November 23, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel-Hamas war: How quickly can Hamas recover from Gaza defeat?

Hamas units in northern Gaza have been surrounded. They have been pushed out of numerous neighborhoods such as Sheikh Ijlin, Shait, Beit Hanoun, Rimal, parts of Zaytun and Jabalya.
November 23, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel-Hamas war: How quickly can Hamas recover from Gaza defeat?

Hamas units in northern Gaza have been surrounded. They have been pushed out of numerous neighborhoods such as Sheikh Ijlin, Shait, Beit Hanoun, Rimal, parts of Zaytun and Jabalya.

Hamas has suffered numerous casualties in Gaza since its surprise attack against Israel on October 7, but the total number is impossible to know. Israel has given various estimates on the number of Hamas members eliminated in certain areas or units. In general, the IDF issues details on the number of targets struck.

On Thursday, for example, the IDF said: “During IDF activities in the Gaza Strip over the last day, aerial strikes were carried out on more than 300 Hamas terrorist targets, including military command centers, underground terrorist tunnels, weapons storage facilities, weapons manufacturing sites, and anti-tank-missile firing posts.”

Can Hamas recover from the losses it has suffered since October 7? Its units in northern Gaza have been surrounded. They have been pushed out of numerous neighborhoods, including Sheikh Ijlin, Shati refugee camp, Beit Hanun, Rimal, parts of Zeitoun and Jabalya, and Beit Lahiya. Hamas has lost most of its territory in northern Gaza. Its units that tried to stay and fight were eliminated.

The question about Hamas survival in the face of these losses revolves around many factors. Other terrorist groups have shown they can fight to the end, basically to the very last man, as ISIS did in Mosul.

In other cases, some ISIS members tried to surrender. For instance, some did near Tal Afar, as they also tried to surrender near Baghouz on the Euphrates River in 2019. There are mixed examples of what happens when terrorist groups are surrounded.

Hamas has no way to replace its fighters in northern Gaza. The ceasefire will leave them surrounded. They have short interior lines and can shift units around, but it is unlikely they can replenish their units.

A study conducted in 1986 about combat casualties and whether units remain effective may shed light on what comes next for Hamas. First, we need to understand how Hamas is organized. It isn’t just a terrorist group with cells and rabble. It has become a kind of terrorist army; it ran Gaza since 2007 and had to turn its terrorist cells into a kind of fighting force. It may have learned how to do this from other Iran-backed groups, such as Hezbollah, Iranian militias in Syria, or the Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq.

Reports on November 13 suggested that 10 Hamas battalions in northern Gaza had been degraded. This means many of their commanders had been eliminated. Hamas has about 24 battalions in Gaza. Overall, it is estimated to have 140 companies within these battalions. A company of men usually has up to 100 fighters. A battalion can have several hundred.

Hamas had around 30,000 fighters on October 7. Some of them were killed invading Israel. Some have been detained. Some special units, such as Hamas naval commandos, have been eliminated.

Hamas’s main fighting unit is the battalion level. It has “brigades” as well, which include the battalions. The brigade level will include anti-tank missiles, snipers, rockets, and mortar arrays.

Some Hamas battalions in Gaza appear to have been completely shattered. The Shati Battalion was badly mauled because it fought the IDF not only in the area of Shati, near the beach northwest of Gaza City, but also around Shifa Hospital. It was hammered by IDF units in this area and apparently lost 200 terrorists, according to estimates.

The relationship between battle losses and performance

A report in 1986 compiled by Leonard Wainstein at the Institute of Defense Analysis near Washington, DC, analyzed the “relationship of battle damage to unit combat performance.” He surveyed Western armies in his discussion of whether units will break down when they suffer high casualties.

It is generally assumed that a unit in a Western military that suffers a certain percent of losses, such as 15% or 20%, can continue to function.

Wainstein wrote: “The impact of those casualties on the cutting edge – the rifle companies, tank crews, assault engineers – has clearly grown with time, as the number of men in the cutting edge shrank and support echelons expanded. The capacity of the armies of the First World War to absorb tremendous losses and yet continue to function was due in part to the larger proportion of fighting men in the total.”

Another unclassified US Army study from the 1950s asked: “Does a unit lose its combat effectiveness because it lacks a certain requisite number of bodies, each type of breakpoint being caused by a given depletion in numerical strength? If this be true, the arrival of sufficient replacements should restore the unit’s ability to carry out its mission. But intuition suggests that, in addition to numerical strength, certain psychological factors closely related to losses, also to length of time in combat, are factors termed attrition.”

Wainstein argued that the morale of units can be affected by various factors.

“It can also be influenced by the awareness of the individual soldier of the personal well-being and fate of his immediate comrades,” he wrote. “This need not always be negative. The most cogent example is obviously the effect on the individual of the sight of dead and wounded comrades.

“Casualties are certainly the most visible and forceful indications of the latent horror of combat. Soldiers not exposed to casualties close to them can view battle of the most savage degree in a somewhat detached manner, but the realization of the danger they face will be brought home vehemently when casualties begin to occur among their immediate ranks. The corrosion of motivation then begins.”

“Where morale of troops is high, even very heavy casualties will not put the formation out of action,” Wainstein concluded.

Terrorist groups can be defeated, casualties alone don’t determine the outcome

There are many complex elements involved. The overall sense is that casualties alone will not determine whether Hamas continues to fight and whether it can recover quickly from the blows it suffered since October 7.

The terrorist group has shown in the past that even if it suffers losses, it continues to exist. During the Second Intifada, for instance, Israel targeted the Hamas leadership. Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza have also been defeated in the past, such as operations in the 1970s, only to reappear decades later.

Terrorist groups can be defeated. Hamas may suffer some kind of organizational collapse if the pressure on its units becomes too high. If Hamas sought over the years to create a more disciplined force, with command and control, it will suffer if the command and control and commanders of units are eliminated.

This appears to have happened to some degree in northern Gaza. Nevertheless, the group is still there and holds ground in Gaza City itself. It doesn’t have very many civilians to use as human shields because most have fled to southern Gaza.

In southern Gaza, however, it now has a huge number of civilians to hide among. This hints at many complexities in the future.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War Military and Political Power