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.

4. Hamas is not only isolated inside Gaza. This latest round of the Hamas-Israel fight is notable for two reasons: The first is the seeming success of the Israeli-developed, American-funded Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which has helped thwart Hamas' plan to terrorize and murder civilians in Israel. The second reason is that Hamas has been shown to be almost entirely friendless in the region. The Egyptian government blames Hamas for this conflict, as do commentators across the Gulf. Relations between Hamas and its traditional backers, the Iranians and the Syrians, have deteriorated markedly. Hamas is in a weaker position than it has been in years, which gives Israel an opportunity, if it chooses to take it.

5. A ground operation by Israel to destroy the tunnels that are used to convey terrorists under Gaza’s border and into Israel seems like a prudent move (more prudent than aerial bombardment, which, because of its imprecision, helps Hamas achieve its goal of creating Palestinian martyrs). Operating against extremists committed to killing Jewish civilians seems like a necessary part of any Israeli national security strategy. But what happens after the inevitable ceasefire matters as well, and we lack signs that the Netanyahu government is thinking strategically. Setting back the cause of extremists is half the battle; buttressing moderates is the other half. Netanyahu and his ministers are notably inexpert at helping the more moderate Palestinian factions strengthen their hold on the West Bank, and they specialize in putting their collective thumb in the eye of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. A clever post-conflict Israeli strategy would be to help the Palestinian Authority extend its mandate more deeply into Gaza (I’ll have more about the troubled P.A.-Hamas unity government later), because there is no permanent military solution to Israel’s rocket problem, only a political one.

Some commentators, like the excellent Shlomo Avineri, believe that even Palestinian moderates such as Abbas are incapable of making final-status compromises, because they are "genuinely uninterested in a solution of two states for two peoples because they’re unwilling to grant legitimacy to the Jewish right of self-determination." I don't disagree that many, many Palestinians fall into this category. But I'm not giving up yet. Where Avineri is right is in his argument that Israel must take the interim steps, regardless of Palestinian participation, to protect its democratic character. Israeli moderates must "demand a complete halt to construction in the settlements, the evacuation of illegal outposts, a reexamination—once the current tension has ebbed—of the Israel Defense Forces’ deployment in the West Bank, and the removal of what remains of the Gaza blockade (possibly in coordination with Egypt after the current fighting ends)."

I'm not hopeful at all that the Netanyahu government will listen to such advice. Because myopia has shown itself to be the enemy of compromise and progress in Israel, and not just in Gaza.