Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

No. 644     

This article is part of the forthcoming Jerusalem Center research report: The Gaza War 2021: The Iranian and Hamas Attack on Israel.
  • The 2021 Gaza War was provoked by Hamas to achieve political goals – and not to achieve tactical military goals. The initiation of the violence was not related to Gaza’s situation preceding the conflict, which was relatively stable and improving steadily.
  • Hamas was ready to take the leading role in the Palestinian domestic arena following the announced elections to the Palestinian parliament scheduled for May 22, 2021. However, when PA President Mahmoud Abbas realized that the rift inside Fatah would guarantee Hamas’ victory, he decided to postpone the elections.
  • This presented Hamas with an opportunity to take advantage of Abbas’ show of weakness and present itself as the leader of the Palestinians. It raised the old libel that the “al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger,” in tandem with disinformation about an imminent court decision regarding a few housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Hamas then launched seven rockets toward Jerusalem.
  • Hamas is satisfied with the results of the war. It has positioned itself as the most powerful force among the Palestinians and as the “protector of Jerusalem.” Moreover, Hamas feels reassured that Israel has no intention to recapture Gaza. In addition, Hamas managed to provoke a considerable part of Arab society in Israel to support the use of violence against Israelis.
  • At the same time, Hamas was surprised and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Israeli response and expressed readiness for a ceasefire from the second day of the fighting. Israel demonstrated its intelligence dominance as it targeted key leaders, weapons production facilities, and other secret assets. Israel attacked 1,500 targets in Gaza with relatively little unintended collateral damage. Defensively, the Iron Dome missile defense system kept Israeli casualties relatively low.

“The Guardian of the Walls” conflict was provoked by Hamas as a tool to achieve a series of political goals on the domestic front, in the regional theater, in the international domain, and vis-à-vis Israel – and not to achieve tactical military goals. It was a classic case in which military means were used as an extension of political activity to achieve political objectives.

The provocation and the initiation of the violence were also not related to Gaza’s situation preceding the conflict, which was relatively stable and improving steadily, though the difficult basic conditions still prevailed for a considerable portion of the population.

What was Hamas trying to achieve? Why did it choose to use force? And, to what extent was the terror organization successful in securing its goals?

The primary motive for Hamas inventing the excuse to launch the atrocities had to do with its political strategy in the Palestinian domestic arena.

Hamas was ready to take the leading role in this arena following the announced elections to the Palestinian parliament scheduled for May 22, 2021. It was prepared to accept all of Mahmoud Abbas’ conditions regarding the elections, knowing that the rift inside Fatah would guarantee Hamas’ victory. However, when Abbas realized the inevitable outcome of the elections in Hamas’ favor, he decided to postpone or abort them, using as an excuse Israel’s expected refusal to allow the Palestinians in east Jerusalem to participate in the elections. Hamas was frustrated but at the same time identified the opportunity that this show of weakness from Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah presented, and Hamas planned to take advantage of it.

As always, the easiest way to mobilize the masses and justify terror activity was Jerusalem. The old libel that the “al Aqsa Mosque is in danger” was raised again in tandem with disinformation about an imminent court decision regarding a few housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The crowds on the Temple Mount called on Muhammad Deif, the head of the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, to take action to protect the mosque and the residents of Sheikh Jarrah. Deif responded with general threats and later, on May 10, 2021, issued an ultimatum that led to the launching of seven rockets toward Jerusalem (one of them fell inside the Gaza Strip and probably caused the death of several Palestinians).

With these actions, Hamas presented itself as the leader of the Palestinians and as the bona fide protector of Palestinian interests in Jerusalem. Hamas argued that it is the only group inside the Palestinian people with the capability and courage to act. It is ready to pay a heavy price for protecting Jerusalem. Therefore, it claims that it alone is entitled to lead the Palestinians in their national and religious battle over the holy city.

