Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 2  /  

Viable Targets? Hamas’ Centers of Gravity

Viable Targets? Hamas’ Centers of Gravity Viable Targets? Hamas’ Centers of Gravity
To cite this article: Stahl, A.E., “Viable Targets? Hamas Centers of Gravity”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 2, Spring 2013, pages 9-12.

This article very briefly examines the concept “center of gravity”, as utilized by Carl von Clausewitz in On War, and its relevance to Israeli Strategy during the second Palestinian armed rebellion (2000-2005).[i] In discourse on war and warfare, the concept center of gravity (CoG) is often invoked. However, its relevance to Israeli Strategy during the armed rebellion is understudied despite its potential usefulness in providing insight into coping with Palestinian irregulars, specifically Hamas. Was the notion of striking CoGs conceived of as one way to simply compel the organization to alter its political behavior by applying just enough violence to it, or was the aim to destroy Hamas (i.e. permanently break its will to “resist”)? Further, it may be possible that the Israelis either erred in their thinking on such centers of force and unity, or in a more likely scenario, the Israelis questioned if the CoG was even worth the cost of striking it. Specifically, this article examines four candidates as possible CoGs: the support of the people; Hamas’ leadership; its unifying ideology, and Hamas’ armed forces. Moreover, in examining Hamas’ CoGs, Israel’s political and military strengths and weaknesses are necessarily acknowledged. It should be noted that by analyzing CoGs and Israeli Strategy in the context of an armed rebellion, the conclusions drawn might be of prospective use to other states facing violent irregular actors.

Center of Gravity

Nearly 200 years ago, the Prussian General and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, utilized, as an analogy, the concept of a center of gravity in his magnum opus On War. His utilization of this concept, in the main, was to impart that all fighting forces in warfare contain a “hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.”[ii] He held that should such a point be located and struck, conceivably it could cause the collapse of the enemy’s will to carry on fighting. Further, Clausewitz held that “it is against these that our energies should be directed. If the enemy is thrown off balance, he must not be given time to recover. Blow after blow must be aimed in the same direction: the victor, in other words, must strike with all of his strength and not just against a fraction of the enemy’s.”[iii] The significance of such a concept, which is rooted in the physical sciences, begs for one to question even the great Prussian military theorist. Was the concept of a CoG truly valid during the armed rebellion against violent irregular actors; or, was such a conception tantamount to improbable notions better suited for paper than practice? By briefly examining four possible CoG candidates of Hamas in the context of the second armed rebellion, an answer to that question may arise.

CoG Candidates within Hamas

Support of the People

The support of the people for Hamas – mainly Palestinians in Gaza – during the second armed rebellion could be considered one candidate for a CoG of the organization. However, support of the people caused difficulties for Israeli political and military efforts, specifically as a result of Israeli policy. Hamas’ audience in the Gaza Strip, which was where the organization received the majority of its popular support, was highly subjective and generating a successful counter-narrative would have been complex. However, a counter-narrative in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had already been in force, at least to a certain extent. Towards the end of the armed rebellion, this counter-narrative was represented in the greater level of legitimacy given to the Palestinian Authority (PA) by the West over Hamas. It can also be seen in the relatively minimal level of violence that occurred between the IDF and Hamas militants in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Further, the counter-narrative can be seen in the very real fact that the standard of living (from economics and health to education and profits from tourism) in the former two areas far exceeded that in the Gaza Strip. This held true even when there were greater levels of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, mainly from September 2000 through mid-to-late 2003. Plainly stated, all of this infers that life as a Palestinian was – and continues to be – better under PA rule, or at the very least life is better where Hamas is not in control. However, as Dr. Hugh Smith, the Founding Director of the Australian Defence Studies Centre has astutely noted, “It is often the case, however, that what seem to be rational economic interests disappear or diminish in the presence of ideology or simply of hostility toward those who have caused greater economic hardship.”[iv] This is one reason why generating a counter-narrative is complex. Moreover, despite the violent character of Hamas, it was Israel who constructed a fence around ‘the Strip’, employed targeted killings and raiding, implemented blockades, engaged in house demolitions, and most consequentially, it was Israel who was viewed as occupying the Gaza Strip (until the Gaza Disengagement in 2005).

