Propped Up To Counter Palestine’s Secularists, How Hamas Came Back To Bite Israel

Israel recognized Mujama Al-Islamiya, a precursor to Hamas, by registering it as a charity and allowed it to set up a university, and build mosques, clubs, and schools as it sought to counter the secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization

Israel recognized Mujama Al-Islamiya, a precursor to Hamas, by registering it as a charity

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In January 2009, retired Israeli official Avner Cohen, a Tunisian-born Jew, regretted an ‘enormous, stupid mistake’ made 30 years ago as he traced the trajectory of a Hamas rocket. Cohen told Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Higgins that Hamas was Israel’s creation. Higgins wrote Cohen, who was responsible for religious affairs in Gaza until 1994, worked in the Palestinian territory for over two decades and saw Hamas take shape, muscle aside secular Palestinian rivals, and then morph into what is today.

Over a decade later, Hamas has become more powerful that it launched the worst attack on Israel in decades on October 7, 2023. The surprise attack overwhelmed Israel’s advanced Iron Dome missile defense system in a stunning failure of highly-rated Israeli intelligence. Hundreds of Hamas fighters broke through walls with bulldozers to launch the attack and also took Israeli hostages after achieving a tactical surprise.

The sophisticated attack involved coordinated land, air, and sea strikes overcoming Israel’s electronic intercepts, sensors, and human informants in Gaza, a Palestinian coastal strip that has been under Egypt-backed Israeli blockade since 2007. A barrage of missiles challenged Israeli deterrence. The New York Times cited former officials suggesting the new missile system Rajum Hamas used for the first time could be harder to intercept. Hamas also used small drones to drop munitions on military positions in a turnaround in its capacity 16 years after Israel imposed the Gaza blockade.

The blockade was imposed when Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. Israel has restricted the import of goods and equipment besides preventing most people from leaving Gaza, fuelling anger. Egypt and other Arab countries opposed to Hamas have also shared intelligence with Israel amid a normalisation of ties.

Back in 2009, when over 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in a 22-day war, Cohen told Higgins that Israel tolerated and in some cases encouraged Hamas instead of curbing it. Israel propped up Hamas as a counterweight to the secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its dominant Yasser Arafat-led Fatah faction. It helped Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was crippled and half-blind, before he laid the foundation for Hamas. Hamas’s rocket-propelled grenades ‘Yassins’ were named after its founder.

Higgins cited Israel’s decades-long dealings with Palestinian radicals, including some little-known attempts to cooperate with the Islamists, and wrote it reveals a catalog of unintended and often perilous consequences. He added Israel’s efforts time and again to find a pliant Palestinian partner—both credible with Palestinians and willing to eschew violence—have backfired.

Higgins wrote would-be partners have turned into foes or lost the support of their people. ‘Israel’s experience echoes that of the US, which, during the Cold War, looked to Islamists as a useful ally against communism. Anti-Soviet forces backed by America after Moscow’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan later mutated into al Qaeda,’ he wrote.

Hamas gained ground after PLO, which led the Palestinian resistance movement for decades, renounced arms and backed the UN Security Council’s call for a Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza alongside an Israeli state in the 1990s. PLO signed the Oslo Accords for the creation of an interim self-governing body to lead to an independent Palestinian state.

Hamas, which controls Gaza where Israel pulled out troops and settlers from in 2005, refused to recognize Israel and vowed to continue resistance. Higgins wrote when Israel first encountered Islamists in Gaza in the 1970s and ’80s, they did not seem to be focused on confrontation with Israel. Israel recognized Mujama Al-Islamiya, a precursor to Hamas, by registering it as a charity and allowed it to set up a university, and build mosques, clubs, and schools. Higgins wrote Israel often stood aside when the Islamists and their secular left-wing Palestinian rivals battled, sometimes violently, for influence.

David Hacham, who worked in Gaza in the late 1980s and early ’90s as an Arab affairs expert in the Israeli military, echoed Cohen. He told Higgins when he looked back at the chain of events he thought they made a mistake but nobody thought about the possible results at that time.

When Hamas emerged in the 1990s as a fighting force, Israel responded with ferocity and repeated military assaults that added to Hamas’s appeal. Hamas defeated its secular rivals in a 2006 election as Fatah negotiated with Israelis. Secularists dominated the Palestinian nationalist movement at its inception when Egypt ruled Gaza.

