While fighting rages on in Gaza, there is much discussion of the “day after” – who will govern and rebuild the region once the war is over. This question is important, but an even more important question is not being addressed: what happens on the day after…in the West Bank?
Obviously, both questions will be definitively answered if the war does not conclude with the complete elimination of Hamas’s presence in Gaza. Absent that, Hamas will continue to rule there, and having both won the battle of October 7 and survived the resultant Israeli onslaught, it will enjoy unprecedented popularity and prestige in the West Bank, the Palestinian diaspora, and the Arab World as a whole.
In such a scenario, the PLO will inevitably lose control of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas might simply seize the PA through military action. More likely, however, the craven and feeble leadership of the Authority would attempt to appease Hamas, leading to a situation where the PLO remains nominally in charge while in reality it would merely be a puppet with Hamas pulling the strings. Needless to say, such an outcome would be a disaster – for Israel, for the Palestinians, for the region, and for the world at large.
So Hamas must be destroyed in Gaza. But that, in and of itself, will not put an end to its power and prestige. The idea of Hamas, and the ideals it represents, will live on.
Whether we like it or not, the fact is that Hamas has delivered the single most powerful blow to Israel in 100 years of Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, even if every one of its members in Gaza is killed in the coming months, the remnants of the organization in the West Bank and overseas will enjoy unparalleled legitimacy in the eyes of all who yearn for a Palestine from “the River to the Sea.” As a result, while it will take longer, Hamas will still likely end up superseding the PLO and taking control of the PA.
To truly defeat Hamas and end the existential threat it poses, we must confront the organization not just physically, but ideologically. There is nothing new in this observation. In considering 9/11, Shmuel Bar wrote back in 2004 that “counterterrorism begins on the religious-ideological level…”
An ideological offensive against Hamas must be waged on three fronts: schools, mosques, and prisons. Obviously, the racism and violence taught in Palestinian schools – including those run by UNRWA – has to be addressed. This may necessitate not only curriculum changes but the removal of some or even most of the teachers and school administrators in Gaza. As for the mosques, Imams who preach extremism must be defunded and de-platformed, while clerics who condemn violence and support co-existence must have their voices heard.
The most important front, however, is in Israel’s prisons. Large numbers of Hamas personnel have been captured. With the exception of those implicated in serious crimes, they should be offered the opportunity to renounce Hamas and offer contrition.
Numerous countries that confront Islamist terror movements have established such programs to re-educate and “de-program” Islamist prisoners – including Denmark, Egypt, Great Britain, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Thailand. Evidence largely shows that these programs, while imperfect, are generally quite effective if certain guidelines are followed.
Perhaps the best model for a program in Israel is Singapore. A 2010 report from the RAND Corporation explains that “by using credible Muslim interlocutors to discredit radical Islamism, Singapore’s government has sought to build the resiliency of its Muslim community and make it an inhospitable environment for extremism.”
Unlike Saudi Arabia’s more famous program, Singapore’s “Religious Rehabilitation Group” (RRG) is not government-run, though it is government-sponsored. Furthermore, the RRG is calibrated to the needs of people who will be living in a pluralist society rather than a purely Moslem one – making its approach more applicable to the realities Hamas prisoners will face upon release.
Prisoners participating in the RRG program receive one year or more of religious instruction from senior Moslem clerics combined with psychological counseling. Importantly, all imams and counselors who participate in the RRG are unpaid volunteers drawn from Singapore’s Muslim community, and they receive extensive training before being allowed to work with prisoners.
Israel should establish a similar program – targeting the many Hamas prisoners who are surrendering and have not been personally implicated in any crime. Each one of them who renounces terrorism and shows genuine contrition represents a body blow to Hamas’ narrative.
The facts of October 7 cannot be changed, but if the popular interpretation of the massacre among Palestinians shifts from seeing it as their national movement’s apotheosis to regarding it as its strategic, moral, and even spiritual nadir, well, then Hamas is history.