We are hearing a lot about the "innocent civilians of Gaza," and as long as Israeli forces remain active in the Strip, we will doubtless continue to hear about them.
As is well established by now, Hamas uses civilians as human shields on the ground and also in the battle of public relations, protecting itself from international criticism by hiding behind the population it governs.
But while the terrorist group has been the subject of plenty of analysis, the civilians have not. For one thing, the phrase “innocent civilians” seems like something of a tautology. Can there, after all, be civilians who are not innocent?
In Gaza, there might be.
Innocents in Gaza
Certainly, there are civilians in Gaza who are innocent of any crimes and suffer under Hamas’s rule. They are also severely impacted as a result of the war that Hamas has launched on Israel and the Israeli response provoked by Hamas’s murder of over 1,400 Israelis on October 7th.
Ordinary Gazans have been among those whom Hamas has tried to prevent from fleeing the most heavily targeted areas. In particular, as Israel urged locals to evacuate the northern portion of the Strip and head south, to clear the battlefield of civilians to the extent possible, Hamas, in contravention of international law, threatened the lives of those who tried to leave. The group also sought to block the roads leading from the north to the south, and even went as far as stealing people’s car keys to frustrate their attempts to escape. Many civilians have only been able to flee because Israeli ground forces have protected their path to safety.
Civilians in Gaza were also among the patients in Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, which Hamas has long used as an offensive headquarters, in contravention of about every law known to civilised man, and they are also those filling the designated humanitarian zones from the safety of which Hamas is unashamedly firing rockets.
Because of Hamas’s actions, some innocent civilians are likely also to become collateral victims of Israel’s operation to free its hostages and eliminate Hamas’s military capability. They are also victims of Hamas’s own rockets, of which at least 10% routinely fall short within Gaza itself, historically accounting for a staggering proportion of the civilian casualties in past Gaza conflicts. Hamas is to blame both for forcing Israel’s hand and for doing its utmost to maximise civilian deaths to fuel its public relations campaign, which is eagerly amplified by a pliant media.
Yet the understandable fixation on Gaza’s innocent civilians rather too quickly absolves the entire population of any responsibility for the rise, rule and success of Hamas in the Strip.
This is evident, for instance, in the total absence of any discussion in the mainstream media about how Hamas came to power and thrived for so long, to the point that it was able to visit upon Israel one of the worst catastrophes in the Jewish state’s history.
Rarely is the presumption questioned that Hamas’s ideology and tactics are rejected by the ordinary people of Gaza. There seems to be absolute certainty that Hamas torments and immiserates the people of Gaza, and in turn the people hate Hamas and would be rid of it at the first opportunity, if only it were possible.
This narrative is even more explicit in the pronouncements of Western leaders. Among them is President Biden, who insisted to CBS that “a significant portion of Palestinian people do not share the views of Hamas and Hezbollah”, declared in a press conference that “the vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas” and that “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.” He similarly reiterated in a letter that “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.” His Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has been even more emphatic, telling the King of Jordan that “Hamas terrorists do not represent Palestinians or their legitimate aspirations for self-determination and equal measures of dignity, freedom, security, and justice” and stressing the same to the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas.
North of the border, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement in which he agreed that “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people nor their legitimate aspirations.” Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “reiterated the UK’s position that Hamas does not speak for ordinary Palestinians” in a call to Abbas, a view echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron in a visit to Abbas, where he assured the dictator that “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.”
Clearly, these world leaders are reading from the same hymn book, but is their insistence about how the people feel about Hamas an accurate summary of the political mood in Gaza? Is it supported by evidence, or only wishful thinking? Because if it is not true, then the implications for the future of Gaza are profound.
Hamas’s rise and rule
Consider this: why is Hamas in power in Gaza in the first place? It’s because it won the legislative elections for the Palestinian Authority in 2006 – elections monitored by the European Union and widely considered, including by the United States, to have been relatively open and fair. Hamas won almost every parliamentary seat in Gaza.
In other words, the people of Gaza elected Hamas, in a landslide, to govern them.
At the time, Hamas was far from an unknown quantity. Its ideology, methods and objectives had been familiar to all since its founding in the late 1980s and through its long campaign of terrorism against Israel in the intervening period. Already in 1993, prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords, Hamas carried out what is believed to have been the very first suicide bombing of the era against Israel, at the Mehola Junction in the Jordan Valley. Several waves of similar attacks by Hamas would follow in the years to come. Ultimately, Hamas would be responsible for almost half of all suicide bombings carried out against Israel – considerably more than each of the other active terrorist groups. All of this was prior to its election to power – which came about not in spite of its commitment to violence against Israel but in no small part because of it.
