Hamas’s Balancing Act vis-a-vis Israel

Continuing tensions in Palestine/Israel have led to two significant military clashes between Israel and Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip in recent years. In August 2022, Israel initiated Operation Breaking Dawn, assassinating Tayseer al-Jabari, a military leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). It then launched Operation Shield and Arrow in May 2023, which also began with the assassination of several PIJ leaders. Both escalations share common characteristics: Israel exclusively targeted PIJ, assassinated key leaders, and engaged in brief and intense periods of military aggression against targets in Gaza. Crucially, in both instances Hamas—the largest faction in the Gaza Strip with the most substantial military capabilities—refrained from directly engaging in the conflict.

Hamas’s recent move toward strategic and selective engagement in confrontations with Israel underscores both its growing military capabilities and the larger geopolitical dynamics in the region. Hamas’s hesitancy to become directly involved in recent escalations, particularly following Israeli attacks on Gaza, is primarily influenced by several internal and external factors. Internally, Hamas’s political ambitions and its concern about the potential for further destruction and damage to the Gaza Strip have guided its decisions in this regard. Externally, the group’s relationship with regional powers like Egypt and Qatar plays a crucial role, as Hamas is seeking to retain their support. Furthermore, Hamas appears to be strategically conserving its resources for a potentially larger confrontation with Israel in the future.

Israel is now cautiously considering any potential confrontation with Hamas.

Hamas’s choices have critical consequences for Gaza and beyond. Israel, which is capable of inflicting significant damage on Gaza, including large-scale losses of life and the destruction of crucial infrastructure, is now cautiously considering any potential confrontation with Hamas. This wariness is born not just of the potential humanitarian cost but also of Hamas’s growing military capacity to target Israeli points of interest beyond the armistice line.

Hamas’s Changing Calculations

When the Israeli assault on Gaza in May 2021 ended with the signing of a cease-fire agreement, a member of Hamas’s Arab and Islamic Relations Bureau described the end of the aggression as a “victory to the Palestinian people.” The potential for confrontation had been growing for weeks due to repeated Israeli incursions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and at Al-Aqsa Mosque. The situation in Jerusalem had reached a boiling point, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan, and sparked large-scale demonstrations throughout historic Palestine, which were dubbed the “Unity Intifada,” or “Dignity Intifada.” The increasing pressure on Palestinians at Al-Aqsa and these mass mobilizations combined to act as a catalyst for further escalation, inciting armed retaliations against Israel from various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and PIJ.

On May 10, 2021 alone, more than 300 Palestinians were injured due to a violent raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces. That same day, Hamas issued Israel an ultimatum, demanding the removal of its police and military forces from the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound by 6 p.m. local time. When the deadline passed without an Israeli withdrawal, Hamas and other factions in Gaza responded by launching more than 150 rockets into Israel. This marked the beginning of 11 days of intense combat that resulted in the deaths of 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, a conflict that Palestinian factions called the “Sword of Jerusalem.” Many Palestinians continue to perceive the May conflict in Gaza and the Unity Intifada as a defining moment in their recent history, as the two events reaffirmed that Palestinians across political and geographic divides are capable of mobilizing themselves using both armed and unarmed tactics, especially in moments when their physical existence (as in the case of Sheikh Jarrah) or their national and religious symbols are under attack (as in the case of assaults on Al-Aqsa Mosque).

In addition to reaffirming Palestinian unity across the many divides in Palestinian society, the May 2021 battle and the Unity Intifada were perceived as a combined victory because Palestinian factions initiated the round of armed confrontation at a time when Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem, were under heavy pressure from Israeli police and settler violence. A key takeaway in 2021, from Palestinians’ point of view, was that the deterrence equation between themselves and Israel had effectively changed. Prior to May 2021, Israel initiated most confrontations with the armed factions in Gaza, as with its 2014 assault on the territory. However, the roles reversed in May 2021 when Palestinian factions were the first to launch rockets, following the expiration of Hamas’s ultimatum.

The confrontation in 2021 was unique due to an unprecedented level of mobilization, particularly among Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The confrontation in 2021 was also unique due to an unprecedented level of mobilization, particularly among Palestinian citizens of Israel within the Green Line (inside the 1967 border). This surge in activity fostered a climate in which Palestinians not only participated in armed action and mass protests but also united across divides and felt empowered to impose significant costs on Israel. The resulting pressure reportedly caused Israel to limit the length of its assault on Gaza; whereas the 2014 Gaza War spanned 50 days and resulted in 2,251 Palestinian and 73 Israeli deaths (of whom 67 were Israeli soldiers), the 2021 conflict lasted just 11 days and led to the deaths of 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis.

