Gaza's war is shaping the Hamas of tomorrow: Less politics, more tactics

The militant group is set to ensure its continued presence in the Strip and the Palestinian political sphere

Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza. The group's popularity as a resistance movement has grown among Palestinians. AP Photo
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Gaza's war is altering the political and military landscape for Hamas, allowing the once-unfavoured Islamist group to secure a long-lasting foothold in the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Postwar planning for the Gaza Strip will clearly happen with input from Hamas, owing to Israel’s failure to achieve its sworn goal of eliminating the Iran-backed militants.

Questions, however, remain about what kind of Hamas will emerge from the battles and tunnels of Gaza after it managed to hold off the mighty Israeli army for nearly four months.

Experts and officials suggest that the group is expected to shift its focus, probably moving away from major political commitments to concentrate more on defining itself as a national liberation movement.

Meanwhile, despite its failure, Israel has remained adamant that it would impose its own vision in postwar Gaza – ranging from the establishment of an Israeli-installed civilian administration to the forced displacement of Gazans to an artificial island.

“It's unrealistic,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

“We’re talking about a conflict that has entered the fourth month, so it's difficult to see this reality change overnight.”

Political observers say the proposals show a vast disconnect between what Israel wants and the reality on the ground: in addition to maintaining its military capability by employing attrition warfare tactics, Hamas still holds an unknown number of Israeli captives who are being used as bargaining chips in the hope of achieving a long-term ceasefire. This gives Hamas the upper hand in negotiations.

“They [Hamas] are the ones that are in a position to negotiate demands,” Tahani Mustafa, senior Palestine analyst at the Crisis Group told The National.

I wouldn't say this [war] is a political win for Hamas, but it certainly has left them in a much stronger position
Tahani Mustafa, senior Palestine analyst at the Crisis Group

But Hamas’s leverage, which is now reshaping its political and military landscape, has come at a staggering human cost: more than 26,000 Gazans have been killed by Israel’s assault on the besieged enclave, 90 per cent of Gaza’s population has been internally displaced, whole areas of the enclave annihilated, and a quarter of Gaza’s population is starving.

“I wouldn't say this [war] is a political win for Hamas, but it certainly has left them in a much stronger position,” said Ms Mustafa.

What is Hamas’s future?

Israel lacks the advantage to impose its own postwar vision. Meanwhile, Hamas has maintained its military capability and leadership in the ravaged coastal strip, giving it the political leverage to negotiate a ceasefire and, potentially, steer negotiations towards a future political settlement.

According to Ms Mustafa, even the United States has had to “at least, behind closed doors, admit that any kind of postwar planning will have to have some kind of consensus from Hamas”.

In the near term, Hamas is attempting to achieve a prolonged ceasefire by capitalising on Israel’s need to release its citizens held captive in Gaza.

The group’s long-term strategy includes establishing a Palestinian unity government, key to a future Palestinian state.

Earlier this month Osama Hamdan, a member of Hamas’s exiled leadership in Lebanon, told The National that the group was in dialogue with various Palestinian factions to establish a new administration in postwar Gaza and, potentially, in the occupied West Bank.

“All agree that the form of the next phase is a Palestinian national decision,” he said at the time.

He envisioned the first step in a postwar Gaza to be the establishment of a Palestinian “transitional interim government” to oversee relief and construction efforts, followed by “general elections in which the Palestinian people elect their leadership”.

At the same time, Hamas faces many obstacles to achieving its goal of a Palestinian unity government.

First, Israel could potentially decide to forge on in its brutal offensive on the ravaged enclave for months to come, in an attempt to establish full control there. But – despite Israeli political blustering – that scenario is unlikely, according to Mr Hage Ali, because it would come at great cost to its international standing.

Second, the decaying Palestinian Authority, although less popular than ever, is still considered by the international community to be the legitimate governing body of the Palestinian territories.

Third, there is the question of who would head such a government. Most Palestinian factions agree that imprisoned political figure Marwan Barghouti would be the first choice for a future head of state. But this would be contingent on Hamas’s success in negotiating a prisoner swap with Israel to free Palestinian political detainees in exchange for the Israeli hostages.

