Understanding What Hamas Wants

Five observations about the Gaza conflict, including praise for an ex-president's insight into the particular nature of Hamas' evil
A scene from a Hamas rally in March (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

1. We can thank former President Bill Clinton for perfect clarity in his comments about the chaos and horror of Gaza. In an interview on Indian television, Clinton—who told us in his memoir that Palestinian self-destructiveness (in the form of Yasir Arafat’s various delusions and prevarications) undid his effort to bring about a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict—blames the Muslim Brotherhood’s Gaza affiliate, Hamas, for adopting a policy of deliberate self-murder in order to present Israel with a set of impossible dilemmas. “Hamas was perfectly well aware of what would happen if they started raining rockets in Israel,” Clinton said. “They fired a thousand of them. And they have a strategy designed to force Israel to kill their own civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.”

2. We can thank Hamas for bringing its own form of clarity to this situation. This is the manner in which Hamas works: It builds reinforced bunkers for its leaders (under hospitals and other must-avoid targets) but purposefully neglects to build bomb shelters for the civilians in its putative care. From their bunkers, the leaders order rocket teams to target Israeli civilians. Hamas, which was responsible for the deaths of several hundred Israeli civilians during the second Palestinian uprising alone, has lately been less effective at killing Israelis, but nevertheless, the rockets keep launching. When you repeatedly fire rockets at civilian targets in a neighboring country, that country usually responds militarily. Civilians get killed during the Israeli response in part because Hamas rocket teams operate from sites that are among Gaza's most densely populated, and in part because Hamas stores its weapons in schools and mosques.  

The goal of Hamas—the actual, overarching goal—is to terrorize the Jews of Israel, through mass murder, into abandoning their country. If generations of Palestinians have to be sacrificed to that goal, well, Hamas believes such sacrifices are theologically justified.   

3. Bill Clinton is far from the only Western leader to understand Hamas' strategy. President Obama himself has spoken strongly about Israel's right to self-defense. Here is what he said Wednesday: "As I’ve said repeatedly, Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks that terrorize the Israeli people. There is no country on Earth that can be expected to live under a daily barrage of rockets."

Not everyone understands this principle. I am not talking about anti-Jewish propagandists such as Turkey's Tayyip Recep Erdogan, a serial human rights violator who cynically accuses Israel of committing "genocide." I think he understands the principle discussed by Obama and rejects it because Obama is applying it to a Jewish country. I'm talking now about the myopia of otherwise well-meaning people. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the institution that cares for Palestinians but whose actual raison d'être is the perpetuation of the stateless status of the descendants of refugees from 1948, recently tweeted this thought to its followers: “Palestinian children in #Gaza are experiencing severe trauma for the 3rd time in 5 years. The effects are lasting.” Entirely, miserably, true. An alternative to this current horrible reality presented itself in 2005, when the Israeli government—after years of foolish and destructive colonization—expelled thousands of Jewish settlers from Gaza and then withdrew its army. The Palestinian leadership could have taken the opportunity created by the Israeli withdrawal to build the nucleus of a state. Instead, Gaza was converted into a rocket-manufacturing and -launching facility. But here’s a bit of good news: The people of Gaza, who suffer from Hamas rule, appear to be tired of it. In a recent Pew poll, 63 percent of Gazans surveyed disapproved of Hamas. Perhaps this is because the people have come to realize that Hamas has brought them nothing but grief, sloganeering, and military defeat. 

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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