How Much of a Threat Does Hamas Still Pose to Israel?
from National Security and Defense Program and Middle East Program

How Much of a Threat Does Hamas Still Pose to Israel?

Israeli soldiers exit a tunnel in the Gaza Strip that Hamas reportedly used on October 7th to attack Israel.
Israeli soldiers exit a tunnel in the Gaza Strip that Hamas reportedly used on October 7th to attack Israel. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Israel has made eliminating the threat from the Gaza-based militant group a central war aim, but it’s not entirely clear at what point that condition will be met.  

June 14, 2024 2:30 pm (EST)

Israeli soldiers exit a tunnel in the Gaza Strip that Hamas reportedly used on October 7th to attack Israel.
Israeli soldiers exit a tunnel in the Gaza Strip that Hamas reportedly used on October 7th to attack Israel. Noam Galai/Getty Images
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What do we know about Hamas’s status as a fighting force at this point in the war?

Hamas has suffered a grievous but not a crushing blow as a result of Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip. American officials are reported to believe that Hamas now has between 9,000 and 12,000 fighters—about half of the number at the start of the war. That means that the Palestinian militant group can field some twelve to fifteen battalions, a considerably larger number than the handful of remaining battalions that Israel said there was to justify its ongoing operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. For its part, Hamas claims to have lost no more than six thousand men. And, for a movement that depends on tunnels for its survival, perhaps as many as 80 percent of Hamas’s tunnels remained intact as of January 2024.

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According to U.S. President Joe Biden, Hamas has been “devastated” and is “no longer capable of carrying out another October 7” attack. That is without any doubt a core requirement to fulfill Israel’s strategic objectives in waging this war. But the big question is whether it is a sufficient one. It is akin to the United States claiming, for example, in 2002 that al-Qaeda was no longer capable of launching another September 11, 2001-like attack and, therefore, that the threat from the terrorist group had receded enough that a cease-fire was possible. In Israel’s case, as long as Hamas’s senior command survives and a core of combat-seasoned fighters remain, Israel will consider the Palestinian militant group to be in a position to, at minimum, continue to lob missiles and rockets onto Israeli communities, harass Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operating in Gaza, and plot even more serious attacks.

What are their capabilities at this point?

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Two weeks ago, when its forces were encircled and under intense pressure from the IDF, Hamas was able to fire at least eight rockets from Rafah into Israel. So they clearly retain a capacity to threaten Israel and harass its citizens, which would both continue and increase if, in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words, Israel does not achieve its oft-stated objective of “total victory over Hamas.”

Indeed, in response to Biden’s articulation of a new cease-fire proposal on May 31, Netanyahu doubled down on Israel’s ineluctable commitment to this objective, declaring that “Israel will continue to insist these conditions are met before a permanent cease-fire is put in place. The notion that Israel will agree to a permanent cease-fire before these conditions are fulfilled is a nonstarter.”

What is Hamas’s relationship with Gaza residents? How has this changed during the war?

A poll conducted in March 2024 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a think tank based in the West Bank, revealed that almost three-quarters [PDF] (71 percent) of Palestinians living in Gaza still supported Hamas’s decision to launch the October 7 attacks—up from 57 percent in December 2023. But when asked who they would prefer to control Gaza once the war ends, only 52 percent supported Hamas, while 40 percent supported the Palestinian Authority (PA), and 5 percent favored one or more Arab countries.

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At this point, it’s unclear whether Hamas’s strategy—sacrificing the lives of innocent civilians in Gaza to undermine global support for Israel—will erode its support among Palestinians. Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s military leader in Gaza, has described the tens of thousands killed and injured as “necessary sacrifices.” This cynical encouragement of loss of life and harm to their fellow Palestinians has long been a prominent feature of Hamas’s strategy. “Our job is to keep Palestinians radicalized. Most of them would settle in a moment for peace, some deal that will let them get on with their lives. We need to keep them angry,” the late senior Hamas commander Saleh al-Arouri said of the group while speaking to an audience at London’s Chatham House think tank in 2007. Nonetheless, with no viable alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza, Palestinians lack any meaningful option. As Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiation team, has observed, the PA, which controls the West Bank and is generally regarded as Hamas’ principal political rival, is deeply unpopular among Palestinians because of its “corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency.”

What foreign support does Hamas have?

Iran is Hamas’s most important external source of support. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s Qatar-based political leader, told Al Jazeera in 2022 that the group annually receives up to $70 million from Iran. Reportedly, some five hundred Hamas fighters were trained in Iran in preparation for the October 7 attacks—a reflection of Iran’s longstanding support of Hamas. Indeed, in March 2024, Haniyeh thanked Iran. “Iran stands at the forefront of supporting the cause and people of Palestine,” he said.

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Since 2018, Qatar—with Israel’s approval—has given $1.8 billion to Hamas. And, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long provided diplomatic and other support to Hamas, in particular rejecting the U.S. State Department’s designation of Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization and instead declaring the group to be a “resistance movement.”

What would a realistic ‘victory’ look like for Israel?

In 1969, at the height of the United States’ war in Vietnam, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously wrote, “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.” Israel is arguably in the same situation now. The Israeli government has pledged to keep fighting—at least until the end of this year—to achieve what Israeli national security advisor Tzachi Hanegbi described as “the destruction of the governmental and military capabilities of Hamas.” Whether this is possible is yet to be determined.

What is clear is that Israel has pledged to continue military operations in Gaza indefinitely in pursuit of its aim of completely suppressing Hamas. To this end, the IDF has carved a “strategic corridor” that runs east to west across Gaza and divides the territory in two. It has also established at least three forward operating bases in the corridor there that will serve as a hub for ongoing IDF raids deep into either side of the corridor. It remains to be seen whether this network of secure bases can enable Israel to avoid becoming bogged down in a prolonged counterinsurgency in Gaza through this raiding capability.

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