Hamas’ Calculated Gamble

Hamas’ Calculated Gamble

A successful terror attack can reverse the fortunes of a declining organization, but Hamas has only hastened its destruction.

Last weekend’s unprecedented events in Israel may constitute the largest-scale suicide terrorist attack in history. That’s why it will almost certainly lead to the death of Hamas, the organization that perpetrated it. 

Terrorist attacks are designed to project an image of strength and credibility, and Hamas’ attack certainly demonstrated some level of strength. It was a logistically and tactically complex operation, and the group clearly devoted significant resources to its planning and implementation. The as-of-yet unproven claim that Iran played a role in the attack only adds to the perception that Hamas is a formidable political power, a force to be reckoned with. 

But the reality is very different: Hamas is a declining organization that gambled everything on a single, audacious attack. The intention was to put to rest doubts about its legitimacy and ensure it maintains power in the Gaza Strip. The attack was not intended to topple the Israeli government or defeat the Israeli military. Even Hamas understands this is not possible. It was meant to strengthen support for an organization that has atrophied in many ways. 

And Hamas’ support will rise temporarily because it thrives on violence. The group replaced its competitor, Fatah, as the leading Palestinian political organization because its wave of violence against Israel appealed to Palestinians who believed Fatah had gone soft. Hamas’ abhorrent violence against noncombatants during the Second Intifada helped convince Israel to unilaterally relinquish control over the Gaza Strip in 2005. Then, in 2007, the organization waged a violent campaign against Palestinians to take complete control of Gaza. After more than fifteen years as the de facto government, Hamas is frequently viewed as corrupt and obtuse, much like the party it replaced. 

In fact, the only time Hamas sees a resurgence in popularity is when it clashes violently with Israel. In 2021, a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that Hamas’ declining popularity among Palestinians was reversed after it launched rocket attacks against Israel. This is a recurring pattern: in three major conflicts prior to 2021, fighting with Israel successfully resurrected its popularity. These waves of support always last a maximum of six months before Hamas’ ambitious promises ring hollow. 

The same is true of Hamas’ international reputation. Before the 2008 Gaza War, perceptions of Hamas had plummeted in Muslim countries around the world. Only one Muslim country surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project that year had a net favorable view of Hamas. But that changed when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip later that year. 

Violence created Hamas, and violence sustains it. That’s why the attack in Israel is a calculated gamble. A single, barbaric attack can dramatically reverse the fortunes of a declining organization. Facing a loss of legitimacy at home and abroad, Hamas planned an “all-eggs-in-one-basket” terrorist attack. Hamas’s leadership knew this decision could lead to their destruction, but they wagered it was also the last, best chance to solidify their power. 

That its leaders chose to accept such an insane level of risk tells us that the organization is weak. Weakness increases risky behavior as individuals and organizations desperately try to salvage their losses. Political scientists refer to this as “gambling for resurrection.” And let’s be honest: targeting women, children, and the elderly is a display of weakness, not strength. 

Hamas undoubtedly expended so many resources and personnel in the execution of this attack that they have little capacity to do much more. Their only hope is to spur Palestinians and others around the world into action. That’s the gamble. That’s the entire plan. So when we hear Hamas leaders like Ismail Haniyeh promising similar attacks, they are simply not credible. Al-Qaeda, after all, spent years promising attacks that would surpass 9/11, but in reality, it continued to coast on its reputation from that single attack. 

Hamas is now seeing the consequences of its risk-taking. Yes, there is already plenty of criticism of Israel, and that criticism will increase as Israel wages war in Gaza and perhaps elsewhere. Baiting Israel into committing heavy-handed acts of violence is part of Hamas’ strategy. 

But one of the few things holding Israel back from total war against Palestine in the past has been concerns about public perception. Namely, domestic and international backlash that could undermine such efforts. Israel no longer faces this constraint. Israel now has tremendous temporary support, and they know they only have a brief window to accomplish their goals. 

Israel will not be able to extinguish all the fires that have been lit. Palestinian dissent will not go away due to a single, or even a series of, military operations. In fact, it’s likely to be enflamed further. The members of Hamas that survive will channel their efforts into new terrorist organizations and political parties. But Hamas, as we know it today, will no longer exist. Hamas bet on violence to ensure its survival, but it has only hastened its destruction. 

Justin Conrad is the Gary K. Bertsch Director of the Center for International Trade and Security and Professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Militant Competition (2021) and Gambling and War (2017). 

Image: Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock.