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Salvo 11.15.2023 7 minutes

Blowing Up Blowback Theory

Boomerang effect

The unfounded idea that Israel created Hamas is another effort—this time from the Right—to blame the victim.

Hamas is a creation of the Israeli government. It is not an indigenous organization that grew from insanities present in disturbing frequency in the Muslim world. The Palestinians in Gaza are entirely morally and ideologically distinct from, and indeed fundamentally opposed to, the Islamist terrorist group that has governed them for more than a decade and a half.

This is what is being claimed today, and indeed it has been claimed now for some years, in a good deal of leftist press and commentary.

And now, somewhat astoundingly, right-wing Twitter/X is full of the exact same claims.

Why, and how, would this be happening?

The first thing that must be said is this: The idea that Israel alone materially built and maintained Hamas as an artificial construct independent of the desires and efforts of the Palestinian people, purely as part of its divide and conquer strategy in the Palestinian territories, is unsupported by evidence.

Among other scholars, the French political scientist Gilles Kepel, author of many books on Islam and Islamism, has robustly chronicled the typical sociological factors that give rise to Islamist movements. All were present in the rise of Hamas: Poor urban youth inclined to violence, a devout middle class that links its own economic advance to the Islamist cause, and a global network of sophisticated Islamist intellectuals to produce the driving ideas. Recently on French television, Kepel noted that Hamas differed from many other Islamist movements, which are often significantly imported from abroad and have tepid appeal in the masses of the societies in which they exist, in that it grew organically in the Palestinian territories. Kepel also acknowledged that Israel had encouraged the conflict between Hamas and Fatah for political reasons, but he was adamant in rejecting the idea that Israel created or was the major source of material support for this terrorist Islamist movement and party that put the extinction of Israel in its founding charter. It is widely known that the Islamist regime in Iran, which sees Israel as an illegitimate occupier of Muslim territory, has been Hamas’ major source of financial and material support since early in the life of the movement.

None of the claims about Israeli support for Hamas typically cited by Left and Right critics of Israel support the “Hamas as Israeli creation” case. Israeli writer Avner Cohen, who was a religious advisor to the Israeli commander of the Gaza Strip, is often cited as having spoken of a budget given by the Israeli government to assist Hamas in its early years, but the details are always left out. How much of a budget, and for what purposes, and in what context, precisely? Early in its life, the movement that eventually spawned Hamas was known as the Mujama al-Islamiya, or Islamic Center, and it operated publicly to provide social care of various kinds for Palestinians, especially those living in refugee camps. Many Islamist movements have had social welfare branches such as this, building and operating mosques and schools, and sometimes providing medical care. Mujama was recognized by the Israeli government within a few years of its formation as a source of these services. This was in the days before Mujama created the paramilitary wing that eventually became Hamas.  

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle East studies at the Paris School of International Affairs, wrote a splendid 2012 article in the Journal of Palestine Studies on Hamas’ origins. Filiu describes in detail the complex political and cultural conflicts among various competing Palestinian groups of the period after the establishment of the Israeli state. He is straightforward in rejecting the idea that Hamas was a creation or, at any point, a mere “tool” of Israel: “[N]either can [the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas’] caricature as tools of Israel be justified. True, they broke away from the nationalist consensus and remained conspicuously neutral during the four bitter years of armed resistance against the Israel Defense Forces in the Strip in the wake of the 1967 war. But this was a long-term strategy whose aim was to establish, through fierce competition, first with the leftist factions and then with Fatah, a solid power base among the local population, and it was the people’s uprising in 1987 that led to the Mujamma’s [sic] transformation into Hamas.”

The Left and Right critics of Israel also make much of claims Netanyahu purportedly made about materially supporting Hamas at a 2019 meeting with his Likud Party’s Knesset members, but they frequently omit mentioning that this is unconfirmed, as Vox writer Zack Beauchamp does admit. The source of that claim is the leftist newspaper Haaretz, in an editorial attack on Netanyahu which provides no information on where they got the claim. Daniel Greenfield has provided a powerful and well-documented counter.

Whatever the role Israel’s government might have played in enhancing the conflict between Hamas and Fatah as a matter of looking after its own interests vis-à-vis two political opponents, to insinuate, as the Left and Right critics of Israel have frequently done over the past few weeks, that the massacre of October 7 could reasonably be assigned to Netanyahu or other elements of the Israeli government, rather than to the murderous ideas, intentions, and organizing work of the terrorist murderers themselves, is to engage in the outrageous.

