Is Israel Able to Eliminate Hamas?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

An article in the journal’s special issue on Gaza analyzes Israel’s approaches to and difficulties in rooting out the group from Gaza. 

As Israel shifts its strategy in Gaza to a more limited scope of operations amid growing alarm over civilian casualties from the international community and its main partner in the United States, further questions over its goals for the war are emerging. 

Since its beginning on October 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials have asserted that the destruction of Hamas is a primary goal of the operation. But with speculative progress made on that front in what is the fourth serious engagement between the two parties in the last 15 years, how has Israel’s approach been informed? 

Experts assert that the full elimination of Hamas is a lofty goal; Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, recently argued that Hamas is “a brand, and as long as there are a group of living Palestinians who want to call themselves Hamas, Hamas still exists.” An article in Middle East Policy’s special issue, The Gaza War, examines the group’s roots in the Strip and Israel’s approach to their conflicts. 

Sherifa Zuhur opens her piece with a similar assertion, writing in the context of Israel’s 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza: “Declarations like ‘Hamas has to be taught a lesson’ belie the fact that Hamas is a movement located throughout the Palestinian national body…and as an accepted political party, cannot be easily extricated from the nation.”  

Daniel Byman, director of the Georgetown University Security Studies Program, points out that the group has “deep educational, social welfare, and religious ties as well as being the de-facto government of Gaza.” These types of civil-society efforts have grown its legitimacy, Zuhur argues, and increased support for the group and its self-declared goal of the liberation of Palestine. Today, support for the group is increasing in the occupied territories. 

Zuhur, the director of the Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies, illustrates areas of progress toward a “more moderate stance” by Hamas:  

  • The group has implicitly recognized Israel, though a full recognition of its right to exist, like the Palestinian Authority, ” cannot serve as a formula for peace.” 
  • It has come to accept a two-state solution. 
  • Its willingness to engage in political participation and the potential for negotiations is a transition from its previous stance on violence. 

Despite these, Zuhur argues, Israel has squandered opportunity in order to “teach Hamas a lesson.” She recounts suggestions made to the US and Israel prior to the 2008 war on their willingness to negotiate with Hamas, strengthening of moderates, administration of Jerusalem, and shifting strategy on the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, with the prescient argument that “locking up the Palestinians in their enclaves will only lead to future outbursts of popular resistance.” 

Israel’s efforts to combat the group, including in 2008-09 and beyond, have utilized “overwhelming military force…to destroy infrastructure and inflict collective punishment” on the Palestinian population. This same accusation has been levied against Israel in the ongoing war.  

And despite the extensive “economic, informational, military and diplomatic tools of power” used against the Palestinians, Zuhur concludes, “has Israel effectively removed Hamas from power in Gaza? No.” Today, the question is revived. 

“Among the more than 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners…” she writes of the state of affairs prior to Cast Lead, “many are Hamas members — and many more will be in the wake” of the operation in Gaza. 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Sherifa Zuhur’s Middle East Policy article, “Gaza, Israel, Hamas and the Lost Calm of Operation Cast Lead”: 

  • Hamas has not and cannot be eliminated through existing Israeli and international tactics. 
  • Israel’s aggressive actions in 2009 toward Gaza may have been indicative that the state desires to remain in a state of conflict to “destroy any basis for a Palestinian state.” 
    • Israel has increasingly become a major exporter of weapons, security systems, and “security training.” 
    • There has been an increasingly visible trend of military force to destroy infrastructure and inflict collective punishment since 2002. 
  • Israeli strategy against Hamas, as part of its larger Arab policy, can largely be broken down into three orientations: 
    • Securitist: Israel would be doomed by military defeat and the state has a responsibility to protect its civilians from this, placing both war and peace function under military control. 
    • Conflict-Oriented: Israel must aim to retain as much land as possible and for the complete elimination of the Palestinian threat. 
    • Compromise-Oriented: Israel’s acceptance in the region would provide security. 
  • Hamas’s goal is the liberation of Palestine, not the destruction of Jews. 
    • Hamas’s frame of reference is Islam, but Islamic society is subordinate to the group’s nationalist and political agendas. 
  • Hamas is the best choice for governance of Palestine. 
    • The group gained legitimacy among Palestinians for its commitment to fighting for rights, provision of social services, and commitment to Muslim identity which have all been forcibly diminished by Israel. 
    • Hamas’s progression towards a more moderate approach focused on negotiation, truces, and political participation was hampered by Israel’s aggression and lack of recognition and engagement with Hamas as a political actor. 
  • Israel benefits from Palestinian intragroup conflict sparked by Israeli occupation. 
  • Zuhur offers 11 recommendations based on the analysis, the key points being: 
    • Israel and the United States must recognize and engage Hamas in negotiation and permit its political activity in Palestine. 
    • Moderates on both sides must be strengthened without selective or factionalizing methods. 
    • Critical to the Israel-Palestine peace process is the release of political prisoners by both sides, the deconstruction of settlements in the West Bank, and ending the use of land in the Jordan Valley. 

You can read Gaza, Israel, Hamas and the Lost Calm of Operation Cast Lead” by Sherifa Zuhur in the special Gaza War issue of Middle East Policy. 



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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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