Rarely can singular reasoning explain the machinations of international politics and warfare, and the 11-day war launched by the Iran-backed Hamas faction against Israel is no exception. Nevertheless, Western and South African leaders, diplomats, African National Congress representatives and news outlets have largely misconstrued the recent conflict between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip as a periodic eruption of the unsolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is untrue. It behooves serious observes to listen closely to what Hamas leaders are actually saying, but particularly South Africans, because Hamas is using South Africa’s history as racial, and rhetorical “cannon fodder” to justify their jihadi war against Israel.
Once the ceasefire was implemented, Hamas leaders became crystal-clear in explaining their so-called “victory.” Hamas’s political bureau head Mousa Abu Marzouk told Russia Today television on May 21; “Israel will come to an end just like it began.” He continued: “The current war is not the final war with Israel. There will be more … Until recently, the whole world supported the white government in South Africa, but things have changed. Where did the Soviet Union go? Where did the Berlin Wall go? The day will come when people ask: ‘Where did Israel go?’”
While Abu Marzouk shamelessly trumpets South Africa, he is not talking about social injustice or racial inequality. He is talking about using terror and warfare to dismantle the State of Israel.
On May 15, Hamas’s former “president” Ismail Haniyeh put Abu Marzouk’s comments in a historical/political context when he explained to Arab news media the goal of Hamas’s war against the Jews. “The theory of coexistence between the two peoples [i.e. Jews and Arabs] within the 1948 borders, a theory they … (i.e., Jews ) have been cultivating for 70 years, is being trampled underfoot today by our sons and our people in Israeli cities—Lod, Ramle, Baka al-Gharbiyeh, the Galilee, the Negev, Rahat, Beersheva and Tzfat. Tzfat is ours!”
From his home in Qatar on May 21, Haniyeh further assessed that, “We saw our Arab and Islamic nation arose, from east to west, in all its components and factions, behind Jerusalem and Palestine and the resistance.” Haniyeh did not hide his satisfaction with the current jihadi assault on Israel from outside and inside its borders, saying, “There is an intifada [uprising] today in the West Bank, a revolution inside the 1948 borders, and an amazing mobilization in the diaspora. … It is a Divine victory.”
Despite Haniyeh’s confidence invoking of heaven, his claim deserves an earthly rendering.
Haniyeh in fact reminds us of a central ideological axiom of Hamas’s systemic rejection of the Jewish people’s nation-state: Hamas’s war is not about race, apartheid, Israeli discrimination and/or Jewish settlements. It is a continuation of a religious war, a “jihad,” against the Jews that was first voiced in Jerusalem some 100 years ago by the Haj Amin-al Husseini, the first Palestinian Grand Mufti.
Al Husseini scandalously accused the Jews of threatening to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque following Jewish requests of the British Mandate authorities for access to worship at the Western Wall, the remnant of the Holy Jewish temple that had been replaced by Muslim shrines following Muslim conquests.
For decades, up to and including the recent rocket assault, Hamas and its affiliate, the Northern Islamic Movement in Israel, voiced the same perfidious rallying cry: “Al-Aqsa is in danger!” This, despite Israeli police securing hundreds of thousands of Muslims who pray at the Muslim holy shrines weekly. This was the most recent pretext for firing as many as 4,300 rockets at Israeli cities, striking Jews and Arabs alike.
Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and rode the wave of incitement and violence it initiated in order to focus international attention on Jerusalem. It did so to refocus the world’s full and absolute attention on the Palestinians while pushing their Fatah-Palestinian Authority rivals off center stage and claiming the PLO leadership mantle for themselves.
Tragically, they appear to have succeeded. But global attention on Hamas requires deeper strategic assessment. The troubling issues and malign actors driving Hamas’s behavior must be understood, as well as its political, religious and ideological will to prosecute an ongoing religious war against Israel. Here are the main ones:
1. Iran. This is not a Hamas-Israel conflict. It would be more accurate to label the latest assault on Israel the 4th Iran-backed Hamas rocket war against Israel. Readers may recall similar Iranian regime-backed Hamas assaults in 2009-10, 2012 and 2014. The evidence of Iranian weapons and ammunition supply, strategic direction and terror financing is overwhelming.
The Middle East Media and Research Institute uncovered recordings and transcripts of Iranian regime officials together with Hamas and Hezbollah leaders confirming Iran’s supply of Kornet anti-tank missiles, rockets, rocket manufacturing, supplies and strategic direction to Hamas in its four rounds of rocket and missile assaults against Israel. Iranian drones have been added to the 2021 Hamas arsenal.
Iran supplied, sponsored and directed Hamas’s rocket and tunnel war in 2014, under the command of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force who was killed by a US military drone strike in 2020. Soleimani also provided strategic direction for Hamas’s 2019 political war, known as “The Great March of Return,” when thousands of armed Gazans stormed the border fence, intending to kill Israeli civilians in their homes just a short distance away on Israel’s side of the barrier. Iran provided similar assistance to Hamas’s unilateral attacks in the wars of 2009-10 and 2012.
