Israeli President Isaac Herzog said this week that, as far as the military is concerned, there is little difference between Gaza’s civilian population and Hamas, which has governed the besieged territory since 2007. “It’s not true this rhetoric about civilians [being] not aware, not involved,” Herzog said in the middle of an unprecedented Israeli bombing campaign in retaliation for Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians last week. “They could have risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat.”
Herzog’s remarks represent Israeli policymakers’ longtime conflation of Hamas with all Palestinians in Gaza and often with all Palestinians everywhere. Such attitudes have hardened in the past week. The Israel Defense Forces, for example, posted that “you either stand with Israel or you stand with terrorism.” Many U.S. politicians have issued similar claims. “Anyone that is pro-Palestinian is pro-Hamas,” tweeted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.
Hamas, in that sense, has been a convenient presence for Israel, whose leaders have favored the militant group over the Palestinian Authority, or PA, the pseudo-government established during the Oslo peace process to administer the Palestinian territories until the details of a sovereign Palestinian state could be negotiated. While Hamas has been enemy No. 1 in Israeli rhetoric for years, offering a cover for Israel to maintain its blockade and periodically kill hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, it has also offered Israel an alibi to avoid abiding by its supposed commitment to Palestinian statehood.
Israeli leaders seemed to believe this strategic calculation could hold indefinitely.
“They have determined that this situation of constant political instability and violence is preferable over making some kind of larger political agreement that would actually lead to a final status outcome to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Palestinian political analyst Yousef Munayyer told The Intercept’s Deconstructed podcast this week. “And they’ve chosen this path over that, and I think we are seeing the results of that on full display in recent days.”
Indeed, some Israeli officials have at times been explicit about their preference for Hamas over the PA. Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, one of the most extremist members of the most extremist Israeli government coalition to date, offered an unusually frank assessment of the government’s approach to Hamas in a 2015 interview.
“The Palestinian Authority is a burden, and Hamas is an asset,” Smotrich said at the time. “It’s a terrorist organization, no one will recognize it, no one will give it status at the [International Criminal Court], no one will let it put forth a resolution at the U.N. Security Council.”
The comments came as the PA, whose authority was effectively limited to the West Bank after a 2007 split with Hamas, was making strides on the international scene, winning U.N. recognition of Palestine and an ICC probe of Israeli crimes in Palestine. Israeli officials dubbed those efforts “diplomatic terrorism,” a more difficult sell to the rest of the world than the terrorism label they apply to Hamas.
Lamenting the “international delegitimization” of Israel, Smotrich talked openly about Israel’s need for Hamas to counter the diplomatic successes of the PA. “Abu Mazen is beating us in significant spaces,” he said in the interview, referring to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. “And Hamas at this point, in my opinion, will be an asset.” Elsewhere, as The Intercept recently reported, he argued that the PA was causing “great harm to Israel in international forums, and it is better for Israel to work towards its collapse.”
Others have long held the same view but expressed it more discreetly. A 2007 diplomatic cable reveals that’s been Israel’s tacit position since Hamas took control of Gaza. According to the cable, then-Israel Defense Forces intelligence chief Amos Yadlin — who this week said that Hamas “will pay like the Nazis paid in Europe” — said at the time that “Israel would be ‘happy’ if Hamas took over Gaza because the IDF could then deal with Gaza as a hostile state.” That is effectively what happened.
A Convenient Boogeyman
Israel has illegally occupied Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem since 1967. For decades, it maintained both settlements and a regular military presence inside Gaza, as it continues to do in the other territories it occupies. That changed in 2005, when Israel dismantled the settlements in Gaza, withdrew the military, and embarked on what it called a policy of “disengagement.” Since then, Israel has often argued that it is no longer occupying the strip — even as it controls virtually all access of people and goods in and out of it. (Gaza is still considered occupied under international law, given Israel’s near-total domination over it, as evidenced this week by the announcement that it would cut off electricity, fuel, and food from the strip following Hamas’s attack.)
The so-called disengagement from Gaza, which was widely unpopular among some Israelis and has since fueled the growth of Israel’s far-right settler movement, was a strategic maneuver. “When the Israeli government decided to quote unquote disengage from Gaza, [it] effectively meant to change the nature of their occupation of Gaza,” Munayyer said, noting that adviser to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had equated the withdrawal to “formaldehyde” for the peace process.
“It brings the idea of a peace deal to an end,” Munayyer added. “And, you know, Benjamin Netanyahu, despite being opposed to disengagement at the time, has made a career out of saying, ‘If we withdraw from the West Bank, look at Gaza. That’s what we’re going to get.’”
Then, in 2006, Hamas — which is not just a militant group, but also one of the two largest political parties in Palestine — won a decisive majority in the Palestinian legislative election. Its victory was in large part a response to Palestinians’ frustrations with Fatah, the party that had governed the territories since Oslo and that many Palestinians viewed as corrupt. To this day, many Palestinians blame the PA for overseeing the collapse of their hopes for sovereignty and capitulating to Israel’s tightening occupation.
At the time, some saw Hamas’s political victory as an opportunity for the party to distance itself from its more militant element. But the democratic victory was fiercely rejected by Israel and the United States. In 2007, after several failed bids at a unity government, a U.S.-backed coup — carried out in conjunction with Fatah — unseated Hamas. In the bloody civil strife that followed, Hamas ceded the West Bank and seized control of Gaza by force, effectively bifurcating Palestinian political authority between the two territories, already physically divided by Israel’s occupation.
“The U.S. directly intervened and tried to initiate a regime change,” Tareq Baconi, board secretary of the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, told The Intercept. “There was a moment in time when Hamas was developing a political platform that could have ended us in a very different position. That was entirely blocked by the Americans, primarily the Bush administration. So the idea that this is something that was inevitable is untrue, and it removes American responsibility in landing us wherever we’re at.”
A Backfiring Strategy
Until last weekend, Israeli officials seemed to believe that the delicate balance with Hamas could last forever. The government’s strategy was to periodically “mow the grass” to repress Hamas’s militant efforts through regular ground invasions and bombing campaigns that have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians over the years.
“On the one hand, yes, Hamas, and Hamas’s governance of the Gaza Strip specifically, has been a great asset, mainly because it allowed Israel to believe that it can put two million Palestinians in a cage,” said Baconi. “There would be escalations of violence every now and then, but fundamentally, [Israel] would have successfully severed the Gaza Strip from the rest of Palestine. And it could have done that only by having Hamas in power because it can claim that there’s this bloodthirsty terrorist organization that’s bent on its destruction that justifies the blockade and make the world forget that the blockade and efforts to strangulate Gaza started well before Hamas was even established.”
“In that sense,” Baconi said, “Hamas became a perfect excuse for Israel.”
But the strategy backfired. Regardless of the outcome of Israel’s quest for vengeance, Baconi said, the time for Israel viewing Hamas as an asset is over, as is the sense that a solution to the conflict can be indefinitely postponed.
“There’s a before and after. I think that before, there was the idea that the Palestinians have been pacified and that Israeli apartheid is invincible, and now both of those things have shattered,” said Baconi. “Even if no one knows where we go from here — and the genocidal language is frightening — wherever we go, I just don’t think there’s a return to the status quo of thinking, ‘We can just continue to manage the Palestinians.’”
“Unfortunately, it’s going to unleash a lot more violence before they recognize and come to terms with what they aren’t able to see now,” he added, “which is that this is a political problem.”