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What does Hamas have left?


Israel and Hamas are negotiating a possible swap of prisoners and hostages and a cease-fire. For now, the fighting rages on. And one thing that is hard to gauge is how much fighting strength Hamas has left. NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv has been looking into this. Hi, Greg.


SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about the setbacks Hamas has suffered so far?

MYRE: Well, Israel says about 9,000 Hamas fighters have been killed and perhaps a similar number wounded, and various Israeli estimates put the Hamas fighting force at the beginning of the war at around 30,000 or so, give or take. But these are just Israeli estimates that NPR can't independently verify. We don't have hard numbers because Hamas refuses to provide figures. We've asked in the past and again for this story and received no numbers. Israel says it's killed many Hamas commanders, and the militants are no longer fighting really as cohesive units, but Hamas is still very much attacking, mostly guerrilla style in smaller numbers. And the heaviest fighting is around Khan Younis in southern Gaza, which is the main Hamas stronghold at this point. And Hamas is also waging renewed attacks in northern Gaza, where Israel recently said it was in full control. So Hamas has been weakened, but it still has the ability to strike.

SHAPIRO: So that's the urban combat in Gaza. But what about Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel? How frequent is that?

MYRE: This has really dropped off dramatically, though it hasn't stopped entirely. Hamas fired about a dozen rockets at Tel Aviv on Monday, and Israel's Iron Dome shot them down as they approached the city. It was the first such attack in weeks. In the early days of the fighting back in October, Hamas rockets were a constant threat in Tel Aviv and other cities. Israel says that Hamas has fired more than 14,000 of these rockets overall. Today, it's not clear whether Hamas is running out of the rockets or whether it's just too difficult to fire them with Israeli forces all over Gaza. Whatever the reason, this threat has diminished considerably.

SHAPIRO: Well, if Hamas has lost some of its military strength, how might that influence these negotiations on a cease-fire?

MYRE: Right. So Hamas political leaders, like the military wing, they operate very much in secret, so it's impossible to know with any certainty. But Hamas leaders have been clear about one thing. They want a permanent cease-fire and the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza. So Hamas is looking for a way to halt the fighting on terms it can accept and portray as a win. And I spoke about this with a former Israeli military officer Yohanan Tzoreff. He's now at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

YOHANAN TZOREFF: We are talking about organizations like Hamas. The idea is how to prevent the victory from the other side. It doesn't matter if you lost 20,000 or 30 or 100,000 people. The most important issue is to stay in your territory, not to be crushed.

MYRE: So he thinks Hamas will claim victory as long as it can remain in Gaza and say it survived a war with Israel, the strongest military in the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: Well, on the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still says his goal is the total destruction of Hamas. Is that a real possibility?

MYRE: Ari, I think in the near term, this doesn't appear realistic. Israel has steadily advanced in Gaza from north to south. Hamas now appears limited to relatively small-scale skirmishes, but analysts say the Israeli military is still looking at a very protracted fight, lasting many months or longer, if it hopes to completely root out Hamas. And there just aren't any guarantees. And even if Israel succeeds, it would have to maintain a presence in Gaza to keep Hamas from re-emerging. And we've just been discussing the military side. The Hamas political leadership remains very much intact. So this war is nearing the four-month mark, and we've seen some very clear trends emerge, but the final outcome is still far from certain.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Thank you.

MYRE: Sure thing, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.

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