As noted, difficulties for Israeli political and military efforts in regards to the support of the people was, in the main, a direct result of Israeli policy. Though noncombatant casualties did occur, Israeli policy did not permit the purposeful use of violence directed against noncombatants. Arguably, there were two options for the Israelis if they believed the support of the people to be a CoG: first, nonviolent methods would have needed to be applied against the people, which arguably would have failed; second, the application of violence would have to focus on elements that the people rely on. Arguably, the surest way that the people’s support for Hamas could have been broken was through Israeli military efforts aimed at Hamas’ armed forces, which includes its leadership (political, military, and so-called ‘spiritual’), and not by directly targeting – in any capacity whatsoever – the noncombatant population of Gaza. Further, the Israeli government did not view the average Gazan as the problem. Striking at them with military force was not and should never be an option. It would likely have been a strategic failure on a grand scale, which of course would have adversely influenced Israeli policy. In other words, there is zero gain in visiting physical harm on the noncombatant populace of the Gaza Strip. It is unlikely that the peoples’ support of Hamas was a CoG. Rather, the population’s support for Hamas during the armed rebellion can be understood as a serious impediment that Israeli policymakers had to deal with, not the military. It would seem a fair assumption that support for Hamas was neither what kept Hamas unified nor was it Hamas’ “hub of all power and movement.”

Hamas’ Leadership as a CoG

How can it be known if the leadership of Hamas was a CoG during the armed rebellion? One should look to a specific time when a particular strategy (e.g. a plan of action, underpinned by violence in pursuit of policy) was employed by Israel’s security apparatus and resulted in the desired political effect – specifically, a reduction in violence. After all, however incomplete (and biased) history may be, it nevertheless remains our guide, and it is vital to remember what Clausewitz wrote: over time, CoGs can change. If one were to assume that past Israeli military activity against Hamas’ leadership indicated a possible CoG, then that past application of violence by Israel’s military agent against the leadership would need to have generated strategic effect for political effect. Those effects should be analyzed and if they prove to have resulted in reaching political objectives, then Israelis should reconsider their application, albeit with greater resolve. Israel’s strategy of targeted killing may offer possible explanations as to why the leadership of Hamas may have been considered one possible CoG during the armed rebellion.

Israel’s engagement in a strategy of targeting killing has proven to be extremely effective, though it has also proven to be extremely temporary. To be sure, temporary effects from targeted killings against Hamas were expected, as this particular strategy was never viewed as a panacea, and their utility, however powerful, was limited. Rather, regarding CoGs, it was the focal point that matters most. One must understand that CoGs are effects-based and not capabilities-based. Clausewitz’s statement that the CoG is “where the forces are most concentrated” is actually about how and why forces concentrate at that point: “the point” is the target. There are two main reasons why the collective leadership of Hamas during the armed rebellion could be understood as the “focal point” or “enterprising spirit” of the organization. First, in certain circumstances, Hamas militants’ can and have used violence without authorization from leaders. Ultimately however, in most cases, subordinate members of the organization do not act independent from the wishes and desires of the leadership; they are reliant upon on the leadership’s commands and direction.[v] Second, a sustained campaign of targeting Hamas’ leadership – as well as other Palestinian irregular organizations – during the armed rebellion caused the organization to sue for a type of ceasefire or lull in fighting, known in Arabic as a Tahadiyya. As was reported in the BBC, and directly referring to targeted killings, “Palestinian militant leaders said they would only honour a ceasefire agreement if Israel ended the killings”.[vi] Arguably, the losses to leadership were of such magnitude that the remaining leaders of Hamas began to understand that the organization could collapse in on itself. However, the leadership must be understood in a collective sense and not as residing within one leader. That is to say, the removal of vastly high numbers of Hamas’ leaders in a relatively short period of time could have represented a candidate for the “enterprising spirit” of the organization.

By 2004, the Israelis successfully removed many of Hamas’ most senior and influential officials: Salah Shehade, Ibrahim Makdme, Ahmed Yassin, Adnan al-Ghoul, Abdel Rantissi, among others. Targeted killings seriously afflicted Hamas — enough for the organization to essentially – albeit temporarily – raise a white flag, which was a direct result of its collective leadership being targeted (spiritual, political, and military). Hamas’ will to continue fighting was broken in a specific time and place due to its loss of leadership, with the latter representing a prime element that allowed the organization to continue functioning according to its military aims, which were always in pursuit of its overall political objective.

Conversely, the breaking of will turned into positive gains for Hamas, as they were allotted time to recuperate, rearm, and appoint new leadership. It is possible that because the blows were not sufficiently constant and devastating enough, the lulls worked in Hamas’ favor. However, as a result of friction, tactical viability for increased strikes, difficulties in intelligence gathering, domestic and international pressure, as well as advice from Israel’s own military leaders, the Israelis halted their military activity rather than press forward with greater military force. If the collective leadership of Hamas was a CoG — and there is no guarantee that it was — Israeli military activity certainly knocked it off balance, just not enough to cause a large enough imbalance to permanently cause the breaking of will.

