The moral imperative to destroy Hamas has come roaring back to the front burner with the revelations of the terrorists’ abuse of Israeli captives, especially young children. Israel first announced its intention to defeat and disempower Hamas after the attacks of October 7. When Israeli leadership refused to waver from this goal, Western observers realized it wasn’t mere bluster.
There followed a wave of warnings that this war aim simply wasn’t realistic. Now that we appear to be at a moment of renewed Israeli resolve to carry out its mission in Gaza, those admonishments are likely to resurface as well. Though some were clearly offered in sincere good faith, the arguments against trying to destroy Hamas boil down to some form of: the ideas animating the terrorist group cannot be eliminated. Even if true, that’s irrelevant to Israel’s war aims.
The Islamic State, similar to Hamas not only in its medieval barbarity but in its governing of territory that includes civilians, is also animated by ideas. And, to be clear, those ideas are consequential.
Barack Obama famously referred to the Islamic State as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team.” But he also had a habit of discounting the Islamic nature of terror groups, including the Islamic State. “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim,” he said in a 2014 speech. Refusal to accept the Islamic State’s belief system on its own terms hobbled the administration’s response.
But the fate of those ideas was not tied to the fate of the Islamic State. We had to understand them, but we didn’t need to banish the ideas themselves from the battlefield, just the foot soldiers who carried them into war.
And banish those foot soldiers we did. “At its height, the Islamic State … held about a third of Syria and 40 percent of Iraq,” notes the Wilson Center’s timeline of the group’s rise and fall. “By December 2017 it had lost 95 percent of its territory, including its two biggest properties, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, its nominal capital.”
Taking back Mosul, which was done with Iraqi forces and U.S. airpower, required nine months of difficult urban warfare. It is about half the size of Gaza. Israel’s startlingly effective campaign in Gaza is seven weeks old. As a terrorist group, the Islamic State still exists. Its ideas still exist. Its “state” manifestly does not.
The other idea put forth as a reason for Hamas’s unbeatability is Palestinian nationalism. “I understand the desire to destroy the Hamas apparatus, but I just don’t think it’s doable,” Benjamin Friedman, policy director at the realist think tank Defense Priorities, told the Christian Science Monitor. “If you envision any degree of Palestinian self-rule, then I think some version of Hamas 2.0 remains in power.”
Except Hamas’s belief system isn’t a Palestinian nationalism compatible with Palestinian self-rule, as counterintuitive as that may seem. That’s because Hamas self-rule requires Israel’s destruction.
The terror group made a big show in 2017 of revising its founding charter. The resulting document moved the group’s ideology away from an obsession with jihad and Jews to one that only referred to those topics euphemistically. The entire point, it seems, was actually to give Western apologists an excuse to pretend Hamas endorsed the two-state solution, thereby making it a legitimate representative of Palestinian nationalism.
That passage reads: “without compromising its rejection of the Zionist entity and without relinquishing any Palestinian rights, Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.”
As is clearly stated, Hamas will accept (or claims that it will) a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines and with right of return of all descendants of Palestinian refugees to Israel, merely as a step toward reclaiming all the land—most of which is intended to be accomplished with the influx of millions of Palestinians claiming a right to kick Jews out of their homes.
It is an explicitly genocidal doctrine, repeating its intention to erase “Zionism” “from the river to the sea.” Now, genocide is, I suppose, an idea. It may even be a powerful one. But the Allies didn’t rationalize away the need to defeat those who embraced that same idea in World War II and to liberate Europe from the Nazis by fretting that fascist thought could never be fully eradicated.
Yes, Hamas can be defeated. Yes, Israel and the West possess the capabilities to do this. And yes, it has been done before. The final ingredient is national will—and that part is up to Israel and Israel alone.