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Profession: Terrorist. How Hamas took control of Gaza and why its attack caught Israel by surprise

The Palestinian militant group Hamas has unleashed the largest war against Israel in decades, with the death toll already running into the hundreds. For the first time, the militants were able to take control and even hold several Israeli settlements — a feat previously achieved only by the armies of neighboring states, and only when they acted in concert. The current war against the Jewish state wasn't launched by regular Syrian or Egyptian troops but by militants from the Gaza Strip — without aircraft or armored vehicles. Journalist Yuriy Matsarsky delves into the Hamas terrorists' rise to power in the Gaza Strip, where jihad became the only social ladder, and examines why Israel had overlooked intelligence warnings about a potential large-scale attack. Yuriy Matsarsky, who used to work in the Gaza Strip, now serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Fleeing from the war in their home country, his parents left Kharkiv for Israel - only to come under Hamas fire.

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  • How did Hamas come about?

  • Hamas vs. Fatah: The 2006 elections and the civil war

  • Hamas: goals, methods, and funding

  • Iran vs. Israel

  • Hamas as the master of the Gaza Strip

  • The Yom Kippur War and its aftermath

  • How did October 7 become possible?

The emergence of the Hamas terrorist group as the sole, authoritarian government in the Gaza Strip was like a Hollywood slasher — think Saw or Halloween. The world usually refers to those events as the Battle of Gaza, but in the Strip itself, they are remembered as the Civil War of 2007. Hamas forced those who stood in their way to absolute power to capitulate by a rather exotic, even by Middle East standards, and very bloody method — the organization's militants kidnapped representatives of rival clans and parties and amputated their arms and legs. Some of their rivals attempted to do the same, but Hamas outdid them in both the extent of torture and sheer brutality. The massacres were often videotaped and distributed among locals, paralyzing the opposition's will to resist.

Clearly, kidnappings and amputations were far from the only tools for gaining power, but they were the ones that frightened Hamas' opponents the most. As I learned from one of the field commanders of Fatah — Hamas’ main opponent in Gaza in 2007 — many of his comrades preferred surrendering to losing their limbs and becoming a burden on their families forever.

How did Hamas come about?

And it all began, as a Hollywood slasher should, in a more or less civilized manner. In 2006, the political forces of the partially recognized Palestinian state agreed to hold legislative elections for the second, and so far the last, time in history (the first was in 1996). Hamas was then completely new to politics. Formed in 1987 by a few Muslim preachers and their followers, the organization had taken part in anything but politics until the 2006 campaign.

Emerging as a Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas simultaneously positioned itself as a charity distributing humanitarian aid to the poor, a religious institution that builds mosques and madrassas and educates clerics, and an armed anti-Israeli group aimed at the unconditional destruction of the Jewish state (the full name of the organization, “Islamic Resistance Movement,” suggested this was the main objective).

Moreover, its overt religious bias gave Hamas an advantage in the eyes of numerous Palestinian Muslims over its emphatically secular competitors - first of all, Fatah. Established in the late 1950s as a terrorist organization, Fatah (“Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine”) had officially abandoned armed confrontation with Israel in favor of political dialogue by the late 1980s. Neither Yasser Arafat, the long-time Fatah leader, nor Mahmoud Abbas, who took over the organization after his death in 2004, used jihadist rhetoric or focused on religious themes. Fatah, which called its war against Israel “national liberation,” always had a few Palestinian Christians and atheist communists at the helm and among its allies, and after Arafat and his comrades abandoned armed struggle, Fatah leaders turned their thoughts to respecting the rights of Israeli Jews.

The religious bias set Hamas apart from its secular rivals in the eyes of Palestinian Muslims

Hamas acted quite differently. It immediately declared all Jews to be enemies, called the war against them “holy,” and reduced its entire political program to a very simple and understandable formula — the destruction of Israel and Israelis and the creation of a state aligned with Sharia in its strictest interpretation.

Hamas vs. Fatah: The 2006 elections and the civil war

Spicing up their image of defenders of the poor and guardians of mosques with a handful of populist Islamic slogans, Hamas won the 2006 elections by a landslide, getting 74 out of 132 seats in the Palestinian legislature. Fatah, which came in second, managed to secure 45 seats.

The 2006 elections were postponed several times — multiple candidates, including those who eventually won seats, were arrested by the Israeli authorities before the vote, and some polling stations were blocked by the Israeli army. But the real difficulties were yet to come. Getting the Parliament and the Palestinian Government it formed to function was much more difficult than holding the elections. Shortly after the parliament began work, Israel arrested numerous Hamas MPs on suspicions of their involvement in the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Some of the detainees were West Bank representatives, coming from a Palestinian territory separated from the Gaza Strip by several dozen kilometers of Israeli land.

