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The state of Hamas as it reasserts itself in the north in a weakened form

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Elsewhere, President Biden has endorsed a cease-fire proposal between Israel and Hamas. In a speech on Friday, Biden said Israel has done enough damage to Hamas since its surprise ambush on Israel eight months ago.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: At this point, Hamas no longer is capable of carrying out another October 7. It's one of Israel's main objectives in this war and, quite frankly, a righteous one.

SUMMERS: But the cease-fire proposal caused a political firestorm in Israel because it would mean ending the war without completely destroying Hamas. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv with a wider look at the state of Hamas today and what lifelines it has now.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: We looked at how Hamas is doing on three battlefields. First, the actual armed battle.

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ESTRIN: Hamas released this video with a menacing soundtrack. You see two Israel soldiers crumple to the ground. Hamas says it shot them in a part of North Gaza that soldiers invaded at the beginning of the war but then left. Hamas regrouped there, and Israeli troops are back again. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General C.Q. Brown in a briefing.

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CQ BROWN: The Israelis did not actually - once they cleared it, they didn't hold. And so that allows your adversary then to repopulate in areas if you're not there. And so that does make it more challenging for them, as far as being able to meet their objective of being able to militarily destroy and defeat Hamas.

ESTRIN: Analysts say Israel has dealt a major blow to Hamas infrastructure. Hamas hardly fires rockets into Israel anymore. Israel's destroyed many Hamas tunnels, though estimates vary on how many are left. What Hamas does still have are boots on the ground. An Israeli military official tells NPR about half of Hamas combatants remains active. Other Israeli analysts say the number is even higher. Former Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata.

EYAL HULATA: This is not an army that could be crippled once the command chain is broken. Terrorist organizations don't surrender. They resurrect, and we should expect that to continue. As long as Hamas feels the time is on his side, this is what we will see.

ESTRIN: We also looked at the governing battlefield. Is Hamas still able to govern Gaza and control civilian affairs with a mass displacement of residents, the humanitarian crisis and Israeli troops on the ground?

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ANAS BABA, BYLINE: This is a video in Nuseirat camp.

ESTRIN: NPR producer in Gaza Anas Baba documented a long line at an ATM and a guard wearing a baseball cap and black face mask. He's a member of a committee that prevents chaos and theft during the war. These committees are believed to be quietly affiliated with Hamas because Hamas would challenge any alternative Palestinian group trying to take its place ruling the population.

ISMAIL THAWABTEH: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Hamas government media spokesman Ismail Thawabteh tells NPR that Hamas still has a civil servant workforce, about 25,000 employees, including new hires to replace those who have been killed in the war. Hamas has managed twice during the war to disperse partial salaries to its civil servants. Its economy ministry is imposing controls on prices of goods and preventing price gouging since food and goods are so scarce. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

YOAV GALLANT: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He said, "as long as Hamas retains control over civilian life in Gaza, it may rebuild and strengthen."

Then there's the narrative battlefield. What image can Hamas project eight months into the war? It takes credit for international diplomatic victories. Hamas official Ghazi Hamad tells NPR it was the war Hamas began on October 7 that has led Spain, Norway and Ireland to symbolically recognize a Palestinian state.

GHAZI HAMAD: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Hamad says, "this is a message to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority that has tried to achieve independence through peace talks." He says, "negotiations with Israel are getting us nowhere. Only sacrifices and resistance can strengthen the Palestinian position."

Inside Gaza, Palestinians perceive Israel's war to be against them, not against Hamas. Sami Mahdi is affiliated with Hamas' rival, Fatah.

SAMI MAHDI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He says, "Israel is not interested in eliminating Hamas. It's interested in destroying Gaza, interested in destroying you as a civilian."

Israel and the U.S. accuse Hamas of manipulating the war to its benefit, embedding among civilian areas and benefiting from the international pressure on Israel when civilians are killed in airstrikes. Israeli analyst Michael Milshtein says Israel's control of Gaza's border with Egypt can cut off a lifeline to Hamas. But he says Israel cannot defeat Hamas without a prolonged occupation of Gaza.

MICHAEL MILSHTEIN: I think that today we must be frank enough to admit that we have no willingness and we have not even a capacity to promote the total occupation of Gaza. So we have no other choice but to promote the deal right now.

ESTRIN: To cut a deal with Hamas for the release of Israeli captives in exchange for Israel releasing Palestinian convicts and detainees from jail and withdrawing from Gaza. He says the defeat of Hamas can wait.

MILSHTEIN: Maybe after a year, two years, we can promote more serious strategy in order to implement the goal of erasing the governmental and the military capabilities of Hamas.

ESTRIN: In Gaza, former Hamas adviser Ahmed Yousef offers a sobering assessment of Hamas.

AHMED YOUSEF: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He says Hamas' military wing miscalculated the consequences of its surprise ambush October 7. The scale of the attack, he says, gave Israel a pretext for, quote, "the annihilation of the Palestinian people." NPR has interviewed Gaza residents who are angry at Hamas for launching the war without a plan for protecting them. Yousef, the former Hamas advisor, says this may be Hamas' last military confrontation and that Hamas would not regain the strength it once had. He thinks Hamas will instead seek to be a player in Palestinian politics - transformed, but not defeated.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv, with reporting by Anas Baba, Abu Bakr Bashir and Itay Stern. 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.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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