Much of Gaza is in ruins, with its residents forced from their homes by Israeli bombardments and the death toll continuing to rise. On the ground, Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for 16 years, has largely disappeared, except when its fighters emerge to attack Israeli tanks or fire rockets at Israel.
But the group continues to reap the rewards of its surprise attack on Israel on October 7. It is considered the only Palestinian faction to have extracted concessions from Israel for many years. It put a bloody halt to Israel’s plans to improve relations with its Arab neighbors and forced the Palestinian issue back onto the agenda of world leaders.
Two months into the war, despite promises by Israeli officials to destroy Hamas, Israel has yet to kill its top leaders, free the remaining 137 hostages held by Hamas or provide convincing evidence that it can achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas without astronomical human cost.
In Hamas’s cynical calculation, the nobility of Israel’s objectives is a plus. While sticking to its long-term goal of destroying the Jewish state, Hamas can claim victory simply by surviving and fighting another day.
“There will always be an advantage that an unconventional force will have, especially if it is as ruthless as Hamas and doesn’t really care about the damage caused to local civilians,” said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a Middle East political analyst. -Orient who grew up in Gaza. “Israel will find itself stuck in this unwinnable war, causing massive death and destruction. »
Exactly what Israel can achieve remains an open question. But simply continuing the war can, over time, damage Israel’s economy and international reputation, while encouraging a new generation of Palestinians to hate Israel – all benefits for Hamas.
The surprise attack carried out by Hamas on October 7 was the deadliest day in Israel’s history, with around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, killed and 240 captured. Israel responded with military ferocity not seen in decades, dropping thousands of bombs on Gaza and launching a ground invasion aimed at destroying Hamas’ army and government structures.
The war was catastrophic for Gaza’s 2.2 million residents. About 85 percent of them have fled their homes and now face a growing challenge in finding food, water, shelter and medical care. More than 15,000 people were killed, more than two-thirds of them women and children, according to the territory’s health authorities, who did not specify how many of the dead were combatants.
The war also took its toll on Hamas. The group has largely abandoned governance in Gaza, although remnants of its police force still work in the south and doctors in hospitals overseen by the Health Ministry struggle to treat the floods of injured patients. Otherwise, the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are increasingly left to their own devices.
Israel has blown up numerous tunnels built by Hamas over the years to move clandestinely through territory, hold prisoners, manufacture weapons and plan attacks.
Hamas is estimated to have 25,000 fighters, and Israeli officials estimate that a few thousand of them were killed in Gaza, in addition to around 1,000 in Israel on October 7. Israel and Hamas announced the names of Hamas soldiers killed in the conflict. the war. On Thursday, Israel released a photograph showing 11 Hamas commanders meeting in a bunker. Five of them were marked with red circles reading “Eliminated.”
But fighters from Hamas and other armed factions continue to attack Israeli forces inside Gaza and have killed more than 90 soldiers since the start of the Israeli ground invasion, including the son of the former head of Gaza. Israeli general staff.
Israel has yet to find or kill top Hamas leaders in Gaza, including Yahya Sinwar, the top Hamas official in the territory, and Mohammed Deif, who heads the group’s military wing. Israel considers these two men to be the architects of the October 7 assault and the fighting in Gaza since.
Mr. Sinwar has not appeared publicly since the start of the war. But one hostage, Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85-year-old peace activist, told an Israeli newspaper after her release last month that Mr. Sinwar had come to the tunnel where she was being held. She asked him if he was ashamed of having done such a thing to people who had supported peace. Mr. Sinwar did not respond, she said.
Coordination continues between Hamas members inside and outside Gaza, which allowed Qatar-based leaders to negotiate hostage-for-prisoner exchanges that Hamas then carried out in Gaza. The group’s media teams produce updates, statements from leaders and videos of attacks and civilians killed in Israeli strikes. Hamas officials in Turkey and Lebanon communicate their views to journalists and diplomats, and the group’s leaders in Qatar hold regular talks with mediators in Qatar and Egypt about possible ceasefires. fire and prisoner exchanges.
At a Beirut restaurant last week, Hamas held a public seminar to assess the “achievements and challenges” of the war so far.
Ahmad Abdul-Hadi, a Hamas representative, told dozens of participants that the battle represented a “qualitative change” in the fight against Israel and that Hamas and the Palestinians had accepted the sacrifices necessary to keep the Palestinian cause alive.
“The Palestinian people and their resistance had to make a costly strategic decision because the costs of liquidating the Palestinian cause and squandering Palestinian rights would be much higher,” he said.
Of course, Gaza civilians had no say in Hamas’s decision to attack Israel, and some complained that they were paying the price, despite the great risk of speaking out against the group.
“Why are they hiding among people? said an unidentified man covered in dust at a hospital during a meeting with Al Jazeera. “Why don’t they go to hell and hide there? »
But it is difficult to gauge the extent of this criticism, and it pales in comparison to the anger among Palestinians at the way Israel is fighting.
“There is a lot of horror surrounding the response, but despite this, Hamas is now undoubtedly the leader of Palestinian nationalism,” said Abdaljawad Hamayel, a professor at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank. “He’s the one who holds the cards now. »
By carrying out such a dramatic attack and freeing 240 Palestinians from Israeli prisons in exchange for 105 people kidnapped on October 7, Hamas has eclipsed the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, Mr. Hamayel said.
While Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and other countries, the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel’s right to exist and has limited authority in parts of the West Bank. But it has faced growing criticism from Palestinians who view the body as corrupt, undemocratic and compromised because its security forces coordinate with Israel to arrest Palestinian fighters.
President Biden and other U.S. officials have fully supported Israel throughout the war. But in recent weeks, they have coupled that support with fears that the widespread destruction and high death toll could undermine Israel’s broader goals. They also renewed their calls for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians as the only path to long-term peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a right-wing government whose members openly disdain the idea.
Other observers have suggested that Israeli and Western leaders have been too quick to assume that Israel could actually destroy Hamas.
A month after the war began, Jon Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, published an analysis titled “Israel Could Lose.” He did not argue that Hamas would turn the tables and destroy Israel, but that the war could serve Hamas’ long-term goals by siphoning off support from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This, in turn, would increase Israel’s isolation from Arab and developing countries and complicate its relations with the United States and Europe.
That outcome remains a risk, Mr. Alterman said in an interview last week.
From Hamas’ perspective, he said: “This is the first necessary step to reverse the strength that Israel derives from its integration in the region and the world.”
There are also few historical examples of Israel successfully using overwhelming force to destroy its enemies.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization, which it considered a terrorist organization. The war was long and deadly and failed to destroy the PLO, while setting the stage for the rise of Hezbollah. (Israel signed peace accords with the PLO in 1993.)
In 2006, Israel again went to war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, which has come back stronger over the years.
Israel has also fought three major wars against Hamas in Gaza since 2008, none of which stopped the group from rearming and preparing for the October 7 assault.
Mr. Alkhatib, the Gaza political analyst, recalled the series of Hamas leaders that Israel killed as it left Gaza in 2004.
“All these great leaders were assassinated, so I had the impression that Hamas was a weakened organization,” he said.
He was wrong, Mr. Alkhatib added, having learned in the years since that Hamas considers its commanders expendable and views the resentment of the Gaza population as a way to secure future recruits.
“I never thought Hamas would reach this level of power,” Mr. Alkhatib said. “But it shows how resilient they are, how adaptable they are, and one way or another they will find a way to rebuild, even outside of Gaza. »
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.