No, Hamas Isn't Islamic State
For decades, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has played out in three ways: through direct military clashes, an ideological struggle across the wider Middle East, and in the court of Western public opinion. The latter contest has now moved to New York City's buses and subway entrances. These will reportedly carry 100 posters that link the Palestinian militant group Hamas with jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda, Islamic State (also known by the acronym ISIS) and Boko Haram.
The posters feature a photograph of U.S. journalist James Foley just before he was beheaded by Islamic State thugs, as well as bold headlines that claim, "Hamas is ISIS" and "Hamas is al-Qaeda." The campaign is being funded by conservative blogger Pamela Geller at a reported cost of $100,000, according to the New York Daily News.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has called the ads "outrageous, inflammatory and wrong," adding that they have "no place in New York City, or anywhere. These hateful messages serve only to divide and stigmatize when we should be coming together as one city." The mayor would have done well to note that the ads are also wrong. Hamas and Islamic State have nothing in common other than a shared allegiance to Islamist principles. Their motivations, tactics and goals are entirely distinct.
Yes, Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. Its strategy of firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel is widely criticized for being both morally indefensible and ineffective. But I would also argue that this latest controversy fits into a deeper pattern of ideological warfare that has long shaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often spilling over into Western countries in the form of publicity campaigns, legal actions, and grassroots boycotts.
For years, right-wing Israelis and their supporters have linked Palestinians and Arab powers with the enemies of the West. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israeli officials routinely associated Arab states with Communism, depicting Israel as one of the front lines in a global ideological struggle. In the 1970s, Israel charged Arabs with being oil blackmailers who threatened Western economies.
Since the 9/11 attacks against the U.S., some Israeli officials have routinely claimed that Palestinians celebrated the attacks (based, as far as is known, on a single film clip of a few Palestinians who did show support, though the overwhelming majority of Palestinians condemned the atrocity). In recent years, Israel has painted Hamas as a fervent client of Iran and part of its campaign to threaten Western nations and their interests and allies in the Middle East.
The New York ad campaign dovetails with current Israeli government propaganda. Senior Israeli officials such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief spokesman Mark Regev routinely depict Hamas as part of a regional scourge of Islamic extremists. Just last week Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that there was no real difference between the group and Islamic State, claiming both represented the threat of "Islamic terror" that aims to "destroy Western civilization."
This line has fallen on deaf ears around the world for the most part. Anyone who knows the facts of the Middle East would understand Hamas (and Hezbollah in Lebanon) as locally anchored, nationalist movements that battle ferociously and violently to end Israeli occupation of their lands in Gaza and Lebanon. They certainly can and should be criticized for actions that contravene international humanitarian law -- as should Israel, they would add.
But they are worlds apart from global jihadist movements like al-Qaeda that employ indiscriminate violence and terror in pursuit of their vision of a pure Islamic society. Hezbollah fighters, in fact, now battle groups like Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front that are trying to overthrow the government in Syria.
By claiming that Hamas is simply another face of Islamic State, Geller's posters deflect attention from the real issue: the battle of two nationalisms (Israeli and Palestinian) that claim the same land. Such misguided attacks only stoke anti-Arab/Palestinian and anti-Muslim sentiment and ultimately, undermine the sort of political engagement needed to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict peacefully and equitably.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Rami G Khouri at email@example.com