Hamas takes the nihilistic path of Islamist terror

  • Themes: Israel-Palestine, Terrorism, War

Hamas has wrapped itself in the black flag of Islamism, not the secular flag of Palestinian statehood. As a result, only the most radical, excluded states will support the terrorist group. Beyond giving voice to their despair it remains to be seen what political gains, if any, the violence secures.

Members of the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group, march in Gaza City. Credit: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

As Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has solemnly stated, Israel is now at war. But with whom is important. The parallels are already being drawn with the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Israel was surprised by a massive, successful first-strike from its enemies. That war, like its predecessors in 1948 and 1967, was against Israel’s state-level adversaries. Subsequent wars have been, like the current one, not against states, not even the ‘state’ of Palestine, but against armed militant groups, first those with a nationalist agenda then those which espouse an extremist, Islamist creed, both Shia (Hezbollah) and Sunni (Hamas and their satellite Palestinian Islamic Jihad). Israel is at war in the same sense as the US and its allies were at war after the equally shocking attack of 9/11: against a well-armed, asymmetric movement with an absolutist agenda.

The geopolitics of these wars is complex, but also familiar. Whatever the motivating rage of the armed group, it is matched by that of the victim state for whom the attack is, along with the stunning impact of the physical damage, a political trauma in being a violation of its sovereignty. The attacks are often designed and promoted not only to inflict a material harm but to cause offence and insult. The Hamas videos of Israeli women and children being abducted by gunmen from their settlements will do precisely that. Responses are fuelled, too, by the sudden vertiginous sense of vulnerability and embarrassment. The state tips into government by emotion rather than reason.

The problem for the aggressor is that terror unifies rather than divides the state and causes it, however democratic it may be, to suspend internal differences and respond with visible, rapidly deployed force. The objective is primarily to reassure the citizens that the state is still potent. That force can be disproportionate in scale and involve huge collateral damage. History, too, a reliable incendiary, is also evoked. 9/11 reminded Americans of the violation of their territorial sovereignty and assumed security of Pearl Harbor. The core belief that they could keep conflict from their shores was shattered and ignited deep support for effective and retributive action. That was further reinforced by the clear perception that the aggressor had put itself beyond reasonable engagement. Israel now is suffering a brutal reappraisal of its security assumptions and the menace of an absolutist enemy with proven reach. Just as Al Qaida was absolute in its intentions, so, too, are Hamas and Hezbollah in their continued violent rejection of the Israeli state’s right to exist, which, while by no means a view shared by every Palestinian, is now voiced on behalf of Palestine. Israel’s Prime Minister has no one in either his coalition or in the international community who might persuade him to moderate his response. The muscularity of his language will be strengthened by the need to make up for his own ruinous intelligence and policy failure, but reciprocating the enemy’s absolute language comes also from Israel’s deep national purpose. If Israel is not a safe place for the Jewish people to live, it is nothing.

That his adversary is not a state but an extremist group designated as a terrorist organisation has helped him to garner prompt and fulsome international support. His key international backer, the US, has, despite the poor relationship between him and President Biden, offered prompt and unconditional solidarity. As Israel has been demonstrably, in this case, the victim of aggression, other states have rushed to recycle and endorse the language of Israel’s right to self-defence and suspend whatever misgivings they may have about Israeli proportionality. Many, including the EU and the UK, have clearly designated Hamas as terrorists and their actions as terrorism against which self-defence with a measure of forwardness needs no justification. Self-defence means something much more forward in Israel than in Europe and where exactly tolerances are set remains to be seen but, as the number and nature of Israeli casualties mount, they are likely to remain wide.

Hamas will, for a while, celebrate their operational achievements and the shock they have given their adversary. Yet they are now in a geopolitical as much as a military conflict which, if they are to capitalise materially on their operations, they will need to win. It may be that they have prepared as carefully for this phase as the military phase, but their record and profile are against them. It is also likely that the operational secrecy required for this operation prohibited any discussions with other Palestinians on how to achieve political gains.

