Lightning flashes as smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Oct. 9, 2023

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How Hamas Fooled the Experts

Why so many misread the Palestinian terror group’s openly stated intentions and motives

Armin Rosen
October 12, 2023
Lightning flashes as smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Oct. 9, 2023

Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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For the past 20 years, the best minds in Washington and Jerusalem treated Hamas as a pragmatic political operator whose leaders were satisfied living in the same world as the rest of us. Their charter, first adopted in 1988, endorsed a set of bloodcurdling millenarian goals. But despite the open madness and world-making ambitions of their public pronouncements, Hamas remained a semi-legitimate player, treated as just one unremarkable thread in the Middle East’s rich tapestry of mildly threatening, gun-toting political dreamers. Even to the most hardened Israeli security officials they were a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot whose extreme rhetoric and regrettably unshakable habit of murdering Jewish civilians could be understood within the normative politics of “resistance movements.” Their behavior could therefore be modulated and controlled through a proper combination of sticks and carrots.

This view is untenable after this weekend, but I understand why it existed for so long. I once held versions of it myself. I visited the Gaza Strip on a two-day reporting trip in the winter of 2014, a couple of months after what was naively thought of as a major round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. I joined the ranks of journalists stupid enough to believe what we thought we’d seen there.

The Hamas statelet, though no poorer than places I’d been in Egypt and Jordan, and materially better off than Somalia or South Sudan, possessed its own special feeling of isolation that had the weight of an ambient despair. It was unnerving to turn on the radio and hear martial chanting about avenging Al-Aqsa, or to constantly look at billboards of Knesset member Yehuda Glick in a sniper crosshair. Members of the Strip’s Hamas-controlled police force used the empty lot down the street from my hotel on the Gaza City waterfront as a drilling ground.

But that was hardly the whole story, I thought. After all, my hotel offered a comfortable room with stunning views of the Mediterranean. Hamas was eerily invisible in the Strip once you were past their checkpoint on the Gaza side of the Erez border crossing, whose Israeli half is an absurdist labyrinth of concrete corridors, sinister loudspeakers, and remote-operated doors. Most Gazans I met had no particular love for the group and just wanted to be left alone. Gaza was hard to beat for sheer surrealism, what with the war damage and the excellent fish restaurants. I experienced the Hamas-era Strip as a weird and tragic expression of a bleak roster of immovable realities.

I now know I suffered from a failure of imagination, both moral and practical. Under Hamas, Gaza wasn’t a place where extremists had resigned themselves to their own strange version of normality. Rather, it was an active launching pad for an insane utopia, for the vision of a purified world the group’s fighters carried out during their atrocious rampage this past weekend.

The expert class labored under similar delusions. “It wasn’t so much a misreading of what was in [Hamas’] hearts as it was the sense that they had accommodated to reality,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush, including the period when Hamas won the only Palestinian parliamentary elections in history and took over the Gaza Strip. “They understood they couldn’t destroy Israel, and that their real goal in these 15 years was to take over the West Bank as they had taken over Gaza—to create the maximum amount of violence and terror in the West Bank, and to protect their rule in Gaza. You have to look fairly widely to find someone who didn’t basically accept that view.” Abrams did not exempt himself from this group.

Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former research analyst for the British Foreign Office, sometimes met Hamas operatives when he was living in Doha a decade ago. Stephens’ work at the time often brought him to the headquarters of Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state-owned satellite network. Khaled Mashal and his entourage were a frequent though inconspicuous presence at the channel’s offices, their arrival announced through the excited chatter of the many Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the channel’s employ. The Hamas men usually wore gray suits, Stephens recalled. “If they came into the room, you wouldn’t necessarily have known they were there.”

