“They could have stood up and fought against the evil regime that took over Gaza in a coup.” Israeli President Isaac Herzog should have known better than to say that. But those who don’t – those who had no reason to pay attention to Palestinian politics until a month ago – might wonder why Hamas has never started a serious insurgency in the 17 years it has ruled the Gaza Strip from their redoubt in the Gaza Strip.
That this is not the case leads some in Israel and elsewhere to suspect that the majority of the 2.3 million Palestinians imprisoned in the 139-square-mile Gaza Strip are opposed to the terrorist group’s actions, including the horrific attack on southern Israel on October 17 , have to approve. 7. Following this line of reasoning, one comes to the conclusion that all residents of Gaza are complicit in terrorism. “There is an entire nation out there that is responsible for this,” Herzog told reporters days after the attack. “This rhetoric about civilians not knowing and not being involved is absolutely not true.
And Herzog belongs to the liberal side of the Israeli political establishment: As a former leader of the Labor Party, he ran unsuccessfully against right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2015 general election. In 2021, he was elected to the largely ceremonial presidency, a role that requires him to act as Israel’s moral north star.
Those who are exonerated of this responsibility and turn to the other end of the political spectrum have gone much further than Herzog in placing collective blame for Hamas’s crimes on all Gazans – and proposing collective punishment. In the most extreme case of this absurd syllogism, Culture Minister Amichai Eliyahu suggested that dropping a nuclear bomb on the Strip was an option.
Why didn’t Gazans rise up against Hamas? Before I address this question, please allow me to take a brief detour to explain how Hamas came to rule the Strip.
The group won the last elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006. At the time, Hamas was seen primarily as a radical offshoot of the Islamist, pan-Arab political movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, but its main appeal to voters was precisely as an alternative to Fatah, the faction that the Palestinian Authority – the deeply corrupt and incompetent government responsible for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas’s election campaign relied heavily on the corruption theme, which resonated with voters.
The prospect of Islamists leading the PA worried both Israel and the United States. But Fatah disputed the results and the two groups engaged in heated arguments. When the dust settled in 2007, Fatah retained control of the Palestinian Authority, but its scope was limited to the West Bank. Hamas had the upper hand in Gaza.
It didn’t take long for Hamas to prove that it was as venal and incompetent as Fatah, with its relentless opposition to Israel providing its only source of legitimacy. Its goal, set out in a revised charter in 2017, was the destruction of the State of Israel. The Iranian-armed and trained fighters regularly clashed with Israeli forces and wreaked havoc across Gaza.
Meanwhile, Hamas consolidated its control by systematically eliminating all opposition. It maintains a network of spies, informants and enforcers and exercises a monopoly on violence. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International warn of a “brutal campaign of kidnappings, torture and unlawful killings” against Palestinians. Without exception, the victims were accused of being in cahoots with Israel.
Since Gaza was effectively sealed off from the rest of the world by Israeli travel and trade restrictions, Hamas also took control of the economy as the Palestinians’ main employer and paymaster. It decides how development aid is distributed, and its leaders funnel large sums into an international investment portfolio. Meanwhile, it is cracking down on Gazans who complain about economic hardship.
Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the group’s political office, claims that Hamas’ actions represent Gazans. But after 17 years of Hamas rule, Gazans have few political rights or civil liberties. The vast majority are too young to vote in the 2006 election, and none had a chance of voting out Hamas.
If they had the chance, would they do it? We can only know for sure when – or if – a free and fair election is allowed. To the extent that opinion polls are possible among a population living in fear, there is evidence that Gazans want an end to Hamas. A recent Washington Institute poll found that a large majority want the Palestinian Authority to rule Gaza. This result is all the more remarkable considering that the Fatah leadership’s situation has only worsened since it last seized control of Gaza.
But to expect Gazans to rise up against Hamas is to ask them to risk their lives and livelihoods to confront a terrorist group that has repeatedly shown its willingness to do so, both Palestinians and Israelis to slaughter. And while Hamas can rely on a regional power, Iran, for weapons, Gazans can expect only limited sympathy from the rest of the world – and unreasonable expectations.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering culture. Previously he was responsible for foreign affairs.