Much of Gaza lies in ruins, with its people pushed from their homes by Israeli bombardment and the death toll climbing ever higher. On the ground, Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for 16 years, has largely vanished, other than when its fighters pop up to attack Israeli tanks or fire rockets at Israel.
But the group is still reaping benefits from its surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7. It is regarded as the only Palestinian faction to squeeze concessions from Israel in many years. It has thrown a bloody wrench into Israel’s plans to improve relations with its Arab neighbors and forced the Palestinian issue back onto the agendas of world leaders.
Two months into the war, despite vows by Israeli officials to destroy Hamas, Israel has yet to kill its top leaders, free the remaining 137 hostages Hamas holds or provide convincing evidence that it can achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas without an astronomical human cost.
In Hamas’s cynical calculation, the loftiness of Israel’s aims is a plus. While sticking to its long-term goal of destroying the Jewish state, Hamas can declare victory merely by surviving to fight another day.
“There is always going to be an advantage that an unconventional force will have, particularly if it is as ruthless as Hamas and doesn’t really care about the damage to the local civilians,” said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a Middle East policy analyst who grew up in Gaza. “Israel is going to be stuck in this unwinnable war, causing massive death and destruction.”
What exactly Israel can achieve remains an open question. But simply prosecuting the war can, over time, damage Israel’s economy and international standing, while encouraging a new generation of Palestinians to hate Israel — all benefits for Hamas.
The Hamas-led surprise attack on Oct. 7 was the deadliest day in Israel’s history, with about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, killed and 240 taken captive. Israel responded with a military ferocity not seen anywhere in decades, dropping thousands of bombs on Gaza and launching a ground invasion aimed at destroying Hamas’s military and governing structures.
The war has been catastrophic for Gaza’s 2.2 million people. About 85 percent have fled their homes and now face a growing challenge to find food, water, shelter and medical care. More than 15,000 people have been killed, more than two-thirds of them women and children, according to the territory’s health authorities, who do not report how many of the dead were combatants.
The war has taken a toll on Hamas, too. The group has largely abandoned governance in Gaza, although remnants of its police force still work in the south, and medics in hospitals overseen by the Health Ministry struggle to treat floods of wounded patients. Otherwise, it is increasingly leaving the strip’s people to fend for themselves.
Israel has blown up many of the tunnels that Hamas has built over the years to covertly move around the territory, hold captives, manufacture weapons and plan attacks.
Hamas is estimated to have 25,000 fighters, and Israeli officials assess that a few thousand of them have been killed in Gaza, in addition to about 1,000 inside Israel on Oct. 7. Both Israel and Hamas have announced the names of Hamas military figures killed in the war. On Thursday, Israel published a photograph it said showed 11 Hamas commanders meeting in a bunker. Five of them were marked with red circles that read, “Eliminated.”
But fighters from Hamas and other armed factions continue to attack Israeli forces inside Gaza and have killed more than 90 soldiers since the start of Israel’s ground invasion, including the son of Israel’s former chief of staff.
Israel has yet to find and kill Hamas’s top leaders in Gaza, including Yahya Sinwar, the highest ranking Hamas official in the territory, and Mohammed Deif, who leads the group’s armed wing. Israel considers both men architects of the Oct. 7 assault and of the fighting in Gaza since.
Mr. Sinwar has not appeared publicly since the war began. But one hostage, Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85-year-old peace activist, told an Israeli newspaper after her release last month that Mr. Sinwar had come to the tunnel where she was being held. She said she asked him if he was ashamed to have done such a thing to people who had supported peace. Mr. Sinwar did not answer, she said.
Coordination continues between Hamas members in and outside of Gaza, which allowed leaders based in Qatar to negotiate exchanges of hostages for prisoners that Hamas in Gaza then carried out. The group’s media teams churn out news updates, statements from leaders and videos of attacks and civilians killed in Israeli strikes. Hamas officials in Turkey and Lebanon communicate their views to journalists and diplomats, and the group’s leaders in Qatar speak regularly with mediators from Qatar and Egypt about potential cease-fires and exchanges of captives.
At a restaurant in Beirut this past week, Hamas hosted a public seminar to assess the “accomplishments and challenges” of the war so far.
Ahmad Abdul-Hadi, a Hamas representative, told the dozens of attendees that the battle represented a “qualitative shift” in the struggle against Israel, and that Hamas and the Palestinians had accepted the sacrifices necessary to keep the Palestinian cause alive.
“The Palestinian people and their resistance had to take a costly strategic decision because the costs of liquidating the Palestinian cause and squandering Palestinian rights would be much greater,” he said.
Of course, Gaza’s civilians had no say in Hamas’s decision to attack Israel, and some have complained that they are paying the price, despite the great risk of speaking out against the group.
“Why are they hiding among the people?” an unidentified man covered in dust in a hospital said during an interview with Al Jazeera. “Why don’t they go to hell and hide there?”
But gauging the scale of such criticism is hard, and it pales in comparison to Palestinian anger at how Israel is fighting.
“There is a lot of horror around the response, but despite that, Hamas is now undoubtedly the leader of Palestinian nationalism,” said Abdaljawad Hamayel, a lecturer at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank. “It is now the one holding the cards.”
By carrying out such a dramatic attack and freeing 240 Palestinians from Israeli jails in exchange for 105 people kidnapped on Oct. 7, Hamas had overshadowed the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, Mr. Hamayel said.
While Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and other countries, the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel’s right to exist and has limited authority in parts of the West Bank. But it has come under increasing criticism from Palestinians who see the body as corrupt, undemocratic and compromised because its security forces coordinate with Israel to arrest Palestinian fighters.
President Biden and other United States officials have fully backed Israel throughout the war. But in recent weeks, they have paired that support with concern that the vast destruction and high death toll could undermine Israel’s broader goals. They have also renewed calls for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians as the only path to long-term peace. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel heads a right-wing government with members who openly disdain the idea.
Other observers have suggested that leaders in Israel and the West have been too quick to assume Israel can actually destroy Hamas.
One month into the war, Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, published an analysis entitled “Israel Could Lose.” He argued not that Hamas would turn the tables and destroy Israel, but that the war could serve Hamas’s long-term aims by siphoning support from the Palestinian Authority and to Hamas. That, in turn, would increase Israel’s isolation from countries in the Arab and developing worlds and complicate its relationships with the United States and Europe.
That outcome was still a risk, Mr. Alterman said in an interview this past week.
In Hamas’s view, he said, “This is the necessary first step to reverse the strength that Israel gets from being integrated into the region and the world.”
There are also scant historical examples of Israel successfully using overwhelming force to destroy its enemies.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization, which it considered a terrorist organization. The war was long and deadly and failed to destroy the P.L.O., while preparing the ground for the rise of Hezbollah. (Israel signed peace accords with the P.L.O. in 1993).
In 2006, Israel again went to war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, which has come back stronger in the years since.
Israel has also fought three major wars against Hamas in Gaza since 2008, none of which prevented the group from rearming and preparing for the Oct. 7 assault.
Mr. Alkhatib, the policy analyst from Gaza, recalled the string of Hamas leaders that Israel killed around the time he left Gaza in 2004.
“All of these big, big leaders were assassinated, so I was under the impression that Hamas was a weakened organization,” he said.
He was wrong, Mr. Alkhatib added, having learned in the years since that Hamas considers its commanders replaceable and sees a resentful population in Gaza as a way of ensuring future recruits.
“I very much would never have thought that Hamas would rise to this level of power,” Mr. Alkhatib said. “But it points to how they are resilient, they are adaptive and one way or another they will find a way to reconstitute, even outside of Gaza.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.