Yet as mentioned above, in August 2022 and May 2023 Israel again attacked the Gaza Strip, assassinating leaders from PIJ, killing civilians, and destroying property. In August 2022, in addition to assassinating Tayseer al-Jabari, Israel also killed Khaled Mansour, the leader of the southern district of the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of PIJ. In total, Israel killed 49 Palestinians during its assault on Gaza in 2022, including 17 children. In May 2023, Israel killed 33 Palestinians, including six military leaders. In both instances, Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip retaliated by firing rockets at Israeli towns and settlements across the armistice line; but significantly, Hamas refrained from directly participating in the fighting.

For Palestinians and outside observers, Hamas’s reasons for largely sitting out these battles was a topic of debate. Some wondered if Israel’s singling out of PIJ—with Hamas standing idly by while the Gaza Strip it controls was being bombed and Palestinians living under its rule were being killed—represented a reversal, if not an end, of the new equation established during the May 2021 round of fighting. Importantly, it is also altogether possible that Egypt and Qatar played a role in Hamas’s lack of participation.

Israeli author Shai Feldman has argued that, contrary to claims by Israeli commanders, Israel did not achieve a strategic defeat of Hamas or manage to suppress its rocket attacks in the 2021 fighting. Essentially, Israel’s deterrence capacity suffered a significant blow in 2021, a fact that has been noted by Palestinians as well. This gives rise to the question of whether Hamas’s decision to abstain from directly engaging with Israel in 2022 and 2023 indicates a resurgence of Israeli deterrence efforts at the expense of Hamas. Alternatively, it could signify a strategic choice by Hamas, which may be choosing to conserve its resources and capabilities in preparation for what its leadership perceives as potentially more significant battles in the future.

Economic Incentives and Governance Challenges

Common explanations from observers for Hamas’s refraining from directly participating in the two most recent rounds of fighting focus on economic incentives and recovery from the 2021 war. For example, CNN’s Hadas Gold has written that Hamas refrained from fighting during the August 2022 clashes because of various economic incentives, such as Israeli permits granted to Palestinians in Gaza to work in Israel. And Daniel Levin of the Wilson Center argued in 2021 that Hamas and PIJ have taken divergent paths toward their goals, with the former preferring to focus on providing services and the latter eschewing diplomacy and negotiations.

Common explanations for Hamas’s refraining from directly participating in the two most recent rounds of fighting focus on economic incentives and recovery from the 2021 war.

The political and ideological disparities between Hamas and PIJ are indeed significant and can illuminate the general trajectory of both factions, particularly with regard to military action. However, the context of their operations, especially in the Gaza Strip, is critical for understanding this reality. In recent years, Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza have endeavored to unify, coordinating on political, diplomatic, strategic, and operational levels. But factors including PIJ’s divergent political aspirations, ideological distinctions between Hamas and PIJ, and Hamas’s dual role as a resistance faction and governing authority all contribute to the movements’ decisions on whether to jointly engage against Israel.

The emergence of the Joint Operations Room (JOR), a consortium of Palestinian armed factions that includes Hamas, the PIJ, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and others exemplifies their increasingly collaborative approach and illustrates that armed activities in Gaza are informed by complex considerations. For instance, when the Gaza Strip faces attacks targeting leaders or members of PIJ, the scale and scope of the response are carefully deliberated by the armed factions. The JOR plays a crucial role in this context as a hub of coordination for sharing military expertise, training, and resources. This collaboration was exhibited in 2020, when the JOR coordinated a military maneuver in Gaza that was executed “within the framework of strengthening cooperation and joint action between the resistance factions” and amid efforts to increase combat readiness. During the May 2023 Israeli assault on Gaza, Israel accused Hamas of supplying PIJ with rockets, military capacities, and access to its military infrastructure. But Hamas did not itself directly confront Israel during the conflict, marking a change from its prior approach.

Beyond Economic Incentives

While Israeli and western observers primarily focus on economic measures, the challenges of governing Gaza, and the relationship with Iran as the main influences behind Hamas’s decisions, Palestinian analysts provide a more nuanced perspective. UK-based political economist Ahmed Alqarout, for example, dismisses the idea that economic incentives significantly shape Hamas’s decisions in terms of military engagement with Israel.1 He posits that Hamas’s decisions to engage in or refrain from certain conflicts are primarily influenced by military and political considerations. Alqarout contends that, particularly after the May 2021 battle, Hamas is resisting Israeli efforts to dictate the timing of their confrontations. This is not to suggest, however, that economic and governance factors do not play a role in Hamas’s calculations. Hamas governs a significantly underdeveloped Gaza Strip, where roughly 45 percent of the labor force is unemployed, and therefore faces significant domestic pressures. Nonetheless, the group’s governance is premised on defense and armed resistance. While Hamas takes into account public sentiment in Gaza when deciding on engagement with Israel, there are instances, such as in May 2021, when grassroots pressure compels Hamas and other factions to retaliate and engage in military action.