Hamas banners fly over the Temple Mount
Hamas banners fly over the Temple Mount showing Hamas leaders on May 12, 20121. Such a pro-Hamas display is relatively rare since it is seen by the Palestinian Authority as challenging its rule. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Another Hamas goal in this context was to demonstrate its reach and strength in the Palestinian communities that do not live under their authority, such as Jerusalem, the areas under the Palestinian Authority rule, Arab states (especially Jordan and Lebanon) and finally, inside Israel itself.

Hamas is satisfied with the results it achieved on the Palestinian political stage by launching the war. It has positioned itself as the most powerful force among the Palestinians and as the one most identified as the protector of Jerusalem. By and large, it has demonstrated its influence outside of Gaza, especially in Israel (through its affiliate, the northern chapter of the Islamic Movement, that played a key role in inciting rioters in Israeli cities), and in Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

But there is also a downside. The United States and many West Europeans rushed to express their support to Mahmoud Abbas and insisted on giving the PA a role in the reconstruction of Gaza, and it seems that Israel may join this effort. Moreover, its show of force in the West Bank and within the Arab states was limited.

On the regional level, Hamas achieved some strategic goals and proved its value to the two radical groups it belongs to – the Iranian-led camp and the Muslim Brotherhood camp, led by Turkey and Qatar. These hostile groups sought to weaken their opponents in the pragmatic Arab camp, challenge their relations with Israel, and produce cracks in the Abraham Accords.

The first goal was partly achieved, as the members of both camps rallied behind Hamas. The Iranians, the Revolutionary Guards, and Hizbullah even formed a joint operations room to coordinate their support to Hamas. Moreover, it is clear that both camps will try to help Hamas’ recovery, and Iran has already embarked on an effort to mend fences between Hamas and the Assad regime in Syria.

The goal of weakening the Arab pragmatists and damaging the normalization with Israel was unsuccessful, with only some minor support from the Moroccan prime minister, who is an Islamist. The pragmatists did utter the prerequisite solidarity with the Palestinian positions regarding Jerusalem, but they did not go further.

What Hamas Accomplished

Internationally, Hamas aspired to gain legitimacy through its willingness to participate in the Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian election process. The delay of the elections meant that achieving this goal became more difficult. On the surface, choosing to launch a terror campaign should have been counter-productive. The U.S. administration sided with Israel and supported its right to self-defense after initially showing some support for the Palestinian position regarding the events in Jerusalem, especially on the issue of Sheikh Jarrah. But Hamas managed to gain some support and to promote anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiments and memes in the United States and elsewhere. This was thanks to its propaganda campaign, its alliance with left-leaning groups in the West, and the anti-Israel approach of leading media giants such as the New York TimesCNN, BBC, and TV anchors and celebrities such as John Oliver and Bella Hadid.

New York Times front page
In an unprecedented front page, the New York Times showed the faces of dozens of alleged Gazan children casualties, but many of whom were actually killed by Hamas rockets or served as Hamas fighters.

Hamas succeeded to put the Palestinian issue back on the international agenda, and some international bodies like the UNHRC adopted anti-Israel positions, as always. Even the European Union was about to adopt an anti-Israel position, and only the opposition of very few countries prevented that from happening. Representatives from various groups that rushed to assist the Palestinians met with Hamas officials in Gaza.

At the same time, as mentioned above, many in the international community are trying to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and enable him to play a key role in overseeing the reconstruction efforts in Gaza.

In the context of its direct confrontation with Israel, Hamas emerged from the conflict with some strategic achievements. First, it feels reassured that the “insurance policy” that Israel issued with its disengagement from Gaza, is still valid. Israel has no intention to recapture the Gaza Strip and topple Hamas. As long as this is the case, Hamas knows that in any additional round in “the war of many rounds,” its attacks from Gaza will not end in its total defeat, and it will be able to declare victory regardless of the operational results of the conflict.

Hamas also managed to prove its ability to disrupt Israel’s sense of security by repeatedly launching large salvos of rockets towards Israel’s major population centers and forcing Israelis to run to shelters and suspend the education system.

Most importantly, Hamas managed to become an active player in the security considerations of Jerusalem. The organization showed its ability to impact the relations between the Arab and the Jewish communities in Israel. It provoked a considerable part of the Arab society in Israel to support the use of violence in a jihadist/nationalistic themed upheaval against Zionism and Israel.

