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Why dismantling Hamas won't end Palestinian armed resistance

Why dismantling Hamas won't end Palestinian armed resistance
8 min read
18 October, 2023
Analysis: Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and has the capacity to severely damage its operational abilities, but a new generation of Palestinian armed groups will form if there is no viable political solution to Israel's military occupation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pledge to 'destroy' Hamas has raised fears in the region, and internationally, about the scope of Israel’s anticipated ground invasion in Gaza.

Hamas’ brutal attack on 7 October killed over 1,400 Israelis, both civilians and soldiers, wounded thousands, and saw around 200 hostages taken into Gaza.

The first phase of Israel’s response has been an 11-day bombing campaign in the densely populated Gaza Strip that has killed over 3,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians.

Israel has also imposed a ‘total blockade’ restricting food, water, and other supplies, creating a humanitarian disaster, with the Israeli public now primed for a ground invasion.

However, it’s still unclear what the Israeli military operation will look like, and what it could actually achieve.

Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have repeatedly emphasised that the goal of this war is to eliminate Hamas while seeking support and a green light from the US and other Western powers.

Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since it ousted the Palestinian Authority in 2007, but repeated military operations by Israel have failed to weaken the movement, indeed, they have only made the group stronger.

So can Israel really ‘destroy’ Hamas, and at what cost?

"Israel is now warning of a ground invasion of Gaza to dismantle Hamas. However, this is likely to be a painful operation for Israel. It may resemble the 2006 war, where Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah's military capacities,” Erling Lorentzen Sogge, a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Studies at the University of Oslo, told The New Arab.

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“The most significant gains were made from air attacks, but the ground invasion was a disaster for the IDF, as Hezbollah was fighting on its home turf and resisted the invasion fiercely, leading to many casualties. The IDF troops were forced to withdraw without a clear victory," he said.

Tahani Mustafa, a senior Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told The New Arab that Israel is trying to eradicate the entire Hamas movement and destroy its legitimacy, support, infrastructure, and physical presence.

"However, it misunderstands the context in which Hamas emerged, which was as a response to a military occupation. Hamas doesn't represent anything completely unprecedented or anything unsurprising,” she told TNA.

“At its essence, Hamas is an organised resistance to the Israeli occupation. And even before Hamas and after Hamas, Palestinians will continue to resist the occupation in all its forms."

This is overlooked, or ignored, by Israel, which continues to address the symptoms of its 56-year military occupation of Palestinian territories, and subsequent threats to its national security, rather than the cause.

Israel's 11-day aerial bombardment has killed over 3,000 Palestinians in Gaza. [Getty]

Even if Hamas were to disappear, new Palestinian armed groups would likely continue to emerge to fight Israel’s occupation, with an emerging consensus among rights groups that Israel’s rule classifies as ‘apartheid’.

Furthermore, the violence needed for a military operation to dismantle or weaken Hamas could be self-defeating, generating new forms of armed resistance and the creation of new Palestinian groups.

This is because Israel's calculus for solving its security issues lacks a political solution, without which any military solution cannot bear any sustainable long-term results.

Besides, the emergence of new Palestinian armed groups is not a recent phenomenon. Such groups have formed during both the First and Second Intifadas, or during any period of escalating oppression or further curtailing of Palestinian rights under Israel’s occupation.

In the occupied West Bank, a new generation of Palestinian armed groups with diverse strategies, tactics, and goals have formed since 2021 in response to repressive Israeli policies, an increase in violent raids, continued settlement building, and no political path forward.

From the Nablus-based Lions' Den to the Jenin Brigades, to mention just the two most prominent groups, new Palestinian armed factions are fighting not only against Israel but also to assert their existence within a political framework controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which is also cracking down on them.

Tahani Mustafa, from the International Crisis Group, explained to TNA that this new generation of armed groups is typically composed of young members, usually between 18 and 25, who already have affiliations with more established factions.

The Lions' Den, one of the most high-profile of these new groups, is a good example of this, comprising young members associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Fatah, as evident in much of the Lions' Den communications and symbols.

