Good on the author for acknowledging Israel had a hand in the creation of Hamas! For a mainstream media piece that’s extremely rare.
Many Israelis, seeking to understand the horrors of Oct. 7, have turned to comparing Hamas to ISIS. The hashtag “#HamasisISIS” has trended on social media as Israeli leaders—including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—have frequently equated the two. But scholars of Islamist movements like myself, as well as counterterrorism officials, have long understood the comparison to be false.
The first and most important difference is that Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist Islamist movement. That fused, dual identity differentiates it from ISIS, which is a transnational pan-Islamist movement that wants to gather a universal umma, or community of Muslim believers, into an “Islamic state” untethered from any nationalist project.
A second key difference is their relative religious extremism. Hamas is religiously conservative, but it does not ruthlessly harass or kill non-Muslims in Gaza simply because of their faith or religious comportment. It tolerates women who don’t wear the hijab, people who sport tattoos, and teenagers who listen to American music. Christians and churches also coexist with Muslims in the Hamas-run enclave.
None of this would have been possible under ISIS, a far more religiously extremist organization that tortured and mutilated people to compel their adherence to an ultra-radical version of Islam.
But comparisons between Hamas and ISIS abound in part because they can be politically useful. Insisting that Hamas is ISIS enables Israeli leaders to muffle criticism of the country’s treatment of Palestinians, including airstrikes in Gaza since Oct. 7 that have left at least 8,000 people dead, two-thirds of them women and children. The conflation could also help win over U.S. leaders and public opinion
Unlike ISIS, Hamas has existed for decades and is no mystery. It grew out of a Muslim charity established in 1973 and has a large social service wing. It split from the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a result of the Oslo peace process’ failures and pursues violence against Israel. It won the 2006 Palestinian elections in Gaza and remains, along with its rival Fatah in the West Bank, one of two main political forces in the Palestinian territories.
It has continuously negotiated with Israel for years on borders, prisoner swaps, and governance of Gaza. It is also, to some extent, the Frankenstein’s monster of Netanyahu, whose policies empowered Hamas in an effort to divide and weaken the Palestinian territories for years.
Nevertheless, Israel last week dropped leaflets that proclaimed “Hamas=ISIS” and warned civilians—who remain trapped in the Strip with nowhere safe to hide—to “surrender.” But that approach is likely falling on deaf ears in Gaza and throughout the Arab world, where most see Hamas as a religious-nationalist Palestinian resistance movement that is directly challenging Israel’s ongoing blockade and occupation.
To combat security threats effectively, Israeli leaders must resist facile comparisons and reckon with the fact that, at the heart of Hamas’s appeal among many of its recruits, lies not religious extremism but anger, anguish, and hopelessness. A hydra that feeds off of embittered youths will not be defeated by creating more destruction and despair.
Ensuring that Palestinians get the freedom, dignity, and self-determination they have demanded for over 75 years would be the most effective way to ensure Israel’s long-term security