Conflict and Fragility


The realities of Israeli state and Hamas’ violence

12 Mar 2024 - 11:46
Source: Palestinian man who lost his wife, children and grandchildren in an Israeli strike, sits in Rafah / Reuters
In darkness all is black: Exploring the realities of violence by the Israeli state and Hamas

This piece was originally published by the Cairo Review of Global Affairs 


Though Israel garnered widespread sympathy after Hamas’ October 7 attacks, which included atrocities denounced by United Nations experts as crimes against humanity and war crimes, it has also drawn widespread criticism for its own mass slaughter as well as likely war crimes and crimes against humanity during its military campaign in Gaza, now over four months long. Officials, experts, and observers around the world have time and again emphasized the disproportionate and indiscriminate nature of Israeli violence. 

While Hamas and other armed groups murdered unarmed civilians, including about three dozen children, and burned innocent humans to death, according to accounts by survivors, Israel cuts off water and electricity to civilians; purposefully limits humanitarian aid to a trickle; brings about massive destruction including of hospitals, schools, and mosques under the justification of “military necessity”; bombs civilian “power targets” that wipe out entire extended families; kills children en masse; forcibly displaces Palestinians; and even kills three Israeli hostages. International criticism of the Israeli operation “Swords of Iron” has increased as a result, reaching a provisional crescendo with South Africa’s charge at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Israel is committing genocide of the Palestinian people. 

The events of 7 October and beyond raise a major ethical question: by what standard is the violence that Hamas uses against Israel different from the violence that the Israeli state uses against Hamas? Three standards that can be applied to this question will be proposed and examined, namely legal, political, and operational. The legal standard assesses the legality with which different belligerents—a state versus an armed resistance group—can use violence under international humanitarian law in a context of enduring occupation. The political standard compares the objectives of violence deployed, in particular their degree of ideological extremism. The operational standard examines the (in)discriminate and/or (dis)proportionate nature of violence as actually applied, using international humanitarian law as a reference. Analyzing Israeli state and Hamas violence against these standards can help find more realistic ways out of the vicious spiral of repression that occupation has become, and to establish security for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

A number of Western countries have long considered the violence of the Israeli state toward Hamas as morally superior to the violence of Hamas toward the Israeli state because they view the group as a violent extremist outfit. If Israel state violence is akin to Hamas its violence, however, the moral high ground habitually conferred upon the Israeli state is not justified. Moreover, Hamas has been regularly sanctioned for its indiscriminate use of violence. Yet, if the Israeli state deploys violence in a similar manner, it ought to be sanctioned as well. Hamas has also been excluded from several efforts to negotiate peace because of the extremist objectives of its violence. Yet, if the Israeli state were found to be just as extremist, both actors would need to be either included or excluded in future efforts, the latter rendering peace talks impossible. As peacemaking requires at least the imagined (im)moral equivalence of the parties, clarifying such issues matters to the success of future efforts.

First, Forget About Terrorism

Gauging the use of violence by Hamas and the Israeli state against these three standards—legal, political and operational—requires a preliminary step of putting to rest a term that is (too) often used to frame such violence: “terrorism”. Many commentators and politicians have used terms like “terror group” or “terrorist organization” as the determining descriptor of Hamas as a whole. However, the notion of terrorism is not analytically useful because it raises major moral, ideological, and philosophical disputes as to when and who can legitimately use violence. The UN Security Council condemned criminal acts purporting to provoke a “state of terror” in its resolution 1566 of 2004, but otherwise such debate remains unresolved. Hamas does not actually feature on the list of groups that the UN Security Council has designated as “terrorist organizations”, while agreement in the UN General Assembly has been even more elusive. Additionally, in international law, acts of terrorism do not exist as a separate category of major misdeeds. In brief, “terrorism” does not provide a useful strategic frame to compare the use of violence since the term is unclear, disputed, and often biased.

The evolution and nature of Hamas illustrate the difficulties of applying the nomenclature of terrorism. Hamas is a political party, a social movement, an armed resistance group, and until recently a governing entity. It has participated in politics, governed, and provided social welfare. It has also coerced and harnessed the population of Gaza to serve its ends, and committed violence against Israeli combatants as well as non-combatant civilians, often indiscriminately

By labeling Hamas as a “terrorist group”, the Israeli state strips out such nuance. In doing so, it seeks to delegitimize the organization and to legitimize its own counter-methods. For example, it has used the label “terrorist group” to argue there is no Palestinian “partner for peace”, to discourage the international community from engaging with Hamas, and to wage several campaigns against the group during which it has regularly violated the laws of war. By imprinting the “terrorism” label on the group, the Israeli state also conveniently ignores several peace overtures by Hamas, its own role in the suppression of the electoral victory of Hamas in 2006, and prime-minister Netanyahu’s support for the group’s rule over Gaza until 7 October as part of a strategy to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. 

