February 12, 2007 Issue
Copyright © 2007 The American Conservative

Making Enemies

How Israel helped to create Hamas

by Brendan O’Neill

In the bloody street struggle between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian territories—a civil war in all but name—Israel is firmly pinning its hopes on a Fatah victory. It sees its old enemies in Fatah as far preferable to Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and whose members still occasionally blow themselves up on streets and buses inside the Jewish state.


Fatah has been a thorn in Israel’s side for over 40 years. It is the largest group in the Palestine Liberation Organization, and its name is a reverse acronym of the Arabic title Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini, which literally translates “Palestinian National Liberation Movement.” But Israel is ready to overlook all that and is making moves toward its old secular, nationalist opponents—“Arafat’s men”—in an attempt to isolate what it sees as the cosmically minded religious extremists of Hamas.


When British Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly supported Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in December and promised to donate £13 million to Fatah, he won the fulsome praise of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who thanked Blair for his “good and interesting ideas” and agreed that it is time for “moderate [Palestinian] elements to be strengthened.” To this end, Olmert hinted that more than $700 million in tax receipts currently being withheld from the Palestinian Authority on the grounds that the money might end up in the coffers of Hamas could be released if a friendlier Fatah-led government were in control. This was seen by many as Israel giving the green light to Fatah to continue facing down Hamas. According to the military wing of Hamas, Fatah has even passed details of Hamas’s “military projects” to Israel so that Israeli forces can more efficiently deal with Hamas militants.


But there is something bitterly ironic in Israel’s support for Fatah against Hamas—and it should be a lesson to governments everywhere that meddle in other states’ affairs. In the past, Israel supported Hamas against Fatah. Indeed, in the 1970s and 80s, Israel played a not insignificant role in encouraging Hamas’s emergence in the belief that such an Islamist group might help rupture support for the mass nationalist movement of Fatah. Twenty years later, Israel has switched sides, hoping that it can encourage Fatah to see off Hamas. It wants “moderate” Palestinians to take on the “extremist” Palestinians it helped create. Like America and Britain before it—both of whom have supported and armed Islamist movements in the Middle East in attempts to undermine secular nationalist parties—Israel is learning the hard way that it is one thing to let radical Islamists off the leash but quite another thing to rein them back in again. If you make monsters, you shouldn’t be surprised if they come back to bite you.


Hamas first emerged in 1987. It was formed from various charities based in the Palestinian territories with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement born in Egypt in the 1920s from which many of today’s radical Islamic sects, including al-Qaeda, have sprung. Israel allowed these Islamic charities to gain strength and influence in Palestinian areas, hoping that they would counter the influence of secular Palestinian resistance movements. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas until his death by Israeli air strike in 2004, formed Hamas as the military wing of his group the Islamic Association, which was licensed by Israel 10 years earlier. During that period, when there was open conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinian nationalists, Israeli officials gave the nod to and even indirectly funded the establishment of Islamic societies in the West Bank and Gaza that might weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization. Martha Kessler, a senior analyst for the CIA, has said, “[W]e saw Israel cultivate Islam as a counterweight to Palestinian nationalism.” The very Islamic groups “cultivated” by Israel in the 1970s became Hamas in the 1980s, which went on to become Israel’s biggest nightmare in the 1990s. It remains so today.


After the Six Day War of 1967, Israel began administering the West Bank, Gaza, and the Sinai Peninsula. Where the Arab nationalist forces that had previously controlled these areas were hard on Islamist activists, rightly judging them to be enemies of secular nationalism, Israel was much more lenient, even permissive in its attitude towards the Islamists. One of the first actions taken by Israel after its victory in the 1967 war was to release from prison various Muslim Brotherhood activists, including Ahmed Yassin, future founder of Hamas. Yassin and others had been jailed by the Egyptian authorities after the Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the anti-colonialist and pan-Arabist who considered political Islam a threat and an anachronism and was fairly unforgiving in his treatment of its practitioners. Israel, by contrast, sensing that such radical Islamists might be helpful in undermining Arab nationalists like the Nasser-influenced Fatah in the Palestinian territories released the Islamists from their cells and encouraged them to take root in Palestinian society.

