EliNoam Horesh
One Jew, three opinions.

Hamas’ dilemma; declare victory or change strategy

Palestinian Gazans at a protest in December 2021 Credit: Hosny Salah, Pixabay

As Netanyahu thunders on about total victory, and Western Democracies attempt to pry Israel off the warpath, the IDF has made a novel move. At the beginning of the week, Israel reduced its forces in Gaza to their lowest levels since the onset of the ground invasion. It leaves only the Nahal Brigade to hold the corridor between Northern and Southern Gaza. Despite the diminished force volume, Israeli politicians have claimed that this will not affect plans to invade Rafah, the final Hamas stronghold in the Palestinian territories. Though no longer imminent, the invasion remains on the horizon, and Israel continues to telegraph its intentions in plain view of its enemies, and the World. Israeli actions then are hardly surprising, but Hamas still has the potential to make dynamic choices at this point in the war.

The doctrine of guerilla warfare is “live to fight another day.” This is a common strategic goal of many terror organizations, Hamas included. If they yet exist, they have won. Hamas’ strategy of survival as victory, however much battered or broken, dovetails cleanly with the mythology of the Palestinian people, as well as the broader subjugator-subjugated dynamics of identitarian politics that find sympathy in the West. Total elimination of extremists, on an ideological level, is next to impossible, which makes guerilla movements especially elusive. Conventional militaries and the countries that direct them have typically avoided this trap by not caring what terrorists consider victory to be, and pursuing their own goals instead. 

However, in the media war of today, the total defeat of Hamas as an organization and ideology is itself an essential Israeli war aim. It is meant to project strength in the region, where faith in the IDF’s ferocious might is the ultimate deterrent. Further, it is meant to calm uncertainty amongst allies, where the complete decimation of Hamas would help justify the toll of human suffering this war has accrued.

Although, it has long been said that Israel cannot pursue this war aim alongside its other main goal; the return of the hostages taken on October 7th. Indeed the IDF said that it has utilized military leverage to the maximum in Khan Younis and that nothing more may be extracted in this way. The further rescue of hostages or erosion of the terror group’s military capabilities will be done through targeted raids, not through the military occupation of the Strip. This is consistent with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s comments to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee back in October of last year. He communicated that Israel did not intend to hold the Gaza Strip for an extended period and that a large portion of the war would be conducted as a counterinsurgency. In this way, the military aspects of this war’s prosecution have remained remarkably consistent, and are progressing even faster than anticipated. 

But from behind Hamas’ eyes, this seems like the moment to declare its triumph. Truly, there are reports from Khan Younis that banners are being printed for a potential victory parade. Already photos and videos are emerging on the internet of Palestinians returning to their homes in Central Gaza. Women, children, and the elderly may soon even cross the Netzarim Corridor and make it home to Gaza City. The IDF applied maximum military leverage and yet Hamas survived. Who cares if the war isn’t over by the enemy’s standard? Hamas can claim that it is implacable, however battered it may be.

This should be, publicaly, an ecstatic time for the terror group. However, it is at this juncture, with the IDF almost completely out of the Strip, that Hamas encounters its great dilemma. Its choice at this impasse will have serious repercussions for Hamas’ ability to survive the next phase of this war.

Any declaration of victory by Hamas is an endorsement for Palestinians to return home. The bisected Gaza Strip is a disaster zone, and when this war is over, Palestinians deserve the opportunity to rebuild their personal lives, communities, and institutions. Nearly two million internally displaced Gazans blocked the path between the IDF and the remnants of Hamas in Rafah. Rearranging the demography of the Gaza Strip, yet again, is one of the major preconditions to the oncoming offensive. Therefore Hamas has a major incentive to keep Gazans in place. If it loses a conventional military confrontation in Rafah, it may be too weak to object to other sovereign bodies in the Strip, such as a network of tribal juntas or a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority. 

In retaining the fewest number of forces in Gaza as possible, Israel has enabled more humanitarian aid into the strip than at any other point in the war, reduced pressure on Israel at a critical juncture for its international standing, and given time to prepare for the Rafah offensive correctly. But it has also pinned Hamas between its two main strategic and tactical objectives. Hamas can declare victory, de facto endorsing civilians’ returns to Central and Northern Gaza, leaving Hamas exposed to a conventional battle it cannot win. Alternatively, it can defer, in which case a major portion of exhausted Palestinians, who have no guarantee of safety in the North, will continue to shelter in place in Rafah. Should that come to pass, Hamas will be further delegitimized in the eyes of its public. Hamas will be hard-pressed to do both. Between the Strategic goal of survival as victory and their primary tactic of hiding behind civilian populations, Israel is forcing Hamas now to choose. 

Whether Hamas will manage to evade this pressure has yet to be seen, but this strategy is reflective of a change in Israeli posture towards the group. The failures of October 7th arose from the “Concept” a critical misapprehension of the enemy’s system of the mind. Too often did Israel treat Hamas as a non-actor, a simplification that needed to be pacified, trampled, or suppressed. Hamas is a rational actor, however deviant its rationale is, that makes decisions based on its own considerations and the conditions that are set before it. Understanding Hamas, as Israelis have come to do in the last 6 months, is a critical step in winning the war. If Israel can implement this understanding, it can defeat Hamas by forcing the terrorist regime to choose between its values, thereby eroding the principles that embody its worldview. 

About the Author
EliNoam is an Israeli-American student of Economics and Political Science at Hebrew University and Jerusalem Volunteer Coordinator for the "Big Brother For Lone Soldiers" program. He is a former field intelligence specialist in the IDF, and a Sergeant Major in active reserves. Opinions and analyses are exclusively EliNoam's, and do not reflect the positions or policies of his employers.
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