As the latest Egyptian brokered ceasefire appears to hold, both Israel and Hamas are claiming victory. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas admitted that Hamas accepted the same agreement that it initially rejected at the beginning of the war. Why was a ceasefire finally signed at this moment after over a dozen unsuccessful attempts? Despite international pressure to halt the violence, the deteriorating state of Hamas’ capacity and willpower to continue fighting may have reached a breaking point.
War of Attrition
For almost two months, Hamas succeeded in sending millions of Israelis to seek shelter sporadically, disrupting daily economic life in the southern regions, and challenging the power of Israeli public resilience. Hamas rocket fire also forced major airlines to cancel flights to Israel’s international airport for two days. The terrorist organization inflicted an unanticipated level of Israeli combat casualties – 64 soldiers – by adopting innovative guerrilla tactics including booby-trapping homes and conducting deadly raids disguised in Israel Defence Forces (IDF) uniforms. Detailed guerrilla instructions were disclosed in an official Hamas manual that outlined the virtues of converting civilian structures, including schools and hospitals, into military bases of operations, admitting that the IDF is forced to restrain its firepower in an effort to minimize innocent casualties. Even Israeli security officials acknowledged a noticeable improvement in Hamas’ combat effectiveness and commando manoeuvres, indicative of training abroad, from prior military engagements.
Despite some Hamas operational successes, the IDF prevented almost all infiltration attempts into Israel and decimated most of the terrorist group’s missile stockpile and military infrastructure. The IDF killed hundreds of confirmed armed terrorists and the population most characteristic of militants (men ages 20 to 29) was significantly overrepresented in Palestinian death tolls, contradicting the claim that Israel’s targeting was blatantly indiscriminate. Israel’s impressive Iron Dome missile defence system also intercepted approximately 90% of the rockets fired into Israel during the latest conflict. Most importantly, the operation led to the surprising discovery of Hamas’ vast and sophisticated tunnel network that spanned underneath Israeli civilian communities. According to Israeli intelligence, Israel uncovered an extensive Hamas plot to exploit the tunnels for a mass-casualty and kidnapping attack during the upcoming Jewish New Year holiday. The subsequent destruction of the most threatening tunnels, a primary objective of Israel’s military campaign, eliminated a major pillar of Hamas’ strategy and set the organization’s investments back several years and millions of dollars. The IDF effectively neutralized Hamas’ ability to continue waging a futile campaign of attrition and ensured that it failed to achieve its core objectives.
According to Israeli security officials, Hamas operatives became increasingly skeptical about continuing the war in light of Israel’s targeted campaign against commanders of varying degrees, enabling the breakdown of Hamas’s chain of command. In some instances, mid-level commanders deserted the battlefield with their families, concerned that their homes would be destroyed. The growing sense of abandonment was initiated at the start of the conflict, immediately following the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths, as numerous Hamas commanders hid underground leaving junior-level militants and civilians to support themselves. In one case, Hamas commanders allegedly made no effort to rescue 14 Hamas militants trapped for 20 days in a tunnel, as some of the fighters starved to death. The declining state of Hamas’ combat morale reached its lowest point following a wave of targeted killings that eliminated the organization’s most influential military leaders.
Targeted Killing, Summary Executions
The assassination of exceptionally high-level Hamas commanders dealt the most severe blow to the movement’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, since Israel killed its overall commander, Ahmed Jabari, in 2012. The attempted assassination of the current military leader, Muhammad Deif (whose condition has not been confirmed), and subsequent killing of senior commanders – Raed Atar, Muhammad Abu Shamaleh and Muhammad Barhoum – has sent shockwaves throughout the ranks. The men were among the most protected figures in the Gaza Strip; only a relatively small number of individuals knew where the commanders congregated and they spent most of their time moving from one hideout to another. The assassinations represent an extraordinary intelligence infiltration into the highest ranks of Hamas’ military wing, weakening resolve and seeding suspicion within the organization.
