What Was Hamas Thinking?

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: The New Yorker
October 15, 2023 at 07:24
One of the group’s senior political leaders explains its strategy.
Gaza City, six days after Hamas launched its offensive.Photograph by Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty
Gaza City, six days after Hamas launched its offensive.Photograph by Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty

Mousa Abu Marzouk, a senior political leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, awoke Saturday morning to news of a bloodbath. Hamas’s military commanders, who are based in Gaza, had been so determined to keep secret their plan for a pre-dawn invasion of Israel that they’d hidden the details and the timing of the offensive even from the organization’s political leaders—including Abu Marzouk, who lives in exile in Doha, Qatar. He’d gone to sleep anticipating nothing, he told us, in a phone interview. “All of Hamas’s leaders who are not military ones received the news early Saturday morning,” Abu Marzouk said. The claim was plausible: given the penetration of Israeli intelligence services and the surveillance typically surrounding exiled Hamas leaders, it would have been unwise to give Abu Marzouk foreknowledge of the assault.

Hamas’s attack has introduced a dangerous new stage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas fighters and other militants gunned down more than twelve hundred Israelis—many of them civilians. And more than a hundred and fifty hostages were captured. The Israeli government has retaliated by cutting off food, fuel, and water to Gaza’s two million residents. The Israeli military has begun levelling entire neighborhoods with air strikes, causing nineteen hundred deaths so far, and tens of thousands of ground troops may soon be deployed on a mission to eliminate Hamas as an organization.

Why had Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, undertaken this assault now, for so little tangible gain and with such a foreseeably grave cost to Palestinian civilians? So far, Hamas’s military leaders have mainly spouted propaganda. (“This is the day of the great revolution to end the last occupation!” Mohammed al-Deif, the leader of Hamas’s military wing, declared in a statement.) On October 12th, we spoke with Abu Marzouk—a long-time Hamas political leader who had been at the forefront of its efforts to reach out to the West—in the hope of getting a clearer understanding of the group’s strategic thinking.

He told us that he’d been taken aback by the success of the assault: Hamas fighters had bulldozed about two dozen holes through the security barrier surrounding Gaza, and had penetrated more than twenty Israeli towns and villages. He said that Hamas’s leaders had expected the Israeli military units deployed around Gaza to be “the strongest divisions, and the most trained,” with “a lot of information and fortifications,” as well as assistance from “intelligence officers who know a lot about our movements.” Instead, he said, Israeli fighters had retreated in confusion. “We never expected that,” he said.

Abu Marzouk’s professions of surprise matched the agonized assessments of Israel’s military leaders. But his comments about Israeli failures were also clearly tactical, intended to rally Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza. He further claimed—this time, against allevidence—that Hamas fighters hadn’t executed civilians or committed atrocities. Such violence may have been done, he suggested, by Palestinian militants and civilians who had followed Hamas fighters through openings in the security wall.

Abu Marzouk emphasized that, though he’d been unaware of the final details, he and other Hamas political leaders had authorized the attack’s over-all strategy, including its scale and ambition. “The soldiers are the ones who plan, execute, and so on, but they abide by the general policies put forth by our political bureau,” he said. “We were surprised by the date but not by the actions.” He was hazier on the question of timing. He said at one point that Hamas’s military branch, the Qassam Brigades, had decided to invade mere hours before the security barrier was breached. Yet, at other moments in the interview, he referred to “a plan that had been prepared for years.” The attack “was not something that the Qassam could undertake five years ago,” he explained. “They were trained and prepared to do all of this. This wasn’t a spontaneous thing.”

While we spoke, Israeli air strikes were escalating and troops were massing on the Gaza border, and Abu Marzouk appeared eager to open negotiations over the release of hostages. He declared that Hamas was ready to release any women, children, or elderly captives, in addition to citizens of other countries—if Israel ceased its military campaign. “The innocent people who were imprisoned, we will not keep them,” he told us. (Whether Hamas’s military leaders concur remains to be seen.) He indicated that Hamas might seek to swap some Israeli soldiers for Palestinians being held in Israeli jails, but added, “It’s too early to talk about swaps.”

A spokesman for Hamas’s military wing had said that if Israel bombed Gazan homes without first warning occupants to flee, the group would broadcast video of civilian hostages being executed. Abu Marzouk retracted that threat. “That’s a mistake—we can’t execute hostages,” he told us. He said that four captives had died already—Israeli soldiers captured at the Erez border crossing—but they had been killed by an Israeli air strike, not by Hamas fighters. He said, “Let the situation calm down and the bombardment stop for us to be able to differentiate the prisoners from various factions. They are a very big number.” Abu Marzouk went on, “Let us stop the war and everything can be discussed on this issue.”

Read More (...)


  Reader Comments

You did not use the site, Click here to remain logged. Timeout: 60 second