In the Arab world they have ignited sympathy in countries where central government is weak or the influence of Iran is strong: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Wider demonstrations of support in the Arab world have not yet materialised. But reference to the support in the Middle East, which the Palestinian cause enjoyed in previous generations, and in Israel’s previous wars may now be misleading, for a number of reasons.

First, Hamas have wrapped themselves in the black flag of Islamism, not the secular flag of Palestinian statehood. In doing so, they have aligned themselves to a form of warfare and government that goes beyond the restitution of Palestinian rights or territory. That offer has been successful in Gaza but, outside the unique circumstances of that community and the albeit large number of Islamist sympathisers, the appeal of Islamic Resistance is less certain. While Hamas is being supported by Iran and Syria, it has sectarian and political differences with both which have made for a complicated relationship over the years. No one has fought the Muslim Brotherhood as ruthlessly as the Assad family: Hafiz crushed them in Hama in 1982, his son Bashar fought a bloody, and unfinished, civil war against what he described as Islamist terrorists. The support of the Iranian regime also needs perspective. The regime has been eager to align its liberationist rhetoric with that of Hamas and to chant crude slogans against Israel and the US but, by its own admission, it is a regime failing to appeal to a younger generation of Iranians and is using rhetoric and visions which belong to another era.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, Muslim Brotherhood-derived Islamism has either long been declared hostile or illegal, or has been discredited and displaced as in Egypt. Its message of radical confrontation with the West must now compete with another message of a rapidly modernising Arab world focused not on winning conflicts but on realising ambitious economic and social transformation. That will, of course, mean nothing to the inhabitants of poor and populous Arab countries, and many of those who feel dispossessed of a future will, out of despair if not political sympathy, align with Hamas.

And yet despair, like hope, is not a plan. Despair lay behind the Arab Spring, which proved in retrospect a series of protests and revolts not a transformation. The transformation is now coming more from economic reforms in stable Arab countries than from extremist creeds. While that may not appeal to the dispossessed, it will to their governments, the majority of whom have signed up to a functionally reconciled Middle East, and to the many external actors who both welcome and stand to benefit from a stable region focused on economic development. That includes China, as well as the US and Europe. While some of those states may call for restraint from Israel, their manoeuvre room is reduced by their obligation to support Israel as the victim of terrorism and informed in nearly all cases by a bitter experience of confronting Islamist terrorism.

Only the most radical, excluded states will support Hamas. Hamas may, therefore, find they win more votes where they don’t need them, but none where they do. There will be no pressure on Israel to make any concessions to Hamas even when they claim to be speaking on behalf of the Palestinian people, and much support for Israeli operations against a terrorist organisation.

As Palestinians of an older generation know, national independence movements can garner support within the international community both from governments and sympathisers on the basis of a right to self-determination. That legalistic language, so central to the PLO’s advocacy, seems now to belong to an exhausted and discredited era of compromise and coexistence which climaxed in the Camp David accords and was destroyed by violent rejectionism and weak Palestinian leadership. Hamas, many of whose members are too young to recall how nearly Palestine and Israel made peace, have committed themselves to an absolutist approach, the strategic aim of which is shrouded in rhetoric. Beyond giving voice to their despair it remains to be seen what political gains, if any, this latest eruption of violence secures. Israel’s narrative is that it is at war with Hamas, an illegal and lethal terrorist organisation, and not, by inference, the Palestinian people. That will be sustaining for Netanyahu as he seeks to redeem humiliation at home while overseas it will secure him support, critically in Biden’s administration. If Hamas were able to challenge Israel’s narrative by offering a credible sustainable solution, they would deliver a shock as devastating as their seizure of Israeli military personnel from a base inside Israel. So far there has been no sign of that, and the hysterical nihilism from Tehran isn’t helping.


John Raine