Hamas: Limited options and high costs for Palestinians

As the Israeli net closes in on Rafah, what are the remaining options for Hamas?

Lina Jaradat

Hamas: Limited options and high costs for Palestinians

There is no doubt about it: the Israeli war in Gaza that began in October 2023 will prove to be a defining historical event.

It is already shaping the development of the Palestinian national movement and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet it also looks set to reshape Israel’s regional standing, broader Arab-Israeli relations, and even US policy in the Middle East.

In recent months, one phrase has been used to refer to the period immediately after the cessation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip: ‘the day after’. What follows on ‘the day after’ will be as significant as the aftermath of war in 1948 and 1967.

The war in 1948 led to the Nakba (Catastrophe), the establishment of the State of Israel, and the beginning of the Palestinian refugee issue.

The 1967 war resulted in the de-facto recognition of Israel by the Arab world and solidified the primacy of the Palestinian national movement in terms of Palestinian political representation, led by Fatah.

The 2023-24 war in Gaza could be as pivotal as the outcomes of the two Intifadas in the occupied territories (1987-93 and 2000-04). It is a new Nakba for Palestinians.

Growing pains

The first Intifada culminated in the Oslo Accords of 1993. This transformed the national movement from a liberation effort into a governing authority.

Yet it also led to the decline of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the sidelining of refugees’ right to return as the focus shifted to establishing independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This effectively reduced the scope of ‘Palestine’ to a state comprising only parts of the Palestinian land, people, and rights.

The second Intifada made Hamas a significant force in Palestinian politics, rivalling Fatah. Hamas employed different ideologies, methods, and discourse. This divided the Palestinians internally and affected their relations externally.

Hamas emerged at the start of the first intifada in 1987 as an offshoot of the Palestinian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Fatah, meanwhile, had been engaged in armed struggle since the mid-1960s.

Lina Jaradat

Hamas did not integrate into the broader framework of the PLO. This led to disputes, competition, and conflict with Fatah, culminating in violent clashes and division within the Palestinian political system.

Fatah had dominated the Palestinian political landscape for decades, but in 2006, Hamas outperformed it in elections by campaigning against corruption and favouring armed resistance.

Yet the Hamas-led government struggled because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah had centralised power in his hands. In 2007, Hamas forced control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah.

Resisting to governing

Israeli efforts to undermine the peace process had weakened Fatah's position, but Hamas also faced numerous challenges, with no governance model that was clearly superior to Fatah's administration in the West Bank.

As governing authority in Gaza, Hamas established a monopoly over resources, decision-making, and weapons while attempting to enforce its behavioural and ideological standards through coercive methods.

This led to it being seen more as an Islamic movement than one of national liberation. Hamas had several dual identities: political and religious, national and Islamic, liberators and governors, etc, resulting in complications and overlap.

As a result, Hamas struggled to manage Gaza. Its dominant security services, the imposition of taxes, and a focus on military aspects at the expense of social and economic development caused consternation.

Ironically, Hamas copied some of the very practices it criticised Fatah for, such as monopolising political decision-making and weakening civil society. Palestinian hopes for a system that respected diverse opinions, valued diversity and pluralism, encouraged participatory governance, and rotated power were dashed.

Hamas could have chosen to remain a pure national liberation and resistance movement by staying out of power, continuing to be a balancing force within the Palestinian legislature, and pressing its leadership on policy.

Instead, when it seized power, it inherited risks, particularly as the international community (that supported the Oslo Accords in the 1990s) was unlikely to accept such a transition or to allow Hamas to implement its agenda unchecked.

The 2023-24 war in Gaza could be as pivotal as the outcomes of the two Intifadas in the occupied territories. It is a new Nakba for Palestinians. 

The Gaza that wasn't

The Gaza Strip is home to more than two million people. It is a densely populated, resource-poor area covering 1.3% of historical Palestine. Rather than treating it as a base for operations, Hamas could have transformed it into a showcase for competent Palestinian governance.

A territory focused on education, development, and institution-building could have been presented to the world as a viable model for a future Palestinian state and a beacon for Palestinians worldwide.

It could have offered a vision for the Palestinian national cause that would, in turn, have attracted further Arab and international support, aid, and investment.

Instead, a strict siege was imposed by Israel from 2007. Multiple devastating conflicts in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2021, and 2023-24 have led to devastation. Isolated from the world and from reality, Hamas has continued to overestimate its capabilities and engage in unrealistic enterprises.

Having usurped authority and leadership from Fatah, Hamas set no achievable goals nor explained to Gazans what it wanted to do and how it intended to do it.

It has continued to rattle sabres with Israel but has failed to lift the siege, shield those it governs from Israeli military aggression, or improve living conditions in the Strip.

Since 2007, Gazans' security and standards have deteriorated, yet like all political movements in the Arab world, Hamas is not accustomed to introspection or criticism.

Movements associated with political Islam, including Hamas, seek a kind of sanctity in their policies and positions. Under the guise of valuing sacrifice, they act as if exempt from accountability.

October gamechanger

The world changed on 7 October when the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, attacked Israeli settlements and military bases around Gaza in an operation that was evidently well-prepared.

It dealt a significant security, intelligence, and military blow to Israel, with 1,200 Israelis killed and more than 200 taken hostage, including both civilians and soldiers.

Lina Jaradat

Israel responded within hours, first from the air, then in a ground invasion. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed, hundreds of thousands face starvation, and more than a million are displaced.

Hamas went from offence to defence as the Israelis took the initiative. Initially confined to urban Gaza, the war expanded to reach the entire Strip. Hamas struggled to defend its population, halt the advance of the Israeli army, prevent the displacement of a million Palestinians, or stop the widespread destruction of infrastructure or property.

