It's time to admit: We are failing to understand Hamas and the Middle East.
Differences in culture, language, values, and outlook on life make it difficult for the West to decipher the conduct and vision of Hamas in particular and the region in general.
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The Crusades were a series of religious wars initiated, supported, and sometimes directed by the Christian Latin Church in the medieval period.
The best-known of these military expeditions are those to the Holy Land in the period between 1095 and 1291, with the intension of reconquering Jerusalem and its surrounding area from Muslim rule.
Across all social strata in western Europe, there was an enthusiastic response and a variety of motivations, including religious salvation, satisfying feudal obligations, opportunities for renown, and papal indulgences.
In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the first expedition, encouraging military support for Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos and calling for an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
While marching to Jerusalem during the First Crusade, envoys from the Fatimid state that ruled Egypt arrived at a Crusaders camp which surrounded the city of Antioch, in what is today southern Turkey. They presented to the crusading commanders a proposal for cooperation against the Seljuk dynasty that ruled Jerusalem at the time, to divide booty and territory between the parties.
According to historical records, the Crusaders resembled the Fatimids as mercenaries in the service of Byzantium, but the force that stood before the Fatimids was motivated by the power of faith, determined to realize the messianic vision in whose name they began a long, bloody march from Europe to the Middle East.
Some thousand years later, the tables have turned: The West is suffering from an acute perception gap regarding the Middle East, where key players operate motivated by ideological, mostly religious fervor, in contrast to those in the West who adhere to realpolitik theories that are based on a belief in the ability to evolve and solve through material means.
The U.S. and its “coalition of the willing” have personally experienced bitter experiences in this regard, primarily the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These began with a pretense of optimism and ended in retreats, thus reflecting a failure in trying to engineer consciousness and bend ideologies via economic means.
The 36-year confrontation between Israel and Hamas, culminating in this current war, bears a similar test case for Western difficulty in comprehending foreign cultures, such as:
The projection of one’s own logic onto the other (in particular the belief that there is a universal human longing for a “good life”)
Analyzing new challenges according to paradigms based on the past
Differentiating between a society where ideologies have less weight (Israel) and a society where they are still powerful (Gaza)
An inability to decipher a society whose perceptions of time, life, and seeing “the other” in its proximity are different
These difficulties began even before the founding of Hamas in 1987. Decades earlier, the Muslim Brotherhood movement (which focused on social and religious activity) operated in Gaza, forming an organizational womb that gave birth to Hamas.
Contrary to the common myth, Israel did not establish Hamas as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization, the main enemy from the Israeli point of view at the time. However, in Israel’s eyes, the assumption prevailed that the Muslim Brotherhood movement was less dangerous than other Palestinian factions, since it focused on faith and social action, and therefore it was allowed to operate more freely.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928, but remained a fringe group in politics across the Arab world. After Israel’s resounding victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Islamic fundamentalism started to replace the popularity of secular Arab nationalism.
Creating Hamas as an entity distinct from the Muslim Brotherhood was a matter of practicality; the Muslim Brotherhood refused to engage in violence against Israel, but without participating in the First Intifada, the Islamists tied to it feared they would lose support to their rivals, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Palestine Liberation Organization. They also hoped that, by keeping its militant activities separate, Israel would not interfere with its social-religious work.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the warning lights began to flicker, after a pattern of involvement in terrorism from Gaza religious leaders and heads of charitable organizations.
Even then, the questions raised in Israel regarding Hamas illustrated deep fundamental cultural gaps: Is it a terrorist organization, a political party, or a social movement? (Actually, all of them together.) Is Hamas more Palestinian or more Islamic? (Both, to the same extent.)
And what is the difference between “political” Hamas and “military” Hamas? (Nothing, it’s just manipulative mental gymnastics that the organization consciously created for the purpose of deception.)
Israel’s perceptive deficiencies have worsened since Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2006, which was seen by many in Israel as a step in the organization’s evolution that would require it to soften ideologically and practically. Israel presumed that radical elements which rise to power are exposed to new constraints and thus moderate themselves.
However, as history shows, such elements sometimes behave in the opposite way: Rising to power allows them to accumulate more resources to realize their ideological vision, as proved by Hitler, Khomeini, and ISIS.
The last two and a half years have widened the gap in Israeli perception of Hamas, namely that it was striving to improve the fabric of life in Gaza, especially through the promotion of civil projects, the infusion of capital, and more permits for Gazans to work in Israel. All this was based on the Israeli assumption that these initiatives would surely create public pressure on Hamas in the event of deterioration, thus preventing escalation with Israel.
Although it was clear that Hamas was an enemy preparing for a future war with Israel, there was no real debate about its capabilities. Israel defined the organization as deterred, and possibilities for it to attack were usually regarded as limited military action.
In reality, many anomalies were revealed during the last two and a half years, illustrating that Israel’s observations were fundamentally misguided. For instance:
Hamas promoted terrorism and incitement from Gaza towards Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank) and East Jerusalem.
Hamas allowed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (which Hamas reportedly funds) to conduct rounds of violence against Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Hamas took advantage of workers and goods crossing into Israel for the purpose of advancing its military goals, including intelligence gathering and better learning the IDF’s means of warfare.
Ultimately, at the very time that Hamas was supposedly focused on improving the situation for locals in Gaza, it rendered the most painful attack ever launched by Palestinians on Israel: the October 7th massacre, the most extreme and tragic expression of Israel’s failure to properly diagnose Hamas.
Unfortunately, the remnants of these difficulties continue to exist today, nearly three months into the Israel-Hamas war, embodied by the discourse regarding Hamas’ motives and objectives on October 7th.
