Too many taking sides in this conflict miss the true nature of Hamas – and Netanyahu
Know thine enemy – and know thine ally, too. Too many of those pushing for one outcome or another in the war between Israel and Hamas misjudge the parties involved. They make mistaken assumptions about one side or the other – or both – that lead them to draw flawed, even dangerous, conclusions. There is no monopoly on these mistaken assumptions. They can be made by those calling on western leaders to demand an immediate ceasefire – and by the very western leaders they seek to persuade.
Start with those who look at the havoc wreaked in Gaza – at the many thousands killed, at the pile of rubble that was once the largest Palestinian city in the world – and decide that, whatever horrors Hamas committed on 7 October, surely it has now sustained enough of a blow; given all that Gaza has suffered, surely now Hamas will be deterred from future attacks. Such thinking fundamentally misunderstands the nature of that organisation. Because Hamas is a different kind of enemy, one that does not fit the usual theories of war. Put simply, it does not mind if its own people die.
Recall how counter-terrorist strategists had to rethink all that they knew when first confronted with suicide bombers. It’s hard to deter a terrorist who does not fear death. That’s true writ large for an organisation that has explicitly said it is “proud to sacrifice martyrs”. Not its own leaders, mind, many of whom live in safety and, reportedly, great luxury in Qatar and elsewhere. But the ordinary men and women of Gaza.
This is why Hamas has spent hundreds of millions of dollars – much of it international aid money – not on basic services for Gazans, but on building and equipping a network of underground tunnels that, again, it has explicitly said are exclusively for its own use. As one Hamas leader put it, ordinary people in Gaza who need protection should look to the UN.
It’s this that explains why, whatever truth eventually emerges about the recent role of the al-Shifa hospital, a former director of a major aid organisation operating in Gaza testified this week that “it was broadly suspected/understood as far back as 2014 that Hamas used the al-Shifa hospital complex as a command centre and base for operations” – just as it has long been understood that Hamas is not afraid to use schools or UN buildings when it comes to raining rockets down on Israel. The calculation for Hamas is that either Israel hits back, killing innocents – thereby losing legitimacy in the eyes of the world – or it does not, thereby allowing Hamas to keep firing. Either way, Hamas wins.
The ideology of violent jihadism plays a part here, and that too is often overlooked. There are plenty in the west eager to see Hamas simply as a resistance movement, in the noble tradition of national liberation struggles. But this fails to reckon with Hamas’s doctrinal commitment. Violent jihadism is not a rhetorical pose: it is Hamas’s animating creed. It truly believes that when one of its own people dies – even a child killed in an airstrike – they go straight to paradise as a martyr.
Against an enemy that thinks this way, the usual pressures don’t work. If you doubt the devotion, force yourself to listen to the phone call made by one of the Hamas murderers of 7 October to his parents back in Gaza. Hear his pride, his ecstatic joy, as he tells them he has “killed Jews” with his own hands, including a husband and wife and eight others. “Dad, 10 with my own hands!”
It is not easy to imagine an accommodation with such an adversary, certainly not one of the kind that Benjamin Netanyahu so disastrously maintained for the last 15 years. The Israeli prime minister pursued a policy of containment, described aptly by the historian Yuval Noah Harari as “violent coexistence”, in which Israel believed it could just about live with Hamas in Gaza, with periodic military confrontations. That delusion was shattered on the black sabbath of last month.
Which is why the US, the European Union and other allies have reached the same conclusion as the Israeli government: that Hamas cannot merely be temporarily deterred, that this cannot simply be one more round that follows the all-too-familiar pattern in which a ceasefire is followed by a pause, allowing Hamas to regroup and rearm, ready for the next escalation. Instead, as the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Thursday.