Hi friends. This is a special episode. We’re hard at work to bring you Season 6 of Unpacking Israeli History, which should be coming out early next year.
But today is October 9, 2023. Two days after the most traumatic day in Israeli history. And we had to say something about what’s happening.
I’ve seen my fair share of tragedies. You know this. I’ve talked about most of them on this very podcast. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when I was ten years old. The second intifada. 9/11.
But now, I’m speaking to you about something raw, something that is still happening. We’re living through history right now. And no one knows how this situation will unfold.
But we do know this. I know this. I went to sleep on October 6, 2023 in one world. I woke up on October 7th in another. And it’s not a nice world. It feels like a dystopia. Like a living nightmare.
It was Shabbat. And not just any old Shabbat, which would be awful enough. It was also Shemini Atzeret. Simchat Torah. The end of the Jewish holiday season, which we call zman simchateinu. The time of our joy. The time of our joy. But there was no joy in my synagogue that morning.
Fifty years and one day after the surprise attack of the Yom Kippur War, Hamas launched the bloodiest assault in Israeli history. It began with a rocket fire – an all-too-common occurrence in the embattled communities of the Israeli south. But the barrage didn’t let up. Above the sound of sirens came the pop-pop-pop of gunfire.
In Ofakim. In Nahal Oz. In Kibbutz Be’eri. Maybe you’ve heard of these places, maybe you haven’t. They’re towns in the south of Israel. Not settlements, towns, in the south of Israel. Home to thousands of ordinary people just living their lives.
The gunfire wasn’t coming from lone-wolf infiltrators – the kind that sneak through the separation fence every so often to kill and maim Israelis before they’re neutralized by army or police or a brave civilian. This was something unimaginable. Something the Jewish people hadn’t seen since 1973. This was a full-scale invasion.
Hundreds of terrorists fanned out through Israel’s southern communities, as terrified residents huddled in their bomb shelters and placed increasingly desperate calls for help.
They called radio stations. Police. Family members. Anyone who could save them from the carnage outside their shelter doors.
And make no mistake. Carnage is the only word for what Hamas had come to do. They’d prepared for this. For hours, they moved from house to house, looking for people to kill, rape, or kidnap. They shot children in front of their parents. Set fire to houses to lure out residents, then shot them. Brutalized countless women and girls. Carted away babies and grandmothers and soldiers, parading them like prizes through the streets of Gaza.
Even as I say these words, I think, how can this be? It must be a mistake. But it’s real. And we know it happened, because, as grotesque as it is, the terrorists recorded every second. Every instance of brutality. Every assault on human dignity. The entire world watched – is still watching – as video after devastating video streamed through our feeds.
I started watching the videos, but I stopped. They’re too graphic. They’re too dark. Too surreal, but they’re real. They’re very real. Our horror is nothing compared to the horror of Israelis who learned about their missing or murdered relatives from Hamas’ videos.
Since October 7, Israeli phones have been lighting up with desperate texts from relatives. They’re coming. They’re here. They’re taking hostages. I love you.
But the frantic desperation unleashed by these texts was nothing compared to the anguish of radio silence. Because one by one, relatives who had called or sent messages stopped responding. And the entire country was forced to confront the awful truth.
This was not business as usual. This was not a “flare up of tensions” or “an exchange of fire.” As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in a televised address to the nation, this is war.
The kind of war Israel hadn’t fought in 50 years. But, it’s not true. This is a war Israel has NEVER fought. While we cannot look into the future, nothing about this gives me Egypt-Israel vibes from 73, which ultimately led to peace just a few years later. This is a war on Israeli soil, targeting every single person in the country, not soldiers. Civilians. Jewish. Arab. Residents. Tourists. Citizens. Foreigners. Babies. To Hamas, everyone was fair game.
A few hours later, Jewish communities in the diaspora woke up to a nightmare. I don’t use my phone during Shabbat or holidays. I had no idea, when I walked to synagogue that morning, that the world had changed. I wouldn’t realize the full scale of the devastation til much, much later. I first heard 22 people were killed and I was aghast. Then, I heard 40, and I couldn’t believe it. Then, I heard 100, and I felt nauseous. The numbers kept ascending, and I stewed in 36 hours of anxiety.
The first inkling came when our rabbi broke down in tears in front of the congregation. In a broken voice, he gave a brief description of what happened. All around me, congregants turned to one another in shock.
For 36 hours, we consumed whatever secondhand news we could. Snippets from people who had looked at their phones. Rumors. And I don’t know what’s worse – the agony of uncertainty, of not knowing. Or the agony of turning on your phone on Sunday night and learning that it was so much worse than anything you could have imagined.