Given extant evidence, why did the Israelis, time and again, allow for a return to the status quo ante bellum when the evidence should have informed Israeli decision-makers that a renewal in fighting was the most likely trajectory of the armed rebellion? This is a critical question because a return to the status quo ante bellum was either something that the Israelis knew was a very high possibility or, possibly, it was something the Israelis desired. After all, if Hamas was destroyed, a vacuum could have emerged, causing chaos in an area loyal to that organization. A vacuum can be far more dangerous than an irregular organization that can be kept in check with the occasional use of military force.

Ideology as a CoG

If Hamas’ center of gravity is neither its collective leadership nor the support of the people, it may be necessary to look beyond the physical elements that comprise the organization and examine its ideology vis-à-vis Israel. Hamas’ policy – the ultimate political condition that they seek to establish – is an Islamic entity in all of historic Palestine. This is known to be its policy as a result of what is written in The Hamas Charter, coupled with over 20 years of iterative messages from its charter in speeches, sermons, television and radio programs, and in educational material disseminated in all levels of schools. However, though this is the political condition they seek, it is not necessarily what holds the organization together. It may be more likely that one unifying factor of Hamas may not be the existence of Israel, per se, but rather the demonization of Israel – demonization being an element of its ideology. Hamas does not simply thrive on casting Israel as its Mephistophelian opponent but rather the sheer energy and resources with which Hamas dedicates to demonizing the State of Israel could be understood as one point or hub that gives Hamas its power and strength. This could be seen as what unifies the organization, and ultimately it could be understood as a powerful element of ideology that allows Hamas to continue its so-called “strategy of resistance” against Israel.

A key question is, how powerful was the disapprobation of Israel for Hamas? How connected was it to its political end state – a policy that implies a world without Israel? This political aim, unlike its leadership or support of the people, cannot be easily measured. As Clausewitz noted, one must match one’s effort against an opponent’s will to resist, “which can be expressed as the product of two inseparable factors, viz. the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will…the strength of his will can only be gauged approximately by the strength of the motive animating it.”[vii] Over two decades of continuous calls for the destruction of Israel, as well as in leaders’ speeches and sermons, coupled with two decades of warfare, all serve as reasonable illustrations of the level of importance this political aim of Hamas should be allotted.

However, it is reasonable to assume, as exact measurements are not possible, that the ideological element of the demonization of Israel is not a CoG of Hamas’. Demonization of Israel may be one element that assists in holding Hamas together but, importantly, military force cannot destroy ideology. It is possible that the striking of other CoGs, “critical vulnerabilities” and/or “placing the focus on Hamas’ Archimedean points” might render that ideology to a certain level of irrelevancy.[viii] If “demonization” is a CoG, yet one that cannot be influenced by the application of violence, this in no way implies that Hamas’ will to resist cannot be broken. The history of warfare offers guidance and it illustrates the countless times that political entities – regular and irregular – have been broken, one way or another. From the Persians in the Battle of Gaugamela to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, the political and/or military will of each of these entities to continue fighting were broken.

Armed Forces of Hamas

It is a main conclusion of this article that it is the armed forces of Hamas that represented the organization’s CoG during the Palestinian armed rebellion. The armed forces provided Hamas’ unifying factor, and its “enterprising spirit.” It was the “focal point” and the “hub of all power and movement on which everything depends.” The reasons are as follows: it was only the armed forces of Hamas that could threaten the State of Israel via violence; it was only the armed forces that could assist the organization in the establishment its own policy; and, if Israel would have destroyed Hamas’ armed forces, warfare would have ended (no armed forces, no fighting). As Clausewitz advises, “Still, no matter what the central feature of the enemy’s power may be – the point on which your efforts must converge – the defeat and destruction of his fighting forces remains the best way to begin, and in every case will be a significant feature of the campaign.”[ix] He further states, “Battle is the one and only means that warfare can employ” and that the “destruction of the enemy is always what matters most” – destruction, of course, implying breaking the will of the armed force(s) to engage in fighting.[x] Had Hamas’ armed forces been understood as the organization’s center of gravity, and had the Israelis focused all their strength on this center, arguably the fighting could have ceased due to the obvious fact that they would not have been able to carry on the fight. However, just how feasible was it to deliver crippling blows to cause the will of the entire irregular armed force of Hamas to be shattered? Going after the heads of the organization was a daunting task in itself, how much more so regarding an entire force? It is possible that the Israelis did in fact understand that the CoG was the armed forces of Hamas but it is unlikely that the Israelis could have destroyed it – at least not at a cost that Israel was willing to pay in blood and treasure. Another possibility is that keeping Hamas in power as a type of “maintenance of the threat” – as opposed to the destruction of its armed forces – was and now remains – a part of Israeli policy regarding Hamas.[xi] If a ‘Hamas in power’ was (and is) a better situation for Israel than a Gaza Strip lacking Hamas’ ability to control the territory, then once their will to fight is broken, however temporary, the goal then becomes one of keeping the organization in check. This can be accomplished by delivering occasional, moderate military force to jolt Hamas’ behavior back in the direction that the Israelis desire.


