Jonathan Gibson

‘Destroying Hamas’: Why Israel cannot rely on military force alone

Palestinian women walk by buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Nuseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip, October 16, 2023. © 2023 Hatem Moussa/AP Photo

Israel’s current ambitions rest on the idea that if they are able to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities and enough members of the organization, they can prevent it from ever becoming a threat to Israel again. Yet, whilst Israel may be able to destroy much of Hamas’s structure and capabilities using military force, Israel must recognise that force alone cannot solve its problems in the longer-term, and may indeed only make them worse. Rather, a better alternative must be offered, through strengthening moderate Palestinian leadership, and focusing on education and economic development.

In response to the terror inflicted on Israelis on October 7th where approximately 1,200 Israelis were murdered, Israel indicated its intention of crushing Hamas, saying that it will not hold back in using its military strength to ensure that “every Hamas member is a dead man.” It is clear that Israelis are no longer prepared to share a border with a government committed to their destruction.

However, this is an extraordinarily difficult challenge for a number of reasons. Terrorist organizations are notoriously difficult to destroy, and are composed of more than just individuals holding a deep-rooted ideology. Hamas has emerged from notions of Palestinian resistance deeply embedded in their society, in response to facts including their history, education, and experience. More focus must be placed on providing incentives for Palestinians to support a better alternative in which they can have self-determination and lead dignified lives in humane conditions.

Indeed, evidence suggests that killing leaders of terrorist organizations does not increase the rate of organizational collapse, and may even have counterproductive effects. The assassination of Yahya Ayyash, Hamas’s chief bomb maker led to retaliatory bus bombings, whilst the assassination of Hamas leaders Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi created a wave of sympathy and support for Hamas across Palestinian society. Ideologies do not easily die; Hamas’s success on October 7th could inspire future waves of violence and terror from those who see what happened as a symbolic victory against the smallest of odds.

Destroying the actors within Hamas alone is challenging enough; Hamas claims to have over 500 km of underground tunnels and has planned this attack for years, with many of its leaders operating outside of the Gaza Strip. Gaza is incredibly small and densely populated, making civilian casualties far more difficult to avoid when operating air campaigns. Further,  Hamas’s ideology simply needs to survive and remain steadfast for Israel to fail. Fully destroying the military capabilities of those possessing this ideology is unsustainable in the longer-term, due to complications caused by other regional actors such as Iran. Increasing surveillance and interference in the lives of Palestinians will only strengthen support for the Hamas ideology.

October 7th may therefore be seen as a rational calculation by Hamas, realising that the inevitably massive Israeli response would lead to thousands of Palestinian deaths, as well as division amongst Israel’s traditional allies. Indeed, both bipartisan support and support from younger generations in the West has dramatically decreased, whilst Arab leaders who may privately support normalization relations with Israel are being confronted with a population incredibly hostile to this idea. A survey of the West Bank and Gaza on the eve of October 7th reported support for Hamas at 27%, and at 30% for the Palestinian Authority (PA). However more recent surveys show support for Hamas has increased to 59%, whilst it has dropped to 8% for the PA.

Israel in many senses did not have a choice but to react in some way; it would be impossible for Israeli leaders just to sit on their hands and do nothing. However, these dynamics of conflict creating hatred must be considered when exploring longer-term solutions. Israel must walk a tightrope between destroying the means and destroying the motivations for the Hamas ideology. It must start to seriously consider methods of separating Hamas from the Palestinian population, ensuring a moderate Palestinian leadership emerges who can become an effective representative holding some real power.

To do so may require invigorating and allowing more moderate Palestinian leadership to emerge. However, to find leadership palatable to both Israelis and Palestinians seems to be an impossible task; one reason Israel may not be clear regarding future objectives is because future Palestinian leadership cannot be seen to be flown in by Israel or the US. Yet even doing this covertly seems impossible – an increasingly hardline and repressive Israeli government does not appear willing to accept the reality of legitimate and authentic Palestinian demands for dignity and self-determination.

With Israel holding the vast majority of the military and political power in the conflict, the future for Palestinians appears disastrous, with support for a two-state solution amongst Jewish Israelis likely to have only decreased since October 7th to even lower levels, and support for Hamas having increased in the West Bank. Those who may be willing to negotiate to some extent, such as the Palestinian Authority, are seen as unacceptable by both the majority of Palestinians and Israelis. Whilst Palestinians view it as corrupt and ineffective, Israelis despise it for supporting those who carry out attacks against Israel through the“martyr fund” and for its refusal to condemn October 7th. Nevertheless, Palestinian aspirations both for self-determination and prosperity must be considered very seriously if Israel wants to avoid raising support for the Hamas ideology, which currently seems inevitable. In Likud’s founding charter, it states that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty;” these destructive ambitions must be quashed if Israel does not want to suffer further pain and suffering, and only strengthen the hardline Hamas ideology simultaneously.

Additionally, Israel must cooperate with neighboring countries such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, who will be vital in supporting the infrastructure of whatever comes next. Providing the next generation of Palestinians with a strong education and greater economic rights are vitally important. This is noted by the former head of the Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, who notes that Palestinians need a political vision which could act as a relief to the huge misery and suffering that has only dramatically increased since Israel’s response to October 7th.

This is an incredibly difficult task; the democratic structure and current mood within Israel does not lend itself to focusing on longer-term goals, and the current trajectory does not look hopeful. Regardless, Israel must make sure that in its effort to attain a “win” it does not lose the longer war. Instruments other than blunt military force must be considered more carefully for Israel to have longer-term security assurances.

About the Author
Jonathan Gibson is a Policy Fellow at The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. He is also a Laidlaw Scholar, and Contributor at Young Voices UK, and appears frequently on TalkTV and Times Radio. The views in this article are the author’s own.
Related Topics
Related Posts