Queen's Policy Engagement

Hamas: The Efficacy of Terrorism?

It is responses to non-state terrorism, rather than the brutal violence itself, which has tended to change history and politics the most, says Professor Richard English.

Hamas: The Efficacy of Terrorism?

After the 7 October 2023 attack in Israel, the BBC was strongly criticized for not referring to Hamas militants as ‘terrorists’.   The ‘T’ word clearly carries with it a powerful pejorative punch, hence the Corporation’s instinctive preference for avoiding it in such contexts.

But does scholarship on non-state terrorism help us to answer one of the central issues at stake when considering the shocking October attack and its terrible aftermath of ongoing suffering: namely, how far such actions actually work in advancing their practitioners’ goals?

This is a painful question, given the awful death and damage experienced in recent months. But it is a vital question for anyone seeking to understand Israel/Palestine. And it is important more broadly for our analysis of non-state terrorism as such, since the latter is a tactic deployed because people consider it the best or only means of achieving  their precious goals.

Our answer to the sharp-edged question ‘Does Terrorism Work?’ affects how we respond in practice to conflicts such as that in Israel/Palestine.  And it is responses to non-state terrorism, rather than the brutal violence itself, which has tended to change history and politics the most.  The wisest reactions will  involve reflection on what it is that terrorism will or will not be likely – in practice – to achieve.

So, four months on, what can be said about the efficacy of the 7 October attack?

Could it help secure strategic victory for Hamas? The organization’s highest-level strategic aim has been to destroy the state of Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestinian state covering the territory of Israel/Palestine. Since Hamas emerged in the late 1980s, this level of strategic success has never looked feasible, and the events of October have made it even less imaginable. Not only has Israel received strong support from crucial allies (most especially the United States), but Israel’s determined effort to crush Hamas and secure Israeli state and citizens in the future suggests a counter-productiveness for Hamas in relation to this headline goal of the organization.

At this level, as so often, terrorist atrocity has indeed changed the world, but not in the intended direction.

Yet terrorism clearly involves more than just the securing of central, primary strategic goals. How about what might be termed Hamas’s secondary ambitions, which could be judged to have included revenge upon Jews, the sustenance of resistance, and the defence of Palestinians against attack?

Very clearly, and tragically, there has been no progress at all in relation to the last of these aims.  Again here there are echoes of much terrorist experience in Israel/Palestine and also around much of the world in the past: vanguard violence ostensibly practised in the name of a particular community has led in reality to much greater suffering on their part. The appalling suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israel has, as so often with conflicts involving Gaza, seen more Palestinians than Israelis killed and maimed.

Tragically too, however, the aim of inflicting revenge upon Jews was achieved with the terrible attack in October. And, while the sustenance of resistance by Hamas itself seems less likely now, the violence currently experienced by Palestinians may well be one source of future rage and desire for anti-Israeli resistance.

Beneath strategic goals and partial-strategic secondary goals, we can also assess  tactical-level successes and failures.

In terms of tactical-operational success, the 7 October atrocity represented a surprise attack which did succeed in inflicting death and damage upon enemies.

In terms of interim concessions, Hamas’s hostage-taking did prompt some release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel in return for hostage release.

Tactically, terrorism has often been a means of provoking your state opponent to react in ways that undermine it, and that lead to widespread condemnation of that state. International responses to Israel’s attacks on Gaza can surely be judged to fit this historical pattern. Initial sympathy for Israel has frequently dissipated as the ongoing violence against Gaza has proceeded with ferocity.

But even at the tactical level the outcomes for Hamas seem in many ways to be negative. Did 7 October tactically strengthen Hamas as an organization? Clearly not. Whether or not Israel’s aim of entirely destroying Hamas is achieved, the organization has been severely degraded and damaged by Israel’s repeated violence (and not just in Gaza).

Did 7 October seize publicity for the Palestinian cause? Yes, but as so often this tactical outcome has involved what might be termed the paradox of terrorist publicity. Headlines are seized, but for acts which most observers find utterly and understandably repellent.  When people do reflect on the 7 October attack, for the most part they rightly condemn it, and this regrettably reinforces in many observers’ minds the association of Palestinian grievance with brutal violence.

Terrorist violence is sometimes tactically effective at maintaining control over a population. As things stand, this too looks to have been rendered less rather than more likely by Hamas’s October attack, given Israel’s determination that any post-conflict Gaza should have no Hamas role within it.

Of course, it is hard to look coldly in this way at events such as those which have emerged in recent months in Israel/Palestine. The suffering – especially the civilian suffering – on all sides has been appalling. The escalatory cycles of violence have echoed so many past tragedies in this region, but also across the world, when terrorist violence has been deployed and states have responded to it.

Yet calm analysis is surely required, within a framework which allows us carefully to assess the different ways in which terrorism has or has not worked.  For so many Palestinians, the results have been predictably awful. For Israeli victims, that was Hamas’s intention.  And if we analyse these blood-stained actions in terms of strategic, partial-strategic and tactical outcomes, it becomes very clear  – as so often in the past – that terrorist violence is far more certain to generate human suffering on all sides than to secure benign political goals.

Nothing could justify the merciless violence against civilians on 7 October 2023.   But reflection on the efficacy or inefficacy of terrorism leads us also to another vital point: ultimately, it is not the terrorism that is most significant in these episodes, eye-catching though that is. What matters most are the underlying issues of which terrorism is a ghastly and unjustified symptom.

In that sense, Israel’s determination to destroy Hamas will prove less decisive than the question of how far we witness a local, regional and international commitment to address the tangled problems of state legitimacy, self-determination, communal autonomy and human flourishing that will – in the end – determine how far terrible violence can be limited in the future.

Hamas will not destroy Israel, and nor will it emerge from this crisis stronger.  Violence by Israel against Gaza is Israel’s responsibility, and the international judgment upon it is likely to be harsh.

But the Hamas attack prompted a far worse situation for Palestinians than even the humiliating condition that prevailed before this crisis.  To the extent that 7 October has achieved any successes, those have tended to be associated with the terrible outcomes of Israeli and Palestinian civilian suffering.

Yet merely condemning violence will be of less value than calmly, systematically recognizing the limited efficacy of non-state terrorism that has been outlined above, and patiently committing to long-term efforts which remove the political situation that wrongly made such terrible violence seem appealing to its practitioners.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 


Professor Richard English
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Richard English is Director of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. He is the author of Does Terrorism Work? A History (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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