Commentary: Does Israel understand Hamas? 

Following operation "Guardian of the Walls", we should wonder how deeply Israel understands the surrounding area. The case of Hamas reflects a basic difficulty to decipher the logic of "the other". The continued application of our way of thinking to the region may lead again and again to gaps in understanding the reality, writes Dr. Michael Milshtein, an expert on Palestinian affairs  

Photo: Telegram channel of Hamas

By Michael Milshtein

The barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem that marked the beginning of operation "Guardian of the Walls" was much more than a surprise in terms of tactics or intelligence. It rekindled longstanding speculation regarding the depth of Israel's understanding of the logic, values and way of thinking of the surrounding area, and especially of our enemies.    

The attack initiated by Hamas undermined basic assumptions of many years regarding Hamas that were set in various layers of Israeli thought. The first of them deals with the doctrine of an "arrangement" that was formed in recent years, and is based on a claim that the more that the reality in the Gaza Strip improves, as it did following civilian processes promoted by Israel, Hamas will become conscious of the price of the expected loss from a conflict, and the movement's motivation to initiate violent steps will decline.     

Furthermore, it is claimed that Hamas is demonstrating increasing readiness to adopt a long-term arrangement, and that Israel must occasionally assist in removing obstacles in the way, such as, for example, the November 2019 assassination of senior Islamic Jihad figure Baha Abu al-Ata, who is said to have tried to thwart the effort to reach an arrangement in Gaza.    

The second basic assumption is regarding the Israeli understanding of the influence of ruling status on radical ideological movements such as Hamas. The predominant assumption was that the status of the Hamas as the sovereign in Gaza since 2007 would impose restraints and gradually moderate its steps and possibly even its way of thinking. In this context, there were a number of commentaries regarding Yihya Sinwar, who became the chairman of the political office of Hamas in 2017, focusing on a claim that after he understands that his main role is to provide for the welfare of two million residents of Gaza, he will recognize that he is not able to promote his radical ideological wishes as he did in the past.   

Actually, Hamas does feel pressure from both engaging in warfare and being the ruling party, but it is not interested in deciding between the two extremes, and is in a situation of "willful schizophrenia." It is dealing significantly with managing the public sector in the Gaza Strip and attaches importance to the situation of the population, but at the same time adheres to the armed struggle against Israel that in its view will only end with "total submission".

In this context, many tended to claim Hamas would undergo an "evolution" that would lead it to eventually follow the path of the PLO, namely to recognize Israel and reach political agreements with it. Such assumptions overlooked or denied the deep ideological foundation that drive movements such as Hamas, and embodied the wish or application of Israeli logic to "the other". It appears that rule over Gaza does not moderate Hamas, but rather gives it more resources to promote its ideological goals, as in cases involving many radical movements around the world, from the revolutionary Islamic leadership in Iran to the Nazi party in Germany.                

Operation "Guardian of the Walls" was a step by Hamas that was mainly derived from ideological and religious motives, with a small amount of strategic considerations. Hamas did not set a goal of improving the civilian reality in the Gaza Strip, and actually sacrificed it on the altar    of striving to defend the Temple Mount and establish itself as leader of the entire Palestinian system. It was the first operation out of the four that took place during the last 12 years between Israel and Hamas that did not begin following escalation in the Gaza Strip, but rather by a planned initiative by the movement.       

Thus, operation "Guardian of the Walls" requires us to wonder whether we have a deep understanding of the surrounding area, and how effective are the tools we use to decipher the logic of the players operating in the region. A basis on "healthy logic", namely logic and continued application of your perception to the other – which are common in the worlds of academia, media, politics or intelligence – will lead on many occasions to errors in the assessment of the other's intentions and methods of operation.       

Once again, this emphasizes the need to study the language of the people of the region and become familiar with their culture and history. It is the right thing to do when dealing with companies that are opening up towards Israel, such as ones in the Gulf, or when dealing with enemies, and it especially applies to the dialogue and vital understandings within Israel, between Jewish and Arab citizens, amid serious questions regarding continued coexistence following the events of recent weeks.  


Dr. Michael Milshtein serves as a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and as Head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.  

You might be interested also

Photo: Haim Zach, GPO

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with the head of the Mossad, David Barnea

The Mossad is hoping for a little quiet as new era dawns

Why did the interview given by Yossi Cohen to Ilana Dayan spark anger? Will the Mossad carry out fewer "daring operations" under Barnea? And who is expected to be selected soon as the next head of the ISA? A column by Amir Rapaport