Israeli warplanes pound Gaza. A ground invasion is expected. Does Hamas have an endgame?

October 12, 2023

This article was originally published on Oct 12, 2023 by CBC. It features Ron Hassner, Helen Diller Institute Co-Faculty Director.

As war planes from Israel continue to pound Gaza — and with a massive ground offensive of Israeli troops expected any day — the rationale behind the massacre unleashed by Hamas on the weekend that prompted Israel's severe retaliation may certainly seem unclear.

Hamas's attacks, which have killed more than 1,200 Israelis, prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue an official declaration of war that has resulted in the deaths of at least 1,100 people in Gaza and an estimated 250,000 people left homeless.

The militant group's ultimate goal is the destruction of Israel and to establish an Islamist state over the entire country. Despite the devastating attack, observers say Hamas is no closer to that outcome. So what, then, was its endgame?

Scuttling the U.S.-Saudi-Israel normalization deal

The ongoing negotiations between the United States and Saudi Arabia to normalize Saudi relations with Israel in exchange for a U.S. defence pact may have suffered a significant blow with these attacks.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement that the kingdom had been warning of an "explosive situation as a result of the continued occupation and deprivation of the Palestinian people's legitimate rights."

Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi expert on Saudi-Israeli relations, told the Times of Israel that the statement was intended to dispel any notion that the kingdom would prioritize normalization at the expense of supporting the Palestinians.

"This kind of situation has made Saudi Arabia go back to its traditional role," he said.

Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyad al-Maliki, left, and Nayef al-Sudairi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, speak to reporters after meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sept. 26, where they discussed the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal. (Majdi Mohammed/The Associated Press)

The potential deal has been very concerning for Iran, which is Hamas's biggest backer. And it has prompted speculation that the Iranian government played some role in the attacks on Israel to help scupper any agreement.

But over the past months, Hamas officials have also been quite open about the fact that this would be a huge event, a potential game-changer, said Matthew Levitt, director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"I think Hamas fears if there was to be normalization with Saudi Arabia, other Muslim nations, other Arab nations, would follow suit," he told The Associated Press.

Some analysts believe Hamas wants a seat at the table for the U.S.-Saudi negotiations, because it fears — insofar as Palestinians will even be part of the talks — that it's going to be its rival, the Palestinian Authority, and not Hamas that plays a role.

"Through its recent actions, Hamas has sought to make it clear to all that lasting Middle East peace cannot happen without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with Hamas at the centre of these conversations," Devorah Margolin, the Blumenstein-Rosenbloom Fellow at the Washington Institute, told CBC News in an email.

But to launch such an attack would dispel the notion that Hamas is rational and willing to negotiate, said Ron Hassner, the Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

An Israeli soldier walks past a house destroyed by Hamas militants in Be'eri, a kibbutz in southern Israel, on Wednesday. The kibbutz was overrun by Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip on Saturday, resulting in the deaths and kidnappings of dozens of Israelis. (Baz Ratner/The Associated Press)

"My interpretation is that Hamas understands that it will never have a seat at the negotiating table," he said. "So in my mind, what you're seeing from Hamas is a desperate last cry for attention."

Steven Cook, director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email that he doubts the potential Saudi deal was much of a factor.

"I don't believe that the Saudi-Israel normalization was the target; the planning for Operation Al-Aqsa Flood had likely begun well before those talks had gotten serious. That said, if the war brings an end to Saudi-Israeli normalization, it is a win for Hamas (and Iran)."

If not destroy Israel, hurt and weaken it

The mastermind behind the assault, Palestinian militant Mohammed Deif, has said that the attack was to end the world's longest occupation, meaning all of historic Palestine, Cook said.

"Of course, Hamas cannot do that, but they can draw Israel into a long, grinding conflict in the Gaza Strip that weakens Israel,"he said.

Gaza is such a dense urban place, with a population of two million people and filled with tunnels, Nathan Thrall, author and former director of International Crisis Group's Arab-Israel project, told CBC News Network.

Possible political costs and outcomes for Israel and Hamas

Featured VideoNathan Thrall, an author and former director of International Crisis Group's Arab-Israel project, discusses potential practical and political outcomes of Hamas's attacks on Israel as well as the Israeli military's response.

"Hamas believes they can exact a very high price on Israel for its presence there, for entering with ground forces," he said.

Tareq Baconi, the author of a book about Hamas in Gaza, said the militant group is also trying to shatter Israel's sense of security.

"What Hamas is doing is trying to flip the table back on the Israelis, saying you can't forget about the Palestinian issue and we can undermine the myth of your invincibility," he told the New York Times. "That in itself is a huge transformation in the Palestinian imagination, and I don't think we can see or understand the implications of it yet."

An Israeli soldier mourns at the gravesite of a fellow soldier who was killed following an attack by Hamas gunmen from Gaza, at a funeral in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

'A marketing strategy around the world'

The Washington Institute's Margolin said she believes that Hamas-led attacks were designed by the group to elicit a response from Israel seemingly so "disproportionate" that it would draw international condemnation and overshadow memories of Hamas's own violence.

But the deaths of many Palestinians could also lead to new supporters for its cause.

"[It] could intensify grievances against Israel, strengthening a revenge impact among the Palestinian population," said Max Abrahms, an associate political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston, and an expert in international security, especially in the areas of terrorism and counterterrorism.

"It could serve as essentially a marketing strategy around the world to potential supporters that Hamas is a leading organization within the broader Islamist movement, which could lead to more supporters, more money being spent," he said.

"I honestly think that Hamas wants Israel to kill as many Palestinian civilians as possible in order to validate their narrative that Israel is evil."

Hassner, of the University of California, agreed, saying that terrorists often rely on the notion that the enemy is going to respond disproportionately and that this will come at a great cost to the enemy.

"So perhaps the idea was to create such acts of outrage that the Israelis simply would not be able to fight in a restrained way," he said.

"Simple vengeance"

It's certainly possible that Hamas's endgame was simply taking revenge on its great enemy, Israel, some analysts suggest.

"I honestly think one of their main goals was simple vengeance. Vengeance can have utility," Abrahms said.

"With many Palestinians in despair over their lives, by striking out and killing what they regard as the illegal occupation and the settlements and maybe even terrorists, they could feel good about themselves for the few hours where they're slaughtering, you know, little children and Holocaust survivors."

A Palestinian child injured in Israeli airstrikes is carried to a hospital in Gaza City on Wednesday. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Colin P. Clarke, a Senior Research Fellow at the Soufan Center in New York, said many Hamas members have been at war with the Israelis their entire lives, and some probably think they have very little to lose — given the dire conditions under which Palestinians live in Gaza.

"It seems like ... violence for the sake of violence in some ways," he said. "Don't discount revenge as a factor here."

Another theory is that Hamas may have launched the attacks in hopes of encouraging others to join the fight and open multiple fronts against Israel.

That could include a potential war with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in the north, uprisings in the occupied West Bank and internal struggles fomented by Israel's Arab citizens, Margolin said.

Already, the attacks have prompted Hezbollah to fire some rockets into Israel.

"I think that Hamas felt that if it does come to a ground war ... that it would start another from Hezbollah and Syria," the Washington Institute's Levitt said.