This perspective is explicitly shared by Hamas co-founder and leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar. When questioned in a January 2023 interview about the group’s decision to participate in certain confrontations while avoiding others, al-Zahar offered a more comprehensive explanation, strongly dismissing the idea that the May 2021 clash was a confrontation that should be repeated. According to al-Zahar, Hamas’s ultimate goal is the liberation of Palestine. He believes that “the squandering of [resistance] energies in localized wars hinders the process of liberating Palestine,” and says, “This isn’t failure or evasion of responsibility; rather it’s a clear and human vision.” Furthermore, for al-Zahar, the issue of resistance in Gaza is deeply connected to the situation in the West Bank, and he characterizes the political atmosphere there as increasingly conducive to resistance. He highlights the diminishing role of the Palestinian Authority and argues that while Gaza’s primary objective should be the accumulation of military and political strength, resistance efforts initiated in the West Bank provide Gaza with the necessary space to pursue this buildup.

Military, logistical, and operational considerations are crucial factors for Hamas, and for other factions in Gaza as well. Hamas has made a deliberate and strategic effort to augment its arsenal while honing its qualitative capabilities, and particularly between 2014 and 2021 Palestinian resistance succeeded in restricting the Israeli military’s freedom of maneuver. Indeed, a significant result of Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza was its subsequent avoidance of land operations inside the territory, due largely to the severe losses it suffered that summer when its forces attempted to enter Gaza. To offset this strategic disadvantage, Israel began to rely heavily on its superior air force capabilities after 2014, a move that was countered by consistent enhancement of the Palestinian factions’ rocket arsenals.

Balancing Politics and Governance and Creating New Rules of Engagement

Understanding Hamas’s decision to engage or not engage in rounds of confrontation against Israel requires a nuanced examination of a host of factors. The organization, which governs more than two million Palestinians in Gaza, represents and is accountable to a significant base of popular support both inside and outside of historic Palestine, and operates within a continually shifting regional geopolitical landscape that reaches far beyond the Gaza Strip. These factors render its decisions to engage in conflicts with Israel highly sensitive, necessitating meticulous calculations.

The 2021 Unity Intifada offered Hamas an opportunity to confront Israel, as it was bolstered by these mass protests involving large segments of the Palestinian public. Additionally, Hamas saw the May 2021 battle as a chance to push the boundaries of its capabilities. Yet despite the real and symbolic victories Hamas believes it achieved in 2021, it abstained from directly entering the next two rounds of confrontation with Israel in 2022 and 2023. Understanding Hamas’s operations and decision-making process requires a broad, multifaceted perspective, one that encompasses both Palestine and the broader region and takes into account the principles the movement embodies. Hamas primarily draws its legitimacy from leading armed resistance against Israel, and if it fails to engage in this struggle it risks losing credibility. But at the same time, Hamas governs the Gaza Strip and bears responsibility for its residents’ well-being, meaning that it must weigh the need to act against Israel against the potential costs of doing so.

Hamas saw the May 2021 battle as a chance to push the boundaries of its capabilities. 

Since taking control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 following a violent internal conflict with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has found itself accountable to a large and diverse public, some of whom may not entirely agree with its views. However, the principle of resistance and armed struggle is rarely disputed in Gaza. Even when there are disagreements with Hamas on governance issues, the public generally expects the group to lead during times of military escalation. After all, Hamas’s 16-year rule has primarily been centered on cultivating and maintaining resistance.

This places Hamas in a precarious position. Both Hamas and the public in Gaza recognize that their involvement in military escalation and confrontation against Israel could trigger severe, destructive, and brutal retaliation that damages vital infrastructure and leads to high casualty rates. At the same time, the growing arsenal controlled by Hamas and other factions puts pressure on Israel during confrontations, accelerating the push for ever-swifter cease-fire agreements. Despite Hamas’s lack of direct participation in the most recent rounds of fighting in 2022 and 2023, Palestinian observers argue that the group was not rendered inert and that the military legacy of the May 2021 battle persists, even if subsequent battles are led by PIJ and not by Hamas. After all, the Joint Operations Room exemplifies a concerted effort by Palestinian factions in Gaza, including Hamas and PIJ, to pool expertise and jointly enhance Gaza’s military infrastructure and arsenal. The overarching goal of these factions is to improve the qualitative advantage of Palestinian resistance in Gaza, all the while keeping a close eye on developments in the West Bank. This effort is maintained in anticipation of a future confrontation with Israel that may span multiple fronts and potentially redefine the region’s balance of power for years to come.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Jerusalem Fund or the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

1 Author interview with Ahmed Alqarout, July 18, 2023.
*Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Anas-Mohammed