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Can Hamas really be completely 'eliminated'?

December 11, 2023

The short answer, military analysts say, is "no." The long answer is more complex. Israel's campaign may degrade the group's capabilities but defeating its ideology is likely impossible without a political solution.

Israeli soldiers patrol in northern Gaza.
Israel has vowed to eliminate HamasImage: Toshiyuki Fukushima/Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Israeli government has been clear. The militant group Hamas will be "eliminated," many senior members of government, including the country's prime minister, have all said.

On certain Israeli television channels, slogans such as "Together we will win" appear regularly. But is it really possible to completely eliminate Hamas and "win" in a situation like this?

The short answer, as experts have repeatedly said, is no.

Israel has been bombing the Gaza Strip, home to more than two million Palestinians, since the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Germany, the European Union, the US and others. Israel has also launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip and is blocking the delivery of food, water and power into the enclave.

Despite this, most analysts say that it won't be possible to get rid of Hamas altogether, the main reason being that Hamas is more than just a militant organization.

Palestinians evacuate a wounded woman following Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip.
As civilian casualties mount in Gaza, Israel is under international pressure to better define its goalsImage: Mohammed Dahman/AP Photo/picture alliance

Hamas as a social movement

Hamas has an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, Guido Steinberg, an expert on the Middle East at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW recently. But, he added, "it is also a social movement with mass support in the Gaza Strip. And that is the problem in the long run."

Hamas has been in de facto control of the Gaza Strip since 2007, and as part of its social movement, there is a welfare network known as "dawah." This civilian network is thought to have between 80,000 and 90,000 members.

Dawah means "call" or "invitation" and is historically defined as a way of calling or inviting more believers to one's faith through social outreach, the Oxford Dictionary of Islam explains.

Isreal "would love to eradicate Hamas as an institution, as a political, religious and cultural structure, and as a military structure," Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University in New York told the Spanish newspaper El Pais, in late October.

"I don't think they can do the first two things," he argued. "Whether they kill all their leaders, whether they kill all the armed militants, Hamas will remain as a political force, whether the Israelis occupy Gaza or leave. So destroying Hamas as a political institution, destroying Hamas as an idea, is impossible."

Hamas does not recognize the state of Israel. The group believes that religion should be the basis of any Palestinian government. But it is probably its self-described position as a resistance movement opposed to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the Gaza Strip that makes it most popular. 

However, Khalidi added, what the Israelis may well be able to do is degrade Hamas' military capabilities, "but only to a limited extent and period."

Destroying Hamas' military potential

Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, ranking 18th out of 145 nations in 2023 on Global Firepower's annual list of armed strength. For comparison, Germany sits in 25th place. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that last year Israel spent 4.5% of its national income on defense — that's more than the US or Germany, which spent 3.5% and 1.4% respectively.

Meanwhile, Hamas' military wing operates more like a guerilla group and has smuggled most of its weapons into the Gaza Strip.

So Israel certainly has the resources to degrade Hamas and hunt down its leaders. Although the numbers cannot be independently verified, the Israeli government said recently it believes it has killed between 5,000 and 7,000 Hamas fighters. 

People remove rubble near a mosque destroyed by Israeli strikes.
After Israeli bombing, only the minaret of one of Gaza's mosques remainsImage: Doaa Rouqa/REUTERS

If true, this could be seen as a partial success because weakening Hamas may well be the best that can be expected. "Some Western officials believe that the Israeli offensive to date, combined with upgraded border security, has made sure that Hamas will not launch another attack like that of 7 October," experts at the think tank International Crisis Group wrote last week.

"As Hamas did after conflicts with Israel in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021, the group will almost certainly rearm and restore," Dennis Ross, a former US envoy to the Middle East, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times in late October. That is why, he explained, he was against a ceasefire until Hamas had been removed from power.

Very hard to defeat guerilla groups

At the same time, very few national militaries have managed to decisively defeat guerilla organizations in the past.

Unsuccessful examples include the US efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgent groups in Iraq. The Sri Lankan government's defeat of the separatist rebel group Tamil Tigers in that nation's civil war is often cited as a case where a national army did win. But, as is also often pointed out, that victory took 26 years of war, a death toll of between 80,000 to 100,000, and potential war crimes committed by both sides.

In fact, in some situations where an insurgent group's capabilities were degraded but it managed to survive, the group re-emerged later in a more extremist form. A common example is the brutal "Islamic State" group, which evolved out of the remnants of Al-Qaida.

Israel itself has never managed to defeat Hamas conclusively, despite assassinating a number of its leaders, including two founders of the group.

Aid agencies warn conditions in Gaza getting worse

How to kill an idea?

"The [Israeli] military can do the best job they can. They could eliminate the leadership. They can destroy missile launching facilities," Justin Crump, a terrorism expert who heads Sibylline Ltd, a global intelligence and risk analysis consultancy, said. "But they won't eliminate the idea of Hamas."

Destroying Hamas by military means makes no sense, Crump told DW, because "while some Gazans are turning against Hamas, other people in Gaza sympathize with Hamas. They will resent Israel for these actions, and that is going to fuel the cycle [of violence] as it always has done — unless there is a very big change at the end of this."

"After more than two months of intense Israeli operations, it is evident that eradicating Hamas, even as a fighting force, will be a tall order and the push to do so will destroy what is left of Gaza," a policy briefing by the think tank International Crisis Group, or ICS, published on December 9, concluded.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, over 18,000 people have been killed by Israel and over 49,500 injured in just two months; an estimated 61% of those killed are civilians, according to an analysis by Yagil Levy, a sociology professor at the Open University of Israel and cited by Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Over half of all Gaza's buildings have been destroyed, and 90% of the population is now displaced.  

"Netanyahu claims that Hamas's destruction will enable the 'deradicalization' of Gaza, but the opposite is likely," ICS experts wrote. "The campaign underway and its aftermath will produce new, perhaps still more tenacious forms of militancy."

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.