The Roots and Consequences of Hamas' Strategy

The Roots and Consequences of Hamas' Strategy

Hamas' brutal attack didn't come from a vacuum; it was the result of a decades-long "axis of resistance" strategy.


That the current war in the Gaza Strip poses a clear existential threat to Hamas and potentially to the entire Palestinian cause is abundantly clear. But the current conflict, Israel’s pronounced intent to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth, even if this means a months-long war, will have profound long-term implications for any actor with a stake in the postwar balance of power and regional order in the Middle East. Israel’s purpose and identity as a viable country for and protector of the Jewish people are at stake. But the vital interests of the entire Iranian camp in the Middle East—the self-described “axis of resistance,” of which Hamas has become a key member in recent years, are also hanging in the balance. 

Spearheaded by Iran—its primary supplier of military hardware, know-how, and technology—the “axis of resistance” mainly consists of the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Gaza Strip, Syria, Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement Ansar Allah, and multiple Iran-backed Shiite groups in Iraq. Together, they have gained critical mass as a coordinated and synchronized strategic community. In recent years, these actors have become a regional bloc, thinking in geopolitical terms and sharing the aspiration for an anti-Western regional order in what Iran calls “West Asia.” 


In addition to their quest to defeat Israel and Western powers from the Middle East, “resistance” actors from Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran share a similar strategic concept. In essence, the basic underlying logic of the strategy of “resistance” accepts that superior actors such as Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia will always be able to visit immense civilian pain on their countries. However, although these actors exhibit severe civilian vulnerability, their military apparatuses, command-and-control systems, and continued conventional second-strike capability remain secure. This is precisely the logic behind the reliance of the “axis of resistance” on vast stockpiles of stand-off weapons such as rockets, precision-guided missiles, long-range attack drones, and shore-to-sea missiles.

In the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, these military capabilities are secured in underground tunnels and facilities—what Iran calls “missile cities.” In every one of these conflict zones, the “resistance” actors have harnessed these capabilities in the service of subjecting their superior adversaries to what they call “rules of the game,” deterrence “equations,” and “rules of engagement.” Significantly, although all these originate with Iran’s advanced military industries, the strategic lexicon and mindset of the “resistance” originates not with Iran but with Hezbollah. Indeed, when it comes to “resistance” as a coherent asymmetric strategy, the primary “laboratory” has been the Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

On multiple occasions over the years, Hezbollah’s long-time Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah, who is a key, integral part of Iranian decision-making, explained the strategic logic of “resistance.” According to Nasrallah, rockets and missiles are the weaker “resistance” actor’s means of offsetting the stronger side’s aerial supremacy. Thus, as long as the stronger actor’s offensive continues, so do the weaker actor’s rocket barrages continue to impact its own cities. As Nasrallah explained, ultimately, the stronger side might be forced to unleash a land invasion—something that is supposed to level the playing field. A military invasion is thus seen as a desirable outcome.

For the “resistance” actors, this very strategy is currently at stake, which was rightly perceived as having withstood Israel’s military might in several conflicts in Lebanon in the 1990s and the thirty-four-day-long 2006 Lebanon War. In all these conflicts, Israel fell short of inflicting a decisive military blow or otherwise impacting its critical vulnerabilities. In all cases, what Israel failed to accomplish militarily, it was also unable to accomplish diplomatically. This meant that in the day after, Israel, despite its immense military superiority, was deterred. As a result, it was forced to abide by certain “rules of the game” and effectively tolerate continued violence and Hezbollah’s accelerated military build-up. 

Hezbollah later actively exported this model to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas drew on its experience and adopted its vocabulary. Thus, the same phenomena have applied to Israel’s conflicts in the Gaza Strip since Hamas’s June 2007 takeover. Hamas is now attempting to deter Israel and subject it to “deterrent equations” whereby Israeli assaults beyond a certain threshold are retaliated against with heavy rocket fire on Israel’s commercial capital, Tel Aviv. Calling the prospect of an IDF invasion of the Gaza Strip “laughable,” the spokesperson of Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades military wing stated that “nine-tenths of the Al-Qassam army” were eagerly waiting to confront any invading army. 

In the years after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Hezbollah has established itself as Israel’s primary military threat. Ever since that war, which Hezbollah cast as a “divine victory,” Iran provided it with many of its advanced capabilities in a way that has in recent years diminished the Israeli Air Force’s freedom of action over Lebanon. Hezbollah’s current military capabilities, and those of Iran as well, are now far more advanced. As then-U.S. Central Command Chief Kenneth McKenzie admitted in 2021, “Iran’s strategic capacity is now enormous…. They’ve got overmatch in the theatre—the ability to overwhelm.” McKenzie’s successor, Michael Kurilla, stated in 2023 that the IRGC “of today is unrecognizable from just five years ago.”

Hamas undoubtedly drew courage and inspiration from its cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah, which has increased significantly since 2021, and from its sense that the entire “axis of resistance” had its back. Hamas’s military spokesman confirmed that Hamas’s “level of coordination with the brethren in the axis of resistance had increased and developed in terms of mobilizing the efforts with respect to the future of the conflict.” Nowhere was this more evident than in a recent interview by Salih al-Aruri, Hamas’s second-in-command, who stated in late August that a “decisive” multi-front regional war with Israel was not only desirable but, in fact, “necessary” in “the near term.” 

Warning that the Palestinians had between two to three years before Israel’s right-wing government increased the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank to two million, the Beirut-based Al-Aruri said that there is currently a regional “interest that there be a regional war…there are parties who are extremely active in this regard, and who are discussing this.” Al-Aruri concluded that if war broke out, “Israel would be dealt a defeat that is unprecedented in its history. We are certain of this. And it will be subjected to new realities. Its standing, the way in which it is viewed by the world…their own belief in themselves…and also those in the region who have hopes that Israel will serve as a guarantor and protector—all of this will change.” 

One week after Hamas dealt Israel what its leaders are already calling the worst catastrophe inflicted upon Jewish civilians since the Holocaust, Al-Aruri’s words ring more prescient than anyone would have given him credit for before October 7, 2023. In order to disprove his prediction, Israel will engage in actions and behaviors that will likely clash with its enemies’ vital interests, thereby increasing the likelihood that the current war will become far broader. Already now, they are on the cusp of a regional war. Whichever way things develop, the regional repercussions will be formative. In more than one way, this could very well change not only the Middle East, as Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged, but Israel itself. 

Daniel Sobelman is a research fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ Middle East Initiative and an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. A former Arab affairs correspondent for Haaretz, Dr. Sobelman has published extensively on Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah and the “axis of resistance” for over two decades.

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