Because none of us could have imagined this. Israel has been living next door to this enemy for nearly 20 years. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2006. We thought we knew who they were. We watched as they stockpiled weapons underneath schools and mosques. We saw them pour millions of dollars into terror tunnels 20 stories deep. We heard the testimony of ordinary Palestinians in Gaza, who have been living a strangulated half-life under authoritarian rule.
But despite all of this, we were fooled. Because Hamas had been engaging in a deliberate campaign of misinformation and obfuscation for years.
They revised their genocidal charter in 2017, calling for, and I quote, “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967.” That’s a significantly softer stance than their original 1988 charter, which calls for the liberation of quote, “every inch” of Palestine.
They didn’t get involved in the earlier 2023 skirmish between the IDF and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And in all their talks with the Israelis, they gave the impression that, hey, their primary focus was economics. You know, getting additional permits for Palestinians in Gaza working inside Israel. Easing restrictions. Smoothing checkpoints and border crossings.
The impression they gave, day after day, was that they were done with this whole genocidal campaign to destroy the Jewish state and establish an Islamic government on its ruins.
But all that was a ruse.
All along, Hamas was preparing for the deadliest attack in Israeli history. They built a fake Israeli community and practiced moving door to door, killing civilians – exactly as they did the morning of October 7th. And they did all of this right under the nose of the Israelis, most likely with the help of their primary backer, Iran.
Hamas owes everything to Iran – from its fundamental Islamist ideology to its funding. Not to mention its moral support. The ayatollahs in Iran were among the first to congratulate the terror group as it swept through Israel’s south, killing and brutalizing hundreds of Israelis. Vendors handed out sweets in Tehran’s “Palestine Square,” as citizens celebrated the attack with music and dancing.
While they hail the attack as “justified” and “remarkable,” as of this recording, Iran’s leadership currently denies it had anything to do with its planning. Israeli intelligence has said it’s too soon to know definitively how much of a hand Iran played.
But here’s what we know for certain. This is war.
It’s going to be long. It’s already ugly, as Hamas’ video recordings show. And the ultimate losers won’t be the Israelis. It won’t even be Hamas – which will go the way of all other genocidal regimes. The real losers? That’s the Palestinian people, whose leadership has just dragged them into a war they have no hope of winning.
Keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. Remember this lesson as you hear about all of Hamas’ social welfare projects. They have never had the interests of the Palestinian people at heart. They have no interest in “liberation.” Their aim is crystal clear: genocide.
I hate to speak blithely, but it’s way more than that. The decision to assault women, to take children hostage, to humiliate the elderly, to shoot and kill anyone and everyone they saw was a decision to also inflict pain and suffering on its own people. Hamas and Iran knew that Israel would retaliate more severely than it ever has, and Hamas said, “Yep, let’s do it.” Jewish blood is on their hands. Palestinian blood is on their hands.
We recorded the episode you’re about to hear less than six months ago. Already, it feels outdated. But it’s an important reminder of Hamas’ roots. A critically important place to start while we’re all asking ourselves what the hell just happened? Who did this?
Hamas did this. Hamas is doing this. And the episode you’re about to hear will tell you exactly who they are.
Hey! I’m Noam Weissman and you’re listening to Unpacking Israeli History, the podcast that takes a deep dive into some of the most intense, historically fascinating, and often misunderstood events and stories linked to Israeli history. Unpacking Israeli History is generously sponsored by Marci and Andrew Spitzer, and this week’s episode is sponsored by Adam Neuman.
Before we start – if you haven’t yet, please share out the pod with others. I like saying pod. I kinda feel cool when I say it, like why say podcast when you can just say pod? We have a great community of thousands of people listening, but why not make it millions?? So let’s spread the word. Okay, yalla, let’s do this.
Of all the moments seared into my memory from high school, you wouldn’t think visiting my brother at yeshiva would top the list. And yet, 21 years later, I remember that visit with almost photographic clarity.
Because I flew to see him during April of 2001, in the thick of the Second Intifada – the four-year Palestinian uprising that had begun in September 2000 and would go on to claim more than five thousand Palestinian and Israeli lives. Maybe you remember our episode about it, all the way back in season one. Or maybe you lived it. Maybe you remember firsthand the footage of each brutal attack. The daily, spiraling dread.
