On Oct. 11, four days after the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said, “We will wipe this thing called Hamas, ISIS-Gaza, off the face of the earth. It will cease to exist.” Since then, the Israeli emergency government has remained unwavering in its commitment to destroy Hamas. But is this goal achievable through a military operation?
In the U.S. intelligence community, the first lesson of Counterterrorism 101 is that even with the best technology, advanced weapons and superior operators, you can never truly eradicate a terrorist organization. Terrorists represent an ideology, which no number of strikes will destroy.
Israel is certainly impeding some of Hamas’ ground capabilities. It’s destroying munitions and tunnels that the terror group, which is backed by Iran, uses as its sanctuary in northern Gaza. But over the last 30 years, Hamas has consistently proven that munitions and rockets are replaceable.
Historically, Hamas has taken a few years to replenish its arsenals. But the speed of that replenishment seems to have increased. In 2021, it deployed more rockets than in previous fighting. Only 2½ years later, on Oct. 7, it demonstrated even more robust and improved capabilities. The group seems to have no obstacles to rebuilding, restocking, upgrading and training, likely due to the estimated hundreds of miles of tunnel complexes it operates, mainly in southern Gaza, close to the Egyptian border. So, if Israel has limited time in Gaza and wants to end Hamas’ military capabilities, it must focus on the smuggling tunnels, not the militant hiding spots.
If Israel has limited time in Gaza and wants to end Hamas’ military capabilities, it must focus on the smuggling tunnels, not the militant hiding spots.
Israel’s offensive is managing to kill mid-level Hamas commanders and degrade the group’s fighting numbers, according to the Israel Defense Forces. But Hamas has proven these roles are easily replaceable as well. The sad truth is that while most of the world looked on in horror as the Oct. 7 attacks unfolded, new generations of would-be jihadists cheered. Hamas propelled itself forward as their new champion.
Now, Israel’s continued operations in Gaza are fueling Hamas’ recruitment efforts and anti-Israel campaign to fill the gaps in its ranks. So what else can Israel do? We recommend it focus on three crucial objectives.
Target those up top. Hamas’ real strategic leaders do not live in Gaza. They have billions of dollars, enjoy ritzy lives of luxury in Doha, Qatar, and elsewhere in the region, and travel throughout the Middle East unaffected. They seek and secure Hamas’ funding streams from global donors, determine how the money is allocated and define the operational objectives. These are the true Hamas leaders – not the Gaza-based militants – who will sit down with leaders of Iran and its other proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, to map out the next terrorist attacks.
Israeli national security and diplomatic agencies should prioritize efforts against Hamas leadership. This includes increasing international pressure to detain Hamas leaders wherever they are so they can’t orchestrate terrorist attacks. Even if all the leaders are not detained, it would be helpful to at least force them into hiding so that they can no longer perform strategic duties. By cutting off Hamas from these leaders, Israel can render the group more of a radicalized gang – and more dangerous to itself. Gangs without guidance or resources tend to fragment and fall into infighting.
Cut off funding. With help from the many other nations that also see Iran and its proxies as a threat, Israel needs to break the financial supply to Hamas from Iran, Qatar and other wealthy donors. Sanctions from the U.S., the United Kingdom, the European Union and elsewhere are not cutting it. Iran evades them.
Israel needs to lead the way in uncovering and halting the money trails. In essence, this funding is Hamas’ ultimate means of survival – not just as a terrorist group, but as a force maintaining tight control over Gaza.
Seize the narrative to drive a wedge. Hamas has largely controlled the narrative of this war, fueling its recruitment efforts. This must end. And if the group returns all the Israeli hostages, remaining international appetite for Israel to destroy Hamas infrastructure will quickly dissipate.
Most importantly, Israel needs to win the narrative close to home, with Palestinians themselves. There are Palestinians who oppose Hamas. Many are afraid to speak up or take any action, particularly given the group’s history of torturing and killing political dissenters. Just last week, two men were killed by another Palestinian faction in the West Bank for alleged “collaboration” with Israel, their bodies dragged through the streets and hung before a cheering mob.
Israel needs to drive a wedge between the Palestinian population and Hamas. America learned this in Iraq. Once local Iraqi groups were willing to trust and collaborate with U.S. forces, they stood up to al-Qaeda in Iraq and degraded its capability. But then, U.S. forces left – and the Islamic State group emerged. So while the idea is not politically appealing, the IDF must be prepared to serve as a security force on the ground for a very long time, protecting Palestinian people from Hamas and helping them build a stronger, more capable government.
Ultimately, only Gazans can be the ones to turn the tide against Hamas. However, they’re unlikely to do so if Israel continues down its current operational path.