A Major Pivot in Hamas Strategy
The Oct. 7 attack launched by Hamas — along with other factions including Palestinian Islamic Jihad — was unprecedented in its nature and scope, as news reports have made clear in the days since. On the Israeli side, the death toll from the initial attack passed 1,300 as of Friday, and thousands more have been injured. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are estimated to have also kidnapped more than 199 Israelis, mostly civilians, and transported them into the coastal territory. In response, Israel has launched airstrikes in Gaza, with casualties reaching 2750.
The Hamas-led attack, in turn a massive intelligence failure for Israel, not only was well-planned (and well-supported), but also constitutes a major deviation in Hamas strategy since the group took control of Gaza in 2007. Built on violence, Hamas declared in its 1988 charter that “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.” However, for the past 16 years, Hamas has worked to present itself to the international community as a legitimate political entity. While it has never stopped espousing violence in pursuit of jihad, it has also garnered popular support through social services and governance in Gaza and has implemented a well-laid strategic communications strategy that has highlighted both its internal governance and foreign policy.
Historically, in its violent attacks, Hamas has generally targeted adults, whom the group sees as legitimate targets. Though it has also indiscriminately targeted civilians through rocket attacks or suicide bombings, the group views these civilian casualties as collateral damage. This time, however, was different. The group’s decision to explicitly target vulnerable groups like children and the elderly last weekend seemingly represents a major pivot in Hamas’ strategy.
This pivot will have reverberating ramifications. The Hamas attack highlights that any illusions surrounding Hamas’ legitimacy have been shattered. That being said, while the group may initially lose popular support for its cause due to the graphic nature of its actions, this attack could also play into Hamas’ desired outcome, the creation of horizontal escalation against Israel, rallying others to its side.
Who Is Hamas?
Hamas’ 1988 charter declares the group “one of the wings of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine” while also calling itself “a distinguished Palestinian movement.” Today it remains the only Brotherhood-linked group that has not denounced violence. As a Brotherhood-inspired group, Hamas believes in using existing political institutions to garner power and authority, while simultaneously establishing a social service infrastructure and conducting missionary work to gain popular support. It was this approach that later helped the group take part in, and win, Palestinian elections.
Yet violence has always been a driving part of the group and its goals. As Article 12 of the 1988 Hamas charter notes,
Nationalism, from the point of view of the Islamic Resistance Movement, is part of the religious creed. Nothing in nationalism is more significant or deeper than in the case when an enemy should tread Muslim land. Resisting and quelling the enemy become the individual duty of every Muslim, male or female. A woman can go out to fight the enemy without her husband’s permission, and so does the slave: without his master’s permission.
Hamas’ language appears to be a nod toward Abdallah Azzam’s infamous fatwa on the individual duty of jihad. Azzam, a Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood member, later went on to inspire the likes of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, with both groups citing similar language in their justifications for violence.
Since its inception, Hamas’ military wing has kept up militaristic operations over the years, targeting civilians and military alike. This includes a wave of suicide bombings — by male and later female perpetrators — in Israel, during the first and second intifadas, including twin 1996 suicide bombings on buses in Jerusalem that killed 45 and a 2002 Netanya hotel attack that killed 30. The group has also taken adult male hostages into Gaza in the past, including Gilad Shalit, who was released in a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel for approximately 1,000 prisoners in Israeli jails after five years in captivity.
Despite this, the group’s political wing has spent decades trying to portray itself as a legitimate political entity that is actively engaged in governance and puts forth a clear foreign policy. This is specifically true since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, following an election victory and subsequent deadly conflict with Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Since wresting control of Gaza, the group has strived to portray itself as a legitimate political actor and representative of Palestinians in Gaza. The group even operated social media accounts to engage with the general public, including an official Twitter account that in 2015 Tweeted, “Hamas respects human rights; that is part of our ideology and dogma.”
This was further highlighted by the rhetorical shift in its May 2017 “Document of General Principles and Policies,” in which Hamas dropped reference to its Brotherhood roots and presented itself as a more “centrist” alternative to global jihadist organizations like the Islamic State and secular nationalist groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization. While still reminding its supporters “resistance and jihad for the liberation of Palestine will remain a legitimate right, a duty and an honour for all the sons and daughters of our people and our Ummah,” the group also highlighted that it believes in “managing its Palestinian relations on the basis of pluralism, democracy, national partnership, acceptance of the other and the adoption of dialogue” and for the first time acknowledged the possibility of a Palestinian state drawn along the borders that existed in 1967.
