Opinion by Peter Bergen, CNN
(CNN) — Khaled Hroub, a Palestinian academic and the author of “Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide,” says he believes that Hamas did not expect that the October 7 attack on Israel would be the scale that it became, and the group didn’t have a plan for what came afterward. Speaking to me on Sunday, Hroub also said that Israel’s expected ground invasion of Gaza doesn’t seem to incorporate any planning for the “day after” the war is over.
Hroub was born in Bethlehem in the West Bank in a refugee camp, and his family moved to Jordan and then to the UK, where he completed his doctorate at the University of Cambridge. He is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar.
Hroub told me he believes that Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel’s northern border will not get involved in the war in a large-scale way unless the Gaza conflict drags on for many weeks. If it does, he said, the pressure on Hezbollah to fight Israel will increase.
Our interview was edited for length and clarity.
Peter Bergen: What do you think about the scale and timing of the Hamas attack in Israel?
Khaled Hroub: My analysis is Hamas did not plan this attack to be as large as it was. I think they planned something limited; they wanted to do something short, swift and effective.
They had been planning for this for a long time, but once they penetrated Israel, they were surprised by the ease of the operation. The operation spread in different directions without prior planning.
Once the operation became larger than planned, it appeared that there was no clear second phase to this Hamas operation. There was no clear-cut political goal or demand behind it. So, it looked like an ad hoc expansion of what had started to be the kidnapping of some Israeli soldiers and then swapping them for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. They were surprised by their own success.
Bergen: So, who’s in charge of Hamas’ operations? Is it Mohammed Deif, an elusive Hamas military commander?
Israeli policy seems to target these Hamas leaders, thinking they are solely responsible. So, if we assassinate this guy or that guy, things will be dramatically different. Over the years, this theory has been proven wrong. So, the more the Israelis assassinate Hamas leaders, the more a new generation comes in, even younger and maybe even more radical.
Bergen: You said in the past that when Israel undertook previous large-scale military operations in Gaza, it backfired because it strengthened Hamas. Do you think that situation is going to be different this time?
Hroub: I think neither Israel nor Hamas had a very clear plan for what happens down the road. Even if the Israeli military succeeded in destroying Hamas, the question facing everyone is, what’s next?
So instead of having one single address now in Gaza that you can deter — Hamas does have institutions — you will end up with a bunch of splinter groups, certainly more radical than Hamas, and without any method of deterring them. So, this is why I think Israel doesn’t have a clear plan for the second phase of whatever invasion they might do.
Hroub: I think it led to the situation that we are facing at this very moment. Why is this? If you go back to the context, the regional and global atmosphere back then was dominated by the so-called war on terror, led by George Bush. This war was fought in countries and against groups, including Hamas.
The other campaign of George Bush’s administration was the region’s democratization. So, these two efforts were going hand in hand for the Bush administration: One was the democratization of the Middle East, and the other was the campaign against terrorism.
So, Hamas used the Bush democratization campaign to protect itself from the heat of the war on terror, and they won the 2006 elections and came into power in Gaza.
Bergen: Why did Hamas win the elections in 2006?
Hroub: Hamas’ victory in 2006 was not only the appeal of Hamas; it was the failure of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority in delivering their promises of having a Palestinian state.
Israel also did not fulfill its promises to the Palestinians, and there was no hope. Even Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1993 Oslo peace accords moving forward the peace process, was assassinated by an Israeli. And since then, you have right-wing politics dominating the Israeli scene. So that was another kind of failure.
A third party that failed was the US. The US did not care about the perspective of the Palestinians. These multiple failures fed into the popularity of Hamas.
Palestinian voters also hated the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and its failure in bringing about a Palestinian state, and they wanted an alternative: Hamas, which was seen as not corrupt and also adhering to resistance against Israel.
Now the image is different, of course, because Hamas has been in power for 16 years, and people have mixed views about Hamas’ performance.
Bergen: What is the role of religion in Hamas?
Hroub: Very central, the mother organization of Hamas is the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Jerusalem in 1945. During the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and most of the 1980s, they did the business of any other traditional branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, meaning working in charities, mosques, student unions and professional associations.
But they never adopted a resistance strategy against Israel, which meant that during this period, they had a dubious reputation among the Palestinians because they were not resisting Israel.
What changed was the gradual Islamization of Palestinian society, and in 1987, when the first Palestinian uprising happened, they changed their strategy and adopted resistance.
Since then, we have had these two tendencies within Hamas. One is nationalist; the other is religious. In times of crisis and war, the religious component comes to the forefront at the expense of the political and nationalist components.
Bergen: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the Qatari capital, Doha, last week. The Qatari government has a relationship with Hamas and has also had success in brokering deals to get hostages and prisoners released; for instance, five Americans held by Iran were released last month. Do you think there’s some possibility there, or is the war too advanced for that discussion to happen in a meaningful way?
Hroub: I think it’s still kind of very early to talk seriously about this issue. Hamas will be very stubborn because the only concrete outcome that could come from this confrontation is to free Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. And this doesn’t fit with the mood nowadays dominating Israel. So, I think it’s a bit too early.
Bergen: Do you think Hezbollah stays on the sidelines mostly during the war against Hamas, or that can change?
Hroub: Hezbollah may get involved the longer the war goes on. If it goes on for three, four weeks, things might change.
Bergen: Is peace at all possible here in the longer term?
Hroub: Since the killing of Rabin, the idea of a two-state solution on the Israeli side has been continuously going down the drain.
Bergen: What happens to those living in Gaza?
Hroub: There are many kinds of local voices calling upon the Palestinians not to leave Gaza, telling them, “If you leave, you will never come back.” The Arab countries are extremely sensitive to taking more Palestinians into their territories, whether in Egypt or Jordan.
Bergen: Do you think this Hamas attack on Israel was an intelligence failure or a policy failure by the Israelis, or both?
Hroub: I think both.
It was a policy failure because you have had Palestinians caged in Gaza since 2007, without any hope, and in that long period of 16 years, you have conditions in the Gaza Strip (going) from bad to worse by the day; they blame, of course, Israel’s blockade of Gaza, but there’s also a fair share of the blame on Hamas, which failed to provide employment and other services.
Youth unemployment in Gaza is 60%, the highest in the world. There is no hope whatsoever. So, Hamas wanted to do something to break this deadlock, even if it was very dramatic. If they freed their prisoners from Israel, they could at least bring in something not only for Gaza but also the Palestinians.
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