Hamas devolving from terror army to guerrilla force

These guerilla tactics include ambushes, sniper attacks, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and booby traps aimed at surprising IDF soldiers.

By Yaakov Lappin, JNS

As the Israel Defense Forces ground offensive rolls on in northern, central and southern Gaza, and most of Hamas’s organized battalions are already dismantled, Hamas is undergoing a significant transformation from a structured terror army to a decentralized guerrilla force.

This shift is marked by a move away from rapid battlefield engagements against the IDF in favor of guerrilla hit-and-run tactics by localized terror cells that seek to prolong the conflict and exploit urban warfare dynamics, observers in Israel and the United States tell JNS.

According to Professor Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), the shift in Hamas’s combat approach was inevitable from the beginning of the conflict, when it faced coordinated Israeli military operations.

“Hamas has no chance of standing against the IDF’s power on the battlefield, and therefore shifted to guerrilla tactics,” he said.

Inbar noted that the IDF’s extensive air cover for ground forces in particular forced Hamas to seek shelter in Gaza’s extensive tunnel network and within supportive civilian populations, drawing a parallel to the jungle warfare tactics seen in Southeast Asia.

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From these hiding spots, said Inbar, Hamas fighters launch attacks on Israeli forces, aiming to inflict casualties and avoid direct confrontation.

“Hamas, like other guerilla forces, does not think it can defeat the IDF, and hence is strategically managing attrition to prevent the [Israeli] political echelon from declaring victory in the war, and to weaken the home front in order to erode Israeli determination,” said Inbar.

Depletion of rank and file

Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal, pointed out that with Israel’s offensive into Gaza and the depletion of the terrorist group’s rank and file personnel, “Hamas’ military is no longer able to openly enforce its will on the Palestinian people. Nor can Hamas easily launch rockets, mortars and missiles into Israel.

Al-Qassam, Hamas’s military wing, and other allied terror groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad cannot afford to go head-to-head with the IDF and must now resort to guerrilla tactics.”

These guerilla tactics include ambushes, sniper attacks, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and booby traps aimed at surprising IDF soldiers during building-clearing operations, said Roggio.

“Hamas also continues to hide behind civilians, and as its leader in Gaza [Yahya Sinwar] has noted, civilian casualties are ‘necessary sacrifices’ designed to erode support for Israel in the international community. Hamas is employing classic, age-old tactics of guerilla warfare,” Roggio said.

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A report by Reuters on June 6, citing United States officials, noted that Hamas’s original fighting force has seen 9,000 and 12,000 terrorists killed in action, a significant reduction from previous estimates of 20,000-25,000.

Israeli estimates place the number at around 15,000. Neither estimate takes into account the likelihood of thousands more Hamas terrorists who are wounded and unable to fight.

This depletion has forced Hamas to adapt its strategy, avoiding prolonged skirmishes with Israeli forces and instead focusing on hit-and-run attacks, according to the report.

One U.S. official highlighted this shift, telling Reuters, “Hamas fighters are now largely avoiding sustained skirmishes with Israeli forces closing in on the southernmost city of Rafah, instead relying on ambushes and improvised bombs to hit targets often behind enemy lines.”

A Gazan resident was quoted in the report saying that “in earlier months, Hamas fighters would intercept, engage and fire at Israeli troops as soon as they pushed into their territory. But now, there is a notable shift in their mode of operations; they wait for them to deploy and then they start their ambushes and attacks.”

Lt. Col. (res.) Peter Lerner, a spokesperson for the IDF, noted in the report that the IDF is adapting to Hamas’s transformation. He added that the IDF’s goal is not to eliminate each and every Hamas terrorist, a goal he said was unrealistic, but rather to dismantle Hamas as a governing regime.

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