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Conception: Not Just an Israeli Minefield

Ever since October 7,  Israelis have been immersed in discussions, analyses and denouncements of the strategic and intelligence conceptions which hampered correct thinking and which enabled Hamas to launch a catastrophic surprise attack on the country.

Much was also said in the local and international media about Hamas’s flexibility and alleged quick doctrinal and operational adaptations to the tactics employed by the IDF in the Gaza war.

There has virtually been no recognition let alone discussion of the fact that Hamas operates under its own conception of Israel. Moreover indications are that, unlike the Israeli political and defense establishments which have mostly recognized, albeit belatedly, the fatal flaws in their basic beliefs, Hamas continues to hold on to its old ideas of Israel.

The widespread notion that Hamas, especially its leader Yahya Sinwar, knows what makes Israel tick so to speak—especially the way its  political and military leaderships think and operate—seems off the mark.

Sinwar accordingly had expressed bewilderment at Israel’s sensitivity to human life and the weakness of its politicians in the face of public pressure which treats its representatives to the Knesset as kahabat adas (lentils), a familiar Arab expression that means one can play with their form by lightly patting them. At the core of his perception – the Israeli public is vulnerable and receptive to pressure.

Apparently even years of being  incarcerated in Israeli jails which, the argument holds, helped these terrorists get an accurate reading of the country left significant gaps in their understanding of how Israelis react when they perceive an imminent mortal danger.

Strategic Misconceptions

First and foremost there should be little doubt that Hamas did not expect an all out war to be waged in response to its atrocities. For better or worse  years of inconclusive IDF’s military responses to incessant aggressions by Gaza’s terrorists— known as “rounds” and launched under the doctrine of “ mowing the lawn “—have inured them to estimate that while Israel will retaliate harshly, the punishment will be limited and short-lived.

In some respects Hamas has repeated the mistake made by its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in 2006. Then, the Hezbollah leaders subsequently admitted, they woefully underestimated Israel’s response to the killing of three IDF soldiers on patrol and the kidnapping of two others. (Five more soldiers died in a botched rescue attempt.) As it may be recalled this attack led to the Second Lebanon War which lasted from July 12 to August 14, 2006.

Israel’s enemies and most of its friends are still unable to grasp the immediate and dramatic  transformation in Israel’s military and political thinking caused by the Hamas October 7 invasion.  In one fell swoop Israel converted from a country whose leadership was working under the assumption that its enemies are deterred, that military means should be limited and conflict contained to the other extreme of seemingly embracing irrational behavior under the doctrine of “ the homeowner has gone berserk.”

Hamas failed to assess that the greater was its “success “ the stronger would be the conviction inside Israel that, for its citizens to regain a sense of security, a war to “ total victory “ was necessary. Embarking on a relentless campaign to eradicate Hamas was also meant to deter Israel’s other enemies and to cripple Iran’s strategy of strangling the country via its proxies.

Second, Hamas entire strategy is built on the assumption that the IDF will closely adhere to, and in turn be constrained by, the modern rules of warfare. As John Spencer chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute  at West Point wrote in the academy’s January 18, 2024 issue the Gaza conflict marks “the first war in which a combatant has made its vast underground network a defining centerpiece of its overall political-military strategy… Hamas has built a tunnel network to gain not just a military advantage, but a political advantage, as well. Its underground world serves [a range of ]military functions …but also an entirely different one. Hamas weaved its vast tunnel networks into the society on the surface. Destroying the tunnels is virtually impossible without adversely impacting the population living in Gaza. Consequently, they put the modern laws of war at the center of the conflict’s conduct.These laws restrict the use of military force and methods or tactics that a military can use against protected populations and sites such as hospitals, churches, schools, and United Nations facilities.”

Yet the IDF has been operating in and against all the “forbidden” places which Hamas had based its strategy upon, including taking control of the vast majority of its tunnel system. Much of the protection that these facilities have supposedly accorded was based on the Hamas’s assumption that the threat they faced was primarily from an aerial attack. A ground attack, like the one carried out by the IDF, was deemed unlikely because of Israel’s hyper-sensitivity to military casualties, and the IDF’s fighting by the rules.

As Deputy Head of the Information Department in Hamas’s Military Intelligence, Ashraf Ibrahim Samur said during his interrogation by the Israeli Shin Beth (ISA): “Units of the military intelligence operated from Al Shifa Hospital. The Interior Ministry, the Emergency Committees and the government of Hamas also worked from there. It’s a safe place.”