I don’t remember that visit because it was fun or relaxing or anything else. I remember it because it was terrifying. The entire country seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for the next blow. Taking a bus was out of the question for me. So was lingering in a cafe, walking through a crowded market, or, to be honest, going outside more than was strictly necessary. I basically just repeated the same sentence before going anywhere. “Yesh Shomer?” Is there a guard? Let me state that again… I was standing in the sovereign Jewish state, which was created to make Jewish people around the world feel safe, but I was asking storefronts and restaurants if they had a guard before I could enter.
I returned to Baltimore after those two weeks feeling… well, a lot.
Relieved, because I was still alive.
Guilty, because I had the luxury of leaving.
Guiltier because I liked hanging out with my friends without needing to ask for security.
Grieving, because the country I loved so much was bleeding. Every attack felt personal. Every attack hurt.
But underneath this complex swirl of emotions was an unexpected fascination. There were people behind these attacks. People with a coherent, if inexcusable, ideology. People with a message for the Israeli public and for the world at large. It was a message delivered with bombs and bullets. With defiant and grandiose threats of unending violence. So is it any surprise that I wanted to understand them? They were the architects of so many senseless deaths. And like any person confronted with the chaotic injustice of the universe, I wanted to understand why.
I’ve spent the last twenty-odd years studying and thinking and writing about Israel. But there’s another history that runs parallel to this, that has shaped and informed the stories we tell ourselves. And we cannot claim a nuanced understanding of our own history without confronting the history that lies just across the imaginary border that divides us from our neighbors.
And let me tell you what I mean by “nuanced” and what I don’t mean. It does not mean watered down. It does not mean tepid. Nor does it mean “balanced for the sake of balance.” Nuanced, for me, means complete, it means multi-faceted, it means broad. For me, nuance allows people to engage with an idea with humility and curiosity.
We can be curious about an ideology without condoning it. I hope that I don’t have to tell you that I condemn the targeting of civilians. That I think indiscriminately killing babies and grandmas and commuters on purpose is cowardly and craven and wrong. But this conflict is far from over. And we have no hope of resolving it if we don’t understand our enemy first.
The enemy is not all Palestinians. Palesintians and Israelis can and often do get along. So who is the enemy? There’s no shortage of terror groups on Israel’s borders. Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The PFLP. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. But only one was responsible for 40% of suicide attacks during the Second Intifada. Only one has controlled the Gaza Strip today for nearly twenty years. And only one has received untold hundreds of millions of dollars from all over the world. That would be – and I’m doing my best here, guys, so don’t make fun of me – Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, “The Islamic Resistance Movement,” whose acronym we all know: Hamas.
I can’t think of another group that better encapsulates all the complexities and contradictions of the Middle East.
They’re Sunnis who enjoy Shi’a support. They refuse to recognize the “legitimacy of the Zionist entity,” but negotiate regularly, though indirectly, with the Israeli government. They claim to fight in the name of the Palestinian cause, but have no problem assassinating fellow Palestinians or siphoning aid money to fund terror. They were democratically elected in a landslide in 2006, but they’re making Gazans miserable. [By the way, as usual, citations for all of these are in the show notes.]
So, how did we end up here? Well, the story of Hamas is full of twists, turns, and – I hate to say it – mistakes no one saw coming. So strap in. We’re going back to the 1970s.
Palestinian people are not a monolith. Then, as now, Palestinian society was diverse and sprawling. And I don’t just mean ideologically. The Palestinian community was geographically diverse, scattered among the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and even Gulf States like Kuwait. It comprised Christians, Muslims, secular folks, Marxists, Islamists, and so on – each with their own views about the conflict with Israel.
So in 1964, the Arab League founded the PLO, or Palestine Liberation Organization, hoping to unify and maintain control of all the different Palestinian political factions. Here’s the rub, though. Israel’s stunning victory in 1967 – and its subsequent control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – showed that the Arab states weren’t as effective as people thought, but neither did it exactly endear the Jewish state to its Palestinian neighbors. By 1968, the PLO’s most dominant faction was, unfortunately, deeply committed to violence. Its name was Fatah, and its cofounder, Yasser Arafat, soon ascended to chairman of the entire PLO, becoming Israel’s Public Enemy Number One.
Because the thing about young Arafat? He was young, scrappy, and hungry…and really liked terrorism.
So it’s not difficult to understand why Israel was so desperate to, shall we say, redirect some of Arafat’s power and popularity. “Divide and conquer,” baby. It’s the oldest trick in the book. They found their man among the Islamists. OK, and now I need to do a nerd corner: what the heck is an Islamist? Well, as you probably noticed from the word Islam, Islamists place a lot of emphasis on religion. So much, in fact, that they believe that Islam should be inextricable from public life. For Islamists, Islam is the basis for everything: courts of law. Political ideology. Governance. Economic institutions. Cultural life. Islamists believe that all these things should be permeated by and inseparable from religion.