The birth of many modern states went hand-in-hand with the use of extreme violence, which some of the fighting parties labeled as terrorism. Israel was no different. Consider the Zionist paramilitary Irgun blowing up the King David hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, the Lehi and Irgun groups committing the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948, or the Haganah forcibly displacing Palestinians. In their own eyes, they were fighting for independence. But to the British and Palestinians they were terrorists. In these situations, authorities often respond with indiscriminate violence that will likely be reciprocated in kind. Both French actions and the counteractions of Algerian insurgents during the French-Algerian war of 1954-1962 offer a case in point. The brutality of Hamas’ violence at close quarters and the careless application of industrial-scale firepower by the Israeli state fit squarely into such historical dynamics of violence between resistance and occupation. 

A Legal Standard: Occupation, Resistance, and Self-Defense

Once the initial shock of 7 October started to wear off and Israel’s military campaign in Gaza took shape, the world recalled that Hamas’ violence was at least in part the result of fifty-seven years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, sixteen years of blockade of Gaza—including several years featuring an Israeli near-starvation policy—and, paradoxically, substantial Israeli support for Hamas. Some analysts have traced Israel’s policies of occupation and blockade back to a deep-rooted need for security given the bitter experience of the Holocaust, and longstanding practices of antisemitism—especially in Europe. Other analysts consider Israel as the quintessential twenty-first century colonial state whose prosperity is based on land theft and structural settler violence.

Historically, it was the Israeli state that occupied the Sinai, Golan, Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem after the six-day war of 1967. Although legal in itself, occupation does not amount to annexation under international law and is supposed to be a temporary situation that awaits withdrawal of the occupying forces. For example, Israeli forces withdrew from the Sinai once a peace treaty with Egypt had been concluded in 1979. Israeli forces did not withdraw from the other territories. The international community never accepted Israel’s right to the territories it conquered in 1967 and has instead called time and again for Israeli withdrawal. Meanwhile, important aspects of Israel’s occupation have been declared illegal, including Israeli settlements (under the Fourth Geneva convention) and its partition barrier (by the ICJ). In addition, the ICJ took up a case that seeks to establish the (il)legality of Israel’s occupation as a whole in 2022, not to mention the recent proceedings instituted by South Africa under the Genocide Convention.       

It is important to note that from a legal point of view, Israel’s occupation of Gaza is widely considered as continuing despite its 2005 withdrawal. This is due to Israel’s total control over sea, land, and air access points to Gaza; the strip’s telecommunications, electricity, and water supply; and Israel’s ability to intervene militarily at will. Even though the issue is complex, the right of inhabitants of occupied territories to resist occupation is recognized in United Nations resolution 3070 (1973), the Fourth Geneva Convention, and in existing interpretations of the use of force during occupation—just as the occupier is duty-bound under the Geneva conventions to maintain law and order in occupied territories. Both resistance and the maintenance of law and order (including counterinsurgency) must, however, at a minimum respect the confines of international humanitarian law

Two insights follow from this short analysis. First, Israeli state and Hamas violence represent a dialectic of counterinsurgency and resistance that results from a situation of occupation. In the abstract, there does not appear to be a legal difference between the violence that they use, except with regards to those elements of occupation that have already been ruled as illegal. This may change further if a future ICJ advisory opinion assesses the entire Israeli occupation as illegal. Second, Israel does not have an obvious legal right to defend itself as stipulated in Article 51 of the UN Charter because Gaza is a territory already occupied by the same Israeli state. 

A Political Standard: Pursuing Extremist Objectives with Violence

Unless it is criminal in nature, organized violence typically serves a political purpose. To compare and contrast the violence deployed by Hamas and the Israeli state, one must therefore understand the political intention of both parties. As occupation has deepened polarization and radicalization among occupier and occupied alike, a useful frame to assess the political use of violence is that of extremism. 

Extremism refers to “the belief that an in-group’s success or survival can never be separated from the need for hostile action against an out-group.” Are such beliefs indeed present among Hamas and the Israeli state, and do they drive their respective use of violence?