MPs and ministers from the Gaza Strip were unable to physically attend parliamentary or cabinet sessions. Leaving the Palestinian territory put them at risk of immediate arrest — especially in connection to the Shalit case. While attempts were made to hold meetings remotely, the efficiency of that work was highly questionable — to put it mildly. As a result, moderate secular officials from Fatah and Islamist hawks from Hamas, who already disliked each other, stopped finding common ground altogether. A political crisis erupted, making the joint governing bodies inactive. Fatah accused Hamas of provoking Israel with its hardliner stance and causing more detentions and arrestsHamas, on its part, found Fatah's willingness to compromise with the Israelis outrageous.

Hamas found Fatah's willingness to compromise with the Israelis outrageous

With time, the crisis escalated, climaxing in Hamas' decision to seize full control of the Gaza Strip. The organization already used the region as its headquarters and enjoyed the support of its population, while the West Bank remained in the hands of its rivals, primarily Fatah. Fatah and other factions opposed Hamas's takeover and took up arms, igniting the 2007 Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds of lives and left at least 1,000 wounded - if we count the infamous amputations. Ultimately, Hamas emerged victorious, cementing its dominance over the territory.

This marked the beginning of the Hamas we know today — a formidable terrorist organization exercising exclusive authority over the two million residents of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas: goals, methods, and funding

The Hamas coat of arms features two crossed sabers, the Dome of the Rock (an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem) and the map of a Palestinian state that the organization has declared as its primary goal - one that would extend beyond the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to include the entire territory of Israel. The organization's political manifesto declares its commitment to the destruction of the Jewish state. by 2007, even the most die-hard Palestinian leaders had realized that, to challenge Israel effectively, Hamas needed to bolster its strength and secure significant funding. Hamas couldn't achieve that independently: waging war is a terribly costly enterprise that demands continuous financial support, which was scarce in the Gaza Strip even in the best of times. The situation deteriorated after the Battle of Gaza and the subsequent economic blockade imposed by Israel and neighboring Egypt left the region devoid of economic assistance.

Hamas' political manifesto declares its commitment to the destruction of the Jewish state

Hamas, along with other Islamist groups, received financial aid and weaponry from Middle Eastern radicals, wealthy individuals, and occasionally even governments. This was enough for Hamas to make ends meet — and even sometimes distribute humanitarian aid to locals in Gaza, but it was clearly not enough for a real war with a strong enemy. The flow of money from foreign sponsors was uneven; after all, most Arab countries depend on the U.S. in one way or another, and Washington at times exerted pressure on them, warning of potential repercussions of supporting terrorism.

Almost immediately after seizing power in Gaza, Hamas rushed into the arms of the Islamic Republic of Iran — Israel's most determined enemy in the region. Already the subject of extensive Western sanctions, Iran could afford to ignore the United States and step up as Hamas' primary sponsor.

But this was not always the case. While Hamas had previously received financial support from Iran, Tehran had been one of several patrons for the organization — albeit an important one. Hamas took money from the Iranians, but kept quiet about it. After all, Iran is a Shiite state that has long been in a state of a serious ideological conflict, if not cold war, with Hamas's other sponsors, the wealthy Sunni monarchies of the Middle East.

Hamas took money from the Iranians but kept quiet about it

Several of these monarchies boast significant Shiite populations — in Bahrain, Shiites form the majority under the Sunni king's rule, and in Saudi Arabia, the Shiite-majority Eastern Province holds most of the country's economically vital oil fields. Monarchs in these regions have valid concerns regarding the loyalty of their Shiite subjects, who frequently reject their rulers' religious authority. These concerns are exacerbated by Iran's transformation into an Islamic republic following a Shiite-led overthrow of the Shah, which was then followed by calls for Muslims worldwide to follow suit.

Iran vs. Israel

Hamas itself has always been a strictly Sunni organization (there were hardly any Shiites in Gaza until recently) — but financial considerations took precedence over religious ones. The organization maintained its ties with previous sponsors, including Russia, but since 2007, Iran has emerged as its primary partner. The Iranians and Hamas found common ground due to shared objectives — both openly express their desire to destroy Israel. Nonetheless, Iran's motivation is somewhat different from that of Hamas. While Hamas views the conflict with Israel as a sacred battle for territory they consider their own, Iran's motivation is somewhat more intricate. Tehran is actively striving to establish leadership not solely within the Shiite community, but also within the broader Islamic world.

