The Collapse of Israel’s Hamas "Conceptzia"

The Collapse of Israel’s Hamas "Conceptzia"

Expecting Hamas to abandon ideology for economics was a mistake with fatal consequences.

Whether deliberate or a cruel historic irony, it is remarkable that the Hamas’ barbaric massacre on October 7, which killed 1,400 and injured over 3,300 Israelis, came fifty years and a day after the 1973 war. That war was defined by strategic surprise: Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the holiest day of the year. The postwar Agranat Commission of Inquiry investigated not just the operational surprise but the conceptual failure. This became known as the “conceptzia”: the governing assumption that convinced key Israeli military figures Egypt, unable to engage in the necessary deep penetration bombing of Israel, would not start a war it could not win.

In 1973, the conceptzia was shattered because the Israelis defined Egyptian success differently from President Anwar Sadat. Sadat believed if he were only able to cross the Suez Canal, he would shatter the aura of invincibility Israel had enjoyed since its lightning six-day victory in the 1967 war.

So what was the conceptzia of 2023? Its shattered governing assumption was that under the heavy burden of governing the Gaza Strip, Hamas would feel the need to prove itself through economic performance. Specifically, economic inducements towards Hamas would moderate its foundational belief that Israel is an illegitimate entity whose very existence must be extinguished and its citizens killed. This Israeli conceptzia was driven by many factors, but at its core, it was based on the idea that Hamas was undergoing an organizational evolution in which it would now value even modest increases in living standards in Gaza. Economic advancement would bring calm, as it gave Hamas something to lose. According to this view, Hamas was willing to sacrifice at least some of its ideology on the altar of accommodating itself to the reality of governance.

This basic assumption was similarly held by many American and European diplomats. Israeli officials were also hopeful that it was possible to reach what became known as the “hasdara” or arrangement. If ideology was exacerbated by miserable conditions in Gaza, then perhaps the reverse could be true. Economic improvement could modify ideological zeal. Tragically, this doctrine was proven a complete failure on October 7.

How much of this conceptzia was built on strategic deception by Hamas, and how much by wishful thinking from Israel or other Western countries? Both likely played a role.

For its part, Hamas strongly indicated that it sought stability in Gaza in order to deepen its presence and enhance its threat in the West Bank. Furthermore, it made clear that it appreciated the fact that 17,000-20,000 Gazans worked in Israel, where they received salaries ten times above the average wage in the Strip. As it turns out, perhaps forcibly, it used the workers in Israel to extract intelligence details about neighboring villages. How many kids are in each room? Which families have dogs? These details were part of the intelligence manuals found on Hamas terrorists who were killed on October 7. Finally, Hamas favored a 2019 UN and Egyptian arrangement whereby it would halt violent demonstrations at the Israel-Gaza border and stop launching incendiary balloons to burn Israeli fields in exchange for $30 million a month in Qatari funding to Gaza. This arrangement held for a few years but did not deter Hamas from its massacre in Israel on October 7. Another false signal was Hamas’s decision—twice in recent years—to stay out of the fighting between Israel and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This was taken as a sign of pragmatism, as Hamas saw Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a rival for Gazan popular affection.

For Israel’s part, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated in his memoirs that he thought the Hamas issue was a manageable challenge and that Israel would lose too many soldiers in a ground incursion in Gaza. Netanyahu was invested in this thesis and linked it to his preference for maintaining the schism between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

So what was missed? First, Israel underestimated the primacy of ideology for Hamas despite the serious economic needs of the Gazan population. A telling moment came in 2017 when the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, met with Gazan students, apparently including people skeptical of Hamas. Sinwar vowed that Hamas would only disarm when “Satan enters paradise” and that “there’s not one minute of the day or night when we aren’t building up our military might.”Furthermore, “the discussion is not about recognizing Israel but about wiping it out.” These and many other bellicose declarations were chalked up to domestic considerations. Under the conceptzia, Sinwar was a first-hand witness to the suffering of his people in Gaza and was viewed as different and more sensitive to their concerns than his predecessor Khaled Meshal, who lived in Qatar.

This misreading of Sinwar was exacerbated by the emergence of Salah Arouri as his de facto deputy. Based in Turkey and Lebanon, Arouri sought to incite attacks against Israel in Jenin and other West Bank cities. Arouri seemed to believe Hamas could have it both ways: claim to favor stability in Gaza while dramatically increasing attacks in the West Bank.

In hindsight, there were many indicators that, for Hamas, ideology trumped economics. Hamas avoided negotiations that would have seen the building of a port in Gaza in exchange for disarmament, and when faced with a choice between the financial stability of the Qatari arrangement and pressing its ideology, Hamas made its priorities clear by launching the “Sword of Jerusalem” operation in May 2021.

Another clear but downplayed indicator was that Hamas used any economic gains not to improve public welfare but rather to secure armaments and build tunnels under Gaza for its fighters. Rocket production took precedence over civilian infrastructure.

After the October 7 massacre, there is now widespread agreement across the Israeli political spectrum, shared by President Biden, that Hamas must be removed from power. The President repeatedly likened Hamas to ISIS, an implacable and zealous jihadist foe whose name is synonymous with cruelty and brutality. Hamas is on Israel’s doorstep. Israel must maintain the distinction between Hamas, with whom there can be no coexistence and the bulk of Palestinians who do not share that absolutist ideology. This is bound to become increasingly difficult as the war progresses.

Reeling from the consequence of its failed conceptzia, Israel is determined not to underestimate Hamas’ dedication to its violent ideology again.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations. He is also an adjunct professor in Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In 2013-2014, he worked in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State, serving as a senior advisor to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.

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