Stephens had lived all over the Middle East, including in Israel, and believed he could situate Hamas within the region’s usual run of armed extremists. “I’ve dealt with many people in the Middle East who I disagree with where I can see a logic,” he said. “When I used to talk to the Shia militias in Iraq, it was: I don’t agree with your view on how this conflict goes, but I can see how you think that. I felt the same way with Hamas. They were pretty uncompromising, they were pretty, in my view, unrealistic about their political demands. But they were political demands.” In private, some of the Hamas guys would even say they could accept a Palestinian state along the lines of the 1967 borders. Stephens now realizes, with admirable analytic humility, that he had misassessed who and what Hamas really was. “At no stage did I think that these were the sort of people that would delight in women and children and babies being slaughtered for no real reason whatsoever other than that it could be done.”

In 2006, Richard Haass, a former high-ranking State Department official who was, until recently, the long-serving president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that “U.S. officials ought to sit down with Hamas officials, much as they have with the leaders of Sinn Féin.” That same year, the council published a breezy profile of Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashal, which now  serves as a thumbnail for the next 17 years of elite opinion. “Seen as charismatic and possessing diplomatic skills, Mashal is ‘welcomed with open arms in various capitals and he’s seen as a legitimate political actor,’” according to Jess Sadick, a former U.S. intelligence analyst. “Since Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006, Mashal has served as its representative in talks with the Egyptian and Russian governments, as well as the Arab League. He even met with a group of retired U.S. diplomats in February. Following that meeting, Edward Peck, a former ambassador to Iraq, told The Times of London that Mashal seemed to be ‘moderate in many senses’ and ‘entirely rational.’”

The day after Hamas killed over 1,000 Israeli civilians, this “moderate and rational man” appeared on TV from his Qatari safe haven to call for the global harassment of “Zionists” and their American allies, and to “ask the mujahedeen to go in long caravans to spill their blood on the land of Palestine.”

At no stage did I think that these were the sort of people that would delight in women and children and babies being slaughtered for no real reason whatsoever other than that it could be done.

Disturbingly, though unsurprisingly, numerous Israelis with impeccable security credentials, including the former Mossad director Efraim Halevy, voiced their support for talks with the Islamist group. Israel’s vaunted security leadership in general proved itself more than willing to provide cover for the decadeslong effort to normalize Hamas, in part because they believed their country had no other viable strategic choice, in part because saying credulous things about a millenarian terror group is the pathway to approval (and nice fellowships!) in Washington and Cambridge, and in part because they are technocrats with an inevitably narrow understanding of people who turn out to be different from them.

In 2008, Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shabak, assured a Council on Foreign Relations audience that Hamas was sensitive to the Palestinian popular will. “Hamas’ leadership asks itself before each terrorist operation how Palestinians will react. Only if the leadership believes that the public will support the operation does Hamas proceed,” Ayalon stated. He provided no particular evidence for his claim, of course, because none was needed; the belief in the “rationality” of Hamas was foundational to a worldview shared among the global class of security technocrats. Hamas’ reliance on public support was important, Ayalon continued, because “if Palestinians see President [Mahmoud] Abbas’ efforts as successful and the situation in the West Bank improves, Palestinians in Gaza will pressure Hamas to moderate.”

Ayalon is one of Israel’s great pro-peace liberals, and he had his own specific ideological reasons for wanting to believe, and for wanting others to believe, that Hamas would ultimately be measured, self-interested, and attuned to the inner desires of the people it rules. But his country’s right-wingers agreed with him too.  “We made a huge mistake, including me, in believing a terror organization can change its DNA,” the former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror, a relative hardliner, told journalists earlier this week. “We heard from our friends around the world that they’re behaving more responsibly. And we believed it—in our stupidity.”

In the era of the Bush freedom agenda, experts who tended to be skeptical of the triumph of American-imposed democracy in the Middle East still wanted to believe—and wanted others to believe—that elections and popular accountability could moderate Hamas. Martin Indyk and Tamara Cofman-Wittes—Middle East officials in future presidential administrations—argued in 2006 that Hamas’ shocking victory in that year’s Palestinian parliamentary elections should naturally be treated as an opportunity to legitimize the group on the U.S.’s terms. “[T]he Bush Administration should specify steps that Hamas could take were it inclined to observe the ‘rules of the game,’ and should make clear that if Hamas met these conditions, then the United States would treat it as a legitimate government,” the pair wrote. “The most important step would relate to violence and terrorism.” To put it very generously, over the next 17 years whatever limited interest Hamas did have in reducing violence and terrorism, or even in being treated as a legitimate government by the U.S., turned out to be insignificant when held against more pressing concerns, such as killing Jews.

