Hamas leadership pleased with direction of the war

Hamas’s strategy now is to pressure Israel globally to end conflict before Gaza collapses.

By Yaakov Lappin, JNS

Hamas’s leadership in Rafah continues to cling to fanatical visions of eventual victory, six months into the war it launched with Israel, according to Israeli observers.

“As long as they are not decisively defeated, they have a chance to stay alive in Gaza. Therefore, they positively view the outcomes of the war, or at least they have some kind of optimism,” said Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the Research and Assessment Division of Israel’s Military Intelligence and currently director of the Project on Regional Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

“They paid a very heavy price, but they also achieved a very big accomplishment in their eyes on Oct. 7. Overall, they see the balance as positive because there’s a chance they will remain in power. This is the central thing for them concerning Gaza,” he added.

“In Judea and Samaria, I think there too the balance is mixed. The third intifada they [Hamas’s leadership] expected did not occur. The extent of terrorism in Judea and Samaria, though painful and exacting a toll from Israel, did not stun Israel as did the action on Oct. 7 did,” he said, “because Israel acts very vigorously and broadly against terrorist infrastructure, especially those of Hamas in Judea and Samaria.”

However, he continued, “They can also credit themselves with the fact that the Palestinian public strongly supports what they did, and the Palestinian popular support for them is significant.”

Hamas had hoped that its efforts, in coordination with Iran, to escalate terrorism levels in Judea and Samaria, including through attempts to smuggle Iranian arms into the area, would create a new war front.

While that has not occurred, Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians in Judea and Samaria remains high, and the Palestinian Authority refrains from condemning the Oct. 7 mass murder attack, Kuperwasser noted.

“On the other hand, there’s also criticism from the P.A. against Hamas regarding the damage they caused in Gaza. The internal tension in the Palestinian system remains,” he said, but this has not affected the broad public support for Hamas.

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In the north, Hamas “expected more from Hezbollah,” said Kuperwasser.

“The IDF acts in a focused manner against Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon, exacting prices by eliminating key and central operatives. Hamas failed to bring Hezbollah into the war beyond the boundaries set by Nasrallah,” he said. “Hezbollah’s solidarity is nice for Hamas, but it’s not something that forces Israel to divert large forces northwards at this stage, and Israel is actually able to concentrate forces to deal with Hamas’s infrastructure in Gaza without having to deal with the north. And it can still do so even in Rafah if it decides to.”

As of now, according to Kuperwasser, Hezbollah is imposing no constraint on Israeli freedom of action that would prevent a Rafah operation.

“Right now, there’s a chance they [Hamas] will achieve their desired goals, from their perspective, and also strengthen their position within the Palestinian system, while receiving the commitment of support from the Iranian axis, and the Muslim Brotherhood axis towards them,” he said.

“See, for example, the Turkish economic step against Israel. And Hamas might be able to stay in power. They still believe this is possible. But there’s also concern within Hamas that this will not happen, and that Israel, in the end, will enter Rafah and complete the takeover of all of Gaza. This concern still exists. Therefore, I do not propose anyone begins summing up the war just because six months have passed,” he cautioned.

What is beyond debate, however, is that Hamas’s entire strategy today boils down to a global pressure campaign to force Israel to stop the war before Hamas collapses in Gaza.

“The whole campaign for them, the way to win the campaign, is through [U.S. President Joe] Biden,” he said. “Everything they do is to exert pressure on Biden, so he pressures Israel so that Israel stops before it collapses Hamas in Gaza. That’s the whole idea.”

Hamas’s “use of Israeli hostages, the manipulation of the suffering of the Palestinian civilians in Gaza, the activities of their allies, both within the Palestinian system and outside it,” are all directed toward this end, he said.

“Also, all the protests around the world, all the political pressures—this is seen positively by Hamas. As well as the activities of the [American] Democrats and other actors in the West against Israel, all of the pressure on Israel,” he added. “It’s still not enough to say that the goal was achieved, but there are certainly some achievements on the way to this goal, and they see very positively the American pressure on Israel.”

Michael Barak, a senior researcher and head of the Global Jihad Research at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) and a lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University, Herzliya, said that while Hamas’s plan to spark a widespread wave of violence in Judea and Samaria in Ramadan failed, Hamas has longer-term goals.

“In the medium term, they see success in what is happening, at least according to articles published by Hamas operatives and according to their propaganda,” said Barak.

“Why do they think the current war is succeeding? Among the 20 reasons they list, there’s the issue of strengthening what they call ‘the consciousness of resistance in the West Bank.’ Despite Israel’s successful counter-terrorism operations, the youth, at least according to Hamas, see what’s happening in Gaza and their determination to adhere and join the fight against Israel is growing,” he said.

“Secondly, there’s the Palestinian Authority, which is no longer a player, it’s a ‘dead horse,’ not truly representing the Palestinians, and therefore it’s only a matter of time until it’s replaced according to Hamas’s view,” he added.

Hamas is planning to be part of a future P.A. leadership that might take the reigns in Gaza, which would represent the failure by Israel to achieve one of its main war aims, Barak cautioned.

Internationally, Hamas sees that Israel is isolated, it sees the very deep rift between the United States and Israel, and it gains encouragement, according to Barak.

“[Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya] Sinwar is also encouraged by the fact that economically, Israel is facing erosion. That social resilience is weakening. He sees the patience that the Palestinian people in Gaza show and that they are not acting against Hamas, so he thinks it proves that Hamas is the only answer against Israel, no matter how long it takes,” he argued.

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“Hamas is not discouraged. On the contrary, it is encouraged by events. Hamas’s leadership is going all the way. Hamas is dragging out the talks with Israel, regarding the release of the captives, and it’s making out as if it wants a significant achievement that will prove that Hamas also cares for the civilian population,” Barak added.

Hamas does not feel under intense pressure, and remains in control of Rafah on Gaza’s southern border, where it maintains a police force along with its four remaining battalions, he said. Israel’s tensions with Egypt over Rafah are another source of encouragement for Sinwar, he said.

Barak recalled how, in the lead-up to the 2011 Glad Shalit deal, which saw Israel release 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners—including Sinwar himself—it was Sinwar who opposed any compromise.

“It was actually Sinwar who kept thwarting the agreement, demanding that Israel release all of the prisoners it had. So what did Israel do? It placed him in solitary confinement, and signed the agreement with Hamas leaders Mahmoud al-Zahar and Salah al-Arouri, and with representatives from the prison,” said Barak. “This all goes to show that Sinwar doesn’t care about burning Gaza, as long as he obtains his desired achievements. From his perspective, [these are] that Israel is isolated in the world [and] facing economic problems, and strengthening the sense of support among the Muslim population both in the Western world and the Muslim world, and also in the West Bank,” he said.

In Israel, protests by hostages’ families also encourage him, as do calls for Netanyahu to resign, he added.

Ultimately, according to Barak, Sinwar is guided by a very strong religious perception, prominent among Islamist jihadist factions, called “somud” in Arabic, meaning “steadfast endurance.”

“It means, even if everything looks dark now, everything looks disastrous, you need to prove that you believe in God until the end. And then suddenly God will smile at you. This is what they believe.”

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