Now, that’s a pretty basic description of a wide range of ideologies that are all lumped together under the umbrella of “Islamism.” So the important thing to know is this: there are tons of Islamist groups across the world, all with their own specific and diverse ideologies, and I bet you’ve never heard of most of them. Because most Islamist groups are not violent. Sure, they may have a fundamentalist approach to religion, but they don’t use that as an excuse to kill people.
Most of the time, that is. Sometimes, though, you get the more radical Islamist groups we’ve all, unfortunately, heard of. ISIS. Hezbollah. The mullahs and ayatollahs in Iran.
But in the early 70s, Gaza’s Islamists seemed pretty chill. (Yeah, that’s a fancy political term.) And most importantly, they seemed like a good counterweight to Israel’s enemy, the PLO, whose leadership was mostly secular. The man who would become their leader was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a soft-spoken, sensitive man in a wheelchair who had dedicated his life to two things: Islam, and improving Gaza’s miserable living conditions.
Now, if you know who Yassin was, and what he ended up doing, you might be kind of disgusted that I’m being so complimentary. But I’m just echoing the Shin Bet’s assessment. In fact, in an interview with Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, one Shin Bet officer called Yassin “an excellent conversationalist, knowledgeable about Zionist history and Israeli politics, sharp-minded and very pleasant.”
What a lovely description. If my children (or Niv Fishbein) ever listen to this, I want that to be on my tombstone. (Niv sells tombstones.)
So Yassin was spared the Israeli crackdown on Fatah and its allies in 1971. He watched as Israel killed or deported the militant groups running around the Gaza Strip. All through the 70s, he waited for his moment, building an ever-expanding network of schools and mosques and clinics that seemed to be, well, good for Gaza. So while the Shin Bet kept an eye on the cleric, they were happy to leave the Islamists in Gaza alone.
After all, Yassin was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – the populist reform movement established in Egypt in 1928. The Muslim Brothers had two goals: enshrine Islam into every element of public life, and liberate Muslim lands from foreign powers. Like the British. Or, in Gaza – where the movement set up shop in 1946 – the yehud, the Jews. But though the Muslim Brotherhood started as an armed jihadist movement, the most hardcore Muslim Brothers left Gaza in the 50s, after the Suez Canal Crisis, leaving the movement free to focus on quote “spiritual revival over active militancy.”
Everything changed in 1979, when the Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah and established an Islamist government in Iran. The backbone of his revolution was a nationalist form of Islam that inspired Islamists across the world. Soon, Gaza was engulfed too; its imams were preaching armed struggle, and their audience responded with enthusiasm. Brigadier General Yitzhak Segev was the governor of Gaza at the time.
(Side note: isn’t it wild that there was once an Israeli governor of Gaza?) And though he later reported feeling wary of Yassin and the Islamists, he reiterated: “our main enemy was Fatah.” So as the Islamists grew increasingly violent towards their secular rivals, the Israeli army mostly stood by. But in this case, it was a huge mistake. Because behind the scenes, Yassin and his supporters were beginning to arm themselves. Some Israeli officials were sounding the alarm. We are being too lenient with the Islamists, and it’s going to come back to bite us.
But the PLO was Israel’s most pressing concern. So Yassin and his followers built up their infrastructure, and cache of weapons, and waited for their moment.
They found it in 1987.
By then, Israel had ruled the West Bank and Gaza Strip for 20 years. And they were a rough couple of decades for everyone involved. Palestinians resented their economic dependence on Israel, which was among their major employers. They bristled under the IDF crackdowns on the PLO. And they watched in outrage as Israelis built homes on lands that Palestinians claimed as theirs.
The region was a tinderbox. The smallest spark would set it ablaze. That spark came in December of 1987, when an Israeli truck collided with two Palestinian vans, killing four Palestinians. Palestinians believed the crash was not only purposeful but an act of revenge for the stabbing of an Israeli man in Gaza a few days before. The Palestinian territories erupted in protest and chaos and blood. The unrest grew more and more vicious as Israel cracked down hard and Palestinians responded with increased violence.
It was amid this chaos that Yassin co-founded a new movement and assumed the position of its spiritual leader, despite having no formal religious credentials. But that didn’t matter to the members of his new organization, which he called – you guessed it – Hamas.