Hamas itself has always been a strictly Sunni organization, but it has accepted funding from Shiites

These efforts now appear increasingly hopeless, considering that Shiites make up only about 20% of the global Muslim population, and many Sunnis from Indonesia to Morocco do not consider Shiites as fellow believers. For them, Shiism is viewed as a deviation from true Islam, a peculiar heresy with little connection to their religion. The Iranian authorities aspire to transform themselves from heretics into acknowledged leaders of the Islamic world by defeating Israel. According to the ruling ayatollahs in Iran, the reclamation of Jerusalem for Muslims and the expulsion of non-believers will persuade Muslims worldwide that Tehran is the central hub of the Islamic world.

To Western observers, these concepts may seem irrational and downright weird. After all, the destruction of a state with which there is no common border (Syria and Iraq separate Israel from Iran) — and with no guaranteed outcome —is an extremely high-risk, decades-long endeavor costing billions of dollars that could instead be invested into economic growth. However, we are talking about Iran — a country where Western notions of rationality do not always apply. For one, the Iranian constitution contains assurances of an afterlife for devout believers who strictly adhere to religious principles.

Admittedly, Iran's case does not seem unique with Russia in the picture — a country that's burying its economy, plunging deeper and deeper into international isolation, and using thousands of its citizens as cannon fodder out of an irrational desire to destroy Ukraine.

Hamas is not Iran's only tool in the war against Israel — but it is definitely the most important one. Tehran also has Lebanon's Hezbollah at its disposal, which is both an entire terrorist army and one of the country's leading political parties; there is also the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose political and military decisions are often made by Iranian advisers and generals; and a host of smaller organizations and factions. Even in the Gaza Strip itself, Iran can rely on the Islamic Jihad and Sabirin (“The Waiting”), which are completely — or almost completely — dependent on Tehran. The former is a fairly serious terrorist group that shares the ideology of Hamas but denies any political activity, such as taking part in elections, while the latter are former Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters who converted to Shiism under Iranian influence and are often persecuted by their former comrades.

Hezbollah and the Syrian army are preoccupied with the ongoing crises in their countries, while Islamic Jihad and Sabirin are usually focused on localized, one-off terrorist attacks. Their lack of political organization (as in the case of Islamic Jihad) or their virtually underground status (as with Sabirin) prevent these two groups from large-scale operations that require careful planning and coordination with foreign sponsors. In general, they tend to become more active after Hamas shells Israel.

Hamas as the master of the Gaza Strip

Hamas has everything it needs to organize large-scale terrorist actions: an extensive quasi-diplomatic network covering the Middle East, North Africa and Russia, a constant flow of money from foreign sponsors, huge stockpiles of weapons, assistance from Iranian intelligence and military planners, and enormous human resources. According to various sources, between two and three million people live in the Gaza Strip — and they all depend on Hamas in one way or another. The unemployed — between one-quarter and one-third of the region's able-bodied population — survive only on foreign (primarily Israeli) humanitarian aid distributed by Hamas. All government agencies, from the post office to local firefighters, which are maintained by financial tranches from wealthy Gulf states, are simply departments of Hamas. And it is Hamas that decides how much money to pay the employees of these structures and whether to pay them at all.

Hamas also enjoys full control over all media in Gaza, thus holding a monopoly on propaganda. Its rivals, such as Sabirin or ISIS, which announced its presence in the region a few years ago, can't even print propaganda leaflets. With Israel prohibiting the supply of printing paper to the Gaza Strip, only Hamas, which controls all routes for smuggled goods (including paper), has access to the printing press. As a result, the people of the Gaza Strip rely on Hamas for food, money, and information.

The people of the Gaza Strip rely on Hamas for food, money, and information.

Hamas has used this effectively — firstly by instilling hatred against Israel and Jews in the region's inhabitants from an early age, and secondly, by limiting their prospects for a reasonably prosperous life to an armed terrorist struggle against Israel. While there are some affluent individuals in the Gaza Strip — the local equestrian club has a few dozen members who work as doctors, lawyers and engineers — they represent a small minority compared to the hundreds of thousands of underprivileged, poorly educated people for whom jihad appears to be the only available way to achieve upward social mobility.

The Yom Kippur War and its aftermath

The last time Israel faced a real threat to its existence was exactly half a century ago — in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. At that time, the Jewish state was simultaneously attacked by the armies of Syria and Egypt, reinforced by Jordanian and Iraqi units, soldiers and officers from Morocco and Saudi Arabia, and even military specialists from North Korea and Cuba. Palestinian factions also sided with the invading armies. That war lasted about three weeks and ended in an Israeli victory, although Israeli politicians understood that the threat of new attacks from hostile neighboring states would only grow.

