, did nothing to enhance Hamas's international standing either.

Hamas also failed to conduct any kind of dramatic attack on an Israeli target, notwithstanding repeated efforts. It failed in several infiltration attempts by land and sea, and none of its rockets hit any major target, whether civilian or military. Hamas was not even able to capture a single Israeli soldier whom it could exchange for prisoners. It did execute a few successful ambushes in Gaza in which it killed Israeli soldiers. But dead Israeli troops don’t translate into a direct benefit for either Hamas or any group of Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Hamas’s efforts to foment unrest in the West Bank, perhaps in the hopes of sparking another intifada, similarly failed, although several tense moments demonstrated that such an uprising could either be engineered or erupt spontaneously given the wrong conditions. But it’s almost impossible not to conclude that the main reason there was no generalized uprising in the West Bank, despite all the necessary elements being in place, is that the majority of the public there does not have any appetite for repeating bitter past experiences. And Hamas’s effort to gain a greater foothold in the West Bank was severely undermined by the crackdown Israel orchestrated there under the pretext of looking for three teenagers the Israeli government knew had been murdered. Four hundred individuals affiliated with Hamas, including approximately 60 major figures who had been part of the prisoner swap for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, were arrested, and many cells were disrupted.

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Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a weekly columnist with The National and NOW Media, and a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the American and Arab media.

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