Turns out, the Shin Bet was right. Yassin’s ideas did prove to be quite popular. Unfortunately, his new movement made the PLO look downright adorable.
Here are some highlights from Hamas’ lengthy 1988 charter:
Article 6: “[The Islamic Resistance Movement] strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” Now, how exactly did they plan to do that? Luckily, Article 13 explains: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.” (One more explanatory comma: Jihad can and has meant multiple things in Arabic. The “higher jihad” refers to engaging in challenging spiritual endeavors; the “lower jihad” is what they’re referring to here: armed resistance.)
And, why was there no other solution, like, I don’t know, diplomacy? Well, Article 32 lays it out quite clearly, comparing Israel to Nazis. A particularly painful comparison, for obvious reasons. And everyone knows there’s no diplomatic response to a Nazi.
Especially not one whose goal is world domination.
Yeah, did you know that the leaders of a 8,550 mi country are actually angling to take over the world? (In simpler terms: Israel is small.) And did you know that the Jewish people founded the United Nations so we could turn the world’s governments into our personal playthings? Because that’s in the Hamas charter! (Side note: It would be pretty embarrassing if “the Zionists” had founded the UN, considering how many anti-Israel resolutions they pass each year. But I digress.)
What is Hamas’s evidence for all these extravagant claims? Well, I’ll read to you directly: “When they – that would be the Zionists – will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.” Ah, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s the antisemitic canard that just keeps on giving! In short, Hamas’ anti-Zionism is explicitly and inextricably bound up in antisemitic conspiracy theories – and the conditions in Gaza unfortunately lent them credibility.
Now, again, I want to be intellectually honest. That’s my brand! Hamas did update their charter in 2017. And though they still refuse to recognize Israel, they have removed references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Baby steps, I guess. But perhaps more interestingly, the new charter also accepts “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967” to be an acceptable compromise. Keep listening to understand why it’s difficult for me to fully take that seriously, but the charter says it, so, that’s what it says.
Back to the 1980s. Hamas’ first major act of violence came in 1989, when they kidnapped and murdered two Israeli soldiers, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Saadon, and abused their bodies. To say the Shin Bet was livid would be an understatement – especially when the two murderers managed to flee to Egypt. Israel cracked down hard, sentencing Yassin to life in prison. And still, the attacks kept coming, each one ratcheting up the tension of the First Intifada.
And then Israel made a terrible mistake. In 1992, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his government expelled hundreds of Hamas men to Lebanon. But this was no pleasure cruise in the cosmopolitan capital of Beirut, aka the Paris of the Middle East. Hamas was going to southern Lebanon, where Israel had maintained a military presence since 1982.
Now, I’m not an expert in international law. But I’m pretty sure that it’s not exactly legal to deport people to a neighboring country that doesn’t want them without some kind of due process. Whether or not you care about due process for Hamas, though, you gotta admit: this move did not make Israel look good. But Israel’s used to taking a beating in the international press. So the headlines would have been worth it, if the movement had withered and died during its exile, as Israel intended. But a week into this whole mess, Hezbollah came to visit. And that changed everything.
One day, we’ve got to do a deep dive on Hezbollah. For now, check out the video we’ve linked in the show notes for an overview on the Lebanese terror group. At first, the Hamas men were wary. Hamas is Sunni. Hezbollah is Shia. But the two groups’ religious divide mattered significantly less than their mutual hatred of Israel. Plus, both Hezbollah and Hamas were, in their own ways, products of the Islamic Revolution.
So instead of freezing on some godforsaken hill in Lebanon, playing Sheshbesh and dreaming of home, the exiled Hamas members received a crash course in Terrorism 101, courtesy of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Espionage. Encryption. How to fire a rocket launcher. And… how to make bombs.
The star pupil of Intro to Bomb Making was a young electrical engineer named Yahya Ayyash. And though he wouldn’t live to see his thirtieth birthday, Ayyash quickly established a fearsome reputation as Hamas’ principal bomb-maker. His nickname was al-mohandes. The Engineer. But it was a macabre sort of engineering. Because Ayyash specialized in death. He packed his bombs with nails and screws – household objects used not to build, but to destroy.
After a year of international pressure, Israel allowed the Hamas men to come back. Within the year, Ayyash sent a special, awful, thank-you gift: Israel’s very first suicide bomb. Then another. And another. And another.
Israelis were sadly familiar with terrorism. But the suicide bombings were a paradigm shift. The head of Shin Bet’s Gaza division noted: “Until then, the Palestinian terrorists we were acquainted with had a lust for life… The change in 1993 was dramatic, and it surprised us.” Worst of all, by late ’94, the genre had spawned copycats. Soon, suicide bombings became the terrorist weapon du jour.