With the assistance of their American and European allies, Israel initiated negotiations aimed at establishing peaceful relations with its Arab neighbors. The first peace accord was signed with Egypt in 1978, followed by a peace agreement with Jordan in 1994. Simultaneously, efforts were made to normalize relations with Syria; however, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad ultimately declined to pursue peace with Israel, potentially influenced by his regime's close ties to Iran. Regardless, two out of the four neighboring Arab nations acknowledged Israel's right to exist and abandoned the goal of its destruction. In contrast, Lebanon and Syria remained in a formal state of war with Israel; yet internal crises, divisions, and regional conflicts rendered the prospect of an actual war highly improbable.

This geopolitical configuration — two neighbors refusing to go to war, two others too busy with their internal problems — existed for decades and virtually guaranteed Israel a more or less stable situation on its external borders. Since the late 1990s, Israel's primary and virtually sole threat has been Iran and its proxies — primarily Hamas. Hamas has repeatedly attacked Israel with rockets launched from the Gaza Strip or sent suicide bombers into Israeli cities, receiving return fire from Israeli planes, tanks, and ships on targets in Gaza. To some extent, this situation became routine, with Israelis acknowledging that, at any given moment, Hamas could unleash hundreds or even thousands of rockets on their cities. While some were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, others fell on residential areas, killing and injuring their residents. People just accepted it as an inevitable evil.

How did October 7 become possible?

Could Israelis, accustomed to decades of living with the constant threat of rockets from Gaza, have foreseen the events of October 2023? Could they have imagined that the danger wouldn't be limited to a few hundred rockets or isolated suicide bombings? They could. What's more, they knew that's exactly what would happen: about six months ago, Israel's military intelligence reported that the next Hamas attack promised to be much bigger than any previous ones.

This assault would not be confined to rocket launches or sporadic suicide bombers sneaking out of Gaza through underground tunnels. Instead, it would involve a massive rocket barrage coupled with a coordinated ground offensive. As the rockets soared through the sky, Hamas would neutralize border observation posts, breach the wall surrounding Gaza at multiple points, and deploy a substantial force — possibly numbering in the thousands — to seize Israeli settlements bordering the enclave. The reports also indicated that these seizures would be accompanied by horrifying public massacres of the local population. Which is precisely what happened.

The signs of an impending Hamas offensive had been evident to experts for months. In recent years, Israel had made significant strides in its relations with various Arab nations, thanks to U.S. mediation. Sudan, Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates had all recognized Israel's right to exist. Negotiations were even underway for Saudi Arabia to follow suit. The Saudis' complex relationship with Iran had pushed them toward peace with Israel, up to the point of solidifying ties with the Jewish state.

Home to the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia can now potentially assert itself as the central power in the Islamic world, despite Iran aspiring to contest that position, possibly with the help of nuclear weapons — a development Tehran has likely been secretly advancing for some time. Saudi Arabia is very eager to receive security guarantees in case of war with Iran from its main international partner, the United States. The U.S. is willing to offer these assurances, but they come with an important condition: recognizing Israel. The prospect of a Saudi-American military coalition targeting Iran is one of Tehran's worst nightmares — not only would it strengthen its regional rival, but it would also encourage other Muslim nations aligned with Saudi Arabia to seek peace and cooperation with Israel.

As rumors of Iran's nuclear capability grew stronger, Saudi Arabia became more open to engage in peace talks with Israel. By late summer, a peace agreement appeared imminent. Around that time, Iran and its proxy, Hamas, took decisive actions to show the Palestinians' readiness for large-scale military action and, perhaps more importantly, demonstrate to the Arab world the casualties and destruction in the Gaza Strip that would result from Israel's inevitable retaliatory strikes. Their message was clear and simple: “Arabs cannot make peace with Israel, which is at war against with their Palestinian brothers.”

But if the Israelis were aware of the danger posed by Hamas, if Israel's intelligence services warned of the preparation of an unprecedented attack on the Jewish state, and if the international situation indicated that this attack would take place in the near future, why did the Israeli authorities do nothing to prevent it?

The authorities' thinking probably went something like this: “What if the intelligence was wrong, what if Hamas is still incapable of sophisticated, daring operations? Should we start evacuating thousands of people, call up entire brigades of reservists, spend billions of dollars to stop a threat that may not even exist? And what will become of the government that spent all those billions, ripped people out of work and school to dress them in fatigues and send them to guard the wall around Gaza? How soon will this government be accused of panic and incompetence? How long after that will an already unpopular and unstable government last?”

Like the current Israeli cabinet under Netanyahu, the Ukrainian authorities — notably more highly favored by the electorate — did not evacuate the country's border regions in the winter of 2022. They also refrained from declaring a large-scale military call-up, even when U.S. authorities openly indicated an impending Russian attack with approximate invasion dates. Their reasoning was similar to that of the Israeli government — they feared appearing foolish and overly alarmist to the public if the anticipated events did not occur.

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