In the early 2010s, the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot and ideological fellow traveler, appeared to be the main beneficiary of the Arab Spring protests. Analysts routinely argued that in an apparently democratizing Arab world, Western tolerance of elected Islamists would prove the viability of a more open political space, which would itself serve as a hedge against both secular autocracy and jihadism. A couple of years later, right-thinking people commonly argued that Hamas was a valuable counterweight to ISIS. “ISIS is threatening Hamas in Gaza,” read the headline of a 2015 Vox article. “That’s scary news.”

As Stephens explained this week, in the mid-2010s the success of the Muslim Brotherhood meant Hamas was effectively an international group, with important bases of support in Turkey, Qatar, Libya, Tunisia, and Lebanon, along with a unique position in the fight against both ISIS and the Assad regime. The slaughter of Israelis could seem like a parochial goal in light of Hamas’ centrality to a number of regionwide historical shifts. “I probably had this view of Hamas as an organization that had much larger goals and aims other than just killing people,” Stephens acknowledged. “But apparently not.”

Hamas was thought to be on the edge of irrelevance by the end of the 2010s, thanks to a regionwide crackdown against the Brotherhood, the accumulated effect of wars with Israel, and Gaza’s general isolation and squalor—and of course the less threatening Hamas was militarily the less risks were inherent in engaging them. “Hamas is on the ropes economically, its political support is weak, and it has few means to press Israel,” the Brookings Institution’s Daniel Byman wrote in 2018. Byman endorsed the expert consensus that Israel had no option but to live with a semisovereign, Hamas-ruled statelet as its neighbor, however weak the group had supposedly become. “Unfortunately for Israel, there is currently no credible alternative to Hamas in Gaza,” he wrote.

In both Israel and the U.S., a perfectly mainstream member of the U.S.-managed regional security alliance put the wealth and prestige of a nation-state behind the project of normalizing Hamas.  Qatar’s patronage of the group, and the hosting of its senior leadership, meant that the Islamists became the medium through which Doha could establish functional relations with Israel without going through the trouble of  opening formal diplomatic relations. Qatar gave $1.1 billion in aid to Gaza between 2012 and 2018 alone, much of it brought in suitcases by Qatari diplomats entering the coastal strip through Israel.

Qatar was similarly generous in spreading cash around Washington, specifically to think tanks like Brookings and the International Crisis Group that repeatedly soft-pedaled Hamas. In 2014, for example, Martin Indyk—who co-authored the article with Tamara Cofman-Wittes that urged the Bush administration to attempt to normalize Hamas—accepted $14.8 million in donations from Qatar in his capacity as vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings. He then went on to serve as the lead U.S. peace negotiator after the 2014 Gaza war.

One reason the massive payment from a leading Hamas sponsor to a program run by Indyk, a senior American diplomat whose decisions and gestalt directly impacted Hamas, didn’t attract much attention is that the financial relationship between Qatar and Brookings was itself old news by then. It began in 2007, when Brookings and Qatar made an agreement to open a branch of the think tank in Doha. By 2014, Qatar was Brookings’ single largest donor.

Throughout the 2000s, Doha also became home to numerous offshoots of at least six American colleges and universities.

Hamas became an accepted and quasi-normal feature of the regional landscape because of  the drudgework of managing an active international border, which was the issue that allowed Qatar to serve as Hamas’ semiformal diplomatic advocate. Teams of Qatari diplomats would often travel to Israel to coordinate aid deliveries into the Strip. As of 2018, an average of 425 trucks and 20 fuel tankers entered Gaza through the Keren Shalom border crossing each day. Some 17,000 Gazans held Israeli work permits before Saturday’s attack, compared to 7,000 as recently as mid-2021. The Strip received much of its electricity and its water from Israel. This summer, Israel moved toward allowing Gazans to use the international airport in Eilat. Israel made each of these decisions with the tacit understanding that they would benefit Hamas. A number of them could only have been implemented through coordination with Hamas.

