Skip to main content

What is Hamas' endgame in Gaza?

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1236 GMT (2036 HKT)
  • Hamas has a number of stated goals
  • Some, like the destruction of Israel, are repudiated globally
  • Hamas also wants an end to Israeli control in Gaza

Editor's note: This is a companion piece to What is Israel's endgame in Gaza?

(CNN) -- For three weeks now, Hamas and Israel have been locked in a deadly battle. Each side points to the other for provoking the conflict, which has left scores -- mainly civilians -- dead.

And yet, a cease-fire seems unlikely, in part because the sides don't feel they have accomplished their goals.

What are the goals for Hamas, the organization that governs Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by many Western powers? And what is it willing to settle for to end the bloodshed?

What Hamas wants:

Ashrawi: 'End Israel's violence'
Kids find no escape from Gaza violence
U.N.: 70% killed in Gaza are civilians
Palestinians in Gaza celebrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday, August 26. After more than seven weeks of heavy fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire that puts off dealing with core long-term issues. Palestinians in Gaza celebrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday, August 26. After more than seven weeks of heavy fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire that puts off dealing with core long-term issues.
Israel-Gaza crisis
Photos: Israel-Gaza crisis Photos: Israel-Gaza crisis

1. The destruction of Israel.

This mission is written into the preamble of Hamas' founding document: "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it."

It's a demand that is globally repudiated as outrageous. It is unrealistic for Hamas to think that it can somehow destroy Israel. As long as Hamas leaders latch on to that as an endgame, the result will be continued flare-ups for years to come.

Some Hamas leaders have stated a willingness to accept peace with Israel under certain conditions, the Council on Foreign Relations notes in a report. For instance, they want Palestinian refugees to be able to return. But such voices are not being heard in the current conflict.

If Hamas is incapable of destroying Israel, it might still be dedicated to scaring Israelis off the contested land, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic posits.

"The goal of Hamas—the actual, overarching goal—is to terrorize the Jews of Israel, through mass murder, into abandoning their country," Goldberg wrote. "If generations of Palestinians have to be sacrificed to that goal, well, Hamas believes such sacrifices are theologically justified."

CNN Middle East analyst Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, suggests a different type of war -- a media campaign by Hamas.

"Hamas knows it can't destroy Israel with its rockets or tunnels, but it can create a legal and international situation where Israel can no longer legitimately defend itself," he said.

Reports of civilian casualties in Gaza -- without the context of rockets being fired at Israel -- play into Hamas' media strategy, he said.

Map of the Middle East  Map of the Middle East
Map of the Middle EastMap of the Middle East

2. An end to the Israeli blockade.

Although Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005 and dismantled Israeli settlements, Palestinians say they continue to live under occupation to this day.

Palestinians argue that Israel still maintains effective control of Gaza, making it an occupied territory. Israel controls Gaza's borders, waters and airspace -- and oversees what goods make it into the territory.

CNN's Ben Wedeman recently spoke with Ismail Haniyeh, who is essentially the prime minister of Gaza. The Hamas member gave his demands -- namely, an immediate end to what he called the Israeli aggression. He wants border crossings to Israel and Egypt opened.

In a 2012 interview with CNN, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had a similar message.

"The resistance is a means to an end," Meshaal told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "The endgame is to end occupation but the international community is not enabling us to do this. They are biased towards Israel."

Hamas wants a cease-fire, Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdam said of the current conflict, but it wants assurances that the Palestinians will be able to live peacefully.

Israel: We do not target civilians
Ban Ki-moon to Israel: Exercise restraint
Why a ceasefire is so difficult
Israel's cost for the incursion into Gaza

"No one is talking against having a cease-fire. But we want a fair cease-fire to protect our own people for a long time, to protect them from the Israeli military attacks, from the siege, from the arrests," Hamdam told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

3. The release of prisoners.

In 2011, a captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was released by Hamas in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. Many have since been re-arrested.

Dozens of other Palestinians were arrested in the aftermath of the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, an incident which precipitated the current fighting.

There is a precedent of Palestinian prisoners being released in negotiations with Hamas. This demand by Hamas is also among the most straightforward it has presented.

"Israel is not respecting its commitment by releasing and then arresting prisoners released," said Zaki Chehab, a leading Arab journalist and political editor of Hayat. "It's a sign that Israel has not respected its commitment."