How did that happen? How did Hamas manage to persuade anyone that death is preferable to life?
As usual, the answer is complicated.
Remember, at its core, Hamas is a religious movement. Hamas’ founder, Ahmed Yassin, had found a way to sharpen his followers’ devotion into a deadly weapon. Sure, Islam forbade suicide. But self-sacrifice for the sake of Jihad? That was a one-way ticket to Paradise, all expenses paid, courtesy of The Engineer’s bombs. Death is temporary. Paradise is forever. In fact, according to Israeli police, eyewitnesses report that suicide bombers often smile before detonating.
But that’s not the whole story. Not every suicide attacker is motivated by the prospect of paradise. The early 90s were, to put it mildly, deeply chaotic for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Arafat was inking peace deals with Israel on the White House Lawn — peace deals that Hamas, and other Palestinian groups, opposed with every fiber of their being and Israelis on the right condemned as well. (Not comparing them, relax everyone!). (If you don’t remember Oslo, you’re in luck: season 3, episode 10.
Link is in the show notes.) For some, attacking Israel was an act of protest. Not just against Israel, but against their own government, which they believed was selling them out.
And though it’s cliche to say that violence begets violence, it’s also true: suicide attacks increased after Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Palestinians during Ramadan prayers. (Again, see the show notes for our episode on that.) So we shouldn’t ignore the desire for revenge or retaliation, the eye-for-an-eye mentality that so often has dominated the Middle East ever since Hammurabi’s scribes chiseled his code of law into stone. (Nerd corner: look up Hammurabi’s code of law if you’re not sure what I’m talking about!)
Regardless of their motivation, Yassin’s extensive network of social welfare institutions proved to be chock-full of recruits eager for martyrdom. For years, they’d been steeped in the fiery sermons and pamphlets of Hamas clerics. And as the movement matured, the message trickled down to younger audiences. I mean, in December 1987, Hamas was handing out leaflets with messages like “O all the people. O our children: the Jews – brothers of the apes, assassins of the prophets, bloodsuckers, warmongers – are murdering you…”
Twenty years later, after the second intifada and their consolidation of power in Gaza, Hamas had their own newspapers and TV stations, which introduced children to the glory of jihad. Perhaps their best-known show is The Pioneers of Tomorrow, whose main character — a Mickey Mouse-like puppet named Farfour — confronts his duty to “liberate this land from the filth of the criminal, plundering Jews.”
He’s eventually beaten to death by an Israeli interrogator, only to be replaced by a series of similarly low-budget animals who eventually share his tragic fate. On a basic level, this is patently absurd, even comical. As are Hamas’ surprisingly catchy Hebrew propaganda videos, one of which became Israel’s unofficial soundtrack for the summer of 2014.
But we shouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating Hamas, no matter how low-budget their propaganda is. Because their indoctrination is deadly serious. There is a reason they rule Gaza, and it’s not simply brute force.
By the 1990s, Arafat and his PLO, PA, and Fatah cronies had earned quite the reputation for corruption, nepotism, and autocracy. But meanwhile, Hamas, with its unwavering ideological purity, offered Palestinians a welcome taste of transparency. At last, someone in Palestinian politics seemed to understand who they were serving: the Palestinian people.
Gazans were flocking to Hamas’s clinics and soup kitchens and schools. And not just because Hamas’ services were cheaper than the alternative. “‘It’s safer to come to an Islamic place, where you can find a doctor who’s not only a good dentist, but a good Muslim,’” said 24-year-old Najwa abu Mustafa in a 2006 interview with the LA Times. And other Palestinians agreed: “‘We would be completely destitute without [Hamas’] help… Naturally, we gave our votes to Hamas, because they are the ones who touch our need.’”
But Hamas isn’t a social justice organization. They’ve got political aims, too. Conscious of their growing popularity, Hamas seized their chance to challenge their Fatah rivals and consolidate power. And the best way to weaken Fatah and derail the peace process was to continue the grisly attacks against Israel. Their strategy?
- One: Hamas would attack.
- Two: Once it had been poked enough, Israel would eventually take the bait. Maybe they’d close borders, cutting Palestinians off from their livelihood. Maybe they’d round up demonstrators. Or maybe – and this, for Hamas, was probably best of all – they’d respond with violence. The more severe Hamas’ attack, the more severe the response. So,
- Three: ordinary Palestinians would understand that the Israelis just couldn’t be trusted. Which also meant that:
- Four, Palestinians would realize that Fatah was selling them out by negotiating with the Israeli enemy. And,
- Five: The Palestinians would finally fall into Hamas’ arms.
