Hamas weakened and divided but far from defeated six months into Gaza war

<span>Palestinians return to Khan Younis. In recent days, Hamas ‘operatives’ armed with batons have been sighted keeping order on the streets.</span><span>Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA</span>
Palestinians return to Khan Younis. In recent days, Hamas ‘operatives’ armed with batons have been sighted keeping order on the streets.Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA

Six months after the surprise attacks it launched into Israel, triggering the Gaza conflict, Hamas is weakened and divided but far from defeated, experts, officials and sources close to the militant Islamist organisation say.

Hamas remains in de facto control of swaths of Gaza, including the parts where much of the territory’s population is now concentrated, and has re-established a presence elsewhere. In recent days, Hamas “operatives” armed with batons have been sighted keeping order on the streets of Khan Younis, the southern city from which Israeli forces withdrew just last week. On Wednesday, rockets targeting a kibbutz in Israel were launched by militants from Jabaliya in northern Gaza.

Few members of the organisation’s top echelons have been harmed so far and much of its extensive tunnel network remains intact. However, the organisation’s ability to effectively govern is much reduced, its military stores are depleted, and thousands of fighters are dead.

The months-long war has also led to new tensions between Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, and leaders based overseas, mainly in Qatar and Turkey. In recent weeks, bitter arguments have broken out over what would be acceptable terms for a ceasefire and over the future strategy of Hamas, well-informed sources in direct contact with senior Hamas figures said.

One such source said the split was between exiles who favour a nationalist strategy, with Hamas part of an anti-western coalition alongside powers such as Russia or Iran, and a Gaza leadership that has “doubled down” on the organisation’s original Islamist project while remaining committed to the local fight against Israel. Another pointed to deep personal animosity between Sinwar and Khaled Mashal, who is the best known of Hamas’s political leaders.

An emerging problem for Hamas is dissent within Gaza, a consequence of the group’s weakened authority on the population and the massive cost of the 7 October attack.

Though one poll suggested support for the organisation in the territory, there is evidence for deepening anger among many there. In late March, Hamas issued an unprecedented apology for the suffering caused by the war in Gaza, where famine now looms, and acknowledged the population’s “exhaustion”.

Published on its Telegram channel, the long statement also listed steps taken by the organisation to help ordinary people, such as enforcing lower prices for basic goods amid soaring inflation, and consulting makeshift community organisations that were trying to keep order in the increasingly anarchic territory.

The communique also repeated Hamas’s justification for the war, which it said would lead to the victory and freedom of Palestinians.

One major loss for Hamas – though yet to be fully confirmed – was Marwan Issa, in effect the third in command in Gaza, who is thought by Israeli and US intelligence to have been killed by an Israeli airstrike last month.

Issa was targeted when he moved between underground bunkers in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, Israeli intelligence officials told the Guardian, after it was learned that the 59-year-old would not be with any of the 100 Israeli hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza,

The strike on Issa was followed by a three-day communications blackout imposed by Hamas commanders concerned that a spy within their ranks had revealed crucial details to Israeli security services that had allowed the attack. A similar precaution was taken after the suspected Israeli assassination of Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy political leader, in Beirut in January, sources close to Hamas said.

Israel has succeeded in infiltrating many Palestinian armed factions – including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and others – in the past. Israeli experts say “battlefield detainees”, captured in Gaza and interrogated immediately by officers from specialist units, have provided crucial information.

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“The most important source that we have now is the thousands in captivity … From interrogation we have succeeded in understanding what might be the potential scenarios for where Issa might be hiding. We closed the circles,” said Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, last month.

The Israeli military’s bombing campaign in Gaza has also used a controversial AI-powered database, the Guardian reported last week.

So far 33,000 people have died in Gaza in the Israeli military offensive, mostly women and children, according to local health authorities. The Hamas attacks in Israel which triggered the war killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and 250 were seized as hostages.

Israeli officials say a third of Hamas’s 30,000 to 40,000 fighters have been killed. Hamas denies this and cites much lower figures. Independent confirmation of either claim is not possible but many analysts say the emphasis on a “kill count” revealed a failure among Israeli strategists to understand the nature of their enemy.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has said repeatedly that an Israeli victory will mean “crushing Hamas”. But, despite massive military power, dismantling the administrative capabilities of the organisation, which has run Gaza since seizing power there in 2007, has proved difficult.

On Monday an Israeli strike killed the mayor of al-Mawasi refugee camp, designated as a humanitarian zone early in the conflict. Israel said the official was a terrorist involved in rocket launches. Hamas denounced the attack as a war crime.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza, now in Cairo, estimated that between a fifth and a quarter of the population of Gaza could be described as committed to Hamas, and that their support would not waver whatever disaffection elsewhere.

“At a very minimum, it will be weakened militarily, but this is not going to put an end to Hamas. Hamas will continue at a popular level because of what 2 million or more people have gone through. Even if there are many, many Palestinians who are not happy with Hamas, there are others who will continue to provide support in different places at different times,” he said.

Israel’s strategic decision not to keep troops in areas initially cleared of Hamas fighters has allowed some small-scale military operations to continue. Such efforts are publicised by an impactful and apparently fully functional Hamas media operation that has rallied international support for the organisation throughout the conflict.

At least one of Israel’s war aims may have been achieved, however. “I don’t think there will be a crisis of leadership but Hamas will no longer be able to carry on with armed resistance in the same way after this,” Abusada said.