Most of Gaza is now rubble, including homes, hospitals, schools, universities, public buildings, streets, and utilities. Water, food, electricity, fuel, and medicine were cut. Palestinians were left with nothing as the world watched.

Hamas has survived and kept hold of the hostages, but its leadership has tragically miscalculated, including by failing to prepare or fortify against the Israeli response. It remains unclear what Hamas's ultimate objectives were on 7 October.

Overblown rhetoric

According to Mohammed Deif, who commanded Hamas fighters on 7 October, the purpose was "the defeat of the occupation and as a promised day for Israel's defeat".

He called on all Palestinians "from the river to the sea" and even those in the diaspora to join the war, an invitation extended to Arab and Islamic nations.

Hamas conflated resistance with traditional warfare. Resistance does not entail conventional battles of army against army or missile against missile. There was an alternative to this "people's war."

Hit-and-run tactics target an enemy's vulnerabilities while avoiding its strengths. They aim to disable or weaken an enemy's military machine rather than justify its full mobilisation.

Such a strategy could have challenged Israeli unity or heightened its internal political tensions instead of having the opposite effect. If Hamas had chosen to exhaust the Israeli enemy over a prolonged period of strategic resistance that capitalised on sacrifice and heroism, it could have saved a lot of lives.

Rather than treating it as a base for operations, Hamas could have transformed Gaza into a showcase for competent Palestinian governance. 

Knockout blow

Realistically, Hamas is now in a war that the Israelis intend to be a knockout blow, one that will ultimately lead to a new catastrophe for the Palestinian people.

Hamas may have misjudged Israel's strength, its determination to go house-to-house throughout Gaza, or the level of international support for Israel's security. It also failed to adequately prepare the people of Gaza for the prolonged and devastating nature of the conflict.

Seven months into its war, Israel's objective is to dismantle Hamas, rescue Israeli hostages, and prevent a repeat of the events of 7 October with new security arrangements near its border. It may also want to intimidate Palestinians "from the river to the sea", establish hegemony over the historic land of Palestine, render Gaza uninhabitable, and reduce the Palestinian demographic in Gaza.

Hamas is severely limited in terms of its response. It cannot defend its people, defeat the Israeli military, or repel Israeli attacks in Gaza, which has all but been destroyed, with two million Palestinians deeply scarred. Most are homeless, without even basics.

This is a critical and historical juncture for the Palestinian people and their national movement. This is now the longest, most lethal, and most destructive Israeli campaign that they have faced. In its planning for 7 October, Hamas did not appear to prepare an exit strategy. It now cannot exit this war of annihilation being waged by Israel.

Series of assumptions

Hamas may have assumed that taking and using Israeli hostages would give it leverage in negotiations, but this has not been borne out.

It may also have assumed that others would have joined the war in support or that diplomatic pressure would have forced Israel's hand. But wider Arab military unity never came, and not even America has moderated Israeli actions. Iran, which supported Hamas, has maintained its distance, while Hezbollah's cross-border skirmishes have been dialled down deliberately to avoid a war.

Even when Iran felt forced to react after Israel bombed its consulate in Damascus and killed several senior generals, Tehran's response of drones and missiles was muted, telegraphed, and easily intercepted.

Even if Israel were to suddenly halt its offensive, infrastructure and life in Gaza have been so drastically altered by the destruction that its restoration will take decades and cost tens of billions of dollars. As yet, no one seems willing to pay.

Read more: Restoring Gaza to its pre-war state may take 70 years

Any international aid will depend on the framework and conditions established between the Palestinians and Israelis to secure peace. Most potential donors insist that Hamas plays no role in the future of the Gaza Strip.

Israel has inflicted so much destruction on Gaza that its restoration will take decades and cost tens of billions of dollars.

Evolve or dissolve?

Historically, the Palestinian national movement has evolved, from earlier iterations in Jordan (1970), to Lebanon (1982), before transitioning from a liberation movement to an authority with the signing of the Oslo Accords (1993).

There are some suggestions that if Hamas leaders from Gaza flee abroad in a coordinated effort, possibly under international agreements, then Hamas may still be a political and ideological entity within the Palestinian national fabric.

This would involve Hamas integrating into the unified structure of the Palestinian National Movement, that is, into the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority, with an acceptance of a two-state solution.

This could potentially benefit the residents of Gaza and align with the goals of the broader Palestinian movement, but it may face Arab and international objections. It is also far from certain that Palestinian leaders would accept such an integration without strict limits on Hamas's influence.

Alternative options

With Israel insisting on a transitional phase that might eventually lead to the Palestinian Authority taking over Gaza, the idea of an Arab or international peacekeeping force has gained traction. Deployed under international auspices, they would provide protection, distribute aid, and assist in the reconstruction. But this would require delicate negotiation.

Some factions within Hamas may have considered emulating Hezbollah's model in Lebanon or that of the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq.  This would let Hamas avoid the pitfalls of governance and focus simply on resistance, which could bolster their position among the Palestinian people.

However, while this may once have been a viable option, it would now be almost impossible for Hamas to pursue, not least because Palestinians may be reluctant to support it. They would rather just get on with rebuilding their lives.

A final option involves Hamas fighting to the last man (or woman), embracing the idea of jihad with the binary outcomes of victory or martyrdom.

This self-destruction would play into Israeli hands, as it would meet Benjamin Netanyahu's objective. It would also prolong the suffering of Gaza's people, who are desperate for respite and assistance.

On the Israeli side, strategies include reoccupying Gaza partly or in full, building settlements, establishing an Israeli civil administration, and displacing Gazans abroad. Each has its challenges, costs, and tragedies for the Palestinians.

Hamas will have almost no ability to counter any Israeli action, whatever is decided. While severity of these outcomes might be mitigated over time, the extent of physical and mental devastation in Gaza will likely never be mended.

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