Israel tank overlooking southern Gaza

A picture taken from a position in southern Israel along the border with the Gaza Strip on January 19, 2024, shows an Israeli tank rolling along the fence as damaged buildings are see in the Gaza strip amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.

(Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

A Deeper Look at Hamas and What Terrorism Means in Israel-Palestine

When one side in hostilities lacks an army, that side often finds its only recourse is to use what the other side calls “terrorism.”

On October 7, Hamas launched a terrorist attack on southern Israel, killing some 1,100 people, a majority of whom were civilians. Such action cannot be condoned. In addition, mainstream media have reported lurid allegations, strongly disputed by other media outlets, of additional and hideous actions by Hamas. These are the recent facts and allegations. But is there more that needs to be said if we are to understand Hamas? Is there room for a more complex understanding? We think so. It is, after all, the responsibility of journalism to produce exactly that. In this paper we probe the term "terrorism," and discuss Hamas’s original, as well as its updated, charter and its largely unknown efforts to use diplomacy in search of a just peace. In the process, a comparison of actions and policies will be made between Hamas and Zionism/Israel.

While it may be fair to call Hamas “terrorists,” we should note that in the 1930s and 1940s, two Israelis who later became prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and the groups they led (Irgun and the Stern Gang, respectively), were regarded as “terrorists'' by the British and American governments, along with Albert Einstein and many other prominent Jews of the time. They saw themselves, however, just as members of Hamas see themselves, as freedom fighters and resisters. A quote from Mr. Shamir should give us pause in uncritically accepting Israel's blanket condemnation of Hamas:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah, whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: 'Ye shall blot them out to the last man.' But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world...: it proclaims our war against the occupier. (Hehazit/The Front, underground journal, 1943).

So convinced were these “freedom fighters” of the justness of their actions against the British (whom they saw as occupiers once the British blocked continued immigration into Mandate Palestine), that they introduced into the Middle East conflict “the letter bomb, the parcel bomb, the barrel bomb, the market bomb, and the car bomb,” devices causing innumerable deaths since that time (Walid Khalidi, Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 2014).

The point is, when one side in hostilities lacks an army, that side often finds its only recourse is to use what the other side calls “terrorism.” The Jews used terrorism against their British occupiers, and Palestinians have used it against their Israeli occupiers. As Israeli General Matti Peled put it, "Terrorism is a terrible thing. But the fact remains that when a small nation is ruled by a larger power, terror is often the only means at their disposal. This has always been true .... If we want to end terrorism [against Israel], we must end the occupation and make peace."

We often hear that Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and this is true of the 1988 charter (but not of the more recent update). But we know that charters are often more rhetorical tools than guidelines for actual policy; and we know that groups, and their charters, can evolve over time. Another official document, however, needs to be part of this conversation. In the early 20th century, the Jewish National Fund gave as its stated aim: “to redeem the land of Palestine as the inalienable possession of the Jewish people” (John B. Quigley, Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice, 1990). This aim was not kept a secret, so Palestinians knew what Zionists had in mind for them. From the time of that declaration to the present day, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on settlement expansion, the Zionist intention to dispossess Palestinians of their historic homeland has been the core of their rhetoric and their policies. Not even one political party in Netanyahu's government has a charter/platform that recognizes the Palestinians' right to a state of their own, and a couple of them even explicitly forbid such a concession.

Despite Israel’s rejectionist policy regarding a Palestinian state, Hamas, which has a political as well as a militant wing, has repeatedly sought dialogue with Israel. Hamas leadership offered Israel a 30-year truce in 1997 if Israel would abide by international law regarding Palestinian rights. The offer was made through King Hussein of Jordan, who took the message from Hamas’ political chief, Khaled Meshal, asking that Israel pull back to the 1967 borders. Israel’s response was an attempt to assassinate Meshal shortly thereafter. In 2002, Hamas publicly endorsed the Pan Arab League’s full acceptance of Israel by all 22 Arab nations if Israel would end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and recognize Palestinian rights under international law. Israel found ways to ignore or dismiss the peace initiative. Hamas leaders have repeatedly said they would accept a two-state solution. Similar efforts to engage in dialogue were made in 2006 via a letter to President George W. Bush, and twice to President Barack Obama in February and June of 2009.

In its original charter Hamas sanctioned the killing of Jews, clearly a case of inexcusable antisemitism. However, Israel's actual practice has long been the equivalent of such a call—that is, Israel's military, border police, and extremist settlers kill Palestinians almost at will. Also, Palestinians are publicly called "vermin," "animals," and "cockroaches," not only on Israeli social media, but by members of the military, the Knesset, and the rabbinic establishment. Currently, Israel is launching its most brutal assault ever on Gaza, a massacre called by many, including prosecutors from South Africa before the International Court of Justice, a genocide. Such actions do not give Israel the moral advantage in a comparison with Hamas.

