There is a terrible irony in Israel’s current assault on Gaza. For many in the Israeli government the war is not simply about stopping Hamas rockets reaching Israeli territory, but about ‘regime change’. The strategy seems to be to destroy Hamas and to replace it with a moderate leadership drawn from Fatah, the party of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that now controls the West Bank.
It was Israel itself, however, that helped Hamas to power in Gaza. For more than thirty years successive Israeli governments viewed radical Islamism as a useful tool with which to counter the influence of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (of which Yasser Arafat’s Fatah was the principal component) and to sow discord within Palestinian ranks.
The Gaza strip came under Israeli occupation in 1967, after the Six Day War. Israel routed the Arab armies ranged against it and wrested control of the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria and Gaza from Egypt. The PLO, which had been established in 1964, proved to be a much more durable opponent than had the Arab armies. It launched an armed struggle and a terrorist campaign against Israel, in the name of Palestinian self-determination. To weaken the PLO, a staunchly secular nationalist organization, Israel encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood to set up in the Occupied Territories.
The Muslim Brotherhood had been founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna to reclaim Islam’s political dimension lost with the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in the wake of the First World War. ‘Allah is our objective’, the Brotherhood declared in its founding statement. ‘The Prophet is our leader. Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.’
The Muslim Brotherhood rejected secular nationalism as an ‘impure’ ideology. Whereas for the PLO the goal was the creation of a Palestinian state, the Brotherhood sought to establish a transnational Islamic nation. These differences have led to bitter conflicts between Islamists and nationalists which Israel has been quick to exploit.
In 1973 the Israeli authorities issued a licence to Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, the leader of the Muslim brotherhood in the Occupied territories, to set up the Islamic Centre as a charity to run social, religious and welfare institutions. The Brotherhood built orphanages and health clinics, as well as a network of schools, workshops which created employment for women and a system of financial aid to the poor. It also created Gaza’s ‘Islamic University’.
‘The Islamic associations’, the Israeli weekly magazine Koteret Rashit observed in October 1987, ‘have been supported and encouraged by the Israeli military authorities’ who were ‘convinced that the activities [of the Islamists] would weaken both the PLO and leftist organizations in Gaza.’ While most of these activities were funded largely by contributions from the Gulf states, money also came covertly from Israel itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not remain the pliant creature that Israel hoped it would be. Radicalised by the Iranian revolution of 1979, and subsequently by the success of Iranian-supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamists in the Palestinian territories moved from welfare to political opposition and eventually to terror. In 1984, the Israeli authorities arrested and imprisoned Yassin for arms smuggling . He was given a 12-year prison sentence, but released a year later in a prisoner exchange and allowed to continue his activities in Gaza.
In October 1987 the first intifada broke out in the Occupied Territories. A spontaneous uprising, it took the PLO, the Brotherhood and the Israelis by surprise. In response the Muslim Brotherhood set up Hamas (the name is an acronym of Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamat al-Islāmiyyah, meaning ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’) as its political wing, to help coordinate resistance to the Israeli occupation. Five years later Hamas in turn set up a military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and pioneered the use of indiscriminate suicide bombings against civilian targets.
Yet even now, Israel continued to view Hamas as a useful counterweight to the PLO. In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Likud government released Yassin from jail, where he was serving a life sentence for the kidnap and murder of two Israeli soldiers and eventually allowed him to return to Gaza. There are even claims from former CIA operatives that Israel continued to directly fund Hamas through the 1990s.
Yassin was eventually killed in 2004, hit by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters as he left a mosque in Gaza City. By then, Israel had achieved its aim of undermining the PLO and fragmenting the Palestinian resistance. Hamas swept into power in Palestinian elections in 2006. In the wake of those elections fierce fighting broke out between Hamas and Fatah that eventually cut the Palestinian Authority in two, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah the West Bank. The people of the area, however, both Palestinian and Jew, have paid a terrible price for the cynicism of this policy. Not only have the Islamists visited terror upon Israel far bloodier than that ever envisaged by the PLO, but their success also encouraged the PLO itself to loosen its secular moorings and instead increasingly to look to Allah to guide the destiny of Palestinians.
Hamas is a monster that Israel helped create – and in attempting to destroy it may create a monster even more terrible. Israel’s assault on Gaza is likely to create not a more moderate Palestinian leadership but a power vacuum and a more bitter population.
But, however, cynical Israeli policy may have been, there is nothing exceptional about it. For more that three decades Western governments have flirted with radical Islamists for political ends. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 America helped fund international jihadists to drive out the Red Army – including Osama bin Laden and the groups that eventually became the Taliban. ‘Moslem countries will be concerned’, the U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in a memo to President Jimmy Carter the day after the invasion, ‘and we might be in a position to exploit this’. Carter himself went on television to denounce the Soviet action as ‘a deliberate effort by a powerful atheistic government to subjugate an independent Islamic people’. Arab states, still divided by the Cold War, were unable to take a united stand on the Soviet invasion. The Afghan jihad was conducted not by Muslim states but trans-national organisations funded out of Washington and Riyadh.
The war in Afghanistan helped create not just a physical network of jihadists but also a symbol of Muslim struggle. In the 1990s, Western powers tacitly allowed many Afghani jihadists to come to Bosnia to fight against the Serbs. ‘Some of the most important factors behind the contemporary radicalization of European Muslim youth can be found in Bosnia-Herzegovina’, the terrorism expert Evan Kohlman has written, ‘where the cream of the Arab mujahideen from Afghanistan tested their battle skills in the post-Soviet era and mobilized a new generation of pan-Islamic revolutionaries.’
Domestic policy has mirrored international policy. In Britain, for instance, policy makers have over the past thirty years forged close links with religious leaders to help provide conservative voices within Muslim communities. And despite its professed secularist tradition and distaste for ‘Anglo Saxon communalism’ France, too, has not been averse to using Islamists to undermine militant secularists. When France was rocked by a series of major strikes in the late seventies, largely involving immigrant workers, the French government encouraged the building of prayer rooms in factories, because they saw Islam as a useful way to quieten rebellious workers.
The consequence of such policies has been undermine secular movements and to create a space in which radical Islam has been able flourish. From the war in Gaza to the war on terror, Western governments have helped create their own monsters.