2. Diplomatic context. Throughout negotiations on the nuclear agreement with Iran during the Obama administration, the Iranian regime insisted that any deal would need to omit any mention of Iran’s support for terror organizations as an arm of its foreign policy. The ayatollahs’ insistence paid off, and when the JCPOA was ultimately signed, Iran’s terror warfare by proxy—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas in Gaza, Iraqi special groups and Yemen’s Houthi militias among others—got a free pass.
Once U.S. President Joe Biden was elected, intensive efforts began to return to the JCPOA, which had been shelved during the Trump administration. Iran has been insistent once again that a repackaged nuclear deal cannot include any stipulations regarding the funding or arming of their proxy terror organizations.
There is no better way of asserting that demand than to have its Hamas proxy engaged in a terror campaign on Israeli civilians at the very same time the nuclear negotiations with the P5 countries plus Germany are taking place. The timing of the Hamas-Israel ceasefire and the Iranian regime’s announcement of successful advancement in the negotiations in Vienna is no coincidence.
3. The Abraham Accords. The peace agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, all with the tacit support of Saudi Arabia, eviscerated decades of conventional thinking that that absence of peace in the Middle East was due to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Abraham Accords changed the paradigm in such a way as to shift the onus onto the real destabilizing forces in the region, first among them, Iran and its proxies. The growing entente between Israel and the moderate Sunni countries—that was solidified and formalized in the Abraham Accords—enervates the extremist Shi’ite alliance; tipping the balance of power in the Muslim world to the Sunni Arab states. A re-centering of the Palestinian issue compromises the Sunni position and effectively hands Iran and its proxies the guardianship of the Palestinian cause.
Years of Arab boycotts of Israel in service of the Palestinian cause functionally ended with the Abraham Accords, making it necessary for the Palestinian narrative to reinvent itself. This is beyond difficult for a movement born in reactionary revolutionary fervor.
Implicit in the Accords is a groundbreaking attitude of the cosigners that the Palestinians will have to start compromising their historic zero-sum demands of Israel—some Arab state leaders voiced this explicitly. This is, of course, something the Palestinians, the P.A. and Hamas remain steadfastly opposed to.
4. Canceled Palestinian elections. Mahmoud Abbas, in the 17th year of a four-year presidency, canceled elections that were scheduled for May 2021, in the knowledge that he and his Fatah party would lose to Hamas.
Hamas needed to show its power and leadership prowess despite the electoral setback, and there is no better way to do that than to pose as the protector of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy shrines and spearhead of Islam’s “battle” for Jerusalem. The effect in Hamas’s mind is to turn them into the de facto leader of the Palestinians despite the canceled elections.
5. Israel’s Arab citizens. The era of a monolithic Arab minority in Israel is over, scaring Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other extremists to death. Notwithstanding Hamas’s success in igniting violence among some Israeli Arabs, the Arab community in Israel has been fully integrated into Israeli society over the past decades. Billions of dollars have been invested in the Arab sector since 2015, and enhanced security in Arab towns and greater economic success have been reflected in Israeli-Arab identification with Israel.
The process has had its bumps along the road, but in all walks of life, from academia to medicine, pharmacology, high tech, banking and financing, the judicial system and the service sectors, the Arab population is represented in proportion to its numbers in the population and in some cases beyond.
The normalization process took on a formal configuration in Israel’s last national election when the United Arab List (Ra’am) party broke with the more radical and incendiary Joint List and formally placed practical coexistence issues ahead of ideological rhetoric. This novel approach for the Arabs of Israel was empowered further by the fact that both camps trying to form the next Israeli government, the Netanyahu camp and the anti-Netanyahu forces, were both beholden to Ra’am in order to form a coalition.
These moves towards Arab normalization with Israel by key Arab states in the region, a new rising Arab political party within Israel, and the increasing West Bank Palestinian integration in Arab Israeli economic, commercial and industrial initiatives have threatened Iran, Hamas and the jihadi “resistance” network in the Middle East.
Their strategic decision has been to try to destabilize Israel’s security externally and attempt to subvert its society internally. Hamas’s 1988 charter is clear about its strategy and goals; as its preamble states, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”
Iran’s parallel strategy has been to employ violence, terror, destabilization and subversion using Gaza’s civilians as human shields while mobilizing the international media to isolate Israel as a “threat to international peace and stability.”
This, in Iran’s view, provides the optimal pretext with which to extract greater U.S. and European concessions in a return to the nuclear talks, for the sake of “regional peace, stability, and security.” Racial rhetoric gleaned from the South African experience by Iran’s Hamas proxy is nothing but a cynical smokescreen. It remains to be seen if the U.S.-led Western alliance understands that Iran’s execution of its strategy of deception and subterfuge continues apace.
Yechiel M. Leiter is a senior fellow at the Shiloh Policy Forum, Jerusalem. He served as deputy director general of Israel’s Education Ministry and was chief of staff to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he served as finance minister, 2004-06.
Dan Diker heads the Program to Counter Political Warfare at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as the former Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress.