Will Israel Crush Hamas and Seek Regime Change in Gaza?

  • 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.

By Middle East Policy

Military experts tell Middle East Policy that while the scale of destruction is different, neither side is likely to achieve a strategic victory. 

As Israel responds to the worst land, sea, and air assault on its territory in 50 years, its leader has declared that “Hamas is ISIS” and its military has vowed that its retaliation should “change the paradigm” in Gaza, the long-blockaded territory holding more than two million Palestinians. But while the country’s goal may be to crush Hamas’s military capabilities and the response may involve much heavier strikes and ground operations than in wars over the last two decades, scholars tell Middle East Policy that Israel is not likely to seek regime change. 

“It’ll focus on degrading the capabilities of Hamas in order to ‘restore’ what the Israeli government considers to be the right balance,” argued Jean-Loup Samaan, whose analysis of Israeli military doctrine appears in the newly published fall issue of Middle East Policy. “But then, it echoes wars of 2008 or 2014 and means that the operation may not achieve much more than the previous ones.” Samaan was interviewed via email. 

Those two Israel-Hamas conflicts, plus one in 2012, resulted in stalemates that neither side could claim to be a strategic victory that changes the status quo, Gadi Hitman and Alona Itskovich contend in another article in the Fall 2023 issue. Instead, they write, neither side was “able to produce a critical mass of tactical and operational wins to serve their security, economic, and political interests.” Indeed, they question whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would want to take responsibility for governing Gaza in the event of Hamas’s collapse. 

Asked whether they believe this far more deadly and penetrating assault would change Israel’s strategic calculations, Hitman and Itskovich acknowledged that it may be too early to understand Netanyahu’s intentions. However, the scholars from the Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science Department at Ariel University told Middle East Policy, “Our understanding is that Israel, beyond the painful strike it seeks to inflict on Hamas, is not preparing for the change in the strategic balance that would make it easier for it to achieve a strategic victory and/or systemic victory.” 

While Israel may not be contemplating a full change to the status quo that has prevailed for more than 15 years, with Hamas administering Gaza, these scholars acknowledged that the attacks demonstrate that the organization has dramatically increased its military capacity beyond a reliance on rocket attacks. 

“The first day of the war demonstrated the ability of Hamas to use those rocket and missile attacks as a first phase before a wide campaign of cross-border infiltrations (on the ground, in the air, and at sea),” Samaan, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore, said. “In itself, infiltration tactics are not new as we saw in the past with the ‘tunnel wars’ between the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] and Hamas in 2014. But the whole execution of the strategy (its scale and pace) was really a major surprise.” 

Over the weekend, Hamas conducted the largest attack on Israel since the 1973 war, infiltrating at least 22 towns by air, land, and sea to terrorize and kill civilians and soldiers. In addition to leaving more than 900 people dead, the group took roughly 150 hostages back to Gaza. Hamas, which has administered the territory since 2007, has threatened to execute one hostage for every Israeli attack on civilians. 

In response, Israel has extended its long-running blockade of Gaza by cutting off electricity, fuel, and food. The military reports that it has largely regained control of the border and that, in its sweeps through the territory assaulted by Gaza, it killed more than 1,500 Hamas fighters. The death toll in Gaza is more than 800, according to officials there. 

Hitman and Itskovich told Middle East Policy in an email interview that Hamas has scored tactical and operational wins, “much more than the movement thought it would achieve.” However, they are skeptical that the group will be able to notch a strategic victory that changes the facts on the ground. “Much will depend on the military power that Hamas will have left after war and in the political settlement that will be reached between the parties,” they said. 

While the Israeli military appears to be using the language of regime change, it is not clear whether it would be capable of administering Gaza were it to wipe out the governing authority.  

Over the last four years, Samaan shows in his Middle East Policy article, the IDF has tried to institute sometimes-painful reforms as part of a response to the increasing threat from nonstate actors. A new concept unveiled in 2020, Decisive Victory, “involves swift offensive operations relying on the use of smaller units supported by massive firepower,” writes Samaan.  

The goal is to prevent a wider war, for instance involving Hezbollah and Iran. While Israel has taken fire from the north over the last few days, it does not appear that the conflict will expand this way.  

More important, perhaps, the new military doctrine does not contemplate “phase four operations,” in which armed forces administer a territory whose government has been vanquished. “Decisive Victory is supposed to provide a response at the operational level—to destroy the capabilities of Hamas—but it does not address the political implications that come with it,” Samaan told Middle East Policy

You can read Samaan’s article, “‘Decisive Victory’ and Israel’s Quest for a New Military Strategy,” for free on the Middle East Policy Council’s website.

The analysis by Hitman and Itskovich, “The Winner Does Not Take All: Lessons from the Israel-Hamas Conflict,” is available for reading without charge this month.

In addition to the articles by Samaan and by Hitman and Itskovich from its Fall 2023 issue, Middle East Policy has long provided readers with analyses of Israel’s security, justice in Palestine, and other issues of vital importance to regional peace. You can find links to those articles below.

“Hezbollah’s Coercion and the Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal,” Daniel Sobelman, Middle East Policy, Summer 2023.

“Assessing Israel’s Motives in Annexing the Jordan Valley,” by Fadi Nahhas, Middle East Policy, Summer 2023.

“The Iran-Israel Conflict: An Ultra-Ideological Explanation,” by Farshad Roomi, Middle East Policy, Summer 2023.

“Popular Resistance against Israeli Territorial Expropriation: Beita as a Model,” by Oqab Jabali, Middle East Policy, Winter 2022.

“Israel’s Periphery Doctrines: Then and Now,” by Yoel Guzansky, Middle East Policy, Winter 2021.

  • 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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