Netanyahu’s Chickens Come Home to Roost

Or, How States Create Their Own Enemies

You may or may not be familiar with the concept of “blowback.” Basically, it’s the idea that most foreign policy threats faced by nation-states are the unintended consequences of their own past foreign interventions and exercises of power. The October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel is a textbook illustration of the concept.

Few people are aware that Hamas exists, as a significant political force, largely because of past Israeli policy. Mehdi Hassan and Dina Sayedahmed at The Intercept report that Brigadier General Yitzhak Segev — the Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s — later told New York Times reporter David Shipler “that he had helped finance the Palestinian Islamist movement as a ‘counterweight’ to the secularists and leftists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Fatah party, led by Yasser Arafat.” “The Israeli government gave me a budget,” Negev said, “and the military government gives to the mosques.”

Avner Cohen, an Israeli official in Gaza during the 1970s and 1980s, lamented that “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation.” He observed the Islamist movement take shape, muscle aside secular Palestinian rivals and then evolved into what is today Hamas — a militant group that now calls for Israel’s destruction. Cohen argued that

instead of trying to curb Gaza’s Islamists from the outset, Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Israel cooperated with a crippled, half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas.

The precursor organization of Hamas, Mujama al-Islamiya (led by the cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yasin), was a largely harmless body devoted mostly to charity and welfare work in Gaza. But during the period of Israeli support, in the 1980s, it was reorganized as Hamas.

Israel considered Mujama al-Islamiya and its successor organisation Hamas a lesser evil as compared to PLO and thought that dividing Palestinians will serve the interest of Jewish state. If Israel termed PLO a terrorist organisation and a major threat to its interests, Hamas was also against PLO because of its secular and nationalist outlook. That is how both Hamas and Israel were viewed as natural allies against PLO….

Israel’s military-led administration in Gaza looked favorably on the paraplegic cleric, who set up a wide network of schools, clinics, a library and kindergartens. Sheikh Yassin formed the Islamist group Mujama al-Islamiya, which was officially recognized by Israel as a charity and then, in 1979, as an association. Israel also endorsed the establishment of the Islamic University of Gaza, which it now regards as a hotbed of militancy. 

(Ironically, Hamas was also an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the United States had similarly backed as a fundamentalist counter to secular nationalist movements like Nasserism and Baathism.)

But even after the emergence of Hamas as a political party and anti-Israeli resistance movement from the late 80s on, Israel continued to provide it — if less consistently — with support as part of a “divide and rule” strategy.

When Hamas was established in 1987 and became a political party and a military party that was engaged in active resistance against Israel’s occupation, the policies within the Israeli government shifted, and obviously it became less open to allowing Hamas to function. However, that did not deter Israeli authorities from encouraging and promoting divide-and-rule tactics between the Islamist national movement… and secular nationalism…. And this has always been a tactic that the colonial forces have used globally, and obviously Israeli colonialism is no different. So it has directly and implicitly attempted divide-and-rule policies.

Apologists for Israel frequently blame Palestinians for rejecting peaceful negotiation and opportunities for a two-state settlement, like that offered in the Oslo peace process. What they neglect to mention is that current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did everything in his power to derail the Oslo Accords himself. 

If Hamas attempted to sabotage the peace process — in effect continuing to earn its pay from Israel — Oslo was opposed even more strongly by fascist Israeli settlers on the West Bank. And although he denies active complicity, or even contributing to the incendiary rhetoric that led up to it (indeed, he “claims he didn’t see the banners or hear violent chants”), Netanyahu — leader of the opposition at the time — was actively involved with the far-right political forces that not only demonized Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords, but actually called for his death.

In the weeks before the assassination, Netanyahu, then head of the opposition, and other senior Likud members attended a right-wing political rally in Jerusalem where protesters branded Rabin a “traitor,” “murderer,” and “Nazi” for signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians earlier that year.

He also marched in a Ra’anana protest as demonstrators behind him carried a mock coffin.

Netanyahu’s core supporters included some of the most extremist of West Bank settlers and other religious ultra-nationalists, among whom violent rhetoric against Rabin was standard. According to the Wikipedia article on Rabin’s assassination:

National religious conservatives and Likud party leaders believed that withdrawing from any “Jewish” land was heresy. The Likud leader and future prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Rabin’s government of being “removed from Jewish tradition […] and Jewish values”. Right-wing rabbis associated with the settlers’ movement prohibited territorial concessions to the Palestinians and forbade soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces from evacuating Jewish settlers under the accords. Some rabbis proclaimed din rodef, based on a traditional Jewish law of self-defense, against Rabin personally, arguing that the Oslo Accords would endanger Jewish lives.

Rallies organized by Likud and other right-wing groups featured depictions of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, or in the crosshairs of a gun. Protesters compared the Labor party to the Nazis and Rabin to Adolf Hitler and chanted, “Rabin is a murderer” and “Rabin is a traitor”. In July 1995, Netanyahu led a mock funeral procession featuring a coffin and hangman’s noose at an anti-Rabin rally where protesters chanted, “Death to Rabin”. The chief of internal security, Carmi Gillon, then alerted Netanyahu of a plot on Rabin’s life and asked him to moderate the protests’ rhetoric, which Netanyahu declined to do.