This violent terror has always been one of the cornerstones of Hamas’s appeal. Relatedly, it is also key to the threat that it has posed to the popularity of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) terror group and its principal constituent, Fatah, which was led by Yasir Arafat until, following his death, he was succeeded by Abbas.
Hamas’s belligerence against Israel in the “First Intifada” in the late 1980s grew its popularity among a populace that its progenitors had worked tirelessly over the preceding years to Islamicise. Arafat, languishing in exile in Tunisia in the 1980s, saw the risk that Hamas presented to his relevance and standing in Gaza and the Arab cities of Judea and Samaria (the 'West Bank'). He had spent decades leading an international campaign of terror against Israel and was not prepared to lose all the political capital which this had bought him among his people. Consequently, he made overtures to Israel and the West, resulting in his triumphant return to Gaza and then Ramallah, from which he hoped to control or subdue – or outdo – his competition.
Over the next decade, the popularity of these groups shifted, owing to a number of factors. These included the corruption of the PLO, which was effectively transformed by the Oslo Accords into an autonomous government known as the Palestinian Authority. It also included the waning across the Arab world of pan-Arab secular nationalism (represented in this case by the PLO and Fatah) and the waxing of Islamism (represented here by Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood). But just as pivotal to the appeal of these groups was their success in killing Jews as dramatically as possible. Not for lack of trying, Fatah could not keep up with Hamas, which became synonymous with uncompromising deadly terror against Israel.
Hamas was adept at killing Jews – and doing it with flair. And the people couldn’t get enough of it.
When the Arabs of the PA were finally given a democratic choice in 2006, Hamas reaped the seeds of terror that it had sowed over twenty years with a thumping victory at the polls. It may be a simplification to say that it was terrorism that won the election, but it is equally disingenuous to pretend that Hamas’s murderous ideology and success at putting it into practice did not play a vital role in its rise.
After its electoral win, Hamas executed its political opponents in Gaza and violently took complete control of the Strip, which it has governed as a de facto state since 2007. The group has not held an election since – a development that came as no surprise to anyone, including its own voters. They could hardly have imagined that Hamas, alone among the serious parties on the ballot – and practically alone among almost every party and government in the entire Arab world – had any intention of holding future elections. Indeed, Hamas had long disdained the very political infrastructure that the Oslo Accords had birthed. For that matter, even the PLO, which was a signatory to the Accords, has not held another election since 2006 in the territory that it controls.
Hamas’ voters knew what they were getting themselves into – and what they were unleashing on Israel.
Hamas’s enduring popularity
The refusal by both the PA and Hamas to hold another election naturally makes it harder to gauge Hamas’s enduring support in Gaza and more widely within the PA territories. But it is not impossible, and the evidence available is not reassuring.
Over the course of last year, students affiliated with Hamas won majorities on the student councils at Birzeit University near Ramallah and An-Najah University in Nablus, two of the largest universities, in elections considered by some to be “the bellwether of West Bank politics”. Hamas blocs also won student elections elsewhere, such as at Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron.
Beyond student politics, notwithstanding the absence of elections the broader population is still regularly polled. For years Hamas as a party has come out on top. Its presidential candidate has also consistently performed well. A poll published in September 2023, for example, showed that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would win a presidential election with 58% of the vote, compared to only 37% for Abbas. Other polls show Haniyeh neck-and-neck with Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah terrorist serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison following his role in several lethal terror attacks against Israelis.
In other words, the two most popular Palestinian Arab politicians in Gaza and the PA-controlled territories are a leader of the Hamas terror group and a Fatah terrorist, both of whom have copious Jewish blood on their hands. Trailing in third place is Abbas, a Holocaust-denier who defended the October 7th massacre and whose regime pays salaries to terrorists imprisoned by Israel.
It is not just leaders but ideology that reveals the sickness in this society. A poll in June found that almost three quarters of the public supports the establishment of armed groups to murder Israelis, a view that has been long-held among the population. The October 7th massacre has not altered these sentiments: in November, pollsters asked how respondents felt about the attack, and a similar 75% supported it, including more than six in ten Gazans, apparently notwithstanding the impact of Israel’s response on them. Accordingly, support for Hamas has risen since the attack both in Gaza and also in the 'West Bank' region, where it has tripled. (A recent outlier poll that appeared to show less support for Hamas had a lower population sample and higher margin of error, though that didn’t stop Foreign Affairs magazine jumping all over it.)