The idea that CoGs might be applicable to Israeli military efforts during the armed rebellion is an enticing though complex idea. Locating CoGs is more an art than a science. Only in physics is the CoG a fact, and even in the physical sciences it can be severely difficult to measure. Another reason for complexity is that there is no guarantee of the existence of one CoG. It may be possible, especially regarding organized, well-funded, and compartmentalized organizations such as Hamas that multiple CoGs exist. If Hamas did have multiple CoGs that were in a constant state of fluidity, this clearly would have caused complexity in military efforts, as CoGs would likely have been regenerative. The regeneration of CoGs would have necessitated a multi-pronged approach – a nightmare scenario for any strategist.

Clausewitz held that in so-called popular uprisings (i.e. armed rebellion), the CoG might reside in the leadership of the uprising or within public opinion and support of such an uprising. However, striking public opinion/support does not imply physically harming civilians – a practice to which Clausewitz was averse and one that would have very likely undermined Israeli policy.[xii] Arguably, CoGs can only be struck with military force; as such, public support and/or opinion cannot be a CoG. Further, it was argued that one CoG could have been Hamas’ policy of “an Islamic entity in all of Palestine,” as stated in Hamas’ Charter. The latter implies an ideological desire to see a world without Israel (whether by destruction or otherwise). For clarity, this is not to say that the very existence of the State of Israel could have been Hamas’ CoG. Rather Hamas’ unity and purpose may have been the demonization of the Israeli state.[xiii] Clearly, if one of Hamas’ CoGs was its unifying ideological desire – only one aspect of its policy of ‘an Islamic entity in all of Palestine’ – that ideal, similar to the people’s support, could not have been destroyed by Israeli military force. However debatable, it may be possible that such an ideal could have been rendered to a certain level of irrelevancy if other CoGs and/or so-called “critical vulnerabilities” were hit with severe blows. As Professor Antulio J. Echevarria II has noted, “Ideology can certainly be a CoG, and it can be hit, for example by soft power, and kinetic power can play a crucial role in that.”[xiv]

Ultimately, while CoGs should be able to be located, there is no guarantee that striking them is the right move, or that they can be struck. It all depends on what suits one’s policy the best. Moreover, too much focus on an opponent’s CoG may not even be worth the trouble. The many disadvantages of wasting time and other resources searching for, or debating on, which CoG to strike could possibly outweigh other benefits. This is and will likely remain one tricky situation that all strategists in both regular and irregular wars must continue to cope with.


[i] This article uses the historical concept “armed rebellion” rather than the commonly used catchphrase “Second Intifada” or “Al-Aqsa Intifada”. Further, for clarification, this article makes the distinction between Strategy and particular strategies, hence the use of the majuscule and miniscule letter ‘s’ throughout the article.
[ii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984): 595.
[iii] Ibid, 596.
[iv] Correspondence with Dr. Hugh Smith, 10 October 2011.
[v] This is not to paint Hamas on a monolithic canvas. The organization is more separated and complex. However, it is known that action taken against Israelis is normally not undertaken without direct authorization, in various forms, from leadership. Interview with former senior official, Israel Security Agency, 5 May 2011, Tel Aviv, Israel.
[vi] “Israel’s ‘targeted killings’”, BBC, 17 April 2004,
[vii] Op. Cit., Clausewitz, On War, 77.
[viii] Interview with Colonel (Res.) Gur Laish, Director of National Security Strategy, Israel National Security Council, Tel Aviv, Israel on 18 April 2012.
[ix] Op. Cit., Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 596
[x] Ibid, 577.
[xi] Interview with senior official, Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Office of the Prime Minister, 5 July 2011, Jerusalem, Israel.
[xii] Op. Cit., Hugh Smith, On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
[xiii] For example, in Article 13 of the Hamas Charter, it states, “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.” See ‘The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)’, 18 August 1988
[xiv] Correspondence with Lt Col Professor Antulio J. Echevarria II, 20 April 2012.