Why is it so difficult for Israel to decipher Hamas?

The question is whether Israeli society truly understands its regional environment.

Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar holds a Palestinian child dressed as a Hamas terrorist during a rally in Gaza City, May 24, 2021. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar holds a Palestinian child dressed as a Hamas terrorist during a rally in Gaza City, May 24, 2021. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
MIchael Milshtein
Michael Milshtein
Michael Milshtein is the head of the Forum for Palestinian Studies at the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University and a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy of Reichman University. He wrote (in Hebrew) “The Green Revolution: The Social Profile of Hamas” (2007).

As they were marching towards Jerusalem, the knights of the First Crusade laid siege to the city of Antioch in southern Anatolia from Oct. 1097 to June 1098. 

They were approached there by envoys of the Fatimid Dynasty ruling Egypt, who offered to cooperate with the Crusaders against the Seljuk state then in possession of Jerusalem, in exchange for dividing between them the conquered territory.

Based on experience and historical memories, the Fatimids deemed the Crusaders to be mercenaries in the service of the Byzantines, European adventurers motivated primarily by material gain. 

Thus, the Muslim side fundamentally failed to understand “the Other”—the force they now met was driven by faith, and was determined at almost any cost to realize the messianic vision for which they undertook their prolonged and bloody march from Europe to the Levant. 

A thousand years later, the roles are reversed. Now it is the West that is plagued by distortions in its perceptions of the Middle East, where key players are driven by ideological fervor, largely religious in nature. 

Westerners adhere to theories of realpolitik. America’s role in both Afghanistan and Iraq involved optimistic assumptions and ended in painful retreats—reflecting the West’s failure to recast consciousness, to create new collective identities, to implant imported political and social patterns and to bend ideologies through economic leverage. 

But the Americans are certainly not the only ones with failed perceptions of “the Other.”

Israel’s 36-year-long confrontation with Hamas constitutes a unique test case in the difficulties involved in reading another culture, and modern Islamism specifically. 

Mistaken perceptions from the beginning

The failure to decipher what drives Hamas goes back to well before Hamas was officially founded in December 1987, shortly after the eruption of the First Intifada. 

Contrary to the common myth, Israel did not set up Hamas as a counterweight to Fatah and the PLO, Israel’s main enemies at the time. For decades prior to that, the Muslim Brotherhood movement had been active in Gaza and the West Bank. Its core activity was a social and spiritual appeal (da’wah). It became Hamas’s “organizational womb.” 

Israeli thinking at the time assumed that the Brotherhood was less dangerous than other Palestinian groups, since it was focused on moral, faith and social activism. Only by the mid-1980s did the first alarm bells ring, as religious leaders and charity organizers showed signs of involvement in terror activity as well. 

Since its establishment, Hamas has been engaged in building up its political and public base. Its domestic goals are taking over the Palestinian system as a whole and posing an alternative, political, social and cultural, to the PLO and its secular nationalist creed. This was to be the way station to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of religious governance based on Islamic law in all of historical Palestine.

Adherence to this long-term goal enabled the movement to survive multiple low points in which its activities were curtailed, its cadres arrested en masse, its leaders struck down and heavy losses incurred in confrontations with Israel.

Inside Hamas, there are no clear distinctions between social, military and political activity; ambiguities are deliberately created to blur those distinctions.

Is Hamas a terror organization, a political party or a social movement? Answer: all of the above. Is it more Palestinian or more Islamic? Answer: It is both. Is there a difference between its political and military wings? Answer: No, this is another myth the movement seeks to perpetuate.

Hamas’s win in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and its violent takeover in Gaza in 2007, were seen by many in Israel as stepping stones towards an “evolution” of the movement which would force it, in a deterministic manner, to follow the trajectory of the PLO—i.e. “soften up” in both ideological and practical terms, when faced with the challenge of governing. 

Israelis falsely assumed that radical and revolutionary elements, in coming to power, would find themselves facing unfamiliar constraints forcing them to moderate their stance. 

But, as modern history has taught us, extremist ideological elements who take power, by force or through the ballot box, usually move in the opposite direction—they gain more resources which enable them to set in motion more violent action than ever, aimed at realizing their vision. 

Nazi Germany, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) all followed this path. Being in government does require them to provide public services and the daily needs of people, but it also enables them to amass and develop weapons, use service provision as a means to extract loyalty and shape the orientation of the societies they control, as well as mobilizing them for war.

Thus, for the last 16 years Israelis came to speak of an intense divide within Hamas between the polarized aspects of “resistance” (muqawwamah) on one hand and governance on the other, along with the claim that the movement increasingly assigned priority to the latter due to its new duties as sovereign. 

In fact, during this past decade and a half Hamas deliberately avoided any such choice and handled both poles with equal attention: managing the sewage in Gaza while also investing in a military buildup and preparation for a doomsday war with Israel. 

