The weak points of Israel’s thesis: Why Hamas is not the same as ISIS

The origin, nature and ideology of the Palestinian militia is far removed from that of the jihadist group, although the tactics used in the October 7 attack have led the Netanyahu government to equate them

Israel-Hamas War
Graffiti reading 'Hamas is the same as ISIS' in Tel Aviv.Oded Balilty (AP / LAPRESSE)

Israel’s campaign in Gaza following the October 7 attacks is not only military; it is also narrative and of great intensity. Two weeks ago, for example, the head of an Israeli communications company, in contact with the foreign press, forwarded a document containing eight slides under the title “Hamas & ISIS” and the signatures of the Israeli security forces. The images juxtaposed photographs of the Palestinian militia, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, and the Syrian-Iraqi jihadist group Islamic State. It compared their rhetoric, decapitations, massacres, rapes... feeding into one of the mantras that, in Israel, are used daily by the government, almost all the opposition, diplomats, military commanders and, now also, the population at large: Hamas is the same as ISIS. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often refers to the Palestinian armed group as “Hamas-ISIS,” and his foreign minister, Eli Cohen, last week called Hamas “worse” than Islamic State.

Experts consulted by this newspaper and analysis of ISIS’s savage terror show that while Hamas employed terrorist tactics on October 7 and some of the killings it perpetrated were brutal, its origin, nature, ideology, and form of government in the Strip are far from those of the ISIS jihadist hydra. Mustafa Ayad, director of the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, sums up the relationship between the two armed groups in an exchange of messages: “Islamic State despises Hamas because of its ties to Iran, as well as its reliance on politics; it participated in elections, for example, and that for Islamic State is a red line. Its supporters have referred to Hamas supporters as the ‘Jews of jihad.”

The two groups consider themselves enemies and differ in their objectives: while ISIS wants to break the international order and establish a totalitarian caliphate — a terror project that included the formation in Syria of a unit to carry out attacks abroad such as those in Paris and Brussels, under the name of Ammi — Hamas seeks to eliminate Israel through religiously inspired armed struggle and to establish an Islamist-style government. Its objective is geographically delimited to the so-called “historic Palestine” — present-day Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — and it has resorted to both institutional means and the ballot box (it won the last Palestinian legislative elections in 2006) and violence against soldiers and civilians, as the Islamic Resistance Movement, its full name of which Hamas is an acronym. “You can’t just say, ‘ISIS massacred people, so did Hamas, so they are the same.’ It’s very superficial,” Yitzhak Weismann, a professor at Haifa University who analyzes Islamic movements and thought, pointed out to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper.

Avraham Sela, an Israeli historian, professor emeritus in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and co-author of the essay The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence, also views the comparison as “inappropriate.” “There are many differences [...] Hamas is, first and foremost, a national-religious or, rather, religious-national movement, for which religion has never been something as radical and extreme as it is for ISIS,” Sela notes. While ISIS, he adds, practices takfirism (declaring apostates and even executing other Muslims for not strictly following the precepts of Islamic law), Hamas does not and respects the small Christian community in the Gaza strip, which it has controlled since 2007.

“Even after October 7, Hamas leaders used language that cannot be identified with that of ISIS. They remain concerned about their international image, especially in the Arab-Islamic world. The main difference is that the majority of the Muslim world was against ISIS and a long list of Muslim theologians and scholars issued opinions against it, while the majority of the Arab-Islamic world supports Hamas because they see it as a national or religious liberation movement, whether it is justified or not,” adds Sela, who criticizes lumping together any form of Islamist violence.

Biden and Macron

Equating the two groups has become one of the banners of the Israeli offensive, and not only among Netanyahu’s government. U.S. President Joe Biden, in a speech from the White House on October 10, stated that the Hamas attack reminded him of “the worst of ISIS.” A few days later, from Tel Aviv, French President Emmanuel Macron, together with Netanyahu, compared Hamas to ISIS and proposed using the coalition that defeated the jihadist group to fight the Palestinian militia.

