Did you also know that Hamas — which is an Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement” — would probably not exist today were it not for the Jewish state? That the Israelis helped turn a bunch of fringe Palestinian Islamists in the late 1970s into one of the world’s most notorious militant groups? That Hamas is blowback?
Former Israeli official Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, who was the Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s, told a New York Times reporter that he had helped finance the Palestinian Islamist movement as a “counterweight” to the secularists and leftists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Fatah Party, led by Yasser Arafat. Avner Cohen, a former Israeli religious affairs official who worked in Gaza for more than two decades, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that Hamas is “Israel’s creation.” Hamas was the result of this, as Mehdi Hasan explains. First, the Israelis helped build up a militant strain of Palestinian political Islam, in the form of Hamas and its Muslim Brotherhood precursors; then, the Israelis switched tack and tried to bomb, besiege, and blockade it out of existence.
Hosted by Mehdi Hasan, “How Israel Helped Create Hamas” is the fifth episode of a six-part Blowback series for The Intercept. Throughout this series, Mehdi Hasan examines key examples of blowback in greater detail and explores how foreign policy decisions by the U.S. and its allies often produce blowback and so-called unintended consequences.
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The Palestinian militant group, Hamas, has carried out brutal acts of terror against Israeli civilians. Israeli and American leaders are always keen to tell us how dangerous and evil Hamas is.
The inhumanity of Hamas…
I have no sympathy for Hamas.
They keep shelling Israelis, thousands of rockets, and mortar shells.
What if I told you that Israel helped create Hamas?
Officially, Hamas — which is the acronym for an Arabic phrase meaning ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’ — was founded in 1987 at the start of the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising against the Israeli occupation. But its roots were planted much earlier. The Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was a half-blind, disabled Palestinian cleric and member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood had been repressed by the Egyptians in Gaza prior to 1967, but once the Israelis invaded and occupied the Strip, they didn’t just turn a blind eye to these Islamists, they encouraged them. See, the Israelis, especially right-wing Israelis, wanted to undermine the power of the dominant Palestinian political force at that time, the nationalist PLO, at the heart of which was the secular Fatah Party of Yasser Arafat, their bête noire.
[Yasser Arafat] I have come to you, dear president, bearing an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other.
By empowering Sheikh Yassin and the Muslim Brotherhood, Israeli leaders thought they could divide and rule the occupied Palestinians, playing them off against each other, secular nationalists against religious Islamists. So, in 1978, when Yassin wanted to officially register his Islamic Association, which was basically the precursor to Hamas, the Israelis were only too keen to help. Yassin built and grew a network of Islamist social institutions across Gaza, including schools and clubs and mosques, and Israel helped fund some of those projects. Most American politicians have no clue about any of this, although the former Republican congressman, Ron Paul, once made this point on the floor of the House:
[Ron Paul] Hamas was encouraged and really started by Israel because they wanted Hamas to counteract Yasser Arafat.
Arafat himself told an Italian newspaper, ‘Hamas is a creature of Israel.’ He even claimed that former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin admitted as much to him, calling it a fatal error. Now, you might be wondering, why should I believe mad Ron Paul or the famously shady Yasser Arafat? Well, you don’t have to.
You can believe top Israeli and US officials who’ve basically owned up to all this. Brigadier Yitzhak Segev, for example, who is the Israeli military governor in Gaza, later told the New York Times reporter that he helped finance the Islamic movement. ‘The Israeli government gave me a budget,’ he said, ‘and the military government gives to the mosques.’ Col. David Hacham, who worked in Gaza in the late 1980s as an Arab affairs expert in the Israeli military, has admitted that the original sin was Israeli support for Yassin in the late ’70s. But at the time, he has argued, nobody thought about the possible results.
Well, Avner Cohen did. Cohen was an Israeli official who was responsible for religious affairs in Gaza for more than two decades and who now says, ‘Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation.’ Yeah, Cohen’s words. He actually wrote an official report to his superiors in the mid-1980s warning them not to play divide and rule in the occupied territories and calling on Israel to ‘break up this monster before this reality jumps in our face.’ But no one else on the Israeli side really took the possibility of blowback seriously at that time. They never do, do they? Hamas has since killed far more Israeli civilians than any secular Palestinian militant group, and its leaders have been pretty viciously anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic in their rhetoric.
[Ismail Haniyeh] We will not recognize Israel!
[Mahmoud Al-Zahar] You have no place among us. You have no future among the nations of the world. You are headed toward your demise!
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin would eventually be assassinated by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza.
[Silvan Shalom] ‘Sheikh Yassin and its organization, the Hamas, are responsible to the killings of more than 400 Israelis. So the question shouldn’t be, why now? I think it should be: Why not before?
Why not before?’ Well, because before, Israel was actually nudging and winking at Yassin and Co., building them up as a rival to Arafat’s Fatah. The die was cast for blowback. Blowback incidentally that they decided to double down on when they assassinated Yassin.
[Reporter] ‘You can hear the crows chanting for Hamas, and any idea that this operation would actually suppress or diminish that organization seems to be ill-judged.’
The inconvenient truth is that Hamas is in part a creature of Israel’s own making, an enemy that Israel spent more than 20 years helping to build up and then spent the next 20 years, the past 20 years that is, trying to bomb, besiege, and blockade out of existence.
The three Gaza wars fought by Israel against Hamas since 2008 killed around 2,000 Palestinian civilians and a dozen Israeli civilians. That’s the real human cost of blowback.
David Long, a former Middle East expert at the US State Department under Ronald Reagan, told journalist Robert Dreyfus, ‘I thought the Israelis were playing with fire. I didn’t realize it’d end up creating a monster. But I don’t think you ought to mess around with potential fanatics.’ It’s a lesson both the Israelis and the Americans never seem to learn though, and as usual, innocent people, in this case Palestinians and Israelis, continue to lose their lives as a result.