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Is Israel any closer to reaching its goal of destroying Hamas?

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

We begin tonight's program by taking stock of the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas. In recent days, Israeli forces have expanded their operations in retaliation for Hamas' October 7 attack on Israel. And they've done that through continued airstrikes and a ground offensive in Gaza, the territory that Hamas governs.

Now, since the beginning of the war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stated goal has been to destroy Hamas. And while Israel's offensive has caused vast destruction and thousands of deaths in Gaza, it is not even clear if Israel can destroy Hamas. So what does all this mean for the future of Gaza and its leadership?

To discuss, we've brought in Paul Salem. He's president and CEO of the Middle East Institute, which is a nonpartisan think tank focused on Middle East policy. I began our conversation by asking if he thinks that Israel's monthslong siege of Gaza has done anything to weaken Hamas.

PAUL SALEM: Certainly, they are degrading Hamas' capacity to fight. They've closed down many of their tunnels. They've killed a number - we don't know how many - of their fighters and leadership, but probably a minor portion of that. Clearly, Hamas is well-schooled in, you know, hiding and staying out of the way and not being an obvious target. So I think, while seriously degraded, Hamas is still able to launch rockets. I think, depending on how this ends, it's possible that they could eventually sort of rearm and retool over time.

But I do not think that Israel will be able to destroy Hamas in a final sense. It is a big political movement, a big part of sort of Palestinian political activism in general. And I think their fighters are well-schooled in clandestine operations.

MA: And it's been said many times that, you know, with the civilian deaths that have been as a result of Israel's assault, there may be people who become radicalized and want to strike back eventually.

SALEM: Yes. That's very true. And even some sketchy polling data shows that before October 7, Hamas' popularity was quite low in Gaza because basically they were not very focused on governance. They're very repressive. But the attacks of October 7, particularly the very massive Israeli retaliation, for sure makes people much more desperate and much more extreme in their reactions, as it has also the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians made Israeli public opinion move to the right as well.

MA: Well, you referred to the political aims of Hamas, and I guess it's worth mentioning that Hamas has different wings to it. There's the armed military wing, but there's also the political wing. Both have been involved with negotiations over hostages. So I wonder, what do you anticipate could be the future of the political wing of Hamas, especially if we get to a point where negotiations over hostages are completed?

SALEM: Well, there's really too many variables, and it's so much of a black box that it would be unrealistic to, you know, attempt to predict. But obviously, there's different tendencies within the Hamas leadership in general. There is the political leadership that had entered into negotiations with the Israelis several times.

So there's a part of Hamas which could be amenable to a political process. But clearly, Mr. Sinwar, who heads the military side and was really the architect of this attack, comes from a completely different wing, which is one that completely rejects the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state and only would accept, you know, a Palestinian state which would have Jews and Arabs in it but not a two-state solution.

MA: Hamas governs over 2 million people in Gaza. I wonder, based on your experience seeing these conflicts play out, what happens to them if Israel manages to defeat Hamas?

SALEM: Well, whether it achieves that goal or not, the reality is those 2 million or 2.3 million people, 20,000 of them have been killed, many more have been maimed and injured. Most of them are starving without food or water and with no medical supplies. They are the worst-off population on the globe. If and when this war winds down as an armed conflict, Israel has said that it will not allow any, you know, the Palestinian Authority to come back into Gaza. So it's uncertain how Gaza will be governed. I fear that some of the right-wing elements in the Netanyahu government would want to maintain very, very terrible conditions in Gaza to convince more and more Palestinians from Gaza to leave, to flee, because many right-wing Israelis really feel that they cannot coexist with these Palestinians, and they'd prefer them to leave.

MA: You refer to a potential scenario of what Israel might do if it manages to unseat Hamas. I wonder, do you see any role for neighboring Arab countries to play in the future of Gazans?

SALEM: Yes, definitely. I mean, what needs to happen - and I think this is what the U.S. is trying to achieve - is that there needs to be a support and a bolstering of the Palestinian Authority, which currently is on the West Bank. It has its own problems of mismanagement and corruption and a very old leadership that needs to be revamped and reformed. And that Palestinian Authority at some point should be enabled, after being reformed and strengthened, to come back into the Gaza Strip, where it used to govern before 2007, which it still has a lot of people on the payroll. That needs to be enabled and accepted by Israel. And in that context, many Arab countries, they would step in to help as well. But that really needs to be in the context of a different political orientation from Israel that is open to discussing a two-state solution and a way forward for Israelis and Palestinians other than recurring war.

MA: We've been joined by Paul Salem, president and CEO of the Middle East Institute and co-editor of the book "Winning The Battle, Losing The War: Addressing The Drivers Fueling Armed Non-State Actors And Extremist Groups." Paul, thanks for being here.

SALEM: Thank you, Adrian, for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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