But probably the best evidence of Hamas’s enduring popularity is the PA’s persistent refusal to hold an election. The views of the Arab street are well known to PA leaders, who recognise that if an election had been held at any time over the past several years, the people would have re-elected Hamas. Abbas has therefore repeatedly cancelled new elections to the PA. While he may invent reasons to blame Israel for these decisions, it is obvious to all observers that the real reason is that he knows that he and his factions will lose to Hamas.
In addition to the student elections, the polls, and the cancellation of new elections, there is also the evidence of absence. Specifically, there have been no serious internal attempts to depose Hamas in Gaza or even widespread demonstrations (or any anti-terrorism demonstrations at all, ed.) against its rule. Even the handful of minor protests, including in April 2015, January 2017 and in spring 2019, have been due more to the poor economic conditions prevailing in the Strip than any objections to the terror group’s ideological policies. In July and August of last year, for example, several thousand Gazans took to the streets under the slogan “We want to live”, following the accidental death of a resident of Khan Younis at the hands of the local authorities. Hamas condemned the incident, fired the city’s mayor and paid compensation to the family in an effort to appease the protesters. Not only did the participants represent a tiny fraction of the estimated two million residents of Gaza, but these demonstrations did not intend to topple Hamas or challenge its policy of anti-Israel hatred.
None of these protests have attracted significant numbers, reflected a fundamental ideological repugnance towards Hamas, or resulted in any material changes in the politics of the Strip. In the more than fifteen years of Hamas’ totalitarian rule in Gaza – which has straddled the Arab Spring and the upheavals in so many countries across the Arab world – Gaza has enjoyed relative political stability. There has been no noteworthy resistance by locals against the ruling terror group or any real attempt at revolution, much less the development of anything approaching an underground peace movement.
Even those Palestinian Arabs who, from the safety of living abroad, have spoken out against Hamas, do not tend to focus on its barbaric anti-Israel beliefs, but rather on its economic and administrative ineptitude or religious coercion. These are the sort of resentments you might find in any dictatorship where people perceive their rulers to be enriching themselves at the expense of ordinary people, and that is one of the reasons that the electorate rejected the murderous PLO in 2006 in favour of the murderous Hamas: one was seen as corrupt and the other was not. But opposition to corruption and incompetence does not equate to revulsion at a governing ideology. Those who conflate the two commonly end up urging Israel not to strike back against Hamas – and therefore Gaza – after Israeli citizens get slaughtered, lest doing so “plays into Hamas’s hands” by radicalising the population and pushing them back into the terror group’s arms. But of course that is to presume that they are not already in agreement with Hamas’s goal of destroying the Jewish state.
If such large numbers of Gazans do in fact dissent from that ideology, where are they?
As one left-wing former Israeli parliamentarian has lamented, since the October 7th massacre there have been no large-scale demonstrations in Gaza demanding the release of hostages, no sole protester with a “not in my name” sign, no intellectual penning an op-ed expressing shame, and practically no movement of opposition to Hamas from the Gazan population, which surely knows by now that Hamas has brought devastation upon them. In Gazan parlance, “resistance” means only one thing, and it is not directed at Hamas.
The role of civilians
But of course nobody expects any of these fantasies to materialise, because, even as the media and Western politicians endlessly repeat the mantra that the people of Gaza do not support Hamas, every indication points to the opposite. The inconvenient reality is that the Gazan people do support Hamas and its aims and celebrate its achievements, as renegade Gazans have pointed out – like the son of a Hamas commander who sought refuge in the West, or the Gazan teenager who courageously fled to Israel and converted to Judaism.
It is Gazan civilians who sing in jubilation when Hamas carries out attacks on Israelis, and it is Gazan civilians who have distributed confectionary in their neighbourhoods when Hamas murders Jews. This support did not waver in the immediate wake of October 7th. It was painfully clear, for instance, from the reception that Hamas fighters received from civilians on their return to Gaza from the attack. Similar merriment was also evident over in Judea and Samaria (the 'West Bank'), where there were demonstrations in support of Hamas just miles from Abbas’ office in Ramallah in the days following the massacre, and more in other Arab cities in the area.