Since the May 2021 Israel-Hamas war, Israel conducted a strategic experiment in Gaza. At its core was an attempt to improve the conditions of life there, mainly through the promotion of civilian projects, allowing for the flow of money into Gaza and more Gazans to work in Israel. 

All this was driven by the basic assumption that these were means to prevent escalation and create for Hamas a disincentive for war. Public pressure would restrain the movement’s hand in the case of deterioration with Israel, and the steady rise in the quality of life would over time lead to the transformation of Gaza’s rulers, bending their ideological will and weakening their position in the Palestinian balance of power.

In hindsight, the warning signs that should have alerted Israel to its fundamentally false conceptual framework are clear. Hamas actively promoted terror and incitement in Judea and Samaria and eastern Jerusalem, allowed Palestinian Islamic Jihad to conduct rounds of violence against Israel from the Gaza Strip, and utilized the work of day laborers in Israel and the passage of goods to pursue its military goals, such as intelligence collection and arms smuggling. 

Yet when sharp contradictions emerged between Israeli groupthink and the actual behavior of Hamas, explanations were forthcoming. Prominent among these was the claim that Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, had become “messianic” or pathological and had lost touch with reality.

The Oct. 7 assault

Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack gave the most extreme and tragic expression possible to Israel’s failure to decipher Hamas. While everyone agreed that Hamas was an enemy preparing itself for a future war with Israel, it was also agreed that Hamas had no current intention of launching a war. It was considered to be deterred and focused upon improving governance and quality of life in Gaza. 

Insofar as there was any discussion of its offensive options, what was envisioned was usually a limited military action. A combined assault by 3,000 men on southern Israeli communities and the temporary conquest of some of them were way beyond any imagined IDF military intelligence scenario. 

The groupthink that held until that fateful morning was the product of dialogue among policymakers and politicians in both the government and opposition, and within the security establishment. 

Hamas contributed its own part via a prolonged and deliberate strategic deception—aimed at confirming that it was deterred and turned inwards. Thus, while Israeli decision-makers focused during these last two and a half years on promoting civilian advancement for Gaza, Hamas leaders were busy at the very same time planning the most painful attack ever launched by the Palestinians against Israel. 

Remnants of the old groupthink still surface in the ongoing public discussion in Israel of Hamas’ “motivations” and “goals” on Oct. 7. The analysts and pundits still fail to understand that for Hamas, the duty of jihad is paramount. 

Hamas’s purpose is to undermine the foundations of Israeli existence, paving the way for its utter elimination. This way of thinking has no use for “scenarios” or “exit strategies.” 

Sinwar has been working on this plan for a decade. He knew full well the heavy price that it would exact from the Palestinians. This attack was his life’s mission, not a step taken for security or political reasons, such as the wish to derail Israeli-Saudi normalization or to improve living conditions in Gaza. 

Stop the groupthink

Sinwar may indeed have a messianic streak and live in the timeframe of al-Akhirah, the “end of days”—based on the sober assessment that at any moment he and those close to him may be killed

And yet, the accusation of being cut off from reality applies even more to those who studied him and yet could not figure out his intentions. Instead of cracking open the enemy’s logic and carefully reading its value system, which reflects a different model of rationality, many of the analysts and pundits were projecting their own logic upon Sinwar, effectively playing chess with themselves. 

This failure also reflects some structural problems of Israeli society, where fewer and fewer people, even among those in government, academe, media and even security and intelligence, have command of the region’s languages, fully understand its culture or know its history. 

Among other reasons, this is the result of a steady decline in the study of the humanities and social sciences and of the reverence, within the defense establishment and elsewhere, of the information and cyber revolution, the ease of Google Translate, AI and Big Data. 

These are seen as tools that can absolve an analyst from the need to know Arabic—and yet seemingly enable her or him to accurately assess what will transpire in a region driven by very different cultural imperatives.

The security and intelligence communities have indeed long been captured by the allure of technological capabilities that seemingly assure Israel of superiority over its enemies. 

It is already becoming clear that many of the early warning signs of what was about to happen on Oct. 7 came from relatively simple collection devices—tactical signals intelligence, direct observation, even open-source material. 

Over all of this loomed a severe gap in humint—human intelligence, sources within Hamas—who could have offered crucial details as well as warned against enemy deceptions. Israelis at all levels today, particularly in the intelligence community, know much more now than they did in the past, but understand much less. 

Once the war is over it will not be enough to investigate the policymakers, reorganize the intelligence bodies and enhance their internal controls, expand the Israel Defense Forces and improve its fighting capabilities. 

There must also be a national soul-searching, posing as a challenge to ourselves the question of whether as a society we truly understand our regional environment, both in terms of fighting our enemies and of building up relations with our partners. 

In this respect, we must discard the infatuation with technology, and return to traditional skills such as command of the language, knowledge of history and appreciation for the culture of “the Other,” and, to the degree possible, engagement with our neighbors. 

Originally published by The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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