TERRORISMHow Much of a Threat Does Hamas Still Pose to Israel?

By Bruce Hoffman

Published 18 June 2024

In 1969, at the height of the United States’ war in Vietnam, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously wrote, “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.” Israel is arguably in the same situation now.

What do we know about Hamas’s status as a fighting force at this point in the war?
Hamas has suffered a grievous but not a crushing blow as a result of Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip. American officials are reported to believe that Hamas now has between 9,000 and 12,000 fighters—about half of the number at the start of the war. That means that the Palestinian militant group can field some twelve to fifteen battalions, a considerably larger number than the handful of remaining battalions that Israel said there was to justify its ongoing operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. For its part, Hamas claims to have lost no more than six thousand men. And, for a movement that depends on tunnels for its survival, perhaps as many as 80 percent of Hamas’s tunnels remained intact as of January 2024.

According to U.S. President Joe Biden, Hamas has been “devastated” and is “no longer capable of carrying out another October 7” attack. That is without any doubt a core requirement to fulfill Israel’s strategic objectives in waging this war. But the big question is whether it is a sufficient one. It is akin to the United States claiming, for example, in 2002 that al-Qaeda was no longer capable of launching another September 11, 2001-like attack and, therefore, that the threat from the terrorist group had receded enough that a cease-fire was possible. In Israel’s case, as long as Hamas’s senior command survives and a core of combat-seasoned fighters remain, Israel will consider the Palestinian militant group to be in a position to, at minimum, continue to lob missiles and rockets onto Israeli communities, harass Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operating in Gaza, and plot even more serious attacks.

What are their capabilities at this point?
Two weeks ago, when its forces were encircled and under intense pressure from the IDF, Hamas was able to fire at least eight rockets from Rafah into Israel. So they clearly retain a capacity to threaten Israel and harass its citizens, which would both continue and increase if, in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words, Israel does not achieve its oft-stated objective of “total victory over Hamas.”