In an updated Hamas charter in 2017, there is a clear shift in Hamas’s position, one based upon the leadership’s recognition of the need to distinguish between Zionism and Jews as a people. The revised charter affirms that Hamas’s “conflict is with the Zionist project, not with the Jews because of their religion.” It “wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet it is the Zionists,” the charter correctly observes, “who constantly identify Jews and Judaism [with Zionism].” And while the Zionist state oppresses and discriminates, in both law and practice, against Palestinians in Israel proper and the Occupied Territories, the future state Hamas envisions will function, according to the updated charter, “on the basis of pluralism, democracy, national partnership, acceptance of the other and the adoption of dialogue.” This would be, in other words, a secular, liberal democracy of the sort we espouse in the United States. Unfortunately, we never hear about this revised charter in mainstream media or from Israel’s apologists.

Despite a more moderate stance, reflected in the revised charter, Israel has continued to refuse any dialogue with Hamas; instead, Netanyahu’s extremist government has intensified its brutal oppression. In response, Hamas has continued its armed resistance. On October 7, 2023, it invaded Israel and killed over a thousand Israelis. Israel, the U.S., and the E.U. call Hamas a “terrorist” organization. While armed resistance often includes terrorist acts (think South Africa and Ireland), a former Shin Bet director featured in the award-winning film "The Gate Keepers" acknowledges that “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.” (Emphasis added.) And every Shin Bet leader in this documentary clearly states that Hamas should be included in formal negotiations.

Why does Israel refuse all openings to peaceful dialogue with Hamas? The best guess of many informed observers is that such offers are unacceptable to Israel because Israel wants only one thing: total control of all land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. To negotiate with Hamas, and to do so fairly and seriously, would mean an end to that grand design.

It is commonplace to claim Hamas cannot be trusted to abide by truces, but it is a matter of record that Hamas has been better at keeping its word with truces than has Israel. Here is one example. In June of 2008, Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. This truce placed certain requirements on each side. Hamas was to stop the rocket firing into Israel; Israel was to significantly increase the amount of material allowed into Gaza. Keep in mind that Hamas had the tougher job since Israel had only to manage its own policies, whereas Hamas had the job of policing several splinter groups. According to the New York Times (12/19/08), Hamas "was largely successful. . . It imposed its will and even imprisoned some who. . . were firing rockets." Before June, more than 300 rockets were fired into Israel monthly. In July/August, that number had dropped 90-97%. According to Harvard's John Mearsheimer, by Sept/Oct. "a total of two rockets were fired . . .none by Hamas." So, Hamas was 99.9% faithful. Mearsheimer pointedly noted: "Even Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center admitted Hamas 'had been careful to maintain the ceasefire.'"

Israel's baseline for compliance was the 500-600 truckloads of goods and materials entering Gaza daily before the siege. Hamas understood Israel would open its borders significantly, but Israel never went above 90 truckloads, a 15-18% compliance. On Nov. 4, 2008, Israel more forcefully broke the truce by attacking Gaza, killing six Palestinians. Mearsheimer called it "the first major violation of the truce," a violation that led to a resumption of the violence on both sides.

Another way Israel has tried to discredit Hamas is to claim that children are used as shields—put in harm’s way by their parents, placed too close to militants, etc. But the killing of huge numbers of children, women, and the elderly as well as the deliberate targeting of hospitals and schools—all of which have been documented and condemned by virtually every international and Israeli human rights organization—are grisly testimony that Israel operates as a terrorist state.

Also, both the 2011 Goldstone Report and an exhaustive 2009 Amnesty International report, titled "22 Days of Death and Destruction" found no evidence that Hamas used human shields during Operation Cast Lead (2008-09), but they found considerable evidence that Israel’s troops did.

Some 10 years ago, Palestinian-American attorney and legal scholar Noura Erakat pointed out the obstacle to accurate information posed by “code words” used by Israel and the media: “Using such language yields an immediate result: When Palestinians are terrorists and Hamas is a terrorist organization, the opposing side conveys a lot without having to say much. A few code words speak volumes. So, it's a struggle for us Palestinians who have to work against this shorthand communication.”

This document aims to get beyond the code words, to scrutinize the language that is facilely relied upon to distort both the record and the truth about Hamas.

The killing of innocent people is wrong—by anyone—full stop. However, neither Israel nor its supporters can claim a higher moral ground upon which to condemn Hamas. And if terrorism is to end, then Palestinians must receive the justice Israel has denied them for 75 years and counting.

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