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Douglas Feith

Hamas Strategy and the Hospital Explosion

If people around the world grasped that Hamas ensures as many of its own civilians as possible will die, they would see the conflict in a different light.

Hamas achieved a huge success on October 17, when an uncertain number of Palestinian civilians died in an explosion at Gaza’s Al-Ahli Hospital. Much of the world erupted in outrage against Israel when Hamas blamed it and said that more than 500 civilians had been killed. This was one of only two major successes for Hamas in this war so far, the first being the surprise attack that kicked the conflict off, in which Hamas killed over 1,300 Israelis, raped many women, and took over 150 hostages.

Let’s set aside for a moment what actually happened at the hospital. First, consider this strange question: How can mass death of Palestinian civilians count as a Hamas success? The answer is that Hamas’s strategy hinges on producing such casualties and blaming Israel for them. This helps clarify why Hamas started this war.

Hamas, an Islamist group, describes itself as the arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. It is the religiously extreme vanguard of the Palestinian revolution, aspiring to destroy Israel and “liberate” Palestine on the way to reviving an Islamic caliphate.

From Hamas’s perspective, its revolution is in danger.

Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979. Jordan did so in 1994. The Abraham Accords countries — Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates — normalized relations with Israel in 2020. And Saudi Arabia appears on the verge of doing so soon. These developments contradict the notion that the Palestinian issue is the heart of Arab politics and the key to solving the region’s problems. The Arab states increasingly show disdain for Palestinian leaders, who are widely seen to be corrupt, incompetent, and retrograde. As a result, the Palestinian cause has lost sympathy and strength. A Saudi peace deal with Israel could deliver a death blow to Hamas’s idea of the Palestinian revolution.

Can Hamas leaders take the prospect of such a deal lying down? Obviously not. But what are their options? They have no economic leverage, no conventional military threat, and no diplomatic power. A large-scale attack on Israel is their only chance to salvage their revolution. They know they can’t defeat Israel altogether, but they might be able to achieve two aims: to spark mass uprisings by Arabs and Muslims in Israel, the region, and the world, and to bring down on Israel’s head a torrent of denunciation from non-Arabs and non-Muslims around the world.

That is Hamas’s best hope of derailing a Saudi–Israeli peace deal, and thus of saving its cause. It would please Iran, which is Hamas’s patron, and it would establish that Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, is the Palestinians’ true leader.

But all of this hinges on outraging public opinion in the Arab world and around the rest of the globe. That’s why Hamas invented its unprecedented strategy. It is not merely using Palestinian civilians as human shields. Rather, it is maximizing civilian casualties among its own people. This is brand-new in the history of war — and it is an innovation that the world should discourage, not reward.

Hamas leaders know that when they attack Israel, they require it to defend itself. They have ensured that, in doing so, Israel must do harm to Palestinian civilians. They have arranged this systematically over years by placing rocket launchers, ammunition stocks, command centers. and personnel in and under schools, commercial offices, apartment buildings, and hospitals. This guarantees that Palestinian civilians will suffer damage and death even though Israel does not target civilians and, like the United States, takes rigorous measures to prevent civilian casualties.

Which brings us back to the Al-Ahli Hospital. When the explosion occurred there, news outlets worldwide reported that the cause was an Israeli airstrike against the hospital, and that 500 or more Palestinian civilians had been killed. Large pro-Hamas crowds rallied angrily in Amman, Beirut, Tehran, and elsewhere around the world. U.S. officials told Americans not to visit Lebanon and closed a diplomatic post in Turkey. Jordan’s foreign minister announced that Arab leaders would refuse to attend a summit meeting with President Biden that had been scheduled in Amman.

Hours after the explosion, investigations by Israeli and American officials determined that Hamas’s casualty figures were too high, the explosion had happened in a parking lot, not the hospital itself, and the culprit was a Palestinian group, not Israel. What caused the explosion, President Biden said, was an “errant rocket fired by a terrorist group.” But the false accusation against Israel had already served its purpose. Hamas leaders were implementing their strategy. To Hamas, it doesn’t matter whether Palestinian civilian casualties are real or just perceived, as long as they produce anti-Israel fury.

The perverse strategy of harming Israel by harming Palestinian civilians is bad for Israel but worse for the Palestinians. If people around the world grasped that Hamas aims to maximize, not minimize, harm to its own civilians, they would assign blame to Hamas, not Israel. People who want to protect civilians during wartime should refuse to play the role assigned them in Hamas’s strategy, which would then fail and be abandoned.

This article was first published in National Review.

About the Author
Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, served as U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (July 2001-August 2005).