In contrast the IDF’s C-in-C Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi commented in the aftermath of the army’s operation in this Hospital “[The action sends] a very, very important message. A hospital is not a safe place.”

Third, even if Sinwar and his murderous companions  correctly assessed that Iran was unlikely to involve itself directly in any offensive against Israel, there should be no doubt Hamas expected Iran’s proxies, most of all Hezbollah, to jump into the fray. The idea was for Hezbollah (and other Iranian surrogates) to simultaneously unleash a full-scale attack including perhaps a ground incursion like the one carried out by Hamas in the south of the country with the aim of shocking Israel into chaos, panic and possible collapse.

In contrast, it may be recalled that in his first comments on the Hamas attack Hassan Nasrallah the Hezbollah leader stated that “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood [Hamas’s code name for the October 7, massacre] was 100 percent Palestinian in terms of decision and execution.” The formulation left little doubt about Hezbollah’s position vis-a-vis the invasion and could even be interpreted as a veiled criticism of the Hamas leadership for surprising its allies.

Indeed, last month Hamas published a recording in which its military chief, Muhammad Deif, was heard addressing the Arab world with a call to act “for the liberation of Al-Aqsa Mosque.” The recording  was first aired on October 7 and rebroadcast on March 27, 2024. In it Deif is heard saying “I call on the Arab and Islamic world and all the countries of the region to start marching now and today towards Palestine for the liberation of Al-Aqsa Mosque and for jihad. Today and not tomorrow so that you will not be blocked at the borders. Go forth, light and heavy, and strive with your money and your lives in the path of God.”

Reportedly the redistribution of the address was seen in Gaza and by sources unaffiliated with Hamas, as a kind of call for help and support in light of the increasing pressure on the organization and the feeling that at the military level Hamas was left alone in the campaign against Israel.

Fourth, Hamas undoubtedly followed closely the growing signs of divisions in, and possible breakup of, the Israeli society. Consequently it assessed that Israel has become frail and increasingly incapacitated and therefore unable to defend itself. The conception, of course, was not new. It undoubtedly sprung from the same “soil” first put down by Nasrallah in 2011, when he proclaimed that Israel was “weaker than a spider web.”

The notion that the October 7 attack will itself cause such a shaky and fractured society to instantaneously come  together and in short order turn the tables on its enemy, was by all indications entirely missed by the Hamas leadership and its allies.

Hamas, by its own hands, has triggered a conviction among the majority of Israelis that the country is facing an imminent existential threat. To survive Israel would have to  crush it—a decision entirely unanticipated by Hamas.

For instance the official website of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini reported that during a meeting in Tehran on March 26 with Hamas Political Bureau Chairman Ismail Haniyeh the latter claimed the October 7 attack “shattered the myth of the Zionist regime’s invincibility.” In fact in a subsequent meeting three days later between Haniyeh and Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff Chief Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the Iranian general wholeheartedly endorsed this assessment and claimed that Israel would have already “collapsed” without support from the United States.

Fifth, the Hamas attack was based on the notion that time would work in its favor in two important respects. First, the leaders of terrorist armies strongly believe that the longer they can continue fighting the greater the likelihood of the perception spreading that  Israel is militarily weak as its much belly hood army, the cornerstone of its continued existence, cannot overcome even puny, rudimentary equipped “resistance” forces. The expectation is that the more pronounced this perception becomes the greater the chance that other enemies of Israel would “jump on the bandwagon” and join the onslaught.

As noted, aside from some limited military involvement by other Iranian proxies, this concept has proven unfounded. Indeed, there is no evidence that the prolongation of the Gaza conflict itself has played any role in these proxies’ decision to extend military “support” to Hamas. Whatever roles these proxies have in fact assumed in the war are mostly due to Iran’s urgings and at time its direct orders probably because Tehran had a contrasting estimate— the longer the fight the worse will Hamas position get.

The German Deutsche Presse-Agentur ( dpa) cited Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah as declaring on March 30, while in Tehran, “It would not have been easy for the Palestinian people to achieve this blessed steadfastness in the battle for the al-Aqsa Flood [operation] without the unwavering, clear and continuous Iranian support in recent years, at all political, military … levels.”

Even the unprecedented missile and drone attack carried out directly by Iran against Israel on April 14, could not be linked to the ongoing fighting in Gaza. Rather it was launched in response to the Israeli killing of high-ranking Iranian officers meeting in Damascus, Syria.

