Steeped in Islamic Orthodoxy, Hamas Is Israel’s Permanent Enemy

In the Holy Land, faith has never been a wholly private affair separable from political, cultural, and ethnic motives and sensibilities. This is more clearly the case now than it was a generation ago. Thus, the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, which may otherwise have been amenable to the traditional forms of diplomatic horse trading, has been transformed into a civilizational and religious clash beyond politics.

Hamas and other Islamist groups are founded on the notion which, for them, is indisputably scripturally correct: Accepting Israel’s legitimacy is incompatible with Islamic teaching. It says that when the infidels usurp a Muslim land, jihad becomes mandatory. According to the Hamas Charter, the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf (endowment) consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day:

It, or any part of it, should not be squandered; it, or any part of it, should not be given up. There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.

A permanent peace settlement is structurally impossible because any lasting compromise which would entail legitimizing Israel would be not only treasonous but blasphemous. From the Muslim point of view, there is nothing extraordinary about this view. It is derived from the Koran, from Muhammad’s sayings collected in the Hadith, and from the political tradition which is 14 centuries old. Giving up any part of Palestine would be a disobedient act of irreverence against Allah. Intransigence is al-hal-wahid (“the only right way” ). Struggle is a sacred duty, rather than merely a patriotic one. 

Fighting Israel is more than a “war of national liberation”: it is an act of worship for which Allah will reward the mujaheed. In addition to the verses of the Koran, there are dozens of hadiths with Muhammad’s assurances that Allah guarantees to all jihadi warriors instant paradise in case of martyrdom, or plentiful reward to the survivors. “And whoever fights in Allah’s cause—whether they achieve martyrdom or victory—We will honour them with a great reward.” (Koran, surah An-Nisa, ayat 74 ) This promise remains to this day a powerful incentive to would-be martyrs, from Gaza and Ramallah to south Lebanon. To be a mujaheed is a win-win proposition to the teeming masses of angry Palestinian youths with no employment and no prospects.

Hardcore Islamism used to be confined to a minority among educated Arab elites until the late 20th century. The drastic decline of Islam’s power in relation to Europe after 1918 prompted those elites to frame the search for national-cultural identity and political empowerment in terms of Arab nationalism with distinctly secular overtones. Pan-Arabism, rather than Islam, became the major theme. After World War II, and particularly with the creation of the state of Israel, pan-Arabists went beyond promoting a sense of common heritage and started promoting the creation of a unitary Arab state. 

The traditionalist religious masses could also support pan-Arabism because it retained much of the Islamic vocabulary. The term umma, the community of the faithful, was customized to refer to the Arab nation (al-umma al-’arabiyya).  After the 1952 revolution in Egypt, Arab nationalism became secular, leftist, and anti-Western. It was anti-Israeli in an overtly anticolonial sense: Israel was perceived as a Western outpost settled by Europeans and Americans in an Arab land.

Until around 1990 such wider Arab elite proclivities also applied to the Palestinian political mainstream. The Fatah/PLO resistance to Israel depended for support on pan-Arab sentiment abroad and the promotion of a secular “Palestinian” identity at home. The grand step came with the collapse of the USSR. In the aftermath of the abortive global secularist project, young Arabs turned to Allah in droves. The first overtly religious clash between Jews and Arabs since 1948 took place on Oct. 8, 1990, when a bloody riot broke out on the Temple Mount. Israeli police killed at least 17 Palestinians and wounded a hundred. Riots soon spread all over the West Bank, which was nothing new; the protesters were shouting Allahu akbar, which was a novelty.

Before long, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah became household names. They were able to build a substantial power base and an infrastructure that covers Islamic, charitable, political, and military activities. The founder and head of Hamas, the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, ingeniously merged the nationalist watchwords of the secularist Arab pre-1990s resistance to Israel with his hardliner views based on the tenets of orthodox Sunni Islam. 

A mirror image is the Jewish claim that the modern state of Israel is the embodiment of a biblical covenant, effectively a Waqf under another name. Secular Israelis, including the late prime minister Golda Meir  (“Israel exists as the fulfillment of a promise made by God Himself. It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for its legitimacy”), and the country’s founders before her, have utilized such claims as propaganda tools whenever it suited their needs.

The alliance of religion and nationalism on the Arab-Israeli dispute has been detrimental to the quest for a lasting solution. On the Palestinian side it created a mendacious duality of approach which allowed temporary compromise as a short-term expedient, while the destruction of the State of Israel remained the only divinely ordained and therefore legitimate long-term outcome. Some politicians of the Fatah old guard have pretended otherwise, talking of the need for renewed diplomacy, but the community defers to those who invoke Islam to deny the possibility of peace.

It is necessary to be aware of the ambitions of political Islam and to harbor no illusions about its goals. Yitzhak Rabin was not engaging in mere propaganda when he declared, in Dec. 1992, that his country’s “struggle against murderous Islamic terror is also meant to awaken the world, which is lying in slumber.” 

We should be no less aware, however, that in Israel the problem of Palestinian jihadism is used as an alibi for self-defeating policies that effectively facilitate the growth of Islamic radicalism.

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