Popular legitimacy

Palestinians had grown increasingly disillusioned with their political leadership before October 7, as Israeli settlement expansion continued unchecked in the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip entered its seventeenth year.

The possibility of Palestinian statehood appeared increasingly slim.

Although deadly and heavily criticised by the international community, the October 7 operation in which around 1,200 Israelis were killed when Hamas’s armed wing infiltrated southern Israel, is credited as being the catalyst to bringing the issue of Palestinian statehood to the forefront of international consciousness.

As a result, Hamas’s popularity as a resistance movement has grown among Palestinians.

“In the absence of any alternatives at this point, younger generations – especially over the last few years – have been swayed towards armed resistance because they feel like conciliatory politics or diplomacy doesn't work with Israel,” Ms Mustafa explained.

According to a poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in December, Hamas’s popularity has surged more than three-fold in the West Bank following October 7, with 44 per cent of people supporting the group – up from just 12 per cent in September.

In Gaza, support for Hamas went up to 42 per cent from 38 per cent in September.

“In the absence of alternatives, Hamas will certainly continue to find relevance,” Ms Mustafa said. “Especially now as we have more of a political vacuum than we did before October 7,” due to the growing marginalisation of the Palestinian Authority.

The perception that Hamas can impose its conditions towards a ceasefire, and, potentially, a future political settlement, has further empowered the militant group.

“Now Hamas just has to convince Palestinians that with their resistance they can achieve a political process by imposing conditions on Israel – instead of being on the receiving end of Israel’s policy,” Mr Hage Ali said.

Hamas’s governance burden

The group has signalled that it does not want control of Gaza, the PA presidency, or any ministerial jobs in postwar arrangements, despite all but ensuring its continued presence in the Gaza Strip and in the Palestinian political sphere.

Administration of the Strip has been a burden on the group, Ms Mustafa and Mr Hage Ali told The National.

October 7 was a key turning point for the movement’s transition from governance. Its focus now appears to be on its resistance model in the occupied territories, and in neighbouring countries that host large numbers of Palestinian refugees.

“The goal is not Hamas. The goal is resistance,” Hamas official Ayman Shanaa admitted to The National last week from his office in Lebanon’s southern city of Saida.

Hamas wants “to let go of any administrative control in Gaza because they recognise that it has been disastrous for Hamas as a movement, for the people in Gaza, and in [rest of] the occupied territories,” Ms Mustafa explained.

According to her, the movement aims for representation within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Joining the PLO – a Palestinian national coalition – would give the group political power within the organisation, which is widely recognised as the main representative of the Palestinian people, without becoming bogged down in administrative issues.

“Hamas derives its legitimacy as a resistance movement. As an administrative entity it is deeply unpopular,” Ms Mustafa said, adding that Hamas is widely seen as an inefficient administrator of Gaza.

But “when it comes to resistance, its popularity and legitimacy skyrocket”.

The future

Nearly four months into the war, it remains difficult to see a clear solution.

Israel, unable to defeat Hamas so far, has forged on in a brutal offensive on the Gaza Strip that various human rights groups, as well as the UN, have described as collective punishment in breach of international law.

The International Court of Justice, the UN's highest court has ordered Israel to take all measures to prevent genocide against Gazans on Friday, and allow vital aid into the Strip, but stopped short of demanding a halt to its war.

The verdict was welcomed by the Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al Maliki, who said it was an important reminder "that no state is above the law".

Despite continuing talks mediated by Egypt and Qatar, agreement over any potential ceasefire remains tentative.

Hamas demands a full ceasefire and the release of all political prisoners; Israel is only prepared to accept a pause in the fighting that could potentially be extended.

Earlier this week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that nothing short of “absolute victory” in Gaza would be accepted.

Meanwhile, Israel and its western allies will likely continue to demand that Hamas be removed from power in Gaza.

Mr Shanaa, the Hamas official, scoffed at the idea. “Only winners can impose equations on the other. The loser can't impose an equation.”

And, while Hamas has not won the war in the traditional sense, it needs to do little to retain its upper hand.

“Hamas is not an organisation [that can be removed],” Mr Shanaa told The National. “Hamas is an idea. It is a resistance.”

Updated: February 01, 2024, 7:16 AM