Even though terrorism is usually expected to increase in the short-term following targeted assassinations, proponents of targeted killing argue that influential leaders and highly skilled experts are very difficult to replace. The tactic disrupts command and control structures and inhibits decision-making processes, making it increasingly difficult to coordinate attacks. Despite the associated legal and moral ramifications, the United States and other Western governments have now adopted the contentious Israeli policy of targeted killings as part of a broader counterterrorism strategy, viewing the approach as more cost effective and discriminate than military invasions and occupation. Targeted killing also enhances mistrust within the organization, endorsing arbitrary accusations of suspected collaboration with the target state.
Following the latest assassinations, Hamas carried out numerous summary executions of accused Palestinian traitors assisting Israel. Some of the suspected men were shot in the street in front of onlookers in an effort to instil fear throughout Gaza’s society and deter potential collaborators. The public executions emphasize the debilitating panic that has proliferated throughout the organization, forcing the political echelons to re-evaluate its role in potentially micro-managing future terrorist campaigns while wearily seeking future replacements that may never measure up to the stature of the deceased commanders. Growing suspicion of intelligence infiltration throughout the conflict also led to the abandonment of advanced technological equipment, inhibiting communication channels and combat effectiveness. In light of the devastation and disarray, Gaza’s political and military leaders have reportedly forced a stubborn Khaled Mashaal to finally accept the same ceasefire proposal he repeatedly rejected, and continues to oppose, from his luxury Qatari hotel.
Israel’s counter-terrorism operations caused immense disarray among Hamas’ ranks and brought the organization to its knees, accepting the same deal it was offered at the start of the war in order to avoid further degradation. Hamas’ leaders may claim symbolic victory by touting its confrontation with a superior military, gaining skyrocketing domestic support as a result, and successfully producing immense international pressure against Israel. Yet none of the organization’s core demands were met – securing three meagre additional nautical miles of fishing waters and 200 extra meters of border territory is far from the tangible achievements Hamas’ leaders sought. Despite growing popularity, Hamas’ network in the West Bank is threatened following mass Israeli arrests. Subsequent interrogations enabled Israeli intelligence to confirm an extensive Hamas plot to initiate a Third Intifada and overthrow the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, akin to the 2007 coup it launched against Fatah in Gaza. The overwhelming evidence has forced an infuriated Mahmoud Abbas to launch a separate PA investigation and crackdown on Hamas’ presence in the territory. During the war, Fatah also accused Hamas of confiscating humanitarian aid in Gaza and shooting Fatah members in the legs for violating house arrest, augmenting the internal Palestinian rift and threatening the future of the unity government.
While Hamas’ leadership sends mixed signals regarding future negotiations, the organization continues to manufacture rockets and prepare for the next round of fighting, demonstrating its commitment to its ultimate goal of facilitating the erosion of Jewish sovereignty in any form. As Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri recently reaffirmed to a cheering Gaza crowd: “The time has come for us to say that our true war is not aimed at opening the border crossings. Our true war is aimed at the liberation of Jerusalem.”
From Israel’s perspective, neutralizing a significant extent of Hamas’ sophisticated tunnel network, destroying most of its long-range missiles and rocket arsenal, eliminating critical members of the guerrilla leadership, foiling unprecedented terrorist plots, and restoring “quiet” to its citizens constitute notable operational achievements. Explicit military victory is difficult to achieve in modern asymmetrical warfare where the distinction between civilian and combatant is purposefully intertwined by virtue of traditional guerrilla tactics and the state is constrained by mounting international criticism. Success, in this regard, will be evaluated based on the level of perceived deterrence that Israel establishes vis-à-vis Hamas and the duration of the subsequent period of relative calm before the next violent clash erupts.
Michael Shkolnik is a counter-terrorism analyst with a private Washington D.C. based institute and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Shkolnik completed a master’s degree in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security Studies while working with two prestigious national security think tanks in Israel, monitoring Middle East developments, extremist organizations, and state-sponsors of terrorism.
Images courtesy of Godot13 and Wikimedia Creative Commons.