OpinionIsrael at War

‘The Palestinians are not Hamas’

The argument is one that the West is forced to make, regardless of its veracity, as without it, its commitment to providing humanitarian aid to Gaza becomes that much harder to justify.

Palestinians march during a pro-Hamas protest in Hebron on Oct. 13, 2023. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
Palestinians march during a pro-Hamas protest in Hebron on Oct. 13, 2023. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Overall, I’ve been heartened during the last week by the response of key NATO leaders to the blood-drenched Hamas assault on Israel on Oct. 7. From U.S. President Joe Biden to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to French President Emmanuel Macron, the tone has been consistent in its condemnation of the slaughter, supportive of Israel’s right to self-defense and, crucially, sensitive to the discordant historical echoes resonating in the minds of Jews and Israelis. I am thinking in particular of Biden’s invocation of the Holocaust during his visit to Tel Aviv last week, and of Sunak’s deliberate use of the word “pogrom” to describe the atrocities in an address to the House of Commons.

But there is one aspect of this current discourse that troubles me—and that is the assertive separation of the “Palestinians” from Hamas. “The Palestinians are not Hamas, Hamas does not speak for them,” Scholz declared during his visit to Tel Aviv, while Biden, Macron and Sunak have all made the same point in similar language. Is it true?

It’s worth pointing out that we’ve been faced with a similar conundrum before. After the 9/11 atrocities in 2001, some commentators drew a straight line between the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an, the Islamic faith and Al-Qaeda; Islam itself was the problem, they said. In response, many Western politicians, including then-President George W. Bush, went out on a limb to depict Islam as a “religion of peace,” charging Osama bin Laden and his cohorts with desecrating the core tenets of a noble faith.

The truth, as ever, lay in between. It’s ridiculously simplistic to reduce an entire faith to a single element—be it relentless jihad or eternal peace. Islamic holy texts certainly do not eschew violence nor are they particularly liberal, but neither are they a straight-out manifesto for genocide against non-believers. Islam can give succor to both warlike and peaceful approaches to international relations; the twists of human history mean that the former interpretation has achieved much greater visibility than the latter one.

Could similarly opposing observations be made about the Palestinians as a people and Hamas as a terrorist organization? Are the Palestinians largely a peaceful lot, ill-served by the murderers and rapists who rule them? Or is there a straight line, when all is said and done, connecting the Palestinian polity with the genocidal intentions of Hamas?

If Scholz is right, then we might conclude that the infiltrators who carried out the slaughter were professional operatives, living separate lives from ordinary Palestinians and not consulting with them on key matters of war and peace. Now, when you recall the manner in which Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, killing and torturing supporters of the rival Fatah faction, the argument might seem to carry merit. But that leaves out the fact that in the previous year’s Palestinian legislative elections, Hamas won a victory deemed free and fair by international observers. In other words, the Palestinian people handed Hamas a mandate to rule which Fatah could not stomach; hence, the civil war that followed in Gaza.

Sixteen years later, the Palestinians are still ruled by Hamas in Gaza, as well as by the corrupt, Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Hamas enjoys much greater support among Palestinians than does the West’s preferred partner, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas. During a decade of unprecedented protests across the Arab world, there were occasional outbursts of dissatisfaction with both Hamas and Fatah, but there was no “Palestinian Spring.” Nothing has happened to challenge the notion that Hamas continues to rule in Gaza, despite its brutality and fanaticism, with a sufficient degree of popular consent.

The “Palestinians are not Hamas” argument is one that the West is forced to make, regardless of its veracity, as without it, its commitment to providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza becomes that much harder to justify. There is a strong moral case that any aid to the coastal enclave should be conditioned on the immediate release of the nearly 200 Israelis languishing in Hamas captivity, some of them with physical injuries sustained during the terrorist pogrom. Initially, the European Union surprised us when one of its commissioners, Oliver Varhelyi, announced an immediate suspension of aid following the Oct. 7 invasion, but he was swiftly undercut by most of his colleagues. In the subsequent days, the resolve on the aid question among E.U. governments, along with the U.S. administration, which has pledged an additional $100 million, has only hardened.

We should be in no doubt that the ongoing flow of aid is a gift to Hamas, allowing them to sustain their campaign for the annihilation of the Jewish state and the grotesque falsehoods accompanying it—most recently, the lie that an Israeli airstrike, and not a misfired terrorist missile, was responsible for the explosion at the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza City. That, perhaps, is the price of the West’s support for Israel’s counteroffensive, in that some concession to the Palestinians needs to be made … and must be seen to be made.

On a deeper level, the stance on aid is a potent symbol of the West’s failure to grasp the nature of the Palestinian war on Israel. For nearly a century, secular nationalists and Islamists alike have focused far more on diminishing the Jewish connection to the land and depicting Zionism as racism than they have on a political solution for the people they represent. Not every Palestinian is a supporter of Hamas, but very few of them subscribe to inclusive, democratic ideas; if they’re not supporting Hamas, then the main alternatives are Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a slew of other leftist and Islamist factions, and the occasional “independent” candidate—none of whom have succeeded in breaking the mold of Palestinian politics.

In such an environment, peace, at best, can only be understood as the absence of an active war. Whether and how that environment changes is now largely dependent on Israel’s next moves on the military front. The primary challenge there will be maintaining Western support for Israel during the many difficult days ahead. Jerusalem’s declared goal of destroying Hamas will likely clash with the aid commitments made by Western countries, who will keep up the mantra of the “Palestinians are not Hamas,” despite any evidence to the contrary.

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