Hamas Seeks New Doctrine after Gaza War Failures
by Jonathan Spyer
Hamas has undertaken a major process of examination and investigation into its deeply flawed performance in the course of Operation Cast Lead, sources say. The review process is aimed at developing a new doctrine for Hamas to enable it to achieve its ambition of rivaling Hizbullah in its abilities. It remains to be seen if the reforms will deliver an improved result in renewed future hostilities with Israel or whether, as with Operation Cast Lead, Israel will once again display an ability to frustrate and set Hamas back on the tactical level.
Hamas carried out the first review of its performance immediately following the conclusion of hostilities. This was followed by a second major investigation in the spring, amid harsh criticism of the group’s performance from its Iranian and Syrian sponsors. Izzadin al-Kassam Brigades leader Ahmed al-Ja’abari, and northern brigade commander Ahmed al-Ghandour were particularly singled out for criticism.
The cull of senior Hamas operatives in the course of Operation Cast Lead was heavy. Politburo members Nizar Rayyan and Said Siyam were killed. Senior commanders of the Executive Force, like Salah Abu Shareh (who headed the EF’s security apparatus) and Mahmoud Watfah (head of its military wing), also lost their lives. Around 50 explosives experts are reported to have died. Operatives at this level are not easily replaced. But more fundamentally, the defensive doctrines developed by Hamas prior to Cast Lead comprehensively failed the test.
All of its strategically important attempts to kidnap IDF soldiers in the course of the fighting were unsuccessful (at least three close calls were reported). Its failure to score any success against the IDF’s heavy armor was particularly noted. This was in stark contrast to the Second Lebanon War in 2006, in which Hizbullah’s relative success in damaging a large number of tanks formed an important part of its claim of “divine victory.”
The Hamas investigation, according to sources, was particularly focused on probing the failure to repel the IDF’s push into Tel al-Hawa – Israel’s deepest incursion into Gaza City. The investigation discovered widespread desertion by members of the Kassam Brigades in the face of the IDF advance. It found that many fighters, who had received instructions to withdraw if they feared being overrun, took a liberal interpretation of this, disappearing well in advance of the IDF’s arrival. A Gaza rumor has it that 100 gunmen from the Zeitoun area were stripped of their membership in the organization following Cast Lead.
The extent of the Hamas failure can be summed up if one considers the official figures given by the organization on the ordnance fired in the course of Operation Cast Lead. According to Kassam Brigades spokesman Abu Obeideh, Hamas fired 558 rockets, of which 345 were Kassams and 213 were Grads, and 422 mortar shells; 53 sniper attacks were carried out and 79 bombs were detonated. Nineteen pitched battles with IDF forces took place.
The result was the death of six IDF soldiers. If one compares this with the statistics of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 – in which 23 IDF soldiers were killed in a single battle in the Jenin refugee camp – the extent of the failure becomes apparent.
Hamas managed throughout the course of the Gaza war to maintain constant rocket fire on Israel. This was a significant symbolic achievement, but not a great deal more. It constitutes the sole military success of any kind for which Hamas is able to take credit.
Clearly, something went awry for the rulers of Gaza in the fighting. Their patrons in Teheran and Damascus were angry and concerned. The image of success, of having finally found a way to deny the IDF victory and cause Israel setbacks, is an important element in the psychological warfare of the Iran-led regional bloc. This image has taken a series of blows so far this year. The Gaza events rank high among them.
Hamas has therefore engaged in extensive internal discussions intended to lead to the formulation of a new doctrine. According to sources, two distinct orientations emerged from this, corresponding broadly with the growing political divide in Hamas between the veteran leadership of the movement and elements committed to a more extreme al-Qaida style approach. The latter favored the acceptance of a much higher casualty rate of Hamas fighters, through the resumption of direct attacks on Israeli forces, and the reinstatement of attacks on Israel and in the West Bank. This adventurous and probably suicidal approach, however, has not been accepted.
Rather Hamas has adopted a more modest series of reforms. These center on overhauling the movement’s tactical doctrine, adopting a new and intensified, externally-supported training program for Kassam Brigades fighters, increased smuggling and upgrading of arms, the building of a new, underground tunnel structure and an attempt to tighten internal security.
Regarding the first issue, Hamas over the summer has been carrying out intensified military training at its various training camps and military academy in the Nuseirat refugee camp. The academy, ironically, is named after the Palestinian ideological godfather of al-Qaida, Dr. Abdallah Azzam. In contrast to the pre-2009 period, when Hamas took great pride in parading its military capabilities, the nature of this training has not been publicized.
The new approach is thought to be more offensive, and is intended to hit at the rear bases of an incoming IDF force. Hizbullah is thought to be deeply involved in the new training program. (This is not a new development. Elements who had trained with Hizbullah in the Bekaa Valley were also involved in the fighting earlier this year.)
On the issue of smuggling, Egyptian efforts at cracking down on weapons smuggling into Rafah have increased in recent months. In addition, as reported in the media, there have been the attacks on arms convoys in Sudan which were on their way to Gaza, and the revelation of a Hizbullah-led arms smuggling network in the spring; 49 operatives, led by Hizbullah member Sami Shihab (Muhammad Yousef Mansour) are now on trial in Egypt for organizing this network.
The Egyptians, however, are making no efforts to curb commercial smuggling into Gaza, which now forms a major source of income for the Hamas regime. As a result, Hamas is mixing the bringing in of arms with the import of commercial goods. Part of the levy placed on commercial owners of tunnels is thought to include requiring them at short notice to be ready to bring in arms for Hamas. Extensive redigging of tunnels destroyed in the bombing of the Philadelphi corridor began already in January.
In addition to the extensive tunnel network, seaborne smuggling is also continuing. Hamas claims as a result of these efforts to now have a more extensive array of weaponry than before the war.
Hamas lost a very large amount of weaponry in the course of Operation Cast Lead. Key storage facilities under mosques and public buildings were discovered. The movement blames the presence of Fatah “informers” for its failures in this regard. Hamas believes that Fatah members at street level provided real-time information to IDF forces. The movement settled accounts with a series of executions of Fatah men after Cast Lead. Improving internal security is now a major task facing the rulers of Gaza.
The picture of Hamas in Gaza that emerges in the post-Cast Lead period is a complex one. On the one hand, its rule survived the operation intact. No concerted Israeli effort to bring Hamas down was undertaken, and Hamas swiftly reasserted its authority after emerging from the rubble, despite the heavy blows it had taken.
On the other hand, the many failures in the movement’s performance have tarnished its reputation and accentuated internal divisions. The most important of these splits is between the movement’s traditional leadership which wants to continue its current path, and the growing number of Salafi militants concentrated in the Kassam Brigades, who would like to see greater Islamic observance in society and a return to a collision course with Israel.
Operation Cast Lead represented a significant tactical defeat for Hamas and hence, an important though far from decisive setback for the regional alliance which it is part of. The movement has picked up the pieces and engaged in a rethink of the methods that failed it. Of course, Israel too will have sought to learn its lessons from the experience of the Gaza War. As to who drew the better conclusions – this will be answered only in the next round of fighting between these two seemingly irreconcilable foes.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel. This is cross-posted on the Gloria website.