On the educability of Hamas


In the New York Times today, Thomas Friedman writes that he hopes Israel is not out to destroy Hamas, but to “educate” it. Friedman cites the oft-quoted statement of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who said after the guns had quieted in Lebanon in 2006 that had he known the fury Israel was prepared to unleash he would “absolutely not” have launched the operation that sparked the conflict.

From there, he concludes:

That was the education of Hezbollah. Has Israel seen its last conflict with Hezbollah? I doubt it. But Hezbollah, which has done nothing for Hamas, will think three times next time. That is probably all Israel can achieve with a nonstate actor.

In Gaza, I still can’t tell if Israel is trying to eradicate Hamas or trying to “educate” Hamas, by inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population. If it is out to destroy Hamas, casualties will be horrific and the aftermath could be Somalia-like chaos. If it is out to educate Hamas, Israel may have achieved its aims.

To some in the pro-Israel community — like the ZOA, which has called for a Hamas defeat  — Friedman’s column is a typically lamentable exercise in liberal naivete. Except that today, that naivete is countered with a quick glance across the op-ed page, where Jeffrey Goldberg offers this take on the notion of Hamas’ educability.

There is a fixed idea among some Israeli leaders that Hamas can be bombed into moderation. This is a false and dangerous notion. It is true that Hamas can be deterred militarily for a time, but tanks cannot defeat deeply felt belief.

The reverse is also true: Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation. Neither position credits Hamas with sincerity, or seriousness.

Friedman and Goldberg don’t in fact disagree quite as sharply as those quotes would make it appear. Both agree that Hamas may be militarily deterred, at least temporarily, and yet they both doubt that Israel and its Islamist foes have exchanged fire for the last time. Where there seems to be disagreement is over the potential durability of detente. Friedman thinks Hamas can be maneuvered into agreeing to “a lasting cease-fire and to abandon efforts to change the strategic equation with Israel by deploying longer and longer range rockets.” Goldberg thinks the only chance for peace is in stripping Hamas of the allegiance of Gazans by establishing Fatah rule as a moderate, attractive alternative.

Here’s why:

Hamas and Hezbollah emerged from very different streams of Islam: Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood; Hezbollah is an outright Iranian proxy that takes its inspiration from the radical Shiite politics of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But the groups share a common belief that Jews are a cosmological evil, enemies of Islam since Muhammad sought refuge in Medina.

Periodically, advocates of negotiation suggest that the hostility toward Jews expressed by Hamas is somehow mutable. But in years of listening, I haven’t heard much to suggest that its anti-Semitism is insincere. Like Hezbollah, Hamas believes that God is opposed to a Jewish state in Palestine. Both groups are rhetorically pitiless, though, again, Hamas sometimes appears to follow the lead of Hezbollah.


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