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The Problem of Painting Hamas as a Revolutionary Force

Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting of George Washington’s surprise attack on Hessian mercenaries in 1776 reveals numerous inaccuracies. The same can be said of Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7 on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.

In 2017, Hamas issued a document that signaled a shift from the hardline stance of its 1988 Charter, suggesting a more moderate approach to the conflict with Israel. In 2021, an agreement between Hamas and Fatah was reached to conduct elections based on this updated position. However, these elections were stalled, as Israel exerted pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leading to their cancellation.

Critics argue this pattern is part of a broader context of missed opportunities and rejections, including the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002; and the Hamas platform of 2017. They also cite the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a consistent point of contention. The same can be said of Yasser Arafat in 2000 and Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. Furthermore, the dissemination of incendiary content in Palestinian textbooks is highlighted as an impediment to peace. Overall, the decades are scattered with failed initiatives from all sides, as well as statements and behaviors contributing to mistrust that have blocked the ability to move the peace process forward.

Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. (IDF)

Perhaps alarmed with the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas, masterminded the attacks on October 7, believing it would disrupt the prevailing dynamics and refocus international attention on the Palestinian cause. To some, Sinwar’s actions may cast him as a revolutionary, fighting for a cause. Nevertheless, a more scrutinizing look reveals a complex figure who, unlike the revered George Washington, is not straightforwardly characterized in moral, ethical, tactical, or strategic terms. Sinwar’s approach and his leadership of Hamas diverge significantly from the qualities typically associated with Washington’s legacy.

On December 26, 1776, during the Battle of Trenton, George Washington’s strategy involved a surprise attack against Hessian mercenaries, in the employ of the British Crown. In stark contrast, on October 7, Hamas attacked Israeli civilians, not as collateral damage but as direct targets. Horrifically, Israeli citizens were tortured, women were mutilated and raped, individuals were burned alive, and adults and children were kidnapped. These acts are considered by many, including those within Judaism, as a desecration of God’s name, or chillul hashem. Such incidents underscore the tragic exploitation of religious narratives to justify violence, an act seen as fundamentally at odds with the teachings of most religions. Within Judaism, as in all faiths, there is a call for introspection and accountability when it comes to interpreting and living by religious principles.

The actions of Hamas on October 7 have led many to conclude that the organization, which is widely recognized as a terrorist group, has not tempered its stance since its founding. The deliberate targeting and killing of civilians, executed in a manner designed to provoke horror, is seen as pushing Israel towards more hardline positions, diminishing the prospects for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the potential establishment of two states or a confederation. Such strategies suggest that Hamas is not pursuing sumud or steadfastness in the context of a peaceful resolution, but rather seems committed to a path of relentless conflict and violence against the State of Israel. Yahya Sinwar’s decision to engage in such aggressive actions reflects a disregard for improving the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

By the same token, we know Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed Oman to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster Hamas as part of a strategy to “thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state.” In their maximalist positions, Hamas and Netanyahu need each other with tragic results for the people of the region.

Hamas’ actions, evocative of the historical pogroms that haunt Jewish history, anticipated a strong Israeli retaliation to any act of mass violence. The calculus seemed clear: no nation could be expected to remain passive in the wake of large-scale attacks on its people. Hamas appeared prepared to leverage the loss of Palestinian lives for political capital on the international stage. However, minimizing the number of civilians killed in Gaza, a universal wartime principle, invites scrutiny over Israel’s response in the Gaza Strip.

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas, speaking in Gaza
Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas, speaking in Gaza. (Abed Rahim Khatib)

Yet, the strategy of Hamas also falls under critical examination. The group’s investment in extensive tunnel networks for its purposes, without parallel efforts to construct safe havens for Gaza’s population, and the placement of military facilities within civilian infrastructures like schools and hospitals, prompts a reassessment of responsibilities in the conflict. Historically, Palestinians have sometimes been viewed leniently as the ostensibly weaker party. However, acknowledging their agency is essential in a comprehensive evaluation of the conflict dynamics. Accountability, therefore, is not singular; both Israel, as the more potent force, and Hamas must face scrutiny for their actions within the conflict.

Hamas’ strategy has also backfired. The group seemingly anticipated that a forceful Israeli response would lead to widespread international condemnation, fueled by stark images of devastation in Gaza. However, criticism of Israeli policy has too frequently been entangled with anti-Semitism. More than two months into the conflict, the United Nations has not adopted a resolution to denounce Hamas. This aligns with a pattern of the UN issuing a disproportionate number of condemnations against Israel relative to other nations. While critique is a natural part of any conflict, especially given the chaos of war, a one-sided narrative carries significant consequences.

Israel may view the United Nations with skepticism, citing instances such as the absence of a strong international response from the UN Human Rights Council regarding the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. This selective focus has led some to accuse the UN of moral inconsistency. Supporters of Palestinian rights might welcome the intense scrutiny on Israel, but this spotlight can lead to an intransigent stance from Israel, even when engagement might be beneficial. The dynamic creates a deadlock where no party truly benefits. A more balanced approach from the UN, aimed at fostering dialogue and consensus for peace, would be more productive than assigning blame.

Moreover, the intensifying hostility towards Israel and the surge in anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions globally underscore the argument for the necessity of a Jewish state. This antagonism inadvertently may contribute to a stronger Israeli state, as Jews seeking refuge from discrimination are likely to immigrate to Israel, aligning with one of Israel’s objectives and contrary to Hamas’s intentions.

If the Second Intifada took us back twenty years, this war has put us back to 1948. So where do we go from here?

Historical precedence, such as the International Fund for Ireland’s approach, offers a blueprint. An investment of $40 per person in Northern Ireland in civil society, people-to-people contact, and joint economic endeavors paved the way for the Good Friday Accords, and ending the “Troubles” between Protestants and Catholics. In contrast, current spending on similar Israeli-Palestinian initiatives is a mere $2 per person, despite the $250 million allocated by the Nita Lowey Middle East Peace Partners Act enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2020. This disparity underscores the need for a significant increase in international support for these programs, especially in the aftermath of recent hostilities.

Increased funding and support have the potential to provide a much-needed exit strategy from the cycle of conflict. Without it, we risk what Thomas Hobbes described in De Cive — a mere hiatus in hostilities rather than a true peace. The mere cessation of fighting should not be mistaken for peace; it may simply be a lull before the next conflict.

A meaningful and lasting peace is what Israelis and Palestinians deserve, and it’s incumbent upon the international community to facilitate this with concerted effort and investment.