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.

Finally, Hamas’s demands—in this case shared by most if not all Palestinians—for an easing of the blockade of Gaza have also not been met. The talks Cairo convened this week could ultimately result in a formula that is being widely discussed: that Egypt would open its Rafah crossing into Gaza for human and some commercial traffic, but with PA security forces, not Hamas, and international monitors on the Palestinian side of the border. Egypt closed the border except for humanitarian purposes after the ouster of former President Mohammad Morsi, when Cairo concluded that Hamas was, in effect, a hostile entity because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and activities along the border. Israel has indicated it could live with Rafah's opening, including through a statement that the crossing is an “Egyptian-Palestinian Authority matter.” Israel could also extend the rights of Gazans to fish off their own coast, and allow more material to be brought into Gaza, but probably with a much stricter regime of inspection and monitoring.

Such a development would be a double-edged sword for Hamas. On the one hand, their arch-rivals in the PA would gain a new security foothold in Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas could claim a relaxation of the blockade as a significant victory and another demonstration of the efficacy of armed resistance. Both Palestinian parties would have a plausible case to make. The PA could maintain that without its good relations with Egypt, security coordination with Israel, internationally respected security forces, and diplomatic standing, the Cairo negotiations would not have been possible. Hamas could counter that the PA has been asking for an easing of the blockade through diplomatic channels for years, but that it was only armed conflict that prompted anyone to seriously consider it. There is a good chance that such a development would be a political wash, with both parties taking relatively equal amounts of credit and blame for it, if it were to happen.

Hamas also faces the strong possibility of a return to the status quo ante, but perhaps with an even harsher blockade and strangulation by the Israelis. The political perils are enormous. The Gaza public, which may have rallied to Hamas’s cause during the actual fighting, could well start asking pointed questions about what so much devastation achieved. At present, Hamas has no answer. If Hamas negotiators do not get a tangible benefit either for the group itself or for the people of Gaza from the Cairo negotiations, the political damage could be considerable. From Hamas’s perspective, that could be mitigated if the PA also emerges from the talks discredited and marginalized. All of this will depend on the diplomatic and political fallout that develops, mainly in Cairo, in the coming weeks.

Hamas remains committed to armed struggle against Israel as its primary tactic. Right now, it almost certainly cannot sustain the public backlash in Gaza and the rest of the Arab world that would result if it resumes full-fledged hostilities now that it has ended the ceasefire. But, equally, it may not be able to live with a reality in which it paid such a high price for no achievement whatsoever. Given that nothing fundamental has changed in the structural relationship between Hamas and Israel, or in Hamas’s ideology and strategy, another round of violence with Israel ultimately may be inevitable.

There are already clear signs that Hamas is internally divided between those who want to lick their wounds, regroup, and try to find some kind of political advantage or at least avoid political catastrophe, versus those eager to return to the battlefield and determine what can be accomplished by more fighting. If Hamas does not emerge from the conflict with any kind of benefit that can be spun as a victory, no matter how hyperbolic and pyrrhic, internal pressure for an early resumption of hostilities in order to try to rectify the situation will mount. Yet any resumption of sustained, wide-scale hostilities with Israel—beyond some inevitable containable and brief flare-ups—in the near future would be a colossal political gamble by Hamas. There’s every danger that the Palestinian public in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Arab states as well, would consider it the last straw, particularly if Hamas once again did not succeed in producing anything resembling a victory. In short, it could be political suicide. But, given their desperate situation, Hamas may find such a drastic gamble irresistible.

The future of the organization depends entirely on the extent to which, in the long run, it can claim its strategy of armed struggle is more successful than the PA and PLO approach of negotiations. If there is no progress toward peace through diplomacy, Hamas will almost certainly find a ready audience for the line that, painful though it might be, their militant approach is the only one that offers Palestinians any hope of liberation.