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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2002, pages 20-21

Special Report

Israel Created Two of Its Own Worst Enemies—Hamas and Hezbollah

By Donald Neff

The decade of the 1980s saw the emergence of two of Israel’s most militant Islamic foes, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied territories. Hamas is responsible for many of the bloody suicide bombings which continue to terrorize Israel today. Ironically, both groups came into existence in large part because of unintended consequences of Israel’s actions.

Hamas, meaning zeal, is an acronym for “Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya,” the Islamic Resistance Movement.1 It was founded in the occupied Gaza Strip in 1987 and its charter, which first appeared in February 1988, declared Hamas “the intifada wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) in Palestine.”2 Hamas was a militant outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, a humanitarian group operating in the Gaza Strip since the 1970s. Devoting itself to grass-roots social work in mosques and civic clinics, the Brotherhood abstained from all forms of anti-occupation struggle.

By 1986 the Brotherhood controlled 40 percent of all the mosques and the 7,000-student Islamic University in Gaza. At the time, Israeli authorities saw the Brotherhood as a counterbalance to the secular PLO and contributed to the Brotherhood’s cause through favors and donations to mosques and schools.3 Israeli donations to the Brotherhood were reported to be in the millions of dollars.4

When Hamas emerged from the Brotherhood, however, it turned out that Israel had helped create an enemy motived not only by the nationalism of the PLO but by the religious fervor of Islam.

Hamas quickly gained support because of its Islamic credentials and the absence of corruption that many attached to PLO officials. Moreover, it dazzled many Palestinians with its daring attacks carried out by its military wing, the Izzidine (Brigade) Qassam, named after a prominent Palestinian Islamic nationalist who was killed by the British in 1935. The brigade was founded in 1990.5

Hamas’ charter, combining the ideas of Palestinian nationalism and religious fundamentalism, pledged the group to carry out armed struggle, work for the destruction of Israel, the replacement of the PLO, and to raise “the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” Hamas justified its attacks by saying they were against Israeli military personnel and that U.N. General Assembly Resolution 2649 had affirmed the legitimacy of armed struggle by Palestinians.6

Hamas published a newsletter, first called Hamas but later changed to Al-Thabat, or “to build.” In the pages of Al-Thabat, Hamas opposed the Madrid peace conference, calling it a Zionist ploy to buy time. “Our enemy does not rush toward the peace that some among us desire,” the newsletter said. “Rather, the peace he wants is, in actuality, submission or resignation to the status quo.”

Hamas believed in coexistence with Jews and Christians, but only within a Muslim state. It went out of its way in a series of communiqués to say it acknowledged Christians according to the Qur’an and that it sought to work in unity with Christian Palestinians.7

Hamas totally rejected the PLO’s quest for a two-state solution. In a document the group described as its “Covenant,” issued in August 1988, Hamas said: “The Islamic Resistance Movement considers the land of Palestine to be an Islamic trust for all generations of Muslims. It cannot be given up in part or ceded; no one has the right. The only solution to the Palestinian problem is by jihad. All initiatives, conferences and proposals are a waste of time.”8

Israeli authorities originally took no action against Hamas’ leader, the blind quadriplegic Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, now50. After the publication of the Hamas Covenant, however, they began quietly arresting Hamas leaders: dozens of scholars, preachers and others making up the middle and lower ranks were soon detained.9

Yassin was arrested in May 1989 and sentenced to life in prison on Oct. 16, 1991, after pleading guilty to planning the killing of four Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. He was released in September 1997 in exchange for the return to Israel of two Mossad agents who had botched the assassination of Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political leader in Amman. Since then, Israel has placed Yassin under house arrest several times, most recently this past June.

Hamas remained more popular in the Gaza Strip than the PLO at the time of Yassin’s imprisonment, and continued to reject negotiations with Israel and to advocate the military overthrow of the Israeli occupation.10

On Oct. 3, 1989, the Israeli Defense Ministry declared Hamas an illegal organization, making anyone belonging to it subject to arrest and prosecution.11 Israel deported 413 Hamas supporters in December 1992 and assassinated and arrested its members, including a round up of 124 Hamas suspects on June 4, 1993.

The resulting weakening of Hamas’ leadership led to discussions with the PLO in the summer of 1993 about closer cooperation between the two groups. In addition, there were indications of increasing military cooperation between Hamas’ Qassam Brigade and dissident PLO factions such as the Popular Front and the Democratic Front.12

Thus, Israel’s efforts to combat the secular PLO instead led to enhancing its strength by aligning it more closely with religious elements in the occupied territories.


