Longtime observers of Hamas debate how much the Palestinian militant group truly evolved over the last decade, particularly during the period sometimes known as its “pragmatic era.” There is no argument, however, about when that era ended: Just after sunrise Saturday with the launch of a devastating attack on Israel.
Then came the eventual — many would say inevitable — break from that position last weekend with a Hamas operation that stunned the world in its brazenness and brutality. More than 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 100 were captured as hostages. The atrocities inflicted upon civilians, including children, analysts said, signals a dark new chapter for a group that likes to boast of striking Israeli military and police targets, distinguishing its conduct from the bloodlust of Islamic State extremists.
“It’s hard to reconcile this pragmatic version of Hamas over the past 15-odd years with what just happened, which will close the door on any kind of international acceptance,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “What is the end game in this?”
That’s the question researchers and policymakers who for years have monitored Hamas are trying to answer as they revisit the group’s trajectory to understand the motivations for an attack so extraordinary in its scope and lethality that Hamas surely realized it was risking its own annihilation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to “cleanse” the area of Hamas in a war of vengeance whose toll on the militants “will reverberate with them for generations.”
Israel has launched air raids and announced the severing of electricity, fuel and food to the blockaded Gaza Strip, home to more than 2 million people, roughly half of them children. The “complete siege” announced by Israel is prohibited by international law, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said Tuesday. In Gaza, more than 1,000 people have been killed, including hundreds of women and children, according to Palestinian authorities.
Hamas’s official line is that the attack was in response to Israel’s long-running blockade and violence against Palestinians, but researchers said a host of other factors shaped the timing and methods. They also cautioned that the conflict remains fluid, with little verified information about the genesis of the operation and whether Hamas had help from Iran or other regional backers to execute it.
The attack comes after months of escalating violence that already had made 2023 the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the U.N. started tracking deaths two decades ago. Between January and September, 227 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces or settlers, according to the United Nations. Israeli fatalities, before the latest violence, totaled at least 29.
The toll elicited little attention from Israel’s Western allies. The Biden administration’s hands-off approach, according to a recent International Crisis Group report, “entailed standing by largely passively in the face of repeated settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, the killing of ever-increasing numbers of Palestinians, including children, by the army, and the expansion of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank toward de facto annexation.”
Catalysts of catastrophe
The violence alone might have been enough to mobilize Hamas, analysts said, but there were other considerations.
One is the decrepit state of Palestinian politics, and particular frustrations over the Palestinian Authority’s corruption and lack of a clear plan for who will succeed 87-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas.
Another factor is the internal Israeli political crisis. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government has continued apace with settlement construction while pushing controversial judicial overhauls that would hobble the courts’ role as a check on executive power. With thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets, analysts said Hamas may have seen the Israeli state in a vulnerable position and Palestinian voices once again sidelined in a political fight that could shape their future.
“Hamas understood that Israel is now in an existential crisis in some ways about what kind of state it will be,” said Tareq Baconi, the author of “Hamas Contained” and president of the board of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network. “And that conversation has been happening as if Palestinians are absent.”