Among the objects found by the army after the October 7 attack were documents, USBs and flags linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS, according to a presentation made by Israeli spokesmen. University of Miami professor and expert in the study of jihadism Nathan S. French analyzed them. “They do not reveal an ongoing jihadist conspiracy shared by Hamas, ISIS and Al Qaeda,” he notes in an e-mail. “The documents presented to the public have been in circulation since at least 2001 on popular jihadist websites [...] They reveal that Hamas operatives — like other Islamist and jihadist groups — borrow, steal and appropriate tactics and strategies from other similar political, guerrilla, or militant movements.”

The Palestinian cause is and has been, however, central to jihadist sophistry since the days of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. It is also so, although less assiduously, for ISIS, which emerged from the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda but today is at odds with the network that financed the Saudi terrorist. However, the presence of Palestine in jihadist propaganda is one thing, and way Hamas is viewed is another. As early as February 2015, an ISIS-affiliated group issued a video from Syria threatening to attack Hamas. “The Sharia [Islamic law] regime will be implemented in Gaza in spite of you,” one of the terrorists said.

In May 2021, during another Palestinian-Israeli escalation, Al Naba, ISIS’s propaganda organ, criticized the Palestinian militia, although without pronouncing its name, as documented by terrorist phenomenon analyst Kyle Orton. “People should realize that jihad [...] differs from what is called resistance. The difference between jihad and resistance is like the difference between truth and falsehood [...] Jerusalem will not be liberated by those who make distinctions between rafida and Jews!” Al Naba said. The term rafida is used to refer to Shiite Muslims and, in particular, to Iran, a country that is a fundamental ally and supporter of Hamas, an alliance that is intolerable to ISIS fundamentalism.

“Both Hamas and ISIS have as their central goal the destruction of the State of Israel and the restoration in Palestine of some form of Islamic rule,” notes French. “However, ISIS considers Hamas to be full of apostates, and the Palestinian group has openly fought jihadist groups similar to ISIS.” Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, crushed several Salafist groupings in 2009 after agreeing a ceasefire with Israel that ended a 22-day war in which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed. The jihadists accused Hamas of betraying its credentials as a resistance movement by making a pact with the enemy, and advocated the establishment of an Islamic emirate.

Born at the end of the 1980s during the First Intifada, Hamas built its popularity on the charitable element and projected an image of honesty, religious piety, and closeness to the Palestinian people (Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin built soccer fields and his successor, Ismail Haniyeh, has been photographed playing). But, above all, in the personalization of the authentic armed resistance against an old Palestinian guard seen today as corrupt and viewed as caring less about their people than about keeping their official cars while arresting Palestinians requested by the Israeli army in the West Bank.

Pre-1967 borders

Hamas’ 2006 election victory gave way to its more pragmatic side, after years of suicide bombings and losing leaders to targeted assassinations. Time and again requests from Ayman al-Zawahiri, later the leader of Al Qaeda who was assassinated in Kabul by a U.S. drone strike in July 2022, to open Gaza to jihadist volunteers from around the world to fight Israel were rejected, notes Sela. Its then top political leader, Khaled Meshal — who today unqualifiedly applauds the October 7 attack — publicly proposed a 10-year truce in exchange for an end to the military occupation and was open to accepting the same thing advocated by the international community — a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders — albeit without formally recognizing Israel.

In 2017, Hamas issued a new program: it continues to advocate jihad to eliminate Israel, but refuses to “intervene in the internal affairs of other countries”; it removed the clearly anti-Semitic elements from its founding charter and stressed that it is in conflict with the “Zionist project,” not “with Jews for being Jews.” That year, during the negotiation of a ceasefire, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, now Israel’s most wanted man as the mastermind of the October 7 attacks, wrote Netanyahu a letter in Hebrew (which he learned in prison) in which he asked him to “take a calculated risk.”

In other words, “it is not a nihilistic sect,” as writer Adam Shatz recalled this month in the London Review of Books. It is the question that troubles Sela: why would an organization that “is not suicidal,” places great importance on “maintaining its social, religious and military infrastructure” and “has never been a mercenary for another country or organization” launch a large-scale attack on October 7 after which it knew Israel would seek its annihilation?

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