Hamas at the Crossroads

Bilal Y. Saab
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

January 30, 2009

Key Points:

  • The three-week war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel has once again underscored the many challenges the former faces in terms of its own survival as a coherent and relevant entity in local and regional politics.
  • Hamas’s challenges are many and can be largely divided into two broad categories: one, its future relationship with the Palestinian people and the vision it offers to them; two, its own structural problems.
  • Absent serious internal reform and spiritual awakening, Hamas is destined to become an irrelevant and perhaps more radical Palestinian faction whose only resources are blind defiance and empty rhetoric.

Hamas officials recently emerged from weeks in hiding for a defiant ‘victory celebration’ with their supporters, a sign that Israel’s three-week assault neither broke the group nor weakened its control of Gaza. Entire neighbourhoods are in ruins, but Hamas police officers are on the streets, assuring Palestinians that they’ll rebuild the territory. Meanwhile, Hamas members are handing out money to some of the thousands of families who lost their homes. However imaginary, the mood within Hamas is celebratory.

On the streets of Gaza, support for Hamas remains strong, but in private expressions of anger, fear, and exhaustion are heard. Gazans also grumble about Hamas’ poor military performance. Of Israel’s 13 army and civilian fatalities, Israel acknowledges only six soldiers directly killed by Hamas – and claim to have killed hundreds of Hamas members. Israeli officials also claim the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) sharply degraded Hamas’s ability to fire rockets at Israeli cities. At the start of the war, Hamas was firing up to 80 rockets a day, but by the end, that number dropped to no more than 20. Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades say they killed 49 Israelis and lost 48 of their own. These figures are virtually impossible to independently verify.

Inferior fighting capabilities notwithstanding, what does the future hold for Hamas? While it will regroup in the short term and re-arm in the medium term, how will it confront its internal challenges in the longer term, namely its relationship with the Palestinian people, as well as its own structural problems?

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