I’m kind of making light, but this is actually exactly what happened. By 2001, the peace process was dead, replaced by what would be four years of terror. Which brings us right back to the start of this episode: 16-year-old Noam, afraid to go outside. And this time, Fatah was in on the action. That’s right: the party Arafat had founded, the party that had signed peace agreements with Israel less than a decade before, was responsible for more than quarter of the suicide attacks on Israelis during the Second Intifada.
Our episode on that terrible, terrible time goes into much greater detail about the Intifada’s legacy. The fear. The grief. The lingering mistrust. The lack of faith in peace or diplomacy. In short, it was Hamas’ time to shine. And shine they did. Because in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, Hamas won in a landslide, sweeping 76 seats to Fatah’s 43.
According to The Carter Center, which monitored the elections: “Key issues for the voters: on the one hand, slow progress towards peace and independence, inefficiency and corruption under the long-ruling Fatah party. And on the other, a desire for change and the perception that Hamas has the organizational strength to deliver social services and govern transparently.”
In short: while we shouldn’t ignore Hamas’ deeply problematic message about the “Zionist enemy,” we also shouldn’t dismiss all Palestinians as bloodthirsty monsters eager to annihilate the Jewish state. People vote for their interests. And it was in Gazans’ interest to get rid of a corrupt and inefficient Fatah-led government in favor of the group that had already tangibly improved so many Gazans’ lives.
But Fatah wasn’t going down without a fight. By 2007, the two groups were at war. Both sides were brutal towards the other. But Hamas won in the end, wresting complete control of Gaza from Fatah in 2007. It’s ruled the Gaza Strip ever since.
Unpacking the last 16 years would take, well, a lot more time than we have.
So let me play a highlight reel of Hamas’ greatest hits: a flood of rocket fire in 2008 that sparked a 22-day war that would result in the deaths of over a thousand Palestinians. The kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in 2014, which led to another war that killed over 2,000 Palestinians. A barrage of nearly 4,000 rockets aimed at Israel in May of 2021, which provoked retaliatory airstrikes that killed more than 200 Palestinians.
Now, I want to be clear. Israel played a part in all of these conflicts. But the truth is, Israel is not the only victim. Heck, they aren’t even the greatest victim. When Hamas instigates, the people who suffer the most are the Palestinians.
And that is by design.
When Israel warned Palestinian civilians to evacuate in 2014, Hamas ordered them to stay put. Hamas leaders encouraged Palestinians to converge on the Israeli border during a so-called March of Return in 2018 and 2019 that left scores dead and thousands wounded. To say nothing of the damage to Gaza’s infrastructure. The organization has squandered millions of dollars building terror tunnels from which to attack Israelis. Its leaders grow wealthy, even as Gaza’s unemployment rate is close to 50%. Don’t take my word for any of this. All of our sources are in the show notes.
But Hamas has created a kind of cultural and social poverty as well. Gaza’s tiny Christian community is slowly being purged. Journalists are being arrested and threatened for reporting on Hamas’ corruption. The regime has cracked down on protests, beating and arresting ordinary people who take to the streets to demand a better life.
And Palestinians in Gaza? Well, many of them are kind of sick of it. Whispered in Gaza is a three-part animated documentary of sorts, released just in 2023, that gives voice to the brave but otherwise ordinary Gazans who pull back the curtain on life under Hamas. For their own safety, their voices and identities are disguised. And why are they worried about safety? Because they talk about life under Hamas, and it’s not a nice picture. It’s a story of corruption. Violence. Poverty. Misery. War.
And, they talk about their neighbors, the Jews.
Here’s one clip: “There’s a false stereotype that Palestinians in Gaza love rockets and wars. Gazans don’t love war. The wars that happen in Gaza are waged by the Hamas government for political aims that serve them alone…. The new generation is misled and misguided by a media that instills in them a thirst for blood. Some Gazans, when they see a Jew, are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to discharge the feeling inside them, that this person is an enemy. They don’t understand anything at all. …My struggle is to communicate with Palestinians and Israelis and make them understand that I’m a human being here in Gaza. Not a beast, a terrorist, or a lover of weapons. Because in the end, weapons won’t get us anywhere.”
We’ve linked the videos for you in the show notes. Watch them. They’re important. They may just be the best record of Hamas’ legacy.