The Gaza border represented one of the more perverse dilemmas a state can face. If Israel denied Gaza work permits, electricity, and Qatari cash, the place promised to become even poorer and more miserably isolated and more restive than it already was, glutting Hamas with willing recruits and forcing the Islamists even deeper into the embrace of its Iranian patron. Sealing the border would also create new and unnecessary diplomatic irritations for Jerusalem. But giving Gaza work permits, electricity, and Qatari cash meant subsidizing the killers who controlled the other side of the fence, the Hamas militants who send millions of Israeli citizens into bomb shelters every few years.

It is madness to subsidize a group that exists to terrorize you. It is something you only do if you believe you are heading off some still darker alternative. Israeli leaders believed Hamas was a bulwark against allegedly even worse groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and they thought Hamas was the only force that could save Israel from having to reoccupy the Strip and govern the place itself. In 2014, Israel halted a ground operation in Gaza at a point when it would still have been operationally possible, and perhaps not even particularly difficult, to have rounded up the group’s surviving leadership and put them all on trial, or in a row boat. Benjamin Netanyahu was spooked enough by the prospect of a post-conflict vacuum to send a negotiating team to Cairo, which assured its Hamas counterparts that Israel’s restrictions on the coastal territory would be softened.

When Netanyahu returned to the premiership in late 2022, David Pollack of the Washington Institute predicted that the Gaza front would remain relatively quiet. “For its part, Hamas has demonstrated its clear intention to focus inward on its Gaza sanctuary rather than actively outward against Israel—at least for the time being, and at least on the southern front,” Pollack wrote.

To understand why so many experts and decision-makers misjudged Hamas so severely across such a long period of time, it might be useful to consult the handful of people who consistently got Hamas right. Mario Loyola, a former Pentagon official and White House speechwriter, argued in a 2021 essay for National Review that Hamas had already shown itself to be a strategic-level danger to Israel, sincerely dedicated to the country’s destruction.

“With more than 4,000 powerful missiles fired across a wide swath of Israel’s civilian population, in just eleven days, Hamas demonstrated that it poses an intolerable threat to Israel,” Loyola wrote shortly after the conclusion of that year’s Gaza flare-up. Loyola took Hamas at its word, trusting it had accumulated a stockpile of rockets and turned Gaza into a massive bunker not to shift Israeli behavior along the margins or to win an internal Palestinian political battle, but because of its stated goal of making Israel uninhabitable for the people currently living there. “The most potentially effective strategy that the Muslim extremists have to eradicate Israel is to terrorize the whole population into leaving,” Loyola told me this week. “Since missile terrorism poses an existential threat to the state, we’re in a logic of unconditional surrender.” Loyola had made this same argument more than two years ago.

Yigal Carmon, a retired IDF colonel and counterterrorism adviser to Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, as well as the founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute, took a similarly clear-minded approach. On Aug. 29, he published a short yet freakishly prescient analytical piece titled “Signs of Possible War in September-October.” MEMRI had published a prequel of sorts in May of 2018, amid the global uproar following the IDF’s killing of nearly 100 Palestinians during the so-called “great march of return” at the Gaza border. That piece noted that half of those killed had been members of Hamas, and that the Islamist group had been explicit about its aim of infiltrating Israel and carrying out attacks on neighboring kibbutzim.

“They said exactly what they are going to do—to breach the fence, then drive to the towns, and to kill,” Carmon said. The moral being that to predict this week’s attack, you simply had to ignore the policy world’s access and credential-fueled orgy of confidence in its own superior understanding of human motives, and instead study an abundant and in retrospect unambiguous public record of what Hamas has tried to do and says it wants to do. Then you had to make the not unreasonable analytical leap of actually believing them.

“I didn’t buy into the stupidity that we are buying their quiet,” Carmon said of Israeli policy toward Hamas. “Because I knew that what they say is meaningful. It’s in open sources. Open sources are the whole world. The secret sources are minor to it.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.