What is Hamas trying to achieve?

To an ignorant observer, the recent escalation between Israel and Gaza might seem like just the latest episode in this human drama

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

To an ignorant observer, the recent escalation between Israel and Gaza might seem like just the latest episode in a human drama that we have become accustomed to in the Holy Land. And, though perhaps not for quite the expected reasons, that observer would probably be right. Israelis would claim that this recent episode ostensibly arose out of the heinous murder of three Jewish teenage boys. On the other hand, Palestinian sources would trace it back even further to similar murders of Palestinian teenage boys, earlier in the year. But ultimately, and without meaning to diminish the human tragedy in any of these singular events, they are not the root causes of what is happening now. Instead, they seem to be just a convenient pretext to deeper local politics. And that is the real tragedy of this latest Gaza story.

Allow me to explain. On my recent trip to Israel, I met both senior Israeli and Palestinian officials including current and former members of their respective cabinets. I learnt from my Palestinian sources that Hamas is essentially bankrupt. They have been unable to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of their staff for a while now, according to my sources. They were heavily reliant on support from Syria, Iran along with the Rafah crossing and hundreds of smuggling tunnels from Egypt to sustain them all of which have diminished recently.

When the very existence of Hamas hangs by a thread, the reality is that the more severe a reaction we see from Israel, the better the future looks for Hamas

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

When the Hamas leadership reached their financial limit, the Palestinian Authority agreed to step in and pay all salaries of the civil administrators and social workers in Gaza, my sources said. In exchange, the Palestinian Authority (PA) asked Hamas to make many concessions, including modifying its charter towards a more moderate and functional position. For example, the PA asked Hamas to recognize the State of Israel, according to what I have been told, and also form a unity government with the PA .

The problem with this is that it presents an existential threat to Hamas. Hamas arose as a radical, direct action alternative to the perceived weakness and failures of the Palestinian Authority. It is supposed to be, by definition, the active revolutionary cure to the sclerotic, corrupt and “self-defeatingly” compliant PA. If it is tamed, if it is brought into the fold of conciliatory, moderate politics, it loses its raison d’etre. In other words, Hamas’s real and somewhat justified fear is that if this course of events continues in this manner, it will simply be absorbed into Fatah and will have no further, independent purpose.

Why the rockets?

So where do the rockets fit in? Hamas is therefore playing a cynical game by firing completely useless and militarily insignificant rockets into Israel. The purpose of these wanton attacks, that cannot hope to penetrate Israel’s Iron Dome, cannot reasonably be other than to provoke Israeli retaliation. As we know from history, this will be overwhelming and disproportionate. And this could be just how Hamas wants it.

Their hope is likely to be that this will lead to significant sympathy around the Muslim world, particularly in the month of Ramadan. This will see money pouring into the various global charities of Hamas, from a wide variety of sources. The idea seems to be that this might rescue Hamas financially, and save them from their ideological extinction too. Many observers have now looked at this situation and the question must be asked: what is the purpose of Hamas firing so many rockets into Israel? The perverse reality seems to be that Hamas expects the typical Israeli over reaction, and is baiting for it, with no further strategic aims. And at this very moment, when the very existence of Hamas hangs by a thread, the reality is that the more severe a reaction we see from Israel, the better the future looks for Hamas. Netanyahu, who is regarded as a “very weak” and “a do-nothing” prime minister by many officials I met is more than happy to comply with the unnecessary violence Hamas expects.

And now we come back to our ignorant observer. This seems to be, once again, just another typical episode in the human drama in the Holy Lands. One in which the power interests of some Palestinian leaders, and some Israeli leaders too, play off each other in a casual, monstrous way while a few more hundred Palestinians die. Will we hold these leaders to account this time, or will we divert our attention away, once again, from the morally intractable problems of our Middle East?


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.