Hezbollah in Lebanon was the other group Israeli aggression unintentionally spawned. It was Hezbollah fighters who harassed Israeli troops as they finally withdrew from Lebanon in humiliation in 2000. After 22 debilitating years of occupation, Israel had scheduled an orderly withdrawal for early July. But pressure from Hezbollah guerrillas forced an abrupt pullout on May 24.

Reported The New York Times: “As a honking convoy of newly captured Israeli tanks [by Hezbollah guerrillas] headed to Bint Jbail [in southern Lebanon], Israeli helicopters began buzzing overhead. Soon they were bombarding some of their own abandoned posts. They also released heat bombs to deflect fire, and their aerial raids briefly delayed [Hezbollah’s] sweep through the countryside.”13

The occupation had been costly to Israel, both in lives lost and in harmful unintended consequences. More than 1,550 of its soldiers had been killed since Israel’s full-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982.14

Another cost of the Israeli occupation was the creation of Hezbollah among the Islamic Shi’i population, the majority group in south Lebanon. The Israeli attacks had been tolerated by the Shi’i, who resented Palestinian guerrillas. After being chased from Jordan during Black September in 1970 the Palestinians had implanted themselves in south Lebanon, from which they launched attacks on northern Israel, in turn provoking Israeli retaliatory attacks.

Caught in the middle were the Shi’i. After Israeli troops moved into the area fulltime in 1978, however, and treated the Shi’i with much the same hatred asdid the Palestinians, the Shi’i became fearsome foes of both Israel and the United States.

Alienation of the Shi’i had yet another unintended consequence. It allowed Iran to gain influence in the region.

Hezbollah, meaning the Party of God, was founded with the guidance of Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Iran’s ambassador to Syria, in 1982 and modeled on Iran’s Islamic revolution.15 Hezbollah came from the Qur’anic verse, “Those who form the party of God will be the victors.”

Bound with Iran by their common sharing of Shi’ism within Islam, Hezbollah was directly aided by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who began operating in Lebanon following Israel’s invasion. The Iranians received logistical help from Syria, thereby drawing Damascus and Tehran closer into a common strategy in the Middle East.

Revolutionary Guards fighters were sent to Lebanon to carry Iran’s revolution to Lebanon’s underclass Shi’i community and to rid Lebanon of what Iran called 150 years of American influence—twin goals in which they eventually were largely successful.16

By 1983, Hezbollah’s influence had spread to Beirut, where it carried out a series of deadly attacks against U.S. facilities, including the embassy annex and a Marine barracks with the loss of 241 lives, as well as a series of kidnappings of Americans.17

On Feb. 16, 1985, Hezbollah issued a statement of its ideology in what it called an “Open Letter to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World.” The “first root of vice is America,” it said, behind which is Israel: “Israel is the American spearhead in the Islamic world and must be wiped out. All plans, including even tacit recognition of the Zionist entity, are rejected....

“The present Arab regimes are defeatist and under the influence of America....,” the statement continued. “The U.N. and the Security Council are against the oppressed peoples, the right of veto should be abolished and Israel should be expelled from the U.N.”18

Unintended Consequences

Thus, without anticipating it, and certainly without wanting it, Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and parts of Lebanon and Syria, contributed to the formation of nationalist groups willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of Islam. The enemies of old, motivated more by nationalism than religion, were now augmented by Islamic extremists bent on the defeat of Israel, and now the United States, in the name of religion. q


1Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 9/6/88 and 9/18/88. Also see Andrew Whitley, London Financial Times, 9/8/88.

2The text of its charter is in “Special Document,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1993, 122-34.

3Graham Usher, “The Rise of Political Islam in the Occupied Territories,” Middle East International, 6/25/93.

4Haim Baram, “The Expulsion of the Palestinians: Rabin Shows His True Colors,” Middle East International, 1/8/93; Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Washington Post, 12/21/92.

5Alan Cowell, New York Times, 10/20/94.

6Ahmad J. Rashad, “Hamas: The History of the Islamic Opposition Movement in Palestine,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1993.


8Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 9/6/88 and 9/18/88.

9New York Times, 10/21/88.

10New York Times, 10/17/91.

11Washington Jewish Week, 10/5/89.

12Usher, Middle East International, 6/25/93.

13Deborah Sontag, New York Times, 5/24/2000.

14Time Europe, 6/5/2000.

15Jansen, Middle East International, 8/6/93.

16John K. Cooley, Payback, pp. 81-83 and 228.

17For background on Hezbollah’s attacks, see Cooley, Payback, p. 111; Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, p.565, and Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, p. 74.

18Godfrey Jansen, “Hezbollah, Rabin’s Main Target,” Middle East International, 8/6/93. 

Donald Neff is author of the Warriors trilogy, 50 Years of Israel, and the newly reissued Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel Since 1945, all available from the AET Book Club.

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