What Does Destroying Hamas Mean?

"If you want peace, destroy Hamas. If you want security, destroy Hamas. If you want a future for Israel, the Palestinians, the Middle East, destroy Hamas," Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared. President Biden has agreed that Hamas must be eliminated entirely, as have various Republican presidential candidates.

Understandably, after the murder of 1,200 people, the Israeli government is up in arms, with the Israeli people demanding the Hamas threat be ended once and for all. But what might this mean in practice?

Israel has three broad options when it comes to destroying Hamas. The first is to try to kill or capture Hamas’s leadership and eliminate the broader support networks on which it draws. The second is to shatter Hamas’s hold on power by strengthening its rivals, allowing them to displace the group. The last approach is to try to counter Hamas’s ideology that promotes violent “resistance” to Israel. All are difficult to achieve, and each one has its own individual challenges.

Eliminating the Hamas Leadership

For over 60 days, Israel has conducted air strikes and ground operations intended to destroy Hamas. As of December 5, Israeli officials estimated that more than 5,000 Hamas militants of a total military wing of around 30,000 have been killed.

While significant in terms of numbers lost, Hamas is far from defeated, let alone destroyed. French president Emmanuel Macron has asked if anyone believes it is possible to completely destroy Hamas, and that should Israel maintain this goal, the war will take 10 years. Moreover, according to Palestinian health officials, in the same period Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has killed three times as many Palestinians, including as many children, as it has killed Hamas militants. This ratio is not promising for the success of the IDF’s primary objective.

What is nearly certain is the number of Palestinian casualties will continue to exceed the attrition of Hamas fighters by a large margin. This has already resulted in world opinion shifting against Israel, and in favor of Palestinians, despite Israel having been the victim of an unprecedented terrorist attack. It has also created tension with the Biden administration, Israel’s strongest—and most important—supporter.

Macron’s projection may be optimistic, given the early results and historic precedents for attempting to destroy entrenched insurgencies. The United States commenced military operations to remove the Taliban from power and destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001. U.S. forces killed thousands of militants and dozens of leaders, including al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, but the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda continued for another ten years. When U.S. forces left Afghanistan, the Taliban was triumphant and al Qaeda, while far weaker, endures.

Leaders in particular are hard to target. Where it took the United States 10 years to finally track down and eliminate bin Laden, his second in command and successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, led al Qaeda for 11 more years, evading allied counterterrorism operations until July 31, 2022. Key figures like Mohammad Deif and Yahya Sinwar are probably hiding in fortified tunnels, blending in among civilians, and otherwise not engaging Israeli forces directly. Israel may kill many foot soldiers, but killing a significant portion of the leadership is a more difficult challenge. Hamas also has a deep bench: during the Second Intifada, it repeatedly lost senior leaders, including its founder, yet the organization endured and was quickly able to gain power in Gaza once Israeli forces departed.

Should Israel kill Deif, Sinwar, and other notable leaders responsible for the October 7 attacks, however, it could at least claim some form of victory. This is important to for Israeli domestic opinion as well as, perhaps, causing leadership difficulties in Hamas itself.

Even before it became the de facto ruler of Gaza in 2007, Hamas was deeply embedded in in the social, religious, and educational networks across the strip. Its over 15 years of governance have further increased its presence. As a result, Hamas can easily draw on these networks to rebound once Israeli forces leave.

In addition, as the Taliban demonstrated, the number of Hamas fighters is not fixed. They can draw on Palestinians in Gaza to fill their ranks. Hamas has not lacked for recruits in many years, and the devastation of the Israeli campaign is likely to ensure that there will be plenty of angry young Palestinians willing to fight.

Finally, the possibility that sustained Israeli offensives could expand the conflict should not be discounted, if Hamas is assessed as nearing defeat. Other terrorist groups in the region which are proxies for Iran, mainly Hezbollah, may join the fight against Israel if directed by Tehran or if Hamas is close to destruction.

Shatter Hamas’s Hold on Power by Making Alternative Groups Strong

Even as he condemned the Hamas attacks, President Biden has pushed the idea of a Palestinian state with an alternative Palestinian leadership in charge. Others have proposed that Arab states such as Egypt step in. In addition, in theory the United Nations or other components of the international community could play a role in governing Gaza in lieu of Hamas. In this scenario, the idea is not that Hamas is directly destroyed, but rather its political authority in Gaza is replaced, greatly reducing its overall power. 

