As 2023 draws to a close, how strong is Hamas after nearly three months of bombardment and ground invasion?
Almost 23,000 people – the vast majority Palestinian – have been killed since the unprecedented Hamas attacks in southern Israel on October 7, which launched the Israeli assault on Gaza.
As the end of 2023 approaches, the Israeli offensive is showing no signs of any let-up and the death toll is certain to rise on both sides as fighting continues.
Political attempts at peace have failed.
Israel has stated from the outset that its objective is to eliminate Hamas’s military and governing capabilities. To this end, it has continued the aerial bombardment and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip almost without pause, since October 7.
While Israel admits it has failed in this mission so far, it claims it is just a question of time before it achieves this goal. But does the situation on the ground support that claim?
The answer is a cautious no.
A detailed and impartial analysis of various aspects of its performance leads to the conclusion that so far, Hamas has experienced more successes than failures – for the following reasons.
The organisation is still very much alive and kicking. Politically, it is still recognised – de facto if not de jure – as the only entity exercising control over what remains of the heavily damaged civilian structures in the Gaza Strip.
It is party to indirect negotiations that have already managed to produce a one-week-long pause in the assault on Gaza and a limited exchange of Israeli and Palestinian captives and hostages. As long as it holds on to its remaining hostages, Hamas will continue to be an inevitable “other side” without which no release of those captives will be possible.
Israel has repeatedly stated that there is “no place” for Hamas in the post-war civilian structures of Gaza but has never produced any semblance of a concrete, alternative plan.
Various vague, unfocused suggestions that the future of Gaza would be better without Hamas have been floated but nobody has produced any coherent suggestion of how to remove Hamas and what to replace it with.
The US, some Arab states and various international organisations have suggested that a post-war Gaza should be run by Fatah or a pan-Arab force, but have presented no tangible plans for how to achieve that. For now, this remains wishful thinking. For the predictable future, therefore, Hamas is here to stay.
Hamas remains an effective military force The military wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades, has never publicly disclosed information about its structure, organisation or numbers.
Some experts, using open sources and leaked intelligence from Israeli, US, Arab and Russian sources, estimate the Qassam Brigades’ strength at between 30,000 and 45,000 fighters.
Even the most cautious of analysts believe that before the war, the force could count at least 18,000 well-trained, disciplined and ideologically highly motivated first-line soldiers in its ranks, with everything above that number being the second echelon.
Various Israeli claims of having killed as many as 10,000 Hamas fighters are almost certainly exaggerated.
The Qassam Brigades have been taking heavy losses but most of its battalions remain effective combat units. Institute for the Study of War, an influential and well-informed US think tank estimates that out of 26 to 30 battalions of fighters, which were believed to exist on October 7 – each having 400 to 1,000 men, only three have been rendered inoperable – or, in civilian parlance, destroyed.
Of the remainder, four or five have been “degraded”, meaning that their strength is reduced but they continue to fight, either alone or by joining other units.
In one aspect, the Hamas military wing has proved exceptionally effective: all units whose commanders have been killed have nevertheless continued fighting under their deputies.
Relying on its excellent field intelligence, Israel has managed to kill at least five battalion commanders in targeted air raids, with at least six more dying in battle, including the commander of the Northern Brigade. Yet none of those units was rendered “headless” and collapsed, confirming Hamas’s clear ability to plan and train competent deputies.
Israel has been destroying or blocking tunnel entrances wherever it can find them but there are clear signs that Hamas still maintains enough underground facilities to move forces between front lines and often successfully flank and surprise the enemy.
Reports from Gaza sometimes make it appear that the Hamas armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, is doing all the fighting. In fact, there are no fewer than 12 different armed groups, affiliated with different political and ideological blocs. The second-best known is Islamic Jihad, but others include the Popular Resistance Committee and two Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine of almost the same name – one calling itself “Popular” while the other is “Democratic”.
Probably the most unlikely to be associated with Hamas is the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, the armed wing of its rival, Fatah. Political differences aside, however, it fights in coordination with and largely under the general command of the Qassam Brigades.
Putting all these groups under the Hamas umbrella is a pragmatic solution born out of necessity, but it seems to work to the satisfaction of all involved, with no visible tensions or cracks so far.
There have been no reliable claims of any of this plethora of smaller units caving in under pressure from Israeli armed forces, disbanding, deserting or collaborating with the enemy. Furthermore, it cannot be ruled out that some of them may merge, at least temporarily, into the Qassam Brigades.
The continued co-existence of these armed factions while they face the same threat is without doubt a success for Hamas.
Contrary to the predominant Israeli and Western image of Hamas as unacceptable terrorists and murderers of innocent civilians – a view particularly reinforced after reports of indiscriminate slaughter on October 7 – many Palestinians see it in a different light.
Those who see themselves as victims of Israeli oppression, unequal treatment, lawlessness and discrimination often idolise Hamas as a fearless defender of Palestinians, and often as the only group doing so. Many young people born since the 1990s Oslo Accords, which were meant to produce a two-state solution, admit to being frustrated by the Palestinian authorities’ inability to secure what was agreed, promised and signed in those accords.
This feeling of frustration has become particularly strong in the West Bank, run by Fatah, which is viewed by many young people as inefficient, corrupt, incapable and uninterested in working for the Palestinian cause.
Increasing aggression from illegal Israeli settlers, who continue to harass, steal from and inflict violence upon Palestinians in the West Bank with impunity, has additionally alienated Palestinians.
Many West Bank Palestinians reacted to the war in Gaza by openly flying Hamas flags, often alongside those of Fatah. Young Palestinians living in the walled and dismembered West Bank have long been angry about being passive underdogs always on the receiving end of this sort of treatment.
Many have now placed their hopes and expectations with those who rose, fought back and hit Israel hard even though Israel is so much stronger.
While this view may defy logic and seem shocking to outsiders, there is no doubt that it is genuine.
Even if Israel were to achieve its goal of “ending” Hamas – a completely unrealistic prospect – many Palestinians would remember Hamas as the one group which refused to sit passively and just receive blow after blow from Israel.
Despite the heavy casualties it has taken and the image it has acquired in the West, Hamas probably has more reasons to be satisfied than worried.
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