The conditions that Hamas is making is not something unjustified, he told CNN. "They have a right to make a request because they've been under siege."

4. Rally support at home.

Some analysts argue that Hamas is engaged in a battle with Israel to shore up support among Palestinians.

Many Palestinians believe that Israel has no intention of finding long-term peace, and they are likely to support Hamas in greater numbers if they view the militants as standing up for their rights.

"Hamas gains strength from the feeling of many Palestinians of despair that they see settlement growth. They don't believe that Israel has any intention of giving them a state of their own. And so when Hamas says what good is there for us to accept Israel's right to exist since Israel will never give us a state anyway, that makes Hamas stronger," CNN political commentator Peter Beinart said.

During the last prolonged outbreak between the two sides in 2012, many concluded that Hamas gained credibility at the expense of other Palestinian leadership factions, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report.

In the period since 2012, Hamas has seen the number of governments friendly to it diminish, and its influence wane.

"Hamas finds itself in a very difficult situation, and has for a couple years now," writes Natan B. Sachs, a fellow at Brookings' Center for Middle East Policy. "Since 2012, when Egypt was governed by a president from the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas' parent organization), Hamas' fortunes have declined precipitously."

Strapped for cash and possibly losing popularity, Hamas operatives may have decided that they had little to lose in entering a conflict.

It's possible, Sachs said, that Hamas militants may not always be under the control of its political wing, and that this current conflict is the result of Hamas losing control of its cadres.

READ: What is Israel's endgame in Gaza?

READ: Is Hamas using human shields in Gaza? The answer is complicated

Part of complete coverage on
Tensions in the Middle East
Here's a look at some of the most serious conflicts involving Israel and its neighbors -- conflicts that have spanned more than six decades.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1517 GMT (2317 HKT)
A video released by ISIS shows the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley and threatens the life of another American if President Obama doesn't end military operations in Iraq.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0904 GMT (1704 HKT)
19-year-old Udi Segal explains why he won't join his country's military.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 0028 GMT (0828 HKT)
The sights at the Gaza zoo couldn't be sadder, after it was nearly destroyed during recent Israel-Hamas conflict.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Both Hamas and Israel have chosen conflict over real peace negotiations again and again in the past, writes Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Mohammed Najib says Hamas' objectives also include ending its political isolation.
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
With so many conflicts, on so many fronts, here's a quick look at what's happening.
July 5, 2014 -- Updated 1429 GMT (2229 HKT)
Alan Elsner: How Israel reacts will be decisive turning point for both Israelis and Palestinians.
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 2059 GMT (0459 HKT)
The Israel-Gaza conflict impacts families on both sides. Karl Penhaul speaks to the family of a militant killed in Gaza.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 0141 GMT (0941 HKT)
A sense of Egypt's historic role and the traditional animosity of their military toward Islamist radicalism have propelled Egypt to take a central role in the on-off cease-fire talks.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 2150 GMT (0550 HKT)
If the Gaza truce holds and Israel's Operation Protective Edge comes to its conclusion, some things are certain.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
CNN's Tim Lister says, to secure peace, Israel needs to offer Gazans a better future.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Tensions between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been strained for years.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1316 GMT (2116 HKT)
Images from the conflict between Israel and Hamas depict apparent civilians, caught in the middle.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Hamas must be tamed through politics, not the failed strategy of war, argues Ed Husain.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
It may have started as a TV debate about the Israel-Hamas conflict, but it's now turned into an online war of words.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1820 GMT (0220 HKT)
Hamas' political leader, who lives in Qatar, sits down with CNN for an exclusive interview.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1043 GMT (1843 HKT)
Nafoz Mohammed is living in a cramped two-room apartment with 16 other people, hours holed up in fear.
August 3, 2014 -- Updated 0454 GMT (1254 HKT)
Karl Penhaul visits a destroyed section of Gaza and learns how the bombing has affected one student's aspirations.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 0615 GMT (1415 HKT)
The birth of a child is normally a joyous occasion, but it is tinged by sadness and anxiety in Gaza. Ian Lee reports.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Amid the Gaza conflict, experts try to figure out who's in charge of "the resistance."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
The opening was so small that CNN's Wolf Blitzer -- no physical giant -- had to bend down to climb inside.
Follow CNNArabic for the latest news and analysis from the Middle East and rest of the world.