Building Hamas

First published on on 15th December, 2023

On the 8th of October, an angry article appeared in The Times of IsraelFor years, Netanyahu propped up Hamas. Now it’s blown up in our faces, or so ran the headline. One has to read some way into the article to discover that it was not only Netanyahu-led governments that followed the policy of “propping up Hamas.” Presumably, The Times of Israel is part of the extensive opposition to Netanyahu, but that does not diminish the seriousness of the charges.

What was the point?

The idea was to prevent Abbas — or anyone else in the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank government — from advancing toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

That’s it in a nutshell. Remember that Fatah, the party originally of Yassar Arafat, and now of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was and remains a secular party, originally influenced by National Liberation ideology and its Marxian leanings, whereas the group carefully cultivated by the Israelis to split the Palestinians is an Islamist organisation springing from the Muslim Brotherhood, not that anyone in the West needs to be reminded of the ideology of Hamas. Hamas’ constitution demands the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state, and the creation of a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” Hamas’ ruling Gaza is a guarantee of perpetual armed conflict between Israel and Gaza. In the limited wars of 2009, 2012 and 2014, around a dozen Israeli and 2000 Palestinian civilians were killed. Israeli figures who maintain this policy refer to these outbreaks, cynically, as “mowing the grass.” It is just the price that must be paid, in this fallen world, to stymie efforts towards a two-state solution. And the price is paid mainly by Palestinians.

It isn’t as though the dependency relationship between Hamas and successive Israeli governments has not been widely known, and criticised by many within the Israeli establishment. In 2018, Mehdi Hasan and Dina Sayedahmed at The Intercept published a short video and accompanying article in the Blowback video series, called Blowback: How Israel Went From Helping Create Hamas To Bombing It. Israeli support for the fledgling organisation of Sheik Ahmed Yassin began in 1978, long before the official creation of Hamas in 1987 at the time of the First Intifada. Yassin was later assassinated in an Israeli airstrike.

Earlier still, in 2014, the Washington Post published a story How Israel helped create Hamas, covering much of the same ground.

Egypt lost control of Gaza to Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war… In 1966, Nasser had executed Sayyid Qutb, one of the Brotherhood’s leading intellectuals. The Israelis saw Qutb’s adherents in the Palestinian territories, including the wheelchair-bound Sheik Ahmed Yassin, as a useful counterweight to Arafat’s PLO.
“When I look back at the chain of events I think we made a mistake,” one Israeli official…said in a 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Higgins. “But at the time nobody thought about the possible results.”

Yassin’s organisation Mujama al-Islamiya, approved by the Israeli authorities in Gaza, set up a network of schools, clinics, kindergartens, a library, and later, the Islamic University of Gaza. Such activities, in contrast to the increasingly corrupt Fatah, won great support for Mujama; support which transferred to Hamas. Up to this point, Israeli authorities might be forgiven for not appreciating the potential dangers. But the Washington Post report includes this ambiguous gem.

Israel jailed Yassin in 1984 on a 12-year sentence after the discovery of hidden arms caches, but he was released a year later. The Israelis must have been more worried about other enemies.

Hasan’s report at The Intercept refers to a number of Israelis who, by the mid-80s, were warning about the dangers of the policy regarding Yassin. One of them, Avner Cohen, a Tunisian-born Jew, had been responsible for religious affairs in Gaza up until 1994. In 2009 he was interviewed for the Wall Street Journal, presumably the one mentioned in the Washington Post article. He said, “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” and called it an “enormous, stupid mistake” made 30 years previously. (See this item at Huffington Post.) According to Hasan, Cohen wrote a report in the mid-80s, urging that the policy be abandoned.

Yet a blind eye was turned to Yassin’s development of an armed force. By 2006, Hamas was in a position to win the election against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Over the course of 2006 and 2007, Hamas fought against the PA, and drove them out of Gaza, realising the hopes of many in Israel to split the Palestinians, not only politically, but territorially.

Despite this seeming policy triumph, it seems that in the nine years since Operation Protective Edge the grass grew pretty high.

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