Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene BeresProf. Louis René Beres

To meaningfully understand what lies behind Iran-supported Hamas terrorism against Israel, we can learn more from the psychologists and anthropologists than the pundits and politicos. Inter-penetrating problems of religion, war and terror most deeply animate jihadist crimes. At their points of origin, such terror-violence expresses the result of mutually-reinforcing private needs and collective expectations.

Because they are primal, these crimes can never be fully controlled by reason, law or diplomacy.

What then? Informed explanations are finally in order.


At times, even more than the usually overriding needs to avoid personal death, individual human beings feel driven to belong. This often desperate need can be expressed harmlessly, as in sports hysteria or rock concerts, or perniciously, as in terrorist assault. Significantly, in cases of terrorism, alleged political motivations (e.g., sovereignty, “self-determination” and statehood) are largely secondary or contrived. They are not primary motivations.

In ancient times, the philosopher Aristotle already understood that "man is a social animal." Typically, the seminal Greek thinker recognized, even a "normal" individual can feel empty and insignificant apart from membership in the “mass.” Often, that palpable mass is the State. Sometimes it is the Tribe. Sometimes the Faith (always, of course, the “one true faith”). Sometimes it is “The Liberation" Movement or simply "The Revolution."

Details aside, whatever the mass urgings of a particular moment, it is a persistent craving for belonging that threatens to bring forth catastrophic downfalls of individual responsibility and correlative triumphs of collective criminality. Today, especially in mass-directed jihadist parts of the Middle East, unless millions can finally learn how to temper the overwhelming human desire to belong at all costs, military, legal and political schemes to control war and terrorism will inevitably fail.

To fully understand what is so perniciously at work in Gaza and elsewhere, science-based analysts must first learn to look behind the news. Ultimately, their aptly "molecular" looks should explain jihadist fusions of variously susceptible individuals into murder-centered terror gangs. In the jihadist Middle East, war and terrorism could not take place in the absence of such barbarous collective identifications.

Generically, in these matters, the core concepts were earlier understood and explained by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Whenever individuals crowd together and form a mass, both had clarified, the exterminatory dynamics of a mob could suddenly be released. More precisely, we may learn, these dynamics can lower each single person's moral and intellectual level to a point where anything, even anonymous mass killing, could be welcomed and encouraged.


In today’s jihad-oriented Middle East, faith has been placed in the service of war and terror. Publicly, Hamas terror against Israel is fueled by effectively unchallengeable evocations of “divine will.” Ironically, the net result of such perfidious summoning must be to drown out any residual hints of sacredness or godliness. Doctrinally, once empathy and compassion are extended outside the terrorizing jihadist mass, they must go unrewarded or (in the case of Jews) be actively punished. As generalizable virtues, of course, empathy and compassion must become extraneous or completely beside the point.

In the name of allegedly divine commandment, Hamas terror-criminality offers the wider world neither salvation nor holiness, but only am omnivorous "groupthink." Reciprocally, the rhythms of this annihilating ethos make it futile for Israel or the United States to advance even the sincerest efforts at coexistence.

This dilemma can never be solved by political leaders or pundits. Solution requires the concentrated intellectual attention of uncommonly gifted thinkers. Sadly, such rare persons remain well-hidden, even from themselves.

Nonetheless, to undertake increasingly urgent investigations of Hamas terror-criminality, scholars and policy makers should look more closely at complex determinants of human meaning. Before we can prevent further terror-violence against Israeli and other noncombatants, Hamas and kindred groups will have to be shorn of their shameless capacity to bestow celebratory significance upon indiscriminate killers. To affect those mass-directed individuals who turn to terror (i.e., ritualistic murder) for affirmations of personal significance, scholars must first identify more benign and comparably attractive sources of belonging.

In the very deepest sense (a sense that brings us far beyond the grinding daily news reports), Hamas terror-violence is the result of cumulative individual failures to draw meaning from within. In Gaza and other mass-directed Palestinian Arab areas, “redemption” requires “the faithful” to present tangible proof of belonging. In any such presentation, evidence of participation in grievous violence against Israeli men, women and children is self-evidently gainful and "valid."

It ought never to be swept under the rug that Hamas crimes on October 7, 2023 included the rape and sexual mutilation of males and females, of infants as well as adults.

At its heart, Palestinian Arab terror-violence faced by Israel is a problem of displaced human centeredness. Ever anxious about drawing meaning from their own twisted inwardness, Hamas adherents draw closer and closer to a faith-based mass. In too many such cases, a blood-soaked voice of anti-reason makes even the most gratuitous forms of mass killing seem exhilarating.


There is more. When it is correctly understood as a form of religious sacrifice, Hamas terrorism confers the greatest possible form of power – the power of “martyrdom” or power over death.

At that stage, it is not merely belief or belonging but immortality that is offered to jihadist murderers.

By definition, this conferral augments the Hamas terrorist’s already-shameless inclinations to rape and slaughter with an ineradicable cowardice. Lest anyone forget, the death the Palestinian “martyr” expects to endure is nothing more than a transient inconvenience on the glorious path to a life everlasting. In essence, the Palestinian shahid “kills himself” (or herself) in order not to die.

Could any terrorist on earth possibly be less heroic?

At birth, each and every person contains the possibility of becoming fully human, an opportunity that could reduce potentially destructive loyalties to any murderous mass.

It is only by nurturing this possibility that we humans can ever seek serious remedies to war and terrorism. In principle, Israel’s long-term struggle against Hamas should be to encourage potential terror-killers to discover the way back to themselves as empathetic human beings, but that’s hardly a realistic suggestion.

It’s a time for summation. Israel should never misunderstand or misrepresent the core causes of Palestinian terror:

Hamas killers are not genuinely interested in sovereignty, “self-determination” or statehood, but rather in pretended heroism, belonging and a faith-based immortality.

Still, for the immediate future, Israel will need to continue with its life-saving military response to jihadist terrorism, especially when Hamas leaders remain determined to sacrifice only cruelly manipulated Palestinian populations while living out their own lavishly-sordid lives in luxury hotels far from “Palestine.”

A final question should immediately be put to all decent and thinking persons:

If Hamas leaders truly believe in their promise of life everlasting to Palestinian “martyrs”, why are they never willing to sacrifice themselves or their own families?

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and counter-terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979), and Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016 (2nd ed. 2018). Professor Beres has examined WMD terrorism for almost fifty years, earlier, in consultation with Nuclear Control Institute, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Defense Nuclear Agency (DoD) and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center (USA). The Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, PM Sharon, 2003-2004), Dr. Beres' work is known to both American and Israeli intelligence communities. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II.