Worse still is the sickening fact that ordinary Gazans themselves participated in the October 7th attack.
-Many of those who engaged in the violence, pillaging, rapes, burning and dismemberment – including of children – were not Hamas fighters at all but the mob of civilians that followed them over the border. --
-When hostages were taken into Gaza, it was ordinary civilians who spat on them or their corpses as they were paraded through their streets, and it was they who directed or permitted their children to torment the Israeli kids whom Hamas had taken captive, for all the world to see.
-It was even civilians who kept some of the captives hostage.
-Freed hostages, meanwhile, have recounted how their transport from captivity to freedom was one of the most terrifying experiences of their entire ordeal, because they had to run the gauntlet past jeering and belligerent Gazan civilians.
Can all of these civilians be regarded as innocent? Or is there a point at which they become something else? There may be many innocent civilians in Gaza. But clearly there are vast numbers of not so innocent civilians as well.
Looking at it in reverse: where does Hamas end and the innocent civilian population begin?
In recent weeks, what was known to Israelis has become known to the world: Hamas operates like ISIS, desecrating every norm and value that civilised people hold dear. But the comparison only goes so far. ISIS was an assemblage of would-be terrorists from across the world who came together in the Levant – indeed, some analysts suggest that the largest contingent of ISIS combatants was Russian. By contrast, Hamas is home-grown. It receives foreign funding, principally from Iran and Qatar, but it is indigenous to Gaza. It is not a foreign implant that has infiltrated the Strip to torment the locals, but a native product of the Gazan population.
Observers have noted that Hamas has deep roots in Gaza, including in mosques, hospitals, schools, and charities, and that it permeates everyday life in the territory, from institutions like the police and hospitals – where staff and facilities are known to be in the service of Hamas – to garbage collectors and teachers. Indeed, Hamas has so penetrated an organisation like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides much of the education to Gazan children, that it is believed to control the staff union.
Abbas and his officials fully understand that the Islamist group is not an alien group that landed from Mars. “Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian people,” Abbas observed in 2014, and his Prime Minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, insisted to the Doha Forum in Qatar in December 2023 that “Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian mosaic.” The PLO leaders despise Hamas, of course, as it is their primary opposition. Nevertheless, they have to make these sorts of statements, firstly because they are unavoidably self-evident, and secondly because they know that making them will curry favour with the masses – because the masses like Hamas. Naturally, the PA has continued to pay salaries to Hamas terrorists and benefits to their families – including those of the 1,500 Hamas infiltrators killed on or after October 7th.
Hamas’s programme of radical Islamism has adherents well beyond its membership. It has won huge numbers of Gazan civilians to its mission over the decades, and a massive following in the PA regions of Judea and Samaria as well. That does not mean that every civilian who believes what Hamas believes or has somehow supported Hamas over the years deserves the same fate as its fighters – after all, they are not, for the most part, combatants. But it does mean that the people of Gaza are hardly as deserving of the world’s sympathy as it may appear.
Above all, though, it means that, even if Israel succeeds in eliminating Hamas’s military capability, those multitudes of adherents and supporters will still be there, and they will still believe what Hamas believes. While the obliteration of Hamas may give them pause – the Arab world respects strength and derides weakness – it will not so quickly make them heretics to Hamas’s theology. Pace world leaders, to a disconcertingly great extent Hamas can in fact be said to “represent the Palestinians”. As long as Western politicians ignore this elemental truth about Gaza (and the PA more generally), their utopian hopes for the territories in the post-Hamas era will be dashed.
Before even considering the prescription, it is essential to accept the diagnosis: Hamas and the civilian population are not as separable as they appear, and eliminating the former will not in itself end Gazan hatred for Israel or bring about peace. If there is any hope of a workable approach to Gaza after Hamas, denial of this basic fact must end.
For Western hopes for Gaza to have any chance of coming to fruition – that Gaza might finally become less bellicose and, to stretch credulity even further, even come to terms with the existence of the Jewish state – there must be widespread acknowledgement of the reality on the ground. To assume that the civilians do not endorse Hamas’s beliefs would be to ignore just how big the problem is. Politicians must come to terms with this fact and have the courage to articulate it. Then the media, which has been complicit in hiding this dirty secret from the world, might finally reveal it more widely, and global publics may in turn come to realise that things are not as they have been led to believe.
Only then can real talk of a solution begin.
Jonathan Neumannwrites on politics and religion. He is the author of To Heal The World? (St Martin's Press).
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