Hamas Is Not the Issue

June 6, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: HamasIsraelPalestineWest BankTerrorism

Hamas Is Not the Issue

Unless Israel changes its policy of occupation, it can expect more violent resistance regardless of whether or not Hamas is “destroyed.”

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and other Palestinian territories is now more than a half-century old. The fading of memories with time has led to a lack of understanding of the roots and nature of the recent violence between Israel and Palestinians that now centers on the Gaza Strip.

Much rhetoric over the past eight months has tried to erase memories even more drastically by pretending that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began on October 7, 2023—as if the Hamas attack on southern Israel on that day was a bolt from the blue that was motivated by nothing but some unexplained innate hatred of Israelis. One need not go far back in the history of the conflict for a perspective that undermines that description. For example, consider the period from September 2014 through September 2023, following the previous Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip and before the current carnage that began last October. During that period, according to United Nations statistics, 1,632 Palestinians were killed by Israelis—mostly by Israeli security forces and some by settlers in the West Bank. That is more than the approximately 1,200 fatalities, according to the Israeli government’s publicly announced estimate, who were victims of the Hamas attack in October. During the same 2014–2023 period, 155 Israelis died at the hands of Palestinians.

Go back much further in the conflict’s history, and one can see that understanding the nature and causes of Palestinian violence perpetrated against Israel is not only not a matter of parsing Hamas’s motivations; it mostly does not involve Hamas at all.

There is much to learn from that long and troubled history, including how early Zionists realized that their project necessarily involved the use of force against the people already living in Palestine. David Ben Gurion, the future prime minister of Israel, said in 1919, “There is a gulf, and nothing can fill that gulf…I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews…We, as a nation, want this country to be ours, the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”

Then there were the bloody events of the 1940s, including massacres and mass displacement that are beyond the living memory of most of today’s Palestinians but were such a searing collective experience that the Nakba or “catastrophe” lives on as part of the Palestinian national consciousness. Terrorism that was then part of the larger conflict over Palestine was largely the work of groups led by two other future Israeli prime ministers: Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir

For many Americans today who are several decades old, initial awareness of international terrorism associated the phenomenon primarily with Palestinians. International terrorism became a headline item in the late 1960s and early 1970s to a much greater degree than it had been for many years before. Palestinian groups perpetrated several of the most spectacular, headline-grabbing attacks, such as multiple simultaneous hijackings of airliners and their subsequent destruction at a desert airstrip in 1970 and the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The timing of this surge in terrorism and the fact that Palestinians were leading perpetrators was no accident. The key precipitating event was the 1967 Six-Day War, initiated by Israel, resulting in the Israeli capture of Arab land in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria and marking the beginning of the decades-long Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. 

Palestinian groups conducting the terrorist attacks included, among others, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Sa’iqa, Fatah, and splinter groups such as Black September (which planned and executed the Munich massacre). The groups represented an assortment of ideologies and political orientations, united only by their common anger over the Israeli subjugation of their Palestinian brethren. Nonetheless, they were predominantly secular rather than Islamist (the founder and longtime leader of the PFLP, George Habash, was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church).

Hamas, which would not be founded until 1987, had no part in any of this.

A standard piece of advice to someone who complains about a long series of bad relations with other people is to look inward at what the complainer might be doing that is causing the recurring problem rather than to keep blaming others. The advice applies to countries as well as to individuals.

But Israel, with its long and violent relationships with Palestinians—now accompanied by bad relationships with international tribunals and much of the rest of the world—is not following that advice.

Its failure to do so is driving a continuation of the bloodshed and humanitarian disaster that the Gaza Strip has become during the past eight months. The Israeli government’s declared objective in continuing its assault on the Strip is to “destroy Hamas.” Taking Israeli leaders at their word, their determination to pursue this objective is the principal barrier to a cease-fire.

Even if Israeli decision-makers were totally indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians and cared only about the security and well-being of Israeli citizens, the objective of “destroying Hamas” is misguided on multiple levels.

Hamas is not a standing army whose destruction is to be counted in terms of eradicated battalions. It is a movement, an ideology, and a vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction with subjugation by Israel. It gained support among Palestinians who saw it as the most forthright group in standing up to Israel—especially in contrast to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which they see as little more than an auxiliary to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Israel’s conduct in Gaza has increased Hamas’s popularity among many Palestinians and, as such, can be expected to be a boon to recruitment.

Even more fundamentally—and as the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows—there is nothing special about Hamas that distinguishes it from all the other vehicles of resistance against subjugation by Israel. Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. If there were no Israeli occupation, then it would function as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the same as the wings of the Brotherhood in Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt (before Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s 2013 coup) have functioned—as peaceful competitors for political power in their respective nations. Hamas itself has functioned effectively as a peaceful competitor for power in its own nation when given the chance to do so.

Whatever one thinks of what Hamas has become today, it has become that not because of something in its genes that distinguishes it from other Palestinian entities. It has become that because of the conditions to which Israel has subjected the Palestinian nation. If Hamas were to vanish tomorrow, other groups would use violence as a means of resistance against Israeli occupation. The assortment of groups that were active in the 1960s and 1970s did so, and so will other groups, including ones yet to be formed, in the future as long as the occupation and its associated treatment of Palestinians continues.

The suffering that residents of the Gaza Strip have endured over the past eight months will take place in Palestinian consciousness alongside the Nakba of the 1940s and the Israeli conquests of 1967 to sustain Palestinian anger and motivate those future groups.

This tragic story will end not with the destruction of any one group but only with Palestinian self-determination and an end to occupation. 

Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier, he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA, covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. His most recent book is Beyond the Water’s Edge: How Partisanship Corrupts U.S. Foreign Policy. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.

Image: Muhammad Aamir Sumsum / Shutterstock.com.