If Israel Eliminated Hamas, Nothing Fundamental Would Change

Peter Beinart
The Beinart Notebook, 20 May 2021


I apologize for not sending out a newsletter again this Monday. I’ll be back on schedule from now on.

I was off for Shavuot, the holiday on which Jews read the Book of Ruth. The Book of Ruth tells the story of an unskilled immigrant from an enemy nation, the Moabites, who moves to the land of Israel, lives off charity, and then becomes the great-grandmother of King David and the progenitor of the Messiah. Stephen Miller should be required to read it every day for the rest of his life.

I came back online on Tuesday night and was instantly reminded of the radically different ways in which Jews and Palestinians talk about the war that’s currently convulsing Israel-Palestine. Palestinians say that Israel is fighting Palestinians. Jews, or at least establishment Jewish leaders, say that Israel is fighting Hamas.

Read statements by AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and you’ll find endless references to “Hamas” and “terrorists” but few, if any references, to Palestinians. It’s the foreign policy equivalent of the way Donald Trump and his allies talk about the people who immigrate across America’s southern border: Not as Central Americans, but as “illegals” or members of MS-13.

The consequences of this linguistic move are profound. Palestinians are a people, and a collection of human beings. Hamas is a political and military organization that in American and establishment Jewish discourse is synonymous with terrorism. So when defining the conflict as Israel versus Hamas, you do two things: First, you erase ordinary Palestinians. You divert attention away from the popular resistance—against Israel’s impending evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, against Israel’s violent raids in the Al Aqsa Mosque, against Israel’s entire system of discrimination and expulsion—that began to surge this month before Hamas launched its first rocket. Secondly, you imply that if only Hamas could be eliminated, things would grow calm. It’s the Israel-Palestine version of the way American segregationists used to talk about “outside agitators.” If not for those radicals, who rile everyone up, Palestinians would quiet down and accept things as they are.

All this is profoundly wrong. If Israel eliminated Hamas, nothing fundamental would change.

It would not change because as long as Israel denies Palestinians’ basic rights, Palestinians will keep fighting Israel. That fight began long before Hamas was created. If Hamas were somehow destroyed, it would continue long after Hamas was gone.

Today, it’s common to associate Hamas’s militancy with its Islamist ideology. The implication is that if only Islamists were eliminated from the Palestinian political scene, Palestinian politics would grow more moderate and quiescent. But Israeli leaders didn’t always see it that way. Just as US officials once saw Islamists like the Afghan Mujahedeen as less threatening than communists backed by the USSR, Israeli officials once saw Hamas as more pliable than Yasser Arafat’s more secular Fatah. In a recent letter to the editor of The New York Times, former Times’ Jerusalem correspondent David K. Shipler noted that in 1981, Israel’s military governor of Gaza told him that, in Shipler’s words, “he was giving money to the Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor of Hamas, on the instruction of the Israeli authorities. The funding was intended to tilt power away from both Communist and Palestinian nationalist movements in Gaza, which Israel considered more threatening than the fundamentalists.” Oops.

Back then, many Jewish leaders wrongly thought Islamists were inherently more accommodating toward Israel. Today, they wrongly think Islamists are inherently more hardline toward Israel. In reality, political parties, secular or religious, respond to political incentives. Among “Arab Israeli” politicians, Mansour Abbas, an Islamist, has proved more open to joining a coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu than his leftist and nationalist rivals. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for decades denounced that country’s government for its peace deal with Israel. But when a Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, became Egypt’s president in the summer of 2012, he maintained diplomatic ties to Israel even during the war that Israel fought in Gaza later that year. Why? Because political movements evolve in response to circumstances. In 1988, Hamas published a despicable and blatantly anti-Semitic Charter that cited the Protocols of the Elders of the Zion. In 2017, it published a new Charter that claimed “its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion…Hamas rejects the persecution of any human being or the undermining of his or her rights on nationalist, religious or sectarian grounds.” Asking which one represents Hamas’ “real” views misses the point. Like other movements, Hamas evolves in response to events. As the Israeli political scientist Shaul Mishal has written, “Hamas operates in a context of opportunities and constraints, being attentive to the fluctuating needs and desires of the Palestinian population.”

Those opportunities and constraints explain why Hamas shifted from appearing more moderate than Fatah to being more hardline. In 1988, Fatah made a fateful decision to recognize Israel. But the 1993 Oslo Accords, which reaffirmed that concession, promised Palestinians neither a state nor even an end to settlement growth, which led Edward Said to denounce them as a “Palestinian Versailles.” Although Hamas’s social vision could not have been further from Said’s cosmopolitan liberalism, Hamas leaders saw in Said’s critique their political opportunity. They cast their nationalist rivals as dupes who had given away too much and gotten too little in return. And Israel made their case easier by doubling down on settlement growth, which made many Palestinians feel that they were moving not toward statehood, but away from it.

Three decades later, with Mahmoud Abbas overseeing the security cooperation that helps Israel control the West Bank, Hamas is still making the same basic argument. In the words of Rabbi Michael Melchior, who has spent more time with Hamas leaders than almost any other Israeli, “There are many people in Hamas who want their organisation, together with Fatah and the other parties, to be part of peace here…But they also want something to come out of it so that down the road they won’t look like Palestinian President Abbas, who doesn’t get any response from the Israeli side.”

It’s not Hamas’s Islamism that keeps it from recognizing Israel. It’s simply good politics. In the eyes of most Palestinians, Fatah’s strategy of recognizing Israel has failed. It has led not to Palestinian statehood but to deepened occupation. That creates a market for a more hardline alternative. Eliminate Islamism from Palestinian politics and some leftist or nationalist faction would fill that same hardline niche and become America’s new bogeyman.

Nor would eliminating Hamas eliminate Palestinian violence. After all, Palestinian leftist and nationalist groups fought Israel violently for decades before Hamas was born. And during the second intifada, it wasn’t only Hamas that launched violent attacks. Fatah’s militia, the Tanzim, carried out attacks too. This isn’t a justification. Killing civilians was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. Morally and strategically, I believe deeply in non-violence, and not only because a Hamas bus bombing killed a friend of mine.

But whether Hamas exists or not, some Palestinians will continue responding to the violence of state oppression with violence of their own. There’s nothing unusual about this. Nelson Mandela supported violence—in the 1960s he helped turn the African National Congress from a nonviolent organization into one that employed armed struggle. The Irish Republican Army planted bombs across England. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers said Black Americans needed guns. The American revolutionaries used violence. Some of the activists opposed to Myanmar’s brutal military regime are taking up arms as we speak.

My point isn’t normative: Nothing justifies Hamas’ rockets against Israeli civilians, which may constitute a war crime. It’s descriptive. Eliminating Hamas won’t eliminate Palestinian violence any more than eliminating the ANC or IRA would have eliminated Black South African or Irish Catholic violence in the 1980s. The only way to stop oppressed people from responding to the violence of oppression with violence of their own is to end their oppression. When Black South Africans and Irish Catholics gained political equality, the ANC and IRA ceased committing acts of violence—not because their leaders became saints but because they now enjoyed the basic freedoms that allowed them to pursue their people’s interests in a peaceful way.

Fundamentally, Israel doesn’t have a Hamas problem. It has a Palestinian problem. It dominates and brutalizes another people. Until that domination and brutalization ends, every cease-fire will be merely an interval until the next war, regardless of which parties lead the Palestinian struggle.

Most Washington politicians, and most American Jewish leaders, don’t want to reckon with that. So they keep talking about Hamas.