JERUSALEM (AP) — It has become an Israeli mantra throughout the latest war in Gaza: Hamas is ISIS.
Since the bloody Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that triggered the conflict, Israeli leaders and commanders have likened the Palestinian militant group to the Islamic State group in virtually every speech and public statement. They point to Hamas’ slaughter of hundreds of civilians and compare their mission to defeat Hamas to the U.S.-led campaign to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria.
“Hamas is ISIS,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared just after the attack. “And just as the forces of civilization united to defeat ISIS, the forces of civilization must support Israel in defeating Hamas.”
But in many ways, these comparisons miss the mark by ignoring the home-grown origins and base of support for Hamas in Palestinian society and by assuming that this deeply embedded movement can be stamped out like a brush fire.
These miscalculations may already have led to unrealistic expectations in Israel for victory. They also complicate fledgling efforts by the U.S. and other international mediators to end the war, which has devastated Gaza, displaced more than three-quarters of its population and killed over 13,300 Palestinians, according to health authorities in the Hamas-ruled territory.
Here is a closer look at the campaigns against these very different militant groups and what it could mean for Israel’s ground invasion and the future of Gaza.
The violent images of Oct. 7 brought to mind the scenes of cruelty unleashed by the Islamic State group during its short self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria nearly a decade ago.
In an unprecedented attack, Hamas fighters burst into Israeli communities, killing entire families as they cowered in their homes, burning people alive and taking some 240 hostages, including older people and young children. Israeli authorities say at least 1,200 people were killed, some of whom were mutilated so badly they still have not been identified.
In a late October interview with a Lebanese TV station, Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, said the Oct. 7 rampage was just “the first time” and promised similar attacks in the future aimed at annihilating Israel.
“We must punish Israel and we will do this again and again,” he told the Lebanese channel LBC.
While the Islamic State group also carried out gruesome killings, including beheading and setting live prisoners on fire, that is where many of the similarities end.
IS fighters were mostly Iraqi and Syrian, but the group also managed to attract thousands of recruits for its global jihadi movement from around the world, including Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the former Soviet Union. These foreigners often did not speak the local language, were seen as outsiders and disliked by the local communities.
In contrast, Hamas is an exclusively Palestinian movement. Its members are Palestinian and its ideology, albeit violent, is focused on liberating what it says is occupied land through the destruction of Israel. While branded a terrorist group by Israel and its Western allies, its deadly attacks have been focused on Israeli targets.
Hamas seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007, a year after trouncing the PA’s Fatah rulers in legislative elections.
During its 16 years of rule, Hamas built up a system of government that includes not only its military wing, but also tens of thousands of teachers, civil servants and police. The group also has significant support inside the West Bank and an exiled leadership spread out across the Arab world.
A U.S.-led coalition defeated IS in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria two years later, though the group still has thousands of fighters in sleeper cells in both countries.
Eradicating Hamas could be a much tougher task. Israel has already backed away from its initial pledges to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth. But given Hamas’ deep roots, even its current goals of destroying the Hamas’ military and governing capabilities in Gaza still may be too ambitious.
Michael Milshtein, an expert on Palestinian affairs at Tel Aviv University and former head of the Palestinian desk in Israel’s military intelligence, said the comparisons of Hamas to IS work in a limited context but otherwise are misleading.
“I do think that the slogan is right when you are trying to express and reflect the brutality of Hamas,” he said. “But of course we’re speaking about different entities.”
Hamas was established during the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s and has survived repeated assassinations of its top leaders and four previous wars with Israel since 2008.
While Israel claims to have inflicted heavy damage on the group during the latest war, much of its fighting force and network of tunnels appear to remain intact. Its exiled leadership maintains working relations with key countries like Egypt and Qatar.
Nathan Brown, an expert on Hamas, said he doesn’t see “any way” in which Hamas can be eradicated. “By continually talking this way, the Israeli leadership is not just setting up expectations, but really I think digging themselves into a hole,” he said. Israel has laid out its security demands for a postwar Gaza, but offered no plan for who might run the territory.
Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University, said that after a bruising war, Hamas may be forced to reinvent itself, perhaps by controlling local residents’ committees or going back to being an underground militant group. But he said it will maintain some sort of presence, while remaining active in the West Bank and continuing to be a regional player.
“Hamas will be there,” he said.
Israel’s ambitious goals against Hamas have complicated the task of the U.S. as it works with Qatari and Egyptian mediators to end the war.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected in the region later this week to discuss, among other things, the principles for a postwar Gaza.
For now, Israel remains committed to its goals. Netanyahu has vowed to strike Hamas with Israel’s “full force” as soon as the cease-fire expires. This would mean an expansion of Israel’s ground offensive into southern Gaza – where the vast majority of the territory’s population is now concentrated – setting the stage for a complicated and bloody operation.
The U.S., which initially backed Israel’s war in Gaza, is now pressing Israel to avoid large-scale civilian casualties or mass displacement if the fighting resumes.
But with the war enjoying broad support among the Israeli public, Blinken faces a difficult task. Although diplomatic efforts are focused on extending the cease-fire, any formula to end the war would have to allow Israel to declare victory, even if Hamas remains intact.
Milshtein says toppling Hamas’ government and destroying its army remain feasible objectives. But he believes there is a growing awareness among Israeli decision makers that “we cannot really make this organization vanish.”
Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.