GAZA WARThe Road to October 7: Hamas’ Long Game, Clarified

By Devorah Margolin and Matthew Levitt

Published 4 December 2023

When Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force of arms in 2007, it faced an ideological crisis. It could focus on governing Gaza and addressing the needs of the Palestinian people, or it could use the Gaza Strip as a springboard from which to attack Israel. Even then, Hamas understood these two goals were mutually exclusive. And while some anticipated Hamas would moderate, or at least be co-opted by the demands of governing, it did not. Instead, Hamas invested in efforts to radicalize society and build the militant infrastructure necessary to someday launch the kind of attack that in its view could contribute to the destruction of Israel. The road from Hamas’ 2007 takeover of Gaza to the October 2023 massacre offers insights about the organization and its goals.

The brutal Hamas-led October 7 attack on Israeli communities near Gaza represented a tactical paradigm shift for the group, which was previously known for firing rockets at Israel, carrying out suicide bombings targeting city buses or cafes, and conducting roadside attacks and shootings on restaurants and bars. October 7 was something different. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after viewing evidence of the attackers’ brutality, said that it “brings to mind the worst of ISIS.”1 The Secretary was painfully blunt in describing the attack: “Babies slaughtered. Bodies desecrated. Young people burned alive. Women raped. Parents executed in front of their children, children in front of their parents.”

The group’s explicit targeted killing and kidnapping of civilians baldly contradicts Hamas’ articulated revised political strategy since it took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.a Ironically, Hamas’ sharp tactical shift only underscores that the group never abandoned its fundamental commitment to the creation of an Islamist state in all of what it considers historical Palestine and the destruction of Israel.2

Moreover, Hamas has always described itself as a resistance organization, pushing back firmly against the ‘terrorist’ designation Israel, the United States, the European Union, and many others apply to the group. But by any measure, the October 7 attack is one of the worst acts of international terrorism on record. Thousands of Hamas operatives, aided by small numbers of terrorists from other groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, murdered some 1,200 people in Israel,b wounded thousands, and took at least 240 hostages with nationals from more than 40 countries.3

As such, the Hamas massacre demands a re-examination of a critical point in Hamas history: its 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip by force of arms aimed at fellow Palestinians, and its initiation of its governance project in Gaza. Despite wide-held beliefs that the shift to governance led to a more moderate Hamas, it is now clear that Hamas did not moderate—nor was it co-opted by the responsibility of providing public services to its constituents—but rather it prioritized building and maintaining its militant and terrorist capabilities. The October 7 attack obliterates all Hamas claims to legitimacy as a political actor.