On the contrary, Tehran has been desperately seeking a ceasefire in Gaza almost from the get go fearing that Israel would roll back its painstakingly built proxy strategy by first decimating Hamas and then turning to deal with Hezbollah—Iran’s prime strategic asset.

Yet time has another vital role in the terrorist armies’ concept of “resistance “— they assume that the longer the conflict lasts the greater will be the world’s outcry denouncing the harm to civilians they were hiding amongst. As the only internationally recognized address Israel will come under growing pressures to cease fire which would leave the leaderships and capabilities of these “armies” largely intact and able to claim victory.

A “senior member “ of Hamas was quoted in the Qatari newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on March 29, as reporting that “in recent consultations between the leadership of the movement and the Axis of Resistance [Iran’s network of militant Islamist groups spread across the Middle East through which it projects power,] it was emphasized not to allow the breaking of the resistance in Gaza under any circumstances and regardless of the cost.”

Khameini himself in fact left little doubt as to the strategy when he specifically praised Palestinian terrorists’ media efforts in shaping public attitudes and narratives. “The propaganda and media activities of the Palestinian resistance have been very good so far, and ahead of the Zionist enemy [Israel], and more action should be taken in this field,” he said following his meeting with  Haniyeh, according to an official readout.

Accordingly, the dragging out by Hamas of the negotiations to release the Israeli hostages in its hands is certainly in line with the concept that the international clock is ticking in its favor. (Of course the hostages are also used as protection and to increase the schisms within Israel.)

However, while the assessment of the world’s reaction has proven itself, Israel’s determination to reject the international pressures and to continue to wage war was underestimated. The unbending Israeli position no doubt is a direct outcome of the new consensus regarding the seriousness of the threat the country was facing which, as noted, Hamas’s calculations failed to consider.

Moreover, while criticism by Washington of the Israeli government over the Gaza war has markedly intensified over time, its commitment to Israel’s defense has not wavered. This is evidenced in both the continued arms supplies to Israel as well as the first direct American involvement in defending the Jewish state against Iran’s massive missile and drone attack on the country.

Nor has the ongoing conflict in Gaza undermined Israel’s ties to a host of moderate Arab regimes, which Hamas undoubtedly hoped to affect by its offensive. Incredibly, in fact, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were to one extent or another all involved in successfully foiling the massive Iranian April barrage on Israel.

It might be noted in passing that  Nasrallah himself may be operating under a central strategic misconception as well. His strategy it seems is to initiate limited escalatory attacks on targets in northern Israel in the hope of unnerving President Biden, who is deeply concerned that a full-scale war would erupt especially in light of the upcoming U.S. elections. Nasrallah and his Iranian masters hope that under the circumstances Washington would force Israel to cease fire in Gaza. It may be recalled in this respect that Nasrallah declared repeatedly that a cessation of hostilities in the Strip would be followed be Hezbollah holding its fire as well. ( It could thus be argued that the messages exchanged between Washington and Tehran last January, in which the Biden administration signaled its strong interest in averting a regional blowout are responsible for the recent intensification of Hezbollah’s attacks on northern Israel.)

A truce in Gaza would allow Nasrallah to climb down from the tall tree he had scaled without losing face. More importantly a truce between Hezbollah and Israel would serve Iran’s interest in preserving intact its main regional proxy which also serves as the praetorian guard of its nuclear program. ( The desperate effort underway by Iran to replenish the Hezbollah arsenal, which was degraded by intensive Israeli attacks,  clearly indicates the strategic importance Tehran ascribes to maintaining this terrorist army’s capabilities.)

The trouble is that the strategy may backfire— every time Hezbollah escalates its attacks to intensify pressure on Washington, the conviction in Jerusalem solidifies that a political solution to the conflict is impossible and calls are growing to remove by force the increasingly dire threat expeditiously.

Tactical Misconceptions

Unlike the IDF which has been able to quickly adapt operationally to changing battlefield conditions and to new intelligence information gathered from captured terrorists, Hamas appears unable to adjust its tactics effectively, even though indications are it has sought to switch to guerrilla warfare.

For example, the IDF estimates that the reason so many terrorists, including high-ranking ones, arrived in the Shifa Hospital after Israeli troops had left it about three months ago relates to the fact that Hamas believed that the IDF would issue a warning again before entering the large medical facility as it did at the beginning of the war. Additionally that the army would not act aggressively in a sensitive place like a hospital especially in light of the weakening of Israel’s international legitimacy  and certainly not during the Ramadan holiday.