Replacing Hamas politically is difficult. Hamas’s deep roots in Gaza allow it to mobilize support throughout the strip. Any rival would have to gain support among ordinary Palestinians in Gaza and have the military power to suppress Hamas forces as they challenge the authority of the replacement.

Each of these alternatives has limits. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is weak and corrupt. It holds power in the West Bank but has little credibility there. Part of why it lost credibility is that many Palestinians see it as the handmaiden of an Israeli occupation. If the PA took power in Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank, it would lose even more credibility. In addition, the PA by itself could not take on Hamas in Gaza. Thus, the PA would need constant Israeli support.

An alternative would be for the PA to work with Hamas. PA prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has now said that Hamas cannot be eliminated—and therefore should be part of the Palestinian future. Both Israel and the United States would reject this position—and Prime Minister Netanyahu already has—doubling down on his commitment to eliminate Hamas and stating that the PA is not the solution given Shtayyeh’s suggestion. Any compromise with the PA that does not eliminate Hamas is untenable to Israel because it legitimizes the group that killed 1,200 of its citizens on October 7 and continues to hold Israeli hostages. Moreover Hamas would, in practice if not on paper, be the senior partner in any relationship with the PA in Gaza. Yet it recognizes the bitter reality of Hamas’s deep roots in Gaza. 

Arab states, for their part, have little interest in stepping in, and their capacity is limited. Egypt, like Israel, opposes Hamas, seeing political Islam as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an outgrowth, as a threat to the regime. Egyptians, however, support Palestinian resistance against Israel, and the Egyptian regime, like the PA, cannot afford to be seen as helping Israel with an occupation of Gaza. In addition, Egypt’s armed forces are not skilled at policing or counterinsurgency.

Similarly, international forces would be adrift in Gaza. They would have little familiarity with the people and would be considered as occupiers. Few states are willing to put their forces into what would be a low-level insurgency.

Countering Hamas’s Ideology

Another concept of defeat involves combatting Hamas’s ideology. In practice, this consists of multiple parts. First, there is the particular blend of political Islam and Palestinian nationalism that Hamas champions. Second, Hamas seeks to embody what it calls “resistance”—the idea that Israel must be defied militarily in order for Palestinians to achieve their rights.

Israel in the past has defeated individual terrorist groups—where, for example, is Al-Saiqa or the Palestine Liberation Front?—but this has not changed broader support for a wide range of terrorist groups. Destroying an individual group still has benefits, but it does not change the broader support for violence.

For now, no counter-ideology has broad appeal among Palestinians. More traditional Palestinian nationalism, as embodied by Fatah, which is the core of the PA leadership, has been in decline for years. Although before October 7 Hamas was not particularly popular in Gaza, its rivals are even less so. 

Even worse for Israel, the ideology of “resistance” is even more popular. Post-October 7 polls done by highly respected pollster Khalil Shikaki show Hamas to be far more popular among Palestinians, and anecdotal reporting also supports this. Hamas has struck a blow with Israel, catharsis for many Palestinians who feel humiliated by constant Israeli occupation. In addition, the massive civilian toll and destruction of the Israeli military occupation has embittered Palestinians further. Over time, this may change, as weary Palestinians seek alternatives to conflict—indeed, part of the Israeli strategy is to show Palestinians they will pay a high price for resistance—but for now support for violence remains strong. Still, popularity can shift, and more Palestinians may blame Hamas for their difficult situation as time goes on.

The cost of fighting in Gaza has already been extremely high, and these limits on victory should shape Israel’s strategy going forward. Israel needs to recognize that any form of success is likely to prove limited, and that it will be dealing with Hamas and the broader problem of Gaza for years to come.

David Aliberti is a military fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Daniel Byman is a senior fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS and a professor at Georgetown University.

This article contains the author's personal views and does not represent official positions of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

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David Aliberti
Navy Federal Executive Fellow, International Security Program
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Daniel Byman
Senior Fellow, Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program