All signs indicate that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to wage a protracted battle in the battered Gaza Strip as it seeks to crush the capabilities of the Islamist militant group Hamas. The ongoing conflict has already exacted a bloody toll, with the Palestinian death count approaching the total of Israel's 2008-2009 bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza, which led to the deaths of at least 1,383 Palestinians over three weeks.
Netanyahu wants to wholly demilitarize the Palestinian enclave, beginning with the network of tunnels that allow Hamas's fighters to infiltrate into Israeli territory. But Hamas, a dogged outfit that thrives in wartime, is digging in its heels. On Tuesday, a Hamas spokesman said Netanyahu's "threats did not frighten Hamas or the Palestinian people."
The current fighting — a clash between Israel's vastly superior armed forces and Hamas's insurgents — obscures the greater challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians, including the thorny question of how to accord equal rights to millions of Palestinians living under occupation in the event that a separate Palestinian state turns out not to be viable.
It also obscures Hamas's curious history. To a certain degree, the Islamist organization whose militant wing has rained rockets on Israel the past few weeks has the Jewish state to thank for its existence. Hamas launched in 1988 in Gaza at the time of the first intifada, or uprising, with a charter now infamous for its anti-Semitism and its refusal to accept the existence of the Israeli state. But for more than a decade prior, Israeli authorities actively enabled its rise.
At the time, Israel's main enemy was the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, which formed the heart of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Fatah was secular and cast in the mold of other revolutionary, leftist guerrilla movements waging insurgencies elsewhere in the world during the Cold War. The PLO carried out assassinations and kidnappings and, although recognized by neighboring Arab states, was considered a terrorist organization by Israel; PLO operatives in the occupied territories faced brutal repression at the hands of the Israeli security state.
Meanwhile, the activities of Islamists affiliated with Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood were allowed in the open in Gaza — a radical departure from when the Strip was administered by the secular-nationalist Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt lost control of Gaza to Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which saw Israel also seize the West Bank. In 1966, Nasser had executed Sayyid Qutb, one of the Brotherhood's leading intellectuals. The Israelis saw Qutb's adherents in the Palestinian territories, including the wheelchair-bound Sheik Ahmed Yassin, as a useful counterweight to Arafat's PLO.
"When I look back at the chain of events I think we made a mistake," one Israeli official who had worked in Gaza in the 1980s said in a 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal's Andrew Higgins. "But at the time nobody thought about the possible results."
Higgins's article is worth reading in full. He goes on to outline the type of assistance the Israelis initially gave Yassin, whom the PLO at one time deemed a "collaborator," and Gaza's other Islamists:
Israel's military-led administration in Gaza looked favorably on the paraplegic cleric, who set up a wide network of schools, clinics, a library and kindergartens. Sheikh Yassin formed the Islamist group Mujama al-Islamiya, which was officially recognized by Israel as a charity and then, in 1979, as an association. Israel also endorsed the establishment of the Islamic University of Gaza, which it now regards as a hotbed of militancy. The university was one of the first targets hit by Israeli warplanes in the [2008-9 Operation Cast Lead].
Yassin's Mujama would become Hamas, which, it can be argued, was Israel's Taliban: an Islamist group whose antecedents had been laid down by the West in a battle against a leftist enemy. Israel jailed Yassin in 1984 on a 12-year sentence after the discovery of hidden arms caches, but he was released a year later. The Israelis must have been more worried about other enemies.
Eventually, the tables turned. After the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel's formal recognition of the PLO and the start of what we now know as the peace process, Hamas was the Israelis' bete noire. Hamas refused to accept Israel or renounce violence and became perhaps the leading institution of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, which, far beyond religious ideology, is the main reason for its continued popularity among Palestinians.
Yassin was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2004. In 2007, after a legitimate Hamas election victory that rankled both the West and Fatah, the Islamist group took over Gaza — a move that led to strict Israeli blockades and the grinding cycle of conflict that is once more repeating itself.
But, as Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, observes, a strange, self-sustaining relationship remains. Israel's hawkish government — comprising many politicians who have little interest in seeing the creation of a separate Palestinian state — dwells on the security threat that Hamas's crude rockets pose. Hamas depends, Miller writes, on "an ideology and strategy steeped in confrontation and resistance."
And so, he concludes, they are "two parties who can't seem to live with one another — or apparently without one another either."