This “blowback” logic is, it must be recalled, precisely what was employed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Radicals on the Left, and some conspiratorial thinkers on the Right as well, laid the blame for the 3,000 dead at the feet not of the terrorist organization that planned the attack and flew the planes, but the American government that had, two decades earlier, funded the Afghan guerrilla fighters who were the ancestors of al-Qaeda in their struggle against our mutual Soviet Communist enemy. 

On the Left, of course, this is a common way of talking about Islamism. It is always and everywhere nurtured by its enemies. The terrorists are victims of crushing manipulation and oppression that robs them of all agency and all responsibility for their actions.

The Left typically invokes this narrative because they reflexively want to blame the West for everything bad that happens in the world, and they ultimately sympathize with miserable people who turn to violence. To the Right, the extreme infantilization of Islamists makes them something other than morally free adults. They are incapable of acting freely and being judged for the consequences of their actions not because they are innocent victims but perhaps because they are too benighted or unsophisticated.

Though this is different from the leftist framework, it too is also distant from reality. Yes, terrorists are contemptible human beings, but they remain human beings, whose actions must be understood within the same broad framework that we use to understand those of other human beings. However much we dislike them and what they do, they are not helpless puppets on the string of hidden Israeli power. They alone are morally responsible for the awful things they do.

Critics of Israel posit a great ideological distance between Hamas and the residents of Gaza, with the latter presented as the innocent pawns of the former, unsupportive of them and critical of their ideology. But a consultation of empirical facts proves insightful. A 2014 ADL survey found that 93 percent of Palestinians harbor anti-Jewish beliefs. Much more recently, a Washington Institute Poll asked Palestinians if they agreed that Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction. Half of Gazans and nearly 60 percent of those in the West Bank disagreed. Half of those in the West Bank and nearly 60 percent of Gazans see Hamas positively. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is the recipient of still warmer support.  This organization is seen positively by two-thirds of the West Bank and by seven in every ten adult Gazans. Another Palestinian Islamist group, Lion’s Den, is even more admired.

Here’s another troubling fact. Support for suicide bombing is higher in the Palestinian territory than just about anywhere else in the Muslim world, with four in ten Palestinians agreeing that it is often or sometimes justified.

It is remarkable that the critics of Israel’s response to Hamas on Left and Right frequently have almost nothing to say about the events of October 7. They typically also ignore what Hamas is doing at present to make Israel’s response to their atrocities as costly as possible for their own people. At a recent Pentagon briefing, Air Force General Pat Ryder made clear that Hamas is “using civilians as human shields.” And Hamas official Khaled Mashal recently gave examples of the “libera[tion of] nations” he compared to the Palestinian situation: “Afghanistan sacrificed millions of martyrs…. The Algerian people sacrificed 6 million martyrs over 130 years…. No nation is liberated without sacrifices.” That is to say, millions died for Islamist jihad in other countries, and it is expected by Hamas that millions of Palestinians too will need to be sacrificed in jihad against Israel. “We knew very well the consequences of our operation of October 7,” he went on. Here is a Hamas leader telling us unblinkingly how many members of his own nation he is prepared to plow into the earth in the interests of his ideological cause, a cause in which many of his fellow Palestinians believe.

Here is another fact often omitted that requires reiteration: Hamas was elected to a “huge majority” of parliamentary seats in 2006. Parliamentary negotiations with Fatah, the party with the second-most seats won in the election, collapsed, creating a politically-divided Palestinian Authority with Hamas in power in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. Do the Palestinian people who overwhelmingly elected an Islamist terrorist party to power have no responsibility for the consequences of that act? Perhaps we are to follow the logic of Slate, which blamed President George W. Bush for having advocated for those elections in the then newly-created Palestinian Authority in the first place. And, should we need it, here is another opportunity to blame Israel, as the Slate writer does. After all, they withdrew from Gaza and left it to the rule of the Palestinians, as was demanded of them by those same Palestinians, rather than staying against their wishes to tutor them on the business of democratic elections.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described as “shocking” that the horrors of October 7 have “receded so quickly in the memories of so many.” Even some sources on the far Left have been clear about foregrounding the unfathomable atrocity of Hamas’ deed. Leftist media figure Mehdi Hasan deserves credit for reminding us that “we must all watch” what they did in order to properly weigh what they and their supporters are about and what is or is not justified in response.

The critics of Israel on the Right would do well to follow his example on this and think a bit harder about the claims they are making and the flimsy evidentiary support for them.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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