Skepticism grows over Israel's ability to dismantle Hamas


Standing before a gray background decorated with Hamas logos and gunman emblems commemorating the bloody October 7 attack on Israel, Osama Hamdan, the organization's representative in Lebanon, expressed no concern that his faction Palestinians were expelled from Gaza.

“We are not worried about the future of the Gaza Strip,” he said recently at a packed news conference at his offices in the southern suburbs of Beirut. “It is only the Palestinian people who make the decisions.”

Hamdan thus dismissed one of Israel's key objectives since the beginning of its attack on Gaza: to dismantle the Islamist political and military organization that was behind the massacre of some 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials, and that still holds more than 100 hostages. . .

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has repeatedly emphasized that goal even as he faces growing international pressure to reduce military operations. The Biden administration has sent high-level envoys to Israel to push for a new phase of the war focused on more targeted operations rather than widespread destruction.

And critics, both inside and outside Israel, have questioned whether it was ever realistic to decide to destroy such a deeply rooted organization. A former Israeli national security adviser called the plan “vague.”

“I think we have reached a moment when the Israeli authorities will have to define more clearly what their ultimate goal is,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said this month. “The total destruction of Hamas? Does anyone believe that is possible? If so, the war will last 10 years.”

Since its emergence in 1987, Hamas has survived repeated attempts to eliminate its leaders. The organization's own structure was designed to absorb such contingencies, according to political and military specialists. Furthermore, Israel's devastating tactics in the Gaza war threaten to radicalize a broader segment of the population, inspiring new recruits.

Analysts see the most optimal outcome for Israel as likely to be to degrade Hamas's military capabilities to prevent the group from repeating such a devastating attack. But even that limited goal is considered formidable work.

Hamas is rooted in the ideology that Israeli control over what it considers Palestinian lands should be forcibly opposed, a principle that is likely to endure, experts said.

“As long as that context exists, it will be about Hamas in some form,” said Tahani Mustafa, senior Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. “To assume that you can simply uproot an organization like that is a fantasy.”

The Israeli military said this week it had killed about 8,000 Hamas fighters out of a force estimated between 25,000 and 40,000. But it is not clear how the count is done. Around 500 have surrendered, according to the army, although Hamas has denied that all of them belong to its ranks.

The army has at times delivered positive reports on the progress of its objectives, describing as “imminent” full control over the areas in northern Gaza where its ground offensive began in late October.

But Netanyahu acknowledged on Sunday that the war “is taking a very heavy toll on us,” when the army announced that 15 soldiers had died in the previous 48 hours alone. Rockets continue to be fired almost daily from southern Gaza towards Israel, although much less than before.

Michael Milshtein, a former senior Israeli intelligence official, criticized statements by some Israeli leaders describing Hamas as at breaking point, saying that could create false expectations about the length of the war.

“They've been saying this for a while, that Hamas is collapsing,” Milshtein said. “But it's simply not true. Every day we face tough battles.”

Recently, the Israeli military distributed leaflets in Gaza offering cash in exchange for information leading to the arrest of four Hamas leaders.

“Hamas has lost its power. “They couldn’t fry a single egg,” the flyer said in Arabic, quoting a popular expression. “The end of Hamas is near.”

The army pledged $400,000 to Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, and $100,000 to Mohammed Deif, head of its military wing, the Qassam Brigades. The two are considered the architects of the October 7 attack.

Although long among Gaza's most wanted men, the elusive Mr. Deif has avoided being killed or captured. The only image of him in public is a decades-old portrait.

The rewards appeared to be another indication that Israel is fighting to remove the Hamas leadership.

The group's upper echelons are believed to be taking shelter, along with most of their fighters and remaining hostages, in deep tunnels. Although the Israeli military has said it demolished at least 1,500 wells, experts believe the underground infrastructure is largely intact.

The tunnels, built over 15 years, are believed to be so extensive, estimated at hundreds of kilometers long, that Israelis call them the Gaza Metro.

“Hamas is actually resisting this attack quite well,” said Tareq Baconi, author of a book about the group. “It is still demonstrating that it has offensive military capability.”

Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former head of Israel's National Security Council, said Hamas had demonstrated the ability to quickly replace dying commanders with equally capable and equally devoted ones.

“From a professional point of view, I must recognize their resilience,” he said. “I see no sign of collapse of Hamas's military capabilities or its political strength to continue leading Gaza.”

Hamas has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was born in Egypt in 1928 as a religious social reform movement but has often been blamed for fomenting jihadist violence in recent decades. Israel once allowed the group to grow as an Islamist counterweight to the more conventional and secular Palestine Liberation Organization.

In one of Israel's first and most notable efforts to dismantle Hamas, in 1992, it deported 415 of its leaders and allies, throwing them into a buffer zone along the Israel-Lebanon border. In the months before their return, they built an alliance with Lebanon's Hezbollah, the most powerful Iranian-backed militia in the region.

The United States and Israel condemn both Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations.

A series of Israeli assassinations of Hamas political, military and religious leaders also failed to weaken the group. It won control of Gaza in free Palestinian elections in 2006 and then dislodged its more moderate rival, the Palestinian Authority, in a bloody conflict the following year.

Israel fought three other wars in Gaza against Hamas between 2008 and the current crisis.

The operations of Hamas's military wing, the Qassam Brigades, remain opaque. The units were designed to continue functioning even if Israel destroyed some parts.

Divided geographically, its five main brigades were in northern Gaza; Gaza City; Central Gaza; and two southern cities, Khan Younis and Rafah.

Most of the elite troops were in the two northern brigades, which make up about 60 percent of the force, said an Israeli military official who requested anonymity under military regulations. About half of them have been killed, wounded, arrested or fled south, the official said.

For Israel, the goal is to first dismantle the government, then disperse the fighters and eliminate the commanders and their top subordinates, the Israeli official said.

But Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian journalist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood who wrote a book about Hamas, said the group was prepared for that.

“The top leaders can disappear at any moment because they can be murdered, they can be arrested, they can be deported,” he said. “So they developed this easy transfer of command mechanism.”

The Qassam Brigades are divided into battalions, with even smaller units defending individual neighborhoods. Other specialized battalions include an anti-tank unit, a tunnel construction unit and an air wing whose drones and paragliders were an important element of the Oct. 7 surprise attack, according to analysts and former military and intelligence officials.

The Nukhba Brigade, made up of some 1,000 highly trained fighters, also appears to have played a central role on October 7.

Trying to completely eliminate Hamas would require street-to-street and house-to-house fighting, and Israel lacks time and personnel, said Elliot Chapman, a Middle East analyst at Janes, a defense analysis firm.

As the United States discovered when trying to crush Al Qaeda or the Taliban, organizations tend to recover once armed pressure is lifted. The fighting in Gaza has been compared to the campaign to seize Mosul, Iraq, from the Islamic State less than a decade ago, but there are significant differences.

In particular, Hamas is organic in Gaza: it emerged from frustration with the abandonment of the armed struggle against the Israeli occupation by the main factions. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and, according to its founding charter, is committed to its destruction.

The scale of Israel's war is likely to radicalize a new generation: More than 20,000 Gazans have been reported dead so far, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.

Some Gazans curse Hamas, even taking to the airwaves or social media to do so, despite the organization's history of repressing its opponents. Other Gazans, however, say they still support “the resistance,” and Hamas has long attracted support by providing services such as schools and clinics.

A recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research found that the majority of respondents supported Hamas' attack on Israel. Support for Hamas in Gaza since the war began has risen from 38 percent to 42 percent, the poll reported.

At best, Israel can probably contain Hamas, experts said.

But even if Israel somehow managed to dismantle the group in Gaza, there are still branches in the West Bank and abroad, in places like Lebanon and Turkey, that could revive it.

“The right way to think about it is to degrade the organization to the point where it is no longer a sustainable threat,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer specializing in counterterrorism in the Middle East.

“You can't just have a strategy of killing everyone,” he added. “You have to have that morning-after scenario.”

Aaron Boxerman, Hwaida Saad and Abu Bakr Bashir contributed with reports.

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