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Hamas’s New Strength

by David Pryce-Jones

Its values are ascendant, in Gaza, Cairo, and elsewhere

In the latest round of fighting Hamas has held its own with Israel, at least enough to be staging celebrations. It’s been a copybook demonstration that the weak can counter the strong through resort to every kind of trickery and determination never to give in. An unbridgeable cultural gap between the two parties conditions this mindset. Israel’s intention to defend itself is of no concern to the Hamas leadership, whose objective is conquest and nothing else.

On the face of it, Hamas is a few thousand Palestinian thugs with a toehold in the Gaza Strip, a patch of sand where they shouldn’t be able to do much harm. Over the past six or seven years, however, they have been busy putting in place a dictatorship. They accuse Israel of being an occupying power when that is exactly what they are. Hamas is the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization in the process of taking over the Middle East in the name of Muslim supremacy. Ideology inspired by militant religious faith justifies unlimited deception and violence.

The cause of Islamism demands the suppression of Hamas’s secular rival, Fatah. Driven out, Mahmoud Abbas, the elderly Fatah leader, maintains a shaky one-man regime on the West Bank and cannot even return to his house in Gaza. Members of Fatah active in Gaza risk imprisonment, torture, and the firing squad. And all the while Iran has been clandestinely supplying arms that Hamas smuggled in through a network of tunnels dug in the sand from Egypt to Gaza.

By the end of 2008, Hamas was ready for its first test of strength against Israel, in which over 1,000 Palestinians, at least half of them Hamas terrorists, were killed and their military installations badly damaged. Politically, Hamas salvaged the defeat by mounting the defense that it was not the aggressor but the victim. On one side of the cultural gap between them, Israel concluded that it had taught Hamas a lesson, while Hamas came to quite the opposite conclusion: that it had to redouble its efforts. Iran made sure to smuggle weaponry through the tunnels on a yet more massive scale, supplying Hamas with Fajr-5 missiles, which have the range to hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Hamas could hardly wait to repeat that first round. The timing of the latest sudden barrage of missiles was in all probability dictated by the internal Palestinian power struggle. On behalf of Fatah, Abbas is about to apply to the United Nations General Assembly for recognition of his part of Palestine as a non-member state. In the event that he is successful, the watching world might conclude that a non-violent approach to creating a Palestinian state is more likely to be rewarded than is the perpetual warfare proposed by Hamas. In which case, Hamas risks losing its power, influence, funding, and armaments.

Hamas could count on international support. President Obama has welcomed and even facilitated the Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt and elsewhere, and his relationship with Israel and in particular its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is known to be difficult. Since June, Mohamed Morsi has been president of Egypt, reorienting the country on the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas perceived him as a strategic partner and had reason to hope that under pressure he might break Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. So far, Morsi has been able to utter in public the word “Israel” just once. When the preacher in a Cairo mosque prayed to Allah to destroy the Jews, Morsi was observed to mouth “Amen.”

Farther afield, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has been moving secular Turkey toward Islamism, in the process reversing former good relations with Israel and losing no opportunity to condemn it as a “terrorist state” committing crimes in Gaza. Shortly before the fighting started, the emir of Qatar was the first Arab ruler to visit Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007, bringing with him $400 million. Iran seems to have had military advisers in Gaza to help fire the new missiles.

Even so, Hamas must have anticipated that launching the barrage of missiles that precipitated the crisis would provoke the usual Israeli response. It is evidence of the cultural gap between the parties that in the exercise of power Hamas leaders are willing to call down the destruction of their own territory and the death of their own people. In the same manner, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, and now Bashar al-Assad have laid waste to their countries.

Israel immediately carried out the targeted assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, the military chief of Hamas, who has a long history of anti-Israeli violence. At the same time, a number of the Fajr-5 missiles were destroyed either on the ground by Israeli bombing or by Iron Dome, Israel’s anti-missile defense system, which was being tested in action for the first time. Only two Fajr-5s seem to have hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Altogether Hamas fired over 1,300 missiles of one type or another. Five Israelis were killed, some 200 were injured, and people all over the country have had to take to air-raid shelters. The Palestinian dead number 163, about half of whom are said to have been terrorists. The campaign lasted eight days, and toward its end, six unfortunate Palestinians accused by Hamas of collaborating with Israel were brought to a busy intersection in Gaza City and summarily shot in front of a crowd of spectators.

Prime ministers of Israel have very limited time before the great powers and transnational bodies such as the United Nations intervene. Fear that the fighting might spread cuts Israel’s freedom of action. At the outset, President Obama handed Israel a pass when he declared that “there’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” adding that “we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

A highly grateful Prime Minister Netanyahu accordingly mobilized 75,000 reservists. As the missiles fell, he repeatedly promised to raise the level of force “significantly,” implying a ground invasion. One newspaper quoted the minister of the interior saying that the objective was “to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” However, Ehud Yaari, an informed and reliable journalist, gave the game away when he published an article stating that Israel was not seeking to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza. “The objective,” he wrote, “is a long-term cease-fire.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pleaded for five or six years of security, a modest definition of “long-term.”

Once the suggestion of a cease-fire was in the air, Hamas gained the initiative, for they were in a position to demand concessions and dictate conditions. They accepted Morsi as the broker of a cease-fire in the expectation that he would display Muslim Brotherhood solidarity. Morsi then had to decide whether the Egyptian national interest or Muslim ideology had priority. Egypt is on the verge of economic disaster, and Morsi chose not to risk the loss of American aid and goodwill. The terms of the cease-fire stipulate that Israel will no longer carry out targeted assassination of Hamas terrorists and that Hamas will fire no more rockets and missiles. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton hurried to praise Morsi’s leadership and responsibility. Hamas at once broke the cease-fire with a feu de joie of 20 missiles.

Hamas has overplayed its hand, but this hardly matters, because its cultural values and assumptions have come out on top. Faith-driven ideologues of the sort are never going either to apologize or to surrender. To them, the deaths and devastation in Gaza are worthwhile because the Israelis failed to launch the ground invasion that is the only way to destroy Hamas and replace it with leaders who might share Israel’s values and assumptions. Netanyahu has shown himself “willing to wound but afraid to strike,” to borrow a line from Alexander Pope. The relief that Israelis feel at being spared violence is sweet victory to Hamas. Israeli mobilization and threats now look like posturing and rodomontade. Hamas is furthermore rejoicing in the humiliation of Fatah and Abbas, confidently expecting that any future Palestine will be a Muslim Brotherhood state. Arrangements with Iran are no doubt already in place for restocking their arsenals in order to break the cease-fire at the next opportunity of their choosing. “We will continue to arm,” Khalid Mashaal, the head of Hamas, has already emphasized.

In the hope of smoothing over the dispute between two dependencies of the United States, President Obama paid fulsome compliments to Morsi, calling him a “practical” man who performs what he promises with an engineer’s precision. Morsi instantly took the cue, declaring himself above the law and ruling by decrees that cannot be challenged. He becomes a dictator more extreme than his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, “a new pharaoh,” as his critics put it. As Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood state takes shape, demonstrations have broken out across Egypt. Netanyahu is also in a fix of his own making. He strikes a deferential note as he thanks Obama for his support against Hamas. Well he might, for he has left Obama in a good position to bring pressure not to act when next Israel comes to deal with implacable enemies of a different culture, for instance a nuclear-armed Iran.

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