The explicit targeted killing and kidnapping of civilians beginning on Oct. 7 – which U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called “worse than ISIS,” then, baldly contradicts Hamas’ articulated revised political strategy. This disjuncture may reflect an ongoing struggle between the Gaza-based military leadership, which led the attack, and the political leadership, led by the Qatar-based Ismail Haniyeh, who watched the attack on TV. This disconnect may also reflect a gross misunderstanding of the group and its goals in the West.
While the group has struck civilians over the years, those attacks have mainly targeted adults, whom the group sees as legitimate targets due to Israeli military draft laws. To Hamas, all Israeli adults are military targets. Hamas has also indiscriminately targeted civilians through rocket attacks or suicide bombings, in which they view civilian casualties as collateral damage. But in transitioning to a governance role, the group had sought to portray itself as a changed entity, one less focused on violence. One academic study (written by this author) examining the group’s Twitter account found that between 2015 and 2018, the group mostly Tweeted about its internal governance and foreign policy, with the smallest focus on “resistance.”
The recent operation obliterates any Hamas claims to legitimacy as a political actor. Over 35 years, the group has never undertaken an operation of such scale, and it has not explicitly targeted vulnerable groups like children or the elderly. Moreover, the taking of children and elderly hostages into Gaza is a first for the group, which to this point has only taken male hostages over the age of 18. Images emerging from Gaza highlight the abuse of many current detainees, and recent statements from the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, highlight the potential for extrajudicial killings of civilians in response to Israeli airstrikes, once again running counter to Hamas’ attempts to gain legitimacy.
The question is, why would Hamas decide to pivot from its status quo? Here, potential answers include a desire to thwart normalization between Arab States and Israel, especially the U.S.-brokered talks involving Saudi Arabia; to exploit U.S. deprioritization of Middle East policy, except that involving Iran, in favor of China and Russia; and to challenge the current right-wing Israeli government and its policies.
Reports indicate that both Iran and its proxy in Lebanon, Hizballah, appear to have backed or at least supported the Hamas-led operation, highlighting the potential for second and third fronts to open in the coming weeks. Tensions along the Lebanon-Israel border already appear to be boiling over. Iran is aware that it is increasingly isolated in the face of the Abraham Accords, where the United States has pursued normalization between Arab States and Israel, and that the United States is simultaneously deprioritizing the region in terms of foreign policy. As such, Iran appears to have taken the opportunity to carry out a destabilization strategy.
While Iran’s role has not yet been confirmed, after the initial attack, an al-Qassam Brigades video from 2014 resurfaced, praising Iran for providing weapons, money, and equipment. Hamas, while acknowledging Iran’s apparent support, has also emphasized that last weekend’s attacks were primarily a homegrown initiative, with Hamas official Mahmoud Mirdawi reiterating that the group planned the attacks on its own: “This is a Palestinian and Hamas decision.”
The Hamas-led attacks may have helped to achieve a long-term, broader goal of the group as well: mobilizing its allies against Israel. Designed to elicit a response so “disproportionate” from Israel that it would draw international condemnation and overshadow memories of Hamas’ own violence, the operation could — by Hamas’ reasoning — bring others to its side. Haniyeh’s Oct. 7 statement noted that “the battle has to do with the land of Palestine, Jerusalem, and the al-Aqsa Mosque, it is the battle of the entire ‘umma’ [world Muslim community].” Hamas, then, is hoping that its allies in the Muslim world will join this fight as well.
Hamas is firmly aware that it cannot defeat Israel on its own — and aware of Israeli statements heralding a decapitation campaign against the group’s leadership — and thus is seeking to rally others in the hopes of achieving “horizontal escalation.” Such escalation could include a potential war with Hizballah in the north, uprisings in the West Bank, internal struggles fomented by Arab citizens of Israel, and targeting of both Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. In the immediate days after the attack, such trends appear to be surfacing.
Moreover, despite its slightly softer rhetoric in recent years, resistance has remained a core principle for Hamas, which notes in its updated 2017 document, “Resistance and jihad for the liberation of Palestine will remain a legitimate right, a duty, and an honor for all the sons and daughters of our people and our umma.” Hamas remains committed to its original goal — leading the Palestinian people in a violent struggle against Israel by any means necessary.
Through its recent actions, Hamas has made clear to all that lasting Middle East peace cannot happen without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The group has also made clear that the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority effectively precludes the possibility of peace. “Gaza is the pillar of resistance,” Haniyeh proclaimed in a speech on Oct. 7, showing once again his view that the Gaza leadership is the true champion of the Palestinians.
While the situation in the region remains fluid, Hamas clearly wanted to demonstrate that it — not the Palestinian Authority and not Arab governments normalizing with Israel — is the most important actor on these issues in the region.
Devorah Margolin is the Blumenstein-Rosenbloom fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University
Image: Wikimedia Commons