Can Hamas Survive the Stupidity of its ISIL-Style Tactics in its Drive against the Grey Zone?

Hamas leaders have said they were driven to their attack on Israel this weekend by two major considerations, the danger posed by right wing religious Zionism to the al-Aqsa mosque complex, the third holiest shrine for 1.8 billion Muslims, and a wave of Israeli squatter attacks on Palestinian hamlets in the Palestinian West Bank. Ibrahim Ibrash, writing for the London-based pan-Arab daily, al-Arab is puzzled by these announced goals because, being based in Gaza, Hamas does not have the capability of intervening in East Jerusalem or the Palestinian West Bank.

These announced goals, if we take them seriously, suggest to me that Hamas’s Operation al-Aqsa Storm may have been intended in part to allow it to displace the Palestine Authority from the West Bank. Palestinians are furious at Mahmoud Abbas and the PA for helping Israel crack down on “Lion’s Den” militant young men in Nablus, and at their helplessness before the repeated storming of the al-Aqsa complex by Jewish Power and Religious Zionism fanatics, who are vowing to partition the complex and to establish a Jewish place of worship there. (This plan is denounced by all the rabbis, who say that Jews should not go atop the Temple Mount lest they commit blasphemy. Archeologists say that the al-Aqsa complex is not on the site of the Second Temple, which the Romans destroyed in 70 AD.)

Ironically, Israeli intelligence backed Hamas beginning in the late 1980s in hopes of offsetting the power of the PLO, led by Yasser Arafat. They don’t seem to have stopped to consider that secular forces like the PLO are typically more pragmatic than messianic religious movements.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas of being identical to ISIL, the so-called “Islamic state” group that terrorized Iraq and Syria with killings of civilians and mass violence.

It is not an exact parallel, but Hamas is deploying some of the techniques of ISIL, and for the same purpose. ISIL wanted to mobilize Muslim activists behind it, and to demonstrate that its direct action made it most suited to lead the Muslim world. The purpose of the violence deployed against the West was to make Muslims choose between ISIL and the North Atlantic states, to polarize them and remove any “gray zone” where allegiances were unclear.

My guess is that Hamas’s terrorism against Israelis was meant to announce that its leaders could get the job done, of throwing off Israeli hegemony and halting the march toward Israeli appropriation of Palestinian holy sites, land and resources. In such a situation, staying loyal to the Palestine Authority becomes tantamount to siding with Israel against the active Resistance.

It seemed likely that if there were fair elections, Hamas would win a majority of votes in the West Bank, even before its recent attack on Israel. Now, it will be wildly popular in the West Bank, not because it slaughtered Israeli concert-goers but because it demonstrated that Palestinians could still go on the offensive. For people worried about Israeli squatters shooting up their communities and stealing their water and other resources, the prospect of having a group among them who would defend them and fight back, as Fateh and other West Bank-based groups have not, would be attractive.

Hamas does not, however, appear to have learned anything from ISIL’s catastrophic failures. ISIL’s use of “beastly” violence alienated everyone from it and left it with no allies at all. With the Shiites of Iraq, the Kurds, the Iraqi and Syrian governments, the US, NATO, Iran, and the Russian Federation all determined to destroy it, it was doomed to be rolled up. Of course, the beastly tactics of mass murder, enslavement, beheadings and so forth are objectionable on human rights grounds. But they also were pursued in a particularly moronic fashion. It was for that reason that I shocked some people in 2014 by calling ISIL a flash in the pan.

ISIL deployed the tactics of guerrilla war without having a covert base to which it could retreat. ISIL had a return address, at its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. The point of guerrilla tactics, including terrorist attacks on noncombatants, is to offset the enemy’s conventional military might and to spread fear in their ranks. But that only works if you can retreat to hills or caves or swamps, to some place that the conventional military of the enemy can’t easily get at you.

Mao Zedong said that a guerrilla army without a covert base to retreat to is like a man without an ass. He has to keep running around until he becomes exhausted, because he has nowhere to sit.

Hamas likewise has a return address, in Gaza City. Fighting a guerrilla war and deploying tactics of terrorism when the enemy knows exactly where to find you is just plain stupid. Ask the ISIL caliphate. Oh, that’s right, you can’t. They’re dead.

Nor is the West Bank a promising site for the waging of a guerrilla struggle. The Israelis have heavily penetrated it and control it militarily.

The hopes of the extremist Israeli government that it can destroy Hamas may therefore not be completely unrealistic, though it will have to expect high Israeli casualties in the effort. And it will commit a form of genocide in Gaza during this attempt to extirpate Hamas that will simply give rise to future hatred and violence.

The problem is that as long as the harsh Israeli occupation of the Palestinians continues, they will just throw up other militant organizations to continue the struggle. In the late 1960s and the 1970s that was groups like the PFLP and Fateh. Hamas, despite what pundits are now saying, has vacillated between militancy and pragmatism. At one point they were talking about a hundred-year truce with Israel. The 16-year blockade of Gaza and the increasing violence toward the West Bank Palestinians and toward the al-Aqsa Mosque complex have re-radicalized Hamas in the past couple of years. Whoever succeeds them will be radicalized by the same things. You can’t expect a people to suffer under Apartheid without putting up resistance.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on October 10, 2023, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.

Image Credit: Middle East Eye

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