Let that sink in. The head of Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, told Netanyahu there were active assassination threats against Rabin and requested he dial down incendiary rhetoric. Netanyahu refused. The murder of Rabin spelled the effective end of the Oslo process, and Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister in the aftermath.

According to the sources linked above, many of the officials involved in Israel’s early support for Hamas later considered it a “mistake.” But even after it had clearly emerged as a terrorist organization, Netanyahu — who recently referred to Hamas as “part of an axis of evil of Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas,” whose “open goal . . . is to kill as many Jews as they [can]” — has encouraged Hamas rule in Gaza for the last 20 years. 

According to Tal Schneider at The Times of Israel, Netanyahu has — at least tacitly — treated Hamas as a “partner” against Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, in hopes that it would weaken the latter’s two-state agenda under the terms of Oslo. Following Israel’s military withdrawal, Netanyahu cynically promoted Hamas rule in Gaza in order to sever Gaza from the West Bank politically: “to prevent Abbas — or anyone else in the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank government — from advancing toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.” This support included covertly facilitating the transfer of Qatari money to Gaza.

Most of the time, Israeli policy was to treat the Palestinian Authority as a burden and Hamas as an asset….

According to various reports, Netanyahu made a similar point at a Likud faction meeting in early 2019, when he was quoted as saying that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

As Tareq Baconi of the Palestinian Policy Network sums it up, Netanyahu hoped to undermine the larger Palestinian cause and any hope for a two-state solution.

This really turned and came to a head in 2007, when Hamas, after winning democratic elections in 2006, rose to power, and the Israeli authorities, along with the U.S., attempted to initiate a regime change operation, which facilitated a civil war between Hamas and Fatah and allowed Hamas to take over the Gaza Strip. Since then, Israeli authorities have actively embraced the idea that Hamas would be accepted as a governing authority in the Gaza Strip. . . . Israel wanted to sever the Gaza Strip from the rest of historic Palestine in order to reinforce its claim that it’s a Jewish-majority state. By getting rid of 2 million Palestinians, two-thirds of whom are refugees demanding return, Israel can claim to be both a Jewish state and a democracy and restructure what is its apartheid regime. Now, in order to do that, it acquiesced to maintaining Hamas in governance, and it claimed that it placed a blockade around the Gaza Strip because Hamas was in power. . . . 

But with Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip, this created a perfect fig leaf for Israel to maintain the Gaza Strip as a separate strip of land. . . . And this also further reinforced its efforts to try to maintain division among the Palestinian leadership and play divide-and-rule policies between the PA and Hamas.

Israel’s funneling of money from Qatar to Gaza is described in more detail — along with Netanyahu’s balancing act in playing multiple Palestinian movements against one another, in order to prevent any single movement from becoming strong enough to unite the West Bank and Gaza — in an article in India Today

Netanyahu said that Israel needed the Palestinian Authority and shouldn’t let it collapse.

That is the fine balancing that Israel under Netanyahu has been trying to do for years now. Keep power centres between the West Bank and Gaza separate. Neither let the Palestinian Authority get strong nor allow it to collapse and, more importantly, prop up Hamas. . . .

“Whoever is against a Palestinian state should be for transferring the funds to Gaza, because maintaining a separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza helps prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state,” The Jerusalem Post quoted Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying in 2019.

So on October 7, the chickens came home to roost. An authoritarian state, in seeking to impose its will on others, engendered the very forces which attacked it.

This is a recurrent phenomenon. Although “those people have been fighting each other for thousands of years — there’s nothing we can do about it” is a common refrain among the American public, the fact of the matter is that the violence in the Middle East is almost entirely the result of Western imperial intervention over the past century or so. The first step in the process was T.S. Lawrence’s incitement of an Arab nationalist uprising against the Ottoman Empire during WWI, with the promise of an independent Arab state as part of the postwar settlement — a promise which, even as he made it, was being betrayed by the secret Sykes-Picot treaty between Britain and France, which divided up Turkey’s Arab provinces into multiple mandates to be administered by the two countries. In particular the Greater Syrian core of the projected Arab state was broken up into the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon, and the British mandates of Palestine and Transjordan. Meanwhile, the British encouraged and empowered an opposing wave of nationalism — Zionism — with the Balfour Declaration, which led to a massive uptick in settlement of Palestine by European Jews.

The British also actively supported the Saud family’s conquest of the Hejaz — the region including the two holiest cities of Islam — and unification of most of the Arabian peninsula under their rule. The official religion of the Saudi kingdom was Wahhabism — the ultra-fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam which was adhered to by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Afghan Mujaheddin, as well as by Al Qaeda and ISIS today.

The United States, as we already saw, promoted the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — the ancestor of Hamas — as a religious counter to Nasserism. It overthrew the secular, liberal government of Mossadegh in Iran, sowing the seeds for the overthrow of the Shah and triumph of fundamentalism a generation later. It funded the Mujaheddin, which evolved into Al Qaeda. And following the 9/11 attacks — at the hands of its own creation — it invaded Iraq, which created the vacuum within which Al Qaeda Iraq and ISIS emerged.

And then there’s Israel and Hamas.

The lesson is clear. Every time the state attempts to impose its power on the rest of the world, it creates forces which will eventually come home to harm its own population. And yet, every time the state’s own actions result in such blowback, the state demands increased power in the name of “fighting terrorism” — which, in turn, generates still more enemies abroad.

It’s time to stop listening to them.

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