How Israel helped prop up Hamas for decades

Analysis: What is Hamas, and why has Israel deliberately enabled its existence for years?
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We know that the Palestinian militant group Hamas is responsible for the deadliest attack on Israeli soil in recent history, killing over 1,300 people and taking more than 200 hostages. Founded in occupied Gaza in 1987, Hamas — an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement) — is the armed group that holds political control over Gaza today.

What you might not know is that this same group was actually created in part by Israel itself. While it may sound like a conspiracy theory, it’s actually a well-documented, open secret that Israel has helped finance and prop up Hamas for years. 

“We need to tell the truth,” Israeli major general Gershon Hacohen, an associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a 2019 TV interview. “Netanyahu’s strategy is to prevent the option of two states, so he is turning Hamas into his closest partner. Openly Hamas is an enemy. Covertly, it’s an ally.”

Understanding Israel’s strategy in doing so can help us read through the lines of the Israeli government’s rhetoric on Hamas’s barbarism. It also helps illuminate Netanyahu’s vision for the region — and his ultimate endgame.

Want just the highlights? Check out our video shorts: part 1, part 2.

Israel’s strategy of divide and conquer

“Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation.”

So says Avner Cohen, Israel’s head of religious affairs in Gaza at the time of Hamas’s emergence, in a 2009 Wall Street Journal article called “How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas.”

Hamas was born during the first Intifada, when Palestinians rose up against their occupiers beginning in 1987. The group was founded by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, a near-blind quadriplegic refugee who grew up in a Gaza refugee camp. 

There, Yassin had helped form a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the infamous and influential movement founded in Egypt that espoused a political Islam — sometimes called “Islamism.” He established this Gaza-based group — Mujama al-Islamiya, a precursor to Hamas — in 1973 as a Muslim charity that set up a university, library, mosques and schools.

Yassin and his fledgling movement found an unexpected ally in Israeli authorities. Gaza’s new rulers loosened previous restrictions on activists promoting political Islam; officially registered Mujama al-Islamiya as a charity and later as an association; allowed its members to spread its message and build goodwill by developing a network of local institutions; and stood back when the group battled its rivals: Palestine’s secularists.

“Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy — to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

After Israel invaded and captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1960s, Israel’s government had been eager to weaken the leading Palestinian political force. At the time, that was the secularist nationalist Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leading figure, Yasser Arafat of the Fatah party.

Israel predictably went after PLO members, many of whom were violently anti-Israel. Meanwhile, honoring the tried-and-true colonial strategy of divide and rule, Israel also began enabling Yassin’s nascent group in the late ’70s.

This religious political movement at the time was on the fringes of Palestinian politics. But with funding from Israel, its influence grew and it eventually morphed into Hamas as we know it today.

It’s a classic case of blowback. “Israel’s experience echoes that of the U.S., which, during the Cold War, looked to Islamists as a useful ally against communism,” the Wall Street Journal wrote nearly 15 years ago. “Anti-Soviet forces backed by America after Moscow’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan later mutated into al Qaeda.”

Indeed, by the 1990s, the PLO had begun working toward a two-state compromise, and Hamas in Gaza had clearly become a powerful anti-Israel militant force that had earned significant support from the Palestinian people. Israel began trying to crack down on the monster it had helped create — but it was too late.

Keeping Hamas alive  — and a two-state solution dead

For decades, Israel has hammered Hamas in Gaza — regular airstrike campaigns, targeted assassinations, a decades-long blockade — with its efforts often backfiring by strengthening support for the group.

But even more sinister is the way that Israeli authorities have, to this day, continued to deliberately enable Hamas. 

After Hamas’s recent attack on Israel, Netanyahu vowed that every member of the group is a “dead man.” Yet Netanyahu has also strategically facilitated millions in funding to Hamas by allowing Qatar to give cash subsidies to Gaza — cash he knew would flow, undetectable, to Hamas leadership.

Since 2009, Netanyahu’s political strategy has revolved around keeping Hamas alive and kicking — even if it hurts his own people. While Israel and Netanyahu give lip service on the international stage to seeking a two-state solution, Hamas provides a convenient excuse to avoid pursuing one.

This reality is neither a conspiracy theory, nor is it particularly well hidden. In fact, Netanyahu and several Israeli officials have spoken of it openly. 

“Netanyahu’s strategy is to prevent the option of two states, so he is turning Hamas into his closest partner. Openly Hamas is an enemy. Covertly, it’s an ally.”

In a 2019 Likud party meeting, Netanyahu gloated to his compatriots: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy — to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

And an Israeli Ministry of Intelligence document published by +972 magazine on Oct. 30 makes it even more explicit. In it, officials refer to the option of the Palestinian Authority taking control of Gaza as the worst possible outcome — because it would remove “one of the central obstacles preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Indeed, Netanyahu has been intent on keeping the Palestinians divided under two ruling groups: the diplomatically successful Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the militant Hamas in Gaza. (The Palestinian Authority, led by the vestiges of the PLO, was created as an interim self-governing body meant to pave the way for an independent Palestinian state, but that has not happened.)

So long as these two groups are divided, Israel has cover to avoid negotiating with the Palestinian Authority on the grounds that the group doesn’t represent all Palestinians.

Hamas has become a convenient foe for Israel, in contrast with the diplomatic success of the Palestinian Authority. In a 2015 interview, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich explained that Hamas’s militancy, and therefore its illegitimacy on the world stage, was a boon for his government’s political strategy.

“The Palestinian Authority is a burden, and Hamas is an asset,” Smotrich said. “It’s a terrorist organization, no one will recognize it, no one will give it status at the [International Criminal Court], no one will let it put forth a resolution at the U.N. Security Council.”

Meanwhile, many Israeli citizens have grown enraged by how Netanyahu’s machinations put them all at risk, killing more than 1,300 of their countrymen.

A recent column in Haaretz, one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, takes the prime minister to task for his “destructive, warped political doctrine that held that strengthening Hamas at the expense of the PA would be good for Israel.” Another recent Haaretz column describes how the Netanyahu-Hamas “alliance” and the Oct. 7 “pogrom…helps the Israeli prime minister preserve his own rule.” The more conservative Times of Israel, too, published an op-ed after Hamas’s attacks entitled “For years, Netanyahu propped up Hamas. Now it’s blown up in our faces.”

Meanwhile, as former IDF member Benzi Sanders explains, Netanyahu’s new bombing campaign and expanding ground offensive will only continue to strengthen and perpetuate Hamas — and stave off a just resolution to this crisis.

Aysha Khan and Ismat Mangla are both editors at Analyst News.