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 Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
One of the great ironies of the horrific war between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas is that Israel is fighting an enemy much of its own creation. The “Islamic Resistance Movement”, a broad translation of the acronym Hamas, would probably not exist were it not for the Jewish state. The Israelis helped turn a bunch of fringe Palestinian Islamists led by a quadriplegic imam in the late 1970s into one of the world’s most notorious militant groups. “We made a mistake”, a former Israeli official told the Wall Street Journal in 2009, “an enormous, stupid mistake. But at the time, nobody thought about the possible results”.
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 Palestinian Liberation Organisation and its dominant faction—Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Working on the age-old strategy “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, Israel cooperated with a crippled half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as he was laying the foundations of a new Islamist group. With the quiet approval of Israeli authorities, Yassin built up a network of schools, clinics, blood banks, day-care centres, youth groups and even a university, as well as persuading the authorities to recognise his group, Mujama Al-Islamiya, a charity, thus permitting it to raise funds through donations.
Ahmed Yassin was born on 1 January 1929 in a small village near the city of Ashkelon, just north of what is now the Gaza Strip. His father, who died when he was just three, had four wives and together Ahmed had four brothers and two sisters. He and his entire family fled to Gaza, settling in al-Shati Camp after his village was ethnically cleansed by the Israeli Defence Forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. He suffered a severe spinal injury at the age of 12 while wrestling with a friend, which kept him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Self-educated in philosophy and religion, he began delivering weekly sermons after Friday prayers at the local mosque and soon began to attract a huge number of followers, captivated by his worldly knowledge. Yassin was also active in setting up a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic charity.
There were some who were suspicious of Sheikh Yassin from the outset. Brigadier Yosef Kastel, who was Gaza’s Israeli governor in 1979, is on record saying ten years later that he had no illusions about the Sheikh’s long-term intentions or the perils of political Islam. Years earlier when serving in Israel’s embassy in Teheran he had witnessed Islamic fervour topple Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, during the revolution of 1979, and saw similar signs with Yassin. “But at the time”, said Kastel, “Fatah was our main enemy, and Yassin was one hundred percent peaceful towards Israel. We had no problems with him”.
Set up in 1974, Fatah emerged as the backbone of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, declared by Arab states as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people across the world”. Following the end of the British Mandate of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, both Israelis and Palestinians asserted claims over the same territory—the biblical lands now comprising Israel and the Palestinian territories of West Bank and Gaza. While Yassin was quietly working, invisible in plain sight, step by step building his organisation that was to become Hamas, the Israelis ignored him, identifying Fatah as the leader of the Palestinian cause and a terrorist organisation.
Matters came to a head in 1987 when several Palestinians were killed in a traffic accident involving an Israeli driver. This triggered a wave of unrest and protests that became known as the first Intifada, or uprising, and was the moment Hamas was launched. A year later, Sheikh Yassin and six other Mujama Islamists released Hamas’s charter, studded with anti-Semitism and setting out the movement’s ideology of jihad, the Arabic word for “struggle”.
Of acute embarrassment to Israeli intelligence and with long-tern consequences, officials appeared unaware at the time of the Hamas charter and continued to maintain contacts with the Gaza Islamists. One of Yassin’s colleagues, Mahmood al-Zahar, was even taken to meet Israel’s then defence minister, Yitzhak Rabin, as part of the regular consultations between Israeli officials and Palestinians not linked to Fatah or the PLO. Zahar is alive today and his video clip, in which he stresses that Israel is merely an initial target and Hamas plans to extend their influence on the entire world, went viral on the internet last month.
Even more extraordinary is that back in 1984, Israeli military officials received a tip-off from Fatah supporters that Sheik Yassin’s Gaza Islamists were collecting arms in the Strip. Israeli troops raided a mosque and found a cache of weapons and, as a result, Yassin was jailed. Following interrogation, during which he persuaded the Israeli military that the weapons were for use only against rival Palestinians, Yassin was released and continued to expand his reach across Gaza.
It was at this time that an Israeli expert on religious affairs sent a report to senior Israeli military and civilian officials in Gaza that Yassin was a “diabolical figure”, perceptively warning that Israel’s policy towards the Islamists was allowing his movement, Mujama al Islamiya, to develop into a dangerous force. “I believe that by continuing to turn away our eyes, our lenient approach will in future harm us. I therefore suggest we find a way to break up this monster before this reality jumps in our face”, he concluded. His words were ignored and, as we now know, the monster certainly took shape, muscling aside its secular Palestinian rivals and morphing into what is today Hamas, the militant group sworn to the destruction of Israel. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was killed in 2004 when an Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile at him as he was being wheeled from a prayer meeting in Gaza city. He was 67. The attack, which also killed both his bodyguards and nine bystanders, was internationally condemned. Two hundred thousand Palestinians attended his funeral procession in Gaza. Yassin continues to inspire militants today, and among the many sophisticated weapons used by Hamas in the war are primitive rocket-propelled grenades called “Yassins”. In his book on Hamas, Roni Shaked, a former officer of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, claims that Sheikh Yassin and his followers had a long-term perspective whose dangers were not understood at the time. This lack of understanding certainly resulted in monumental consequences for Israel—since 2006 Hamas and Israel have fought no less than five wars.
Most observers believe that Israel’s current operation to defeat Hamas will certainly succeed. The stakes are high for Israel and Israel’s edge over Hamas is so large that any outcome other than victory is unthinkable. But a military operation by itself will not produce lasting results, and Yassin’s Hamas sees victory not in one year or five, but from engaging with decades of struggle that increase both Palestinian solidarity and Israel’s isolation. By starting this war, Hamas believes it can marginalise the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank by showing Palestinians that it has strength and courage to be their champion. Already Arab states are moving away from normalisation with Israel and the Global South is aligning strongly with the Palestinian cause, increasingly focussed on the IDF-caused carnage in Gaza. Rumblings of a regional war are just fine for Hamas as its leaders believe that this will cause European governments to recoil from Israel’s excesses, destroying bipartisan support the country has had since the early 1970s. Hamas’s ultimate goal is to estrange Israel from its international partners and turn the country into the pariah state that Sheikh Yassin believed it to be.Back in the late 1970s, a group of Israeli officials had a meeting with a traditional Muslim cleric who wanted the Israeli government to stop cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood followers of Sheikh Yassin. The cleric told them: “if you fail to stop, you are going to have big regrets in 20 or 30 years’ time”. How right he was!
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.