Higgins wrote Israel hunted down Fatah members and other factions of PLO, whom Arab states in 1974 declared the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. But it dropped harsh restrictions imposed on Islamic activists under Egypt’s rule over Gaza. Yassin was free to spread his message as he launched charity projects.

Cohen told Higgins that he began hearing ‘disturbing reports’ in the mid-1970s about Yassin from traditional Islamic clerics. He added they warned that Yassin had no formal Islamic training and was more interested in politics than faith while asking Cohen to keep away from him. Cohen recalled a 1970s meeting with a traditional Islamic cleric who wanted Israel to stop cooperating with Yassin’s followers saying Israel was going to have big regrets in 20 or 30 years.

Higgins wrote Israel’s military-led administration in Gaza instead looked favorably on the paraplegic Yassin as he set up him wide network that included clinics and kindergartens. Israel recognised his Mujama al-Islamiya as a charity and then as an association in 1979. It endorsed his university, which was one of the targets of Israeli warplanes in the 2008-2009 war.

Yitzhak Segev, who took over as Gaza’s governor in 1979, told Higgins that Fatah was their main enemy and Yassin ‘was still 100% peaceful’ towards Israel. He added he was in regular contact with Yassin and visited his mosque around a dozen times when it was illegal for Israelis to meet anyone from the PLO. Segev, who arranged for Yassin’s treatment at an Israeli hospital, said they had no problems with him. Secular Palestinian activists were Yassin’s and Israel’s common enemy.

Mujama organized a demonstration and stormed the building of the Red Crescent in Gaza after it failed to oust secularists from leadership of the Palestinian wing of the humanitarian network. The Israeli military mostly looking the other way. Mujama also tried to burn down the house of the Red Crescent chief, a socialist supporter of the PLO. The Mujama-PLO clashes escalated in the early 1980s.

Mahmoud Musleh, who was elected to the Palestinian legislature in 2006, told Higgins usually aggressive Israeli security forces stood back and let conflagration develop as they hoped to become PLO’s alternative. In 1984, when Israeli troops recovered a cache of weapons following a tip-off from Fatah supporters that Yassin’s men were collecting arms, he told his interrogators that they were meant against rival Palestinians and not Israel. Yassin expanded Mujama when he was released in 1985.

Cohen sent a report to top Israeli military and civilian officials around the time of Yassin’s arrest, describing the cleric as diabolical and warning Israel’s policy was allowing Mujama to develop into a dangerous force. Higgins quoted him warning Mujama would in the future harm them if Israel continued turning away eyes and being lenient. He suggested focusing efforts on finding ways to break ‘up this monster before this reality jumps in our face’.

Harari told Higgins that this and other warnings were ignored. Higgins wrote Roni Shaked, a former officer of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet who has written a book on Hamas, said Yassin and his followers had a long-term perspective whose dangers were not understood at the time.

Yassin formed Hamas in 1987 after four people were killed when an Israeli truck collided with vans carrying Palestinians, and sparked protests known as the first Intifada. Israel remained focused on Fatah and maintained contact with Hamas. Higgins wrote that Hacham took one of Hamas’s founders, Mahmoud Zahar, to meet Israel’s then-defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, as part of regular consultations between Israeli officials and Palestinians not linked to the PLO.

Yassin was arrested and sentenced to life after Hamas carried out its first attack on Israel, killing two soldiers in 1989. Hamas accused PLO of treachery when the secularists started negotiating a two-state settlement. Higgins said the accusation found resonance as Israel kept developing settlements on occupied Palestinian land that passed to the new Palestinian Authority’s nominal control.

Yassin, who was killed in an Israeli air strike in 2004, was released in exchange for an agent of Israel’s Mossad spy agency jailed in Jordan for trying to poison Hamas’s exiled political leader Khaled Mashaal in 1997. Higgins wrote veteran Mossad officer Efraim Halevy, who negotiated the deal, has urged negotiations with Hamas, saying it can be crushed but Israel would prefer not to pay the price for it.

In July 2014, author Aaron David Miller wrote in Foreign Policy Israel and Hamas need each other in a perverse way. He added that is not to deny the enmity that marks the ties between Hamas and Israel, or the existential rhetoric that drives the tone of their public accusations. Miller wrote Israel and Hamas have not only made do with each other’s existence but tried to figure out how to derive the maximum benefit from one another:

Hamas presents a wonderful bogeyman for those Israelis looking to avoid dealing with the questions of how to make the two-state solution a reality. Hamas’s rhetoric is a gift to Israeli right-wingers and provides them with any number of talking points about why Israel can never trust Palestinians.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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