According to Robert Dreyfuss, author of the enlightening and exhaustive book Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, political Islamism grew exponentially as Israel took control of the Palestinian territories:


Starting in 1967, the Israelis began to encourage or allow the Islamists in the Gaza and West Bank areas, among the Palestinian exiled population, to flourish. The statistics are really quite staggering. In Gaza, for instance, between 1967 and 1987, when Hamas was founded, the number of mosques tripled from 200 to 600. And a lot of that come with money flowing from outside Gaza, from wealthy conservative Islamists in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. But, of course, none of this could have happened without the Israelis casting an approving eye upon it.


It is from these Islamist roots that Hamas emerged in 1987. Dreyfuss continues


There’s plenty of evidence that the Israeli intelligence services, especially Shin Bet and the military occupation authorities, encouraged the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and the founding of Hamas [in Palestinian territories].


Indeed, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman, Shin Bet—the Israeli counter-intelligence and internal security service—knowingly created Hamas: “Israel started Hamas. It was a project of Shin Bet, which had a feeling that they could use it to hem in the PLO.”


A former senior CIA official recently told UPI that Israel’s duplicitous support for the Islamist groups that subsequently became Hamas was “a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative.” Dreyfuss agrees, pointing out how useful it was for Israel that an Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories antagonized, in some cases violently, the mass Fatah outfit:


The Hamas organization was a bitter opponent of Palestinian nationalism and clashed repeatedly with the PLO and with Fatah, of course. And there were armed clashes on university campuses in the 1970s and 1980s, where Hamas would attack the PLO, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], the PDFLP [Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine], and other groups, with clubs and chains. This was before guns became prominent in the Occupied Territories.

In allowing the emergence of radical Islamism, Israel was following in the footsteps of successive British and American governments and their policy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood itself, midwife to Hamas, is a creation of British colonialism. In the 1920s, the British, then the colonial rulers of Egypt, helped set up the Muslim Brotherhood as a means of keeping Egyptian nationalism and anti-colonialism in check. Dreyfuss describes the original Muslim Brotherhood as an “unabashed British intelligence front.” The mosque that served as the first headquarters of the Brotherhood, in Ismailia, Egypt, was built by the (British) Suez Canal Company. In the 1930s and 1950s, with Britain’s knowledge and tacit approval, the Brotherhood both challenged anti-colonial parties within Egypt and spread to other parts of the Near and Middle East, setting up branches in Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, where under the “approving eye” of Israel from the late 1960s to the 1980s, it eventually mutated into Hamas. Following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power in 1954, both the British and Americans viewed the Brotherhood as a useful weapon against secular nationalism and communism. In his book Sleeping With the Devil, former CIA officer Robert Baer describes the “dirty little secret” in Washington in the early 1950s, namely that “the White House looked on the Brothers as a silent ally, a secret weapon against—what else?—communism.”


Al-Qaeda itself, that most radical and obscure of Islamic sects, springs from the Muslim Brotherhood. Osama bin Laden is heavily influenced by the thinking of Sayyid Qutb, a radical member of the Brotherhood. The Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second-in-command and currently the public face of al-Qaeda in its occasional grainy videos and crackly audio recordings, was first radicalized by the Muslim Brotherhood before moving on to the more radical Islamic Jihad group in 1979 and subsequently fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Indeed, in both intellectual and physical terms, al-Qaeda has benefited from Western intervention in Middle Eastern affairs. It takes its intellectual inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood, that group supported by both American and British intelligence in the early and middle 20th century, and it was physically forged in the heat of the Afghan-Soviet War, a conflict largely facilitated by American, British, and Saudi support for the Mujahideen.


In playing the same game as the Brits and Americans—the “devil’s game”—Israel created its own gravediggers. Israel’s encouragement of Hamas’s emergence to counter secular nationalism represented an attack on the idea of popular and secular democracy, so it is not surprising that Hamas retains its somewhat extreme religious leanings and suspicion of traditional politics.

From Egypt to Palestine to Afghanistan, the explicit aim of Western and Israeli support for radical Islamism has been to isolate, weaken, and ultimately destroy popular political movements that very often were based on Western ideas of democracy and progress. Israel is now trying to rein in the consequences of its earlier actions by encouraging Fatah to take on Hamas, which is a recipe for further conflict and division in the Palestinian territories.
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Brendan O’Neill is deputy editor of spiked in London. (spiked-online.com) 

February 12, 2007 Issue