Yehuda Bauer

Hamas and Israel live in different worlds

Israel would never think to take hostages in revenge - and even if it did, Hamas would not care. How then can these parties find a peaceful solution?

Hamas is an Islamist fundamentalist movement, whose ultimate aim is the conversion of all of humanity to its version of Islam. Its internal structure is based on consultations within a narrow body of leaders who serve as both theologians and as politicians. The method it advocates to achieve its aim is armed struggle, and this is the way it interprets the word “jihad,” though the term could also also mean a conversion by persuasion, but that is not the way Hamas advocates, although it must be said that social bonding, and care for the weak, the young and the elderly, is definitely part of its message. It is in fact this social aspect that makes Hamas widely popular with many Muslims.

In its armed struggle, Hamas is not bound by what in the West may be called liberal and humanistic conventions. Hamas’s struggle against Israel is a typical case of an asymmetric controversy: while Israel, and its supporters, adhere to the traditions of a relatively liberal West — or at least declare they adhere to them — Hamas is not bound by any such considerations. The two sides live in two different worlds.

Allies of Hamas can be found among Islamists of different hues, and one of the main centers, if not the main one, is Qatar, a small principality with tremendous wealth, ruled by the Al Tani family. The Israeli government, in its infinite wisdom, actually allowed Qatari representatives to transfer funds to Hamas over Israeli territory. They possibly may have thought that that would moderate Hamas’s radicalism and weaken the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), but it reminds one of the famous British limerick about the lady of Niger who smiled as she rode on a tiger, and they came back from the ride with the lady inside, and the smile on the face of the tiger. The smile is definitely on the face of Hamas, and Israel faces the extremely difficult position of having to fight Hamas, while avoiding as much serious harm to the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza as possible.

The new element in this situation is the taking of civilian hostages by Hamas, which complicates the situation endlessly for the Israeli security establishment. Not that the taking of hostages is something entirely new – hostages have been taken by enemies since ancient times, usually held for ransom. But in the self-understanding of most of Israeli society, the responsibility of the community for each of its members is a highly-prized value, and an abandonment of hostages held by Hamas is simply out of the question.

The asymmetry of the two sides becomes clear again: there is no demand by the Israeli public to simply capture a number of Palestinian-Gazan Arabs and say that they will be released only in an exchange. Hamas could not care less. There are many Palestinians held in Israeli prison for what the authorities see as security transgressions, and the demand has been made by Hamas to release them in return for the civilian Jewish hostages. This would run against the Israeli legal system, and Hamas is of course aware of that, and it does not appear to be in the cards.  The asymmetric character of the situation becomes clear again: two world views that are usually couched and hidden in political speech, but who appeal to different types of the human universe.

Can these contradictions be solved, or at least papered over? Hardly. What remains is a relentless struggle, in which any compromise, temporary as it may be, actually weakens the liberal world, albeit a problematic one, of which Israel is a part.

The call of a well-meaning US government for calm and negotiations is totally misplaced; it also contradicts declared American policies directed in favor of Israel and against Hamas.

Again, one has to emphasize the asymmetrical character of everyone’s policies: negotiations will only weaken the liberal side, and a retreat of Hamas from its positions is actually unthinkable. The issue of Israeli (Jewish) hostages in Gaza is something on which the Israeli side cannot compromise.

An armed incursion into Gaza, as is now taking place, does and must have as a primary aim the liberation of these civilians. The taking of these people as hostages is another peak of Hamas barbarism which must be defeated if one wants to live in a more or less civilized society.

About the Author
Professor Yehuda Bauer is Professor Emeritus of History and Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem.
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