The straightforward answer to whether Hamas can be defeated and obliterated in Gaza is no. Because this objective lacks an understanding of Hamas's role and its complexities within Palestinian society, both in Gaza and beyond.
The methods previously used by the Palestinian Authority (PA), along with Israel’s coercive power that has devastated the Gaza Strip, are unlikely to completely dismantle Hamas.
Between 1994 and 2002, the Palestinian Authority significantly clamped down on Hamas. It dried up their financial resources, restricted the movements of its members, and barred them from public employment, including in the educational and health sectors. Despite these measures, Hamas managed to survive. It established parallel and clandestine institutions that ensured the continuation of its activities at various levels and in different ways within the Gaza Strip. Years-long efforts, undertaken in collaboration with Israel and several Palestinian security agencies, ultimately failed to dismantle Hamas. This culminated in Hamas overpowering these efforts in 2007.
In a similar vein, Israel’s current campaign in Gaza, aimed at eliminating Hamas and terminating its presence, is an unattainable goal. Israel’s actions will certainly weaken Hamas's military capacity to attack Israel and launch rockets for some time, but they will not end its support among Palestinians, especially outside the Gaza Strip. Recent polls in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip indicate that support for Hamas has increased compared to three months ago. In December 2023, support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip stood at 42%, up from 38% in September 2023, while support for Fatah was at 18%, down from 25% in September 2023. However, based on my experience and research, this surge in support for Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank should be approached with scepticism. The increase in support is not solely due to Hamas's leading role in the current conflict with Israel. Other factors have also contributed to this surge in popularity.
Last year, I visited the Gaza Strip after sixteen years living abroad. During my visit, it was evident that the locals were dissatisfied with Hamas's governance. According to the Arab Barometer, in 2022 approximately 23% of respondents expressed significant trust in Hamas, whereas 52% reported having no trust at all. It is crucial to note that this lack of trust extends to other Palestinian political parties, including Fatah. In March 2023, 71% of Gaza's population perceived Hamas’s institutions as corrupt, while 81% believed the PA was corrupt. Over the last decade, Palestinians in Gaza have protested against Hamas's performance, particularly criticizing imposed taxation, lack of opportunities, and poor services. This sentiment, however, does not equate to an outright rejection of Hamas as a resistance movement. Despite resentment towards Hamas for 15 years of alleged control and corruption, not all Gazans want to see it gone. Gazans desire change, but not necessarily a return to the PA and Fatah, which have very low levels of trust. What they seek is a partnership that embraces democratic governance and the rule of law.
Many of the Palestinians in Gaza who are critical of Hamas distinguish between its military resistance, represented by the military wing Al-Qassam, and its governance of the Gaza Strip. Essentially, they support the resistance against the occupation by Hamas and other factions, but do not necessarily agree with the way Hamas administers civil affairs. This distinction is reflected in December 2023 PCRS opinion polls: while 37% of Gaza residents disagreed with the actions taken on 7 October, a majority—56%—believe that armed struggle is the only path to an independent Palestinian state and the end of Israel’s occupation—a rise from 50% in September 2023. Support for Hamas therefore arises directly from Palestinian grievances and the absence of any political and peaceful settlements. The failure of the Oslo Accords, coupled with corruption within the PA, has led the majority of Palestinians to agree that Hamas's agenda of military struggle is the only viable option left. These sentiments will help sustain support for Hamas’s operations despite significant challenges. Recently, Hamas disengaged from the Muslim Brotherhood, which further enhanced its nationalist credentials and motivations.
With the ongoing war in Gaza, where more than 64% of the population has killed or injured at least one family member, belief in the legitimacy of armed resistance will probably strengthen as grievances increase. Unless an alternative to Hamas emerges, the majority of Palestinians are likely to maintain their support for armed struggle. This does not necessarily imply active membership or even sympathy with Hamas, but rather a trust in the efficacy of armed resistance. But there is the potential for sympathizers to become more active if no alternatives present themselves. Fatah, Islamic Jihad, Palestinian Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and others do exist as alternatives; however, these groups lack the necessary resources, experiences, and mobilization capacity.
Another important factor that makes eliminating Hamas impossible is its characteristics. Hamas is akin to a chimera from Greek mythology, embodying traits of various entities: it operates as a social movement, military organization, rebel group, governing body, political party, and has been labelled both a terrorist group and a freedom fighter group. Such multifaceted characteristics are rare, enabling it to become deeply ingrained in Palestinian society and adapt its form and function to meet different challenges and opportunities. In her study of Hamas institutions and their development, Sara Roy found that their embeddedness in civil society is more developed than previously thought. In his analyses of Hamas’s security forces after 2007, Yezid Sayegh examined how it professionalized them into a state-run police and security apparatus.
Pursuing such an entity is like chasing a ghost. Hamas is a visible yet also elusive target. While it may be attacked, pinpointing it with precision often proves elusive.
In addition, Hamas has long employed political clannism, leveraging the loyalty of strong clan members. This approach facilitates mobilization through family networks, mosques, and community engagement at neighborhood and street levels. Such deeply rooted social structures cannot be dismantled without extreme measures. The complete elimination of this network would require actions against every single Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza—a clearly impossible mission.
In the West Bank, with a population of more than 2.5 million, Hamas enjoys significantly greater popularity than in Gaza. The trust in Hamas and the belief that it represents the will and aspirations of Palestinians are heightened. This can be attributed to the perceived inaction of the PA, the aggressive behaviour of Israeli settlers, and the daily confrontations Palestinians experience with the Israeli army.
Another important factor is the regional dynamics. Hamas is a member of a regional alliance that includes Iran, Hezbollah, Iraqi Islamic militias, and the Houthis in Yemen. This 'resistance front' provides a protective network that ensures Hamas's survival. As long as this alliance endures, eliminating Hamas is unfeasible. The alliance offers a safeguard that keeps Hamas operational and functional, even in times when it might otherwise be weakened. As we have seen in the last two months, Hizballah, Houthi of Yemen, and the Iraqi Islamic resistance have been engaged, signalling that Hamas’s war is their own war. This factor is determinant in ensuring Hamas’s survival and strength as an alliance.
Taking all this into consideration, while it is possible to weaken Hamas, outright elimination is neither feasible nor achievable. Historical experience demonstrates that force and violence can often yield counterproductive outcomes, as evidenced by the bolstering of Hamas in the face of previous crackdowns and Israel’s 16-year siege on the Gaza Strip. Hamas is deeply integrated within the fabric of Palestinian society, making its elimination virtually impossible. This explains why Israel’s current military operation in the Gaza Strip is not exclusively targeting Hamas, but also civilian populations and institutions, in an effort to render the Gaza Strip uninhabitable.