The Hamas achievements were possible to some extent thanks to its propaganda effort that included the extensive use of symbols and psychological warfare in coordination with the Qatari Aljazeera channel. It mobilized to spread its messages together with an army of agents and volunteers in social media and communication and cyber operations. As a result, the impression was that, as in previous rounds, Hamas was more effective than Israel on those fronts.

Preserving these achievements may be challenging for Hamas, and if it fails to do so, there will be a price to pay. Hamas stands to lose out as efforts to use the damage in Gaza to empower the PA with a greater involvement in reconstruction will put more obstacles to Hamas’ ability to rebuild its terror capabilities. The achievements with respect to Jerusalem may also turn tricky and dangerous to Hamas. If Israel ignores its threats and moves ahead on some Jerusalem-related issues, manifesting its claim to sovereignty over the city, Hamas might find itself obliged to act even if the timing is not optimal, and if it does not, it may lose its ability to claim victory.

Even before these challenges appear, Hamas has to deal with some negative repercussions of the last conflict. First, whereas for Hamas the decision to use force was motivated by strategic and political considerations, Israel acted mainly to achieve a strategic military goal – to restore its deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas by causing severe damage to its military capabilities, and making it difficult for Hamas to rebuild its terror capabilities after this round in the “war of many rounds.” Hamas anticipated a harsh Israeli reaction but was surprised and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Israeli response and expressed readiness for a ceasefire right from the second day.

In this last round of this war, Israel proved that its application of lessons learned in fighting Hamas since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, was a level well above the Palestinian terror organization. Offensively, it managed to demonstrate its intelligence dominance by obtaining precise information (using Artificial Intelligence, according to some reports) about Hamas’ vital interests: locations of some key leaders, weapons production facilities, and other secret assets such as the vast subterranean facilities (the “Metro” and offensive tunnels). Defensively, the Iron Dome managed to overcome improvements in the Hamas rockets, keeping the number of Israeli casualties relatively low. Almost all of the other offensive capabilities, both new and old, (with the exception of a couple of anti-tank Kornet missiles) were successfully blocked by Israel and were foiled without causing damage. Hamas’ new weaponry and methods included unmanned suicide aerial vehicles, underwater guided explosive weapons, anti-tank and shoulder-fired anti-air missiles (MANPADS), and incursions into Israel through the tunnels. Hamas did manage to maintain repeated heavy rocket barrages against Israel even though a considerable number of its multiple rocket launchers were hit. All of Hamas’ other assets were severely damaged or destroyed.

Israel attacked 1,500 targets in Gaza with relatively little unintended collateral damage. This damage was inevitable as Hamas built its infrastructure inside civilian neighborhoods or constructed tunnels under civilians and public facilities – using them as human shields. Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, admitted that Hamas located its centers inside civilian facilities and vowed to move them. It can be assumed that this unusual confession reflects criticism from the Gazan public over Hamas’ behavior. The public identifies with the Hamas commitment to fight against Zionism but is concerned over the infrastructure damage and the fact that ending the conflict without an agreed arrangement means their daily life concerns will not be addressed by the parties quickly. This worries Hamas, who would like to promote an arrangement that will ease the burden on the population and will not erode its rule over Gaza and its strategic achievements in the conflict. At the same time, Hamas seeks a prisoner-exchange deal with Israel that would strengthen its popularity in Gaza and beyond.

So far, Hamas has achieved its strategic-political goals in the last conflict but paid a heavy price – way more than what it expected – in terms of the damage to its military and terror capabilities. Meanwhile, Israel achieved its goals in terms of restoring its deterrence.

In the near and medium future, Hamas will contend with considerable challenges trying to maintain its achievements and rebuild its terror capabilities. We will witness a new episode in the learning competition between Israel and Hamas, and it is clear that Hamas, with the aid of Iran and Hizbullah, will intensively study the last confrontation and try to improve its capabilities. Israel will do the same in the military domain while trying to erode Hamas’ strategic achievements.