Many hypotheses are indulged by politicians and pundits, for example that the organization wanted to damage normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This reflects a lack of understanding of Hamas — such that Jihad in and of itself is its essence, and its purpose is to undermine Israel on the way to its destruction.
When a sharp contradiction between perception and reality was revealed after October 7th, many in Israel claimed that Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the architect of the current war, had become a messiah and lost touch with reality.
Sinwar reportedly planned the attack for a decade and it is the project of his life. Therefore, “contemporary” realpolitik considerations have marginal weight in the execution of his plan. He is indeed messianic, meaning he lives with a mindset of the end of days, but the claim that he is disconnected from reality is inherently wrong.
Instead of dissecting his unique value system, which reflects a different rationale than that of the average Israeli, many in Israel — and, by extension, in the West — tend to throw their logic at him, which is like playing chess against yourself.
The difficulty of deciphering Hamas reflects deep problems in the West that fewer and fewer of its members — including those in government, media, security, military, and intelligence agencies — understand the languages and cultures of the Middle East. One Muslim put it in more crude terms for us non-Muslims to understand:
“What motivates Hamas is the Koran, primarily. But the Koran is not everything. There is the Sunnah (the prophet’s life, what he said and did). One of the major battles the prophet of Islam fought was Khaybar, which was against the Jews.”
“So the Koran said it and the Prophet did it. In other words, there is no way to ‘twist’ history or ‘reinterpret’ it. You just cannot say that the Jews of Khaybar were not the Jews of today. Islamists believe that the Koran and Sunnah are suitable for every place and time. And that history (loaded with ideology) continues to play over and over .”
“If the IDF collapses,” the Muslim man added, “the Holocaust will be like a picnic. Islamists will kill every man, rape every woman, enslave every kid, and destroy every building.”
Ismail Haniyeh, the current chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, gave a speech on October 7th, making it pretty clear what Hamas and its allies are seeking. He did not talk about a two-state solution, the 1967 border lines, or East Jerusalem. He started with “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.” He quoted the Koran seven times. And he said the Jews “must leave Palestine” — “There is no place or safety for you.”
Hence why the ecstatic Jew-killing on October 7th was accompanied by shouts of “Allahu Akbar” — “Allah is the greatest” — a victory cry of defiance and determination. Hamas is and has always been a jihadist organization that sees the existence of the State of Israel as an intolerable intrusion into the Domain of Islam and is committed to removing it by any means necessary.
As the Hamas Charter says loud and clear, “Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.”
Sure, Hamas does not represent all Palestinians, let alone all Muslims, but its attacks on October 7th incited passions of many in the broader Arab and Muslim world, greatly strengthening the Islamist perception of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a Muslim-Jewish one.
In pursuit of this goal, Hamas named its operation against Israel “Al-Aqsa Flood,” dedicating its murderous assault to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest shrine in Islam.
The West, meanwhile, sees the problem as political and territorial in nature. To some Palestinians, this is the case, but for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, their supporters, and their chief sponsor, the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is primarily religious, and at its heart is the annihilationist fantasy of ending the Jewish state by killing as many Jews as possible.
Even Haniyeh thanked Iran’s Supreme Leader for the funding and improvement of Hamas’ missile program. And The Wall Street Journal referenced a meeting last April in Beirut between Ismail Khan, who is the head of the Iranian Quds Force, members of Hezbollah, and members of Hamas .
They overlap philosophically, spiritually, and operationally — and there is vast circumstantial evidence that leads us to believe the Iranians were instrumental in Hamas’ attack, just like they have been in the Houthis’ recent threats to shipping vessels in the Red Sea.
“The goal is not a two-state solution but the Final Solution,” wrote Indiana University professor Alvin Rosenfeld. “October 7th was an extravagant rehearsal of a larger, genocidal drama.”1
Still, politicians, diplomats, and commentators are already looking beyond the fighting for solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict — a sort of secular Western conviction that all humanity’s problems are solvable. They typically look at the Arab-Israeli dispute as simply a clash of national, political, and territorial claims. In other words, problems that can be solved.
But the absolutist tenets of fundamentalist Islam cannot be compromised with, and there is no easy solution to an eliminationist ideology inspired by religion. Nothing is gained by pretending these tenets don’t exist or are only harbored by an inconsequential few.
“We make mistakes all the time when we don’t take folks in the Middle East, the radical set, at face value,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA. “It’s a serious error on our part, which we repeat over and over and over again.”2
Luai Ahmed, a Yemenite content creator, was more blunt, saying:
“As someone who sat in mosques as a child and heard the imams preach incessantly, ‘We must kill all Jews,’ I am not surprised by the level of antisemitism that has been brewing on social media since October 7th. But I am shocked by the complacency of many Westerners.”3
To add insult to injury, Gerecht said the West also makes a major mistake by viewing the sentiments of the rulers in the Persian Gulf — such as the United Arab Emirates — and elsewhere in the Arab world as being the sentiments of the citizenry below them. In this sense, the Iranians might actually have a better grasp on everyday feelings throughout the region. And it’s probably true that most Arabs still refuse to accept the idea of Israel, a Jewish state, in their neck of the woods.
“This is a taste of the future for Israel,” said Gerecht. “Occasionally the Iranians let loose their grand strategy here, and part of that is that they want to see Israel die. The new age is, I think, going to test the Israelis like they’ve never been tested before.”
“‘The Palestinian Problem Is a Religious Problem’.” Sapir.
“Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Sapir.
Luai Ahmed on X