Hamas somehow believed that once the IDF withdrew from a specific area it will not be back even though the latter’s stated operational goal is to destroy it. It misinterpreted the IDF’s pullback because it was keen on demonstrating its has survived and is under pressure to reassert its authority in areas it was pushed out from. In other words its political goals dictated taking steps which exposed it to the Israeli army. Thus the IDF’s withdrawal from Gaza City caused Hamas to compromise its “fighters” when it rushed back into Shifa Hospital to reestablish its HQs there, disregarding the IDF’s intelligence reach and its capacity to reoccupy the area swiftly.  The blunder resulted in the killing and capturing of hundreds of its terrorists among them some described as senior level.

Another tactical misconception relates to the high concentration of Hamas terrorists present inside Hamad City—named for the former emir of the Gulf petro-state Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who laid the foundation stone there on a visit 11 years ago.(The “city” is in fact a luxurious neighborhood within Khan Yunis which consisted of 124 six-floor buildings with 1060 apartment units, a mosque, two schools, and parks. With the leftover funds, the Emir contributed to the construction of a hospital.)

Reportedly Shin Bet officials informed the IDF’s commanders in the Southern Command that there were more than 10,000 Palestinians in the “city” who thought that the neighborhood was protected from attacks as it was established with Qatari funding and that the IDF has not really operated in it except for a number of airstrikes at the beginning of the 98th division’s ground maneuver last December.

Further, in an effort to demonstrate that it is still a capable fighting force and to impede any return of the displaced populations to their communities,  Hamas has insisted on sporadically firing of rockets against civilian targets in southern Israel. However, it appears Hamas is operating under a decrepit concept and unable to adjust to the new battlefield conditions which the IDF’s offensive has already created in theater. The interval between the actual firing of a Hamas rocket and the elimination of its launcher, and at times its operators, is now measured in minutes. Due to the constant presence of Israeli drones and other aerial platforms in the Gaza skies and the deployment of spotters and field intelligence assets forward, preemptive strikes have become an almost instantaneous inevitably. While it is possible Hamas values the symbolism of continued “resistance” marked by its rockets still being fired, and is ready to pay any price for it, the futility of the act is plain to see. Not only is Hamas risking the certain loss of its leftover launchers but more importantly the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defenses, especially when pitted against salvos of sparse projectiles, make such shows  simply pointless. In some respects the Hamas practice is akin to what is known in the U.S. as a “suicide by cop.”

Finally, because Hamas misconceived the extent of Israel’s response and compounded this strategic error by betting that the clock ticks in its favor anyways, it woefully underestimated what impact the prolonged fighting would actually have on its terrorists tactically. In an interview with Walla on March 24, a “senior officer” from the IDF’s 98th division estimated that the Hamas forces are “exhausted and suffer from food and ammunition shortages” and were showing signs of “breakdown due to the the intensity of combat.” Most of them hide underground or inside apartments, “hoping that the fighting will end.”

In this officer’s view, time is working in Israel’s favor and winning the war is mainly a question of “resilience of spirit:” Hamas could be “decisively defeated without intense fighting as at the beginning of the war, and more surrendering terrorists could be seen.”

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant likewise stated on March 31, “in the last week or two, there are hundreds of terrorists who have been captured and what they say about what happened to them tells the whole story. They report that Hamas is collapsing from within, the prices they are paying are very heavy, the terrorists themselves testify that they can no longer bear this burden”

The bottom line is that  Hamas is headed toward a crushing military defeat.  The devastating strategic and tactical surprises it was able to inflict on Israel on October 7, were a fleeting success.  In the final analysis it is and has always been a make-believe army and its hope to defeat a powerhouse like the IDF was unquestionably rooted in megalomaniac thinking. Without the immediate supportive and massive intervention of its sponsors and allies its invasion of Israel was a suicidal undertaking from the get go. Moreover Hamas’s sill operates under fundamentally flawed strategic and tactical concepts. As it is married to a rigid ideology and led by murderers, rather than professional military commanders, adjusting its fighting doctrine and operations once its war plans essentially collapsed has proven to be “a bridge too far.”

That said, of course, much depends on Israel seeing the war through and taking advantage of the strategic and geopolitical opportunities that the October tragedy has opened. The horrific costs of this attack command it.

About the Author
Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.
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