By Ted Singer
(FPRI) — Hamas is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement and means “zeal” in Arabic. This wordplay foreshadowed the October 7 disaster, in which 1,200 people were killed.
In response to the October 7 attack, Israel launched Operation Iron Sword, a large-scale military campaign in Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has articulated the following “prerequisites for peace”: destroy Hamas, demilitarize Gaza, and deradicalize Palestinian society. These goals are impossible to achieve, counterproductive to Israel’s long-term security, and risks setting Israel into a trap set by Hamas. Instead, Netanyahu should undercut the appeal of Hamas among Palestinians by engaging credible Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim voices to undercut Hamas’ powerful propaganda.
The Meaning of the “Islamic Resistance Movement”
Hamas founders in 1987 carefully curated their words to propagate an ideology that would endure beyond inevitable efforts to capture and kill individual adherents.
Islamic, of course, means of or relating to Islam, which itself means peace or submission to God. Worldwide, there are some 1.8 billion Muslims. Among the estimated 14 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and diaspora, the vast majority are Sunni Muslim. Drawing on their Muslim Brotherhood roots and tapping into the ascendant, conservative Islam in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Hamas founders sought to broadly interlink the Palestinian cause to religion. Among Palestinians, Hamas aimed to starkly differentiate itself from its rival, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and other Palestinian militant groups, which has secular, if not Marxist, origins.
Resistance is the refusal to accept or comply with something. Hamas’ political nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organization, had its own acronym, Fatah, which read backwards stands for the “Palestinian National Liberation Movement” and alone means “conquering.” Hamas founders, mostly Gazans and denizens of Palestinian refugee camps, played on Palestinian and international perceptions that, despite its name, Fatah had achieved very little and its leaders appeared to be “limousine” liberators living comfortably abroad.
Movement stands for a group of people with the same beliefs, ideas, or aims. Adopting this word was also intentional for Hamas, as movements, unlike parties or organizations, ostensibly lack leadership and outside control. Again, Hamas founders sought to distinguish themselves from the hierarchical Palestine Liberation Organization, a rival that they considered corrupt and subject to foreign influence. Hamas founders also sought to convey that hostility to Israel would also be the duty of all Palestinian men, women, and children and their sympathizers, not just fighters.
Hamas founders’ word choice no doubt had an Israeli audience in mind, too. The Zealots, a Jewish resistance movement in the first century A.D., opposed any modus vivendi with occupying Romans and their Herodian collaborators in Judea. Their military wing, the Sicarii, waged guerrilla warfare, their army turned on fellow Jews who sought compromise, and the last of the Zealots famously held out at Masada for three years before committing mass suicide in the face of overwhelming Roman forces. “It’s better to die than be a slave to Rome,” the Zealots’ leader, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, said.
Netanyahu’s military goals in the current war—destruction, demilitarization, and deradicalization—is aimed at many audiences, except Palestinians. The plan foretells a return to the cycle of reoccupation, deterrence, and retaliation in which zealots thrive. He spoke to Israel’s allies in the West: he will do what he must do. He assured his right-wing allies that his opposition to a two-state solution wouldn’t change as long as the conflict continued and he remained in power.
The prime minister gave a nod to Gulf Arab, Egyptian, and Jordanian leaders, who privately applaud the demise of Hamas but publicly decry the civilian death toll. Lastly, he warned “Axis of Resistance” allies of Hamas—Iran, Hizballah, Houthis, and terrorists in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere—that the Sword of Iron is not limited to Gaza.
In separate remarks, Netanyahu has stated that he expects Gulf Arab states “will support the rehabilitation of the [Gaza] Strip.” However, these states have linked potential assistance to progress on a two-state solution, which right-wing Israelis adamantly oppose. Additionally, Netanyahu has labeled Qatar as “problematic,” as it largely funded previous reconstruction efforts in Gaza. Netanyahu has articulated Israel’s opposition to a “Fatah-stan.” However, the United States and other allies have lobbied vocally for a revitalization of the Palestinian Authority and its return to Gaza. Netanyahu has indicated that Israel will maintain a security role “indefinitely” in Gaza, despite US and European Union diplomatic positions against reoccupation of Gaza by Israel.
Israel’s military operations will certainly succeed in physically destroying the current crop of Hamas and like-minded militants in Gaza and the West Bank. By extension, Israeli security forces are well on the way to demilitarizing Gaza for the moment. But, with each passing day, this operation and settler violence in the West Bank pushes the Palestinian people in the opposite direction of deradicalization, just as Hamas founders expected. Hopeless, civilian Gazans who survive the unprecedented bombardments will seek solace in their faith, Islam. Homeless, many will have no recourse but to resist reoccupation and right-wing Israeli calls for forced migration. Leaderless, many will be tempted to recreate or resuscitate an Islamic resistance movement to combat Israel and avenge their losses.
Netanyahu’s rhetoric will resonate divisively in the US election cycle and pose longer-term implications for US interests. Seventy-five years of US bipartisanship toward Israel may be challenged by Netanyahu’s disregard of the administration and allies’ counsel, budgetary realities, and a citizenry opposed to involvement in “yet another never-ending” conflict. The US intelligence community has no doubt already begun to focus on the prospects of a resurgence of terrorism inspired by the Gaza conflict, and the US defense community is once again navigating unpredictable shoals in the Middle East in lieu of competing in the great-powers arena.
A Better Approach
A gifted orator and political survivor, Netanyahu knows well the power of rhetoric, whether to muster the Israeli public, spar with friends and foes, or dispirit Palestinians.
Though Netanyahu sees himself as a modern Winston Churchill, he can only move Israel from the immediacy of “never, never, never give up” toward concessions that will provide longer-term security. The Jewish state will be safer with credible Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian voices willing to highlight Hamas’ perversion of Islam. Israel will be stronger by embracing technocratic Palestinians, whether from Gaza, the West Bank, or the diaspora, willing to disprove Hamas’ narrative that it alone can represent the Palestinian people. The Israeli government needs Palestinian partners with whom it can restart a meaningful peace process, and one that allies and moderate Arab countries are willing to support.
Rhetoric will remain an essential tool in Netanyahu’s arsenal, especially during ongoing Israeli military operations, efforts continue to rescue hostages, and the threat of new fronts in the war looms. But an Israeli leader concerned about the safety and welfare of the world’s only Jewish state would be wise to moderate his public comments about Israeli strategic objectives—and thereby avoid the trap set by Hamas and its allies—and start speaking of a path that doesn’t lead simply back to where this tragic saga began.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
- About the author: Ted Singer served in executive leadership positions at the CIA and as Chief of Station five times. Twenty-five of his thirty-five years in federal service were spent overseas, both in traditional and politically sensitive assignments across the Middle East and Europe. There, he put to good use proficiency in Arabic, French, and Turkish. He now leads Laplace Solutions.
- Source: This article was published by FPRI