While these groups often acknowledge Palestinian factions, their aim is to overcome political divisions. This is because contemporary Palestinian politics is more fragmented than ever due to factional conflicts between Hamas and Fatah and internal disputes within parties.

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 "What these [groups] had hoped to do was refocus their attention on the actual root causes of their misery. People often point to corruption and authoritarianism, but these are not the true origins of their suffering; they are symptoms of the occupation. [They] aimed to redirect their energies towards fighting against the root cause of their misery," Mustafa said.

Given the discrepancy in terms of military power between Israel and these new Palestinian armed groups, the latter tend to have a defensive posture inside refugee camps and neighbourhoods, especially during Israeli search and arrest operations.

Mustafa highlighted that they try not to specifically target Israeli civilians while conducting operations against checkpoints and military outposts because they understand the collective punishment it will bring to their communities, the type of policy now pursued in Gaza today with Israel’s mass retaliatory bombing campaign in response to Hamas’ attack.

However, attacks on Israeli military personnel and civilians have taken the form of lone-wolf operations, which are separate from the activities of these groups, although they may still celebrate such actions.

Palestinian militants fire into the air during the funeral of Tamer al-Kilani, a founding member of Lions' Den armed group, in the city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on 23 October 2022. [Getty]

"Their goal is just to fight Israel. They don't have a clear objective in mind. They don't have a clear structure. They don't have a proper leadership," Mustafa said.

The fluidity of these new groups, which is indicative of their lack of a well-established organisational structure, does not, however, prevent them from becoming targets of both Israel and the PA.

Sogge points out that the decline in legitimacy and popularity of the PA has eroded the Palestinian people’s trust in its ability to represent them. In response, new militant groups have emerged but face challenges due to the PA's security measures. 

The groups operate differently in various areas within the occupied West Bank, with the PA maintaining more control in some areas, like Nablus, and less control in others, like Jenin. 

"New militant networks operate independently of the traditional Fatah framework, cooperating among different factions. So far, these groups haven't posed a significant challenge to the IDF in the West Bank, as it relies on the PA to curtail them," Sogge said.

Mustafa added that Israel and the PA often try to exaggerate the level of threat posed by these groups for their own interests.

On one hand, Israel uses these groups to pursue its security discourse and implement hard-line policies against Palestinians. On the other, the rise of these groups has allowed the PA to receive an influx of funding and logistical support to crack down on them.

"Israel needs the PA to help fight this threat, and the PA doesn't like competition or any dissent. These groups may not be fighting the PA today, but they may potentially tomorrow. And that terrifies the PA and Fatah," Mustafa said.

But in the broader context of Israel’s war on Gaza, the fate of Hamas may impact the future of a new generation of Palestinian armed groups. 

Mustafa presents two scenarios. If Hamas resists Israel, it could inspire armed resistance among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Conversely, if Hamas fails, it might indicate the weakening of armed resistance.

This is because although Hamas doesn't have direct control over these groups due to the presence of the PA, it provides funding to specific segments within these groups and offers them some guidance.

Sogge also points to the challenges for Hamas in establishing a presence in the West Bank. While Hamas doesn't fund any specific military group there, it may provide funding to individual actors who can cooperate with others, bypassing the control of the PA.

"I think it would be difficult for Hamas to gain a significant organisational or military presence there as long as the PA remains adamant to crack down on armed groups," he told TNA.

However, Sogge argues that the brutality and scale of Hamas' latest attacks could change the equation. Hamas is now 'inviting' the Israeli army into an open confrontation on its home turf in Gaza.

"The situation is extremely precarious and could end with the fall of Hamas as the ruling party in Gaza, and maybe, the movement shifting its orientation from running a dysfunctional quasi-state to more of a militant actor engaging in underground operations," he said.

But regardless of the outcome, any Israeli military operation in Gaza will primarily address the symptoms, Palestinian armed groups, and not the root cause, Israel’s occupation, perpetuating a cycle that has persisted for decades, with new Palestinian armed groups likely emerging in different forms until a political solution is realised.

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi