The March 22 targeted assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was designed by the Israelis to strike a major blow to Hamas. Many nations condemned the attack, however, and critics further claimed that the missile strike against Hamas’ paraplegic spiritual leader only strengthened the hand of Hamas.
A few weeks later, despite an outpouring of support from around the Arab world, Hamas does not appear any stronger. In fact, after the subsequent assassination on April 17 of Yassin’s successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, Hamas appears even more off balance.
Identity Crisis. As a splinter from the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ ideological blend of nationalism and Islamism has, since 1987, attracted thousands of followers. The Hamas charter, published in 1989, was seeped in Islamist ideology, stating that "jihad becomes a duty binding on all Muslims" to destroy Israel.
Yassin legitimized the Hamas charter with credentials as a popular community leader and religious scholar. Now that Hamas has lost Yassin, it may also find that it has lost legitimacy.
The group does not have a religious leader to fill the vacuum, and none of its stronger leaders have an ecumenical background. While Hamas was traditionally seen as fighting with a gun in one hand and a Quran in the other, the group is now fighting with a gun in each hand. Thus, Hamas will soon learn whether it can maintain its standing without Yassin.
Locality Crisis. Al-Rantisi, a well-known mouthpiece for Hamas, was named the group’s new leader shortly after Yassin’s demise. His ascension was no surprise; he was perhaps the only local leader known to Gazans who could carry Yassin’s message into the future. His designation was also important in that it kept the leadership of Hamas in Gaza, where the group’s power base lies.
With the assassination of Rantisi, however, Hamas is experiencing a locality crisis. While the group named a new secret leader so that Israel would not be able to easily assassinate him, the public face of Hamas will be Khaled Meshal in Syria. From Syria, Meshal authorizes activities from Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, dispenses Hamas funds and is in regular contact with the mullahs of Iran.
The longer Hamas is run from Syria, the higher the likelihood of fragmentation between local Gaza fighters and the decision makers abroad, including Syria and Iran. Moreover, it will be a challenge for Hamas to call itself a local and legitimate resistance organization, when it is based out of Syria, a known state sponsor of terrorism.
Operational Challenges. With the assassinations of Yassin and Rantisi, the remaining Hamas leadership recognizes that Israel has almost complete freedom in its operations against Hamas. International expressions of disapproval have had little impact on Israel’s actions.
In the last three years, Israel has taken out dozens of top Hamas operatives in the West Bank, and it vows to hit more. Following the Yassin and Rantisi executions, a number of Hamas leaders in Gaza went underground, fearing for their lives.
Hamas is further frustrated by successful Israeli efforts to stymie attacks. Specifically, the West Bank security fence has prevented suicide attacks from former Hamas strongholds in the northern West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus.
Whereas these two towns were once a common launch point for suicide operations in Israel, the new barrier has all but reduced Hamas’ ability to attack from there. According to Israeli intelligence sources, the inability to attack, in addition to the targeted assassinations of a number of Hamas leaders, has actually led recently to a small decline in popularity for Hamas in the West Bank.
Caught Off Guard. Politically speaking, the attacks on Yassin and Rantisi came at the right time, as Israel prepares to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Without its top thinkers, the group must now consider what its role will be when Israel leaves. Will Hamas attempt to take control of the Gaza Strip and pose a direct challenge to the Palestinian Authority, sparking internecine violence?
If it chooses to do so, it will have to work assiduously to augment the militia it has cultivated on the streets of Gaza. It will also have to bolster its social services network, which is ill-equipped for the needs of 1.3 million Gazans, now weakly governed by the Palestinian Authority
Endgame. To be sure, Hamas will continue to be the most dangerous terrorist organization in the Palestinian territories. The group, comprised of numerous, autonomous terror cells, exists solely to destroy the State of Israel.
According to Hezbollah radio, Hamas now seeks to dispatch "100 retaliations" against Israel in retribution for the Yassin assassination. Israelis are still bracing for this.
Interestingly, it is rumored that Hamas has been considering a hudna, or temporary cease-fire, with Israel. Clearly, its difficult decisions would be more easily made without painful Israeli strikes and other counterterrorism activity. A hudna would also preserve the remaining Hamas leadership during a time of transition and crisis.
If Israel gives Hamas time to regain its composure, however, the assassinations of Rantisi and Yassin will have been for naught. Conversely, continued counterterror operations by the Israelis against Hamas leaders, cells and infrastructure will ensure that Hamas has little time to regroup.
Keeping Hamas on the defensive will translate to increased security for Israel. Effective counterterrorism, after all, amounts to consistently restricting the operating environment of a terrorist organization, its operatives and its leaders.
Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.