So that’s Hamas, and here are your five fast facts.
- The Iranian Revolution of 1979 inspired Islamists the world over, including a soft-spoken social reformer. Ahmed Yassin’s growing popularity caught Israel’s eye; they hoped he’d pull Palestinians away from PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
- In 1987, during the First Intifada, Yassin launched the Islamic Resistance Movement, aka Hamas. Unfortunately, Hamas wasn’t just a religious or social welfare organization. Its rhetoric was shot through with antisemitism, and its military wing specialized in murdering Israelis.
- By 1992, the Rabin government was tired of the terrorism. The IDF and Shin Bet deported hundreds of Hamas members to Lebanon. But the move only strengthened the organization. Because Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group backed by Iran, provided the exiles with sophisticated training. Israel eventually caved to international pressure and let the Hamas operatives come back home, where they showed off their new tricks with a string of suicide attacks.
- While the PLO was negotiating with Israel in the 1990s, Hamas did its very best to wreck all efforts towards peace. But by 2001, no one in the Middle East was under any illusions that peace was coming. The Second Intifada left over a thousand Israelis and nearly 5,000 Palestinians dead. And Hamas took responsibility for more than 40% of the bombings.
- By 2006, Hamas was a dominant force in Palestinian politics, sweeping Palestinian elections. But their luster has dimmed significantly, as their corruption, authoritarianism, and extremism have sucked the life out of Gaza’s Palestinians. Despite the danger, some Palestinians have begun speaking out against the organization that keeps them entrenched in misery, poverty, and war.
Those are your five fast facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it.
In 1998, soon-to-be Prime Minister Ehud Barak came under fire for the following controversial statement: “If I were a Palestinian of the right age, I would join, at some point, one of the terrorist groups.” The press destroyed him for condoning terrorism. And while Ehud Barak is one of the most celebrated and talented Israeli soldiers ever, you can’t deny this statement sounds pretty bad.
But look past the surface, to what Barak actually meant. I think he was pointing out a fact that we’d all rather ignore or pretend away. And that is: People don’t necessarily become terrorists because they’re capital-E evil. Palestinian society didn’t vote for Hamas because every single Palestinian wants every single Israeli to die.
Binaries are appealing because they’re simple. One side is good. The other is bad. But no one benefits from that safe and cozy fiction. Better for kids when they are in Piaget’s Preoperational stage, but not great for anyone in Piaget’s formal operational stage, which craves complexity and is able to see shades.
So for those of us in Piaget’s formal operational stage — i.e. Those of us older than 12 — I think the lesson is this: we need nuanced education on all sides. That’s why I’m talking about Hamas in the first place! Not because I condone their ideology. But because their history tells us something about the Palestinian people. Something that we need to understand.
But that effort needs to be reciprocated. Low key stat about my life: My first-ever article, published in 2006, explained the importance of reforming the Palestinian education system. It was called, and I am being serious here, Hamas’ Determination to Perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Critical Role of Hate Indoctrination. Back then, I had no idea I would someday be an educator focusing on Jewish and Israel education. But, it’s clearly something I’ve been passionate about for a while.
And I firmly believe that education is the key to change. Palestinians and Israelis don’t have to agree with each other about everything. But a nuanced education is a precursor to the necessary empathy both sides must show each other if we’re ever going to end this conflict.
Call me an idealist, or a dreamer, or a lunatic, but I believe that one day, the moment will come when we say Enough. Enough of fighting. Enough of killing. Enough of dying. But we won’t be prepared for that moment unless we’ve made the effort to truly understand one another. Until we’ve opened our hearts and minds to the other side. And that includes the least palatable fringes of the other side’s stories and beliefs.
We can disavow. We can condemn. We can draw a red line in the sand and say, here. Here is a line you do not cross.
For me, Hamas has crossed that line. It’s my belief that for peace to ever come to fruition, the education needs to look different, the understanding of each other needs to improve, and the Palestinian people should elect the leaders they deserve. The ones who will take a step to move us all out of this conflict rather than further entrenching it.
But don’t take my word for it. Take it from “Amna,” a mother in Gaza, who says: “I wish I could send my children to centers of learning, or to learn English. They’re talented and smart. But it’s just not possible. You either have to pay a lot of money or go to Hamas-run centers. I can’t even send them to the Quranic schools, because that’s where they indoctrinate people, and I don’t want my kids to be exposed to that indoctrination.”
It’s my hope for the people of Gaza, and for Palestinian children everywhere, that they will have an opportunity to resist indoctrination in favor of the nuanced, balanced education they deserve.