Throughout its history, Hamas has consistently framed itself as a resistance movement. But as object of its resistance, it has alternated between the Israeli state as a whole and Israeli occupation. Defining the Israeli state as a whole as object of its resistance and calling for jihad to eradicate it as a political entity makes Hamas an extremist group according to the definition above. The 1988 founding charter of Hamas put the organization firmly in the extremist camp. From this perspective, its later adoption of the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has been read by many as calling for genocide. In such a context, October 7 can be viewed as a preliminary move towards its intended destruction of the Israeli state and its people. The fact that Hamas does not have the capabilities of realizing such an aim today makes no difference. A dirty bomb might be obtained in the future and this threat would become real.

However, defining Israeli occupation as object of its resistance makes Hamas an armed movement that seeks to undo a specific injustice rather than eliminating an entire entity and its people. As noted above, parts of Israel’s occupation are illegal under international law, including its settlement program, separation wall, and frequent destruction of Palestinian property without adequate military necessity. Paradoxically, the international community and Hamas have—despite international sanctions against the latter—the same formal objective in this case: ending occupation, albeit through different means. 

The 2017 revision of Hamas’ charter shifted the emphasis of the movement’s objective to resisting occupation. It clarified that Hamas fights the Zionist project and not Jews. Moreover, it considered a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 boundaries to be “a formula of national consensus”, even though the document also contained more hostile language towards Israel. As such, the revision can be seen as opening the door for political negotiations between the group on one hand and Egypt—which was antagonistic toward Hamas as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—Israel, and the international community on the other. If this was indeed the intention, Hamas did not find any takers. Through this lens, October 7 looks like an act of resistance that was brutal toward its Israeli targets and cynical toward the civilian population of Gaza, but not as a preliminary move to destroy the Israeli state and its people.

To summarize, Hamas uses violence in pursuit of extremist political objectives, its 2017 charter revision notwithstanding. After all, this revision left ambiguity as to whether the object of the movement’s violent resistance remained the Israeli state and its people, or had shifted to Israel’s occupation. Hamas could have dispelled such doubt by explicitly recognizing the pre-1967 borders of Israel without caveats since this neither requires giving up resistance nor a surrender of arms. This would not be a potential concession harming the movement’s position during future negotiations, but instead frame itself as a resistance organization rather than an extremist one and thereby increase its legitimacy on the international stage.

Shifting the analysis to the question whether Israeli state violence pursues extremist political objectives, its statebuilding record indicates an early and clear intention to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, Gaza included. This was even codified in places such as Ben-Gurion’s memorandum “Outlines of Zionist policy” (1941), the original charter of the Likud party (1977), the Absentee Property Law (1958), but also in the coalition agreement of the current Israeli government (2022) and recent statements by leading Israeli politicians. Moreover, there is the 2018 nation-state law to consider, which clarifies that the Israeli state exists for its Jewish citizens and is meant to be Jewish-dominated. 

Violent actions initiated or sponsored by Israeli state to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible further incriminate it. These range from attacks on the civilian Arab quarters of Jaffa, Haifa, and other major cities in 1948; massacres like Deir Yassin and operation Cast Thy Bread in the same year; the settlement project since the early 1980s; as well as the regime of separation, control, dispossession, and degradation that has been imposed on Palestinians in all the occupied territories since 1967—not to mention using humanitarian aid as a weapon of war after 7 October; or the recent conference on the resettlement of Gaza and the “voluntary” displacement of its inhabitants. 

Up until the early 1980s some of Israel’s extremist objectives of annexation and displacement might be understood as a byproduct of war, or even as necessary to ensure the security of the Israeli state and its people. But this argument runs into trouble after the mid-1980s when PLO cross-border incursions largely ceased, as the organization was forced to relocate from Lebanon to Tunisia in 1982 due to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The last Israeli-Arab war took place in 1973. Except for the short interlude of the Oslo Accords from around 1993 up until 2000, the Israeli state deployed structural violence from at least the mid-1980s until today to maintain its occupation and encourage Palestinian departure without facing an existential threat.

It is clear that Israeli state violence pursues extremist political objectives with its systematic annexation of the Occupied Territories, which is executed by structural forms of violence and aims to forcibly displace parts of the Territories’ Palestinian population. Israel could have recognized the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital long ago, and invited the United Nations to help negotiate a formula for undoing occupation that learns from the Oslo Accords and creates mutually acceptable security arrangements. Instead, it pursued realization of extremist objectives that are in line with revisionist Zionist ideology.

An Operational Standard: Hamas and Israel at the Sharp Edge

At the operational level where violence actually occurs, one must consider the extent to which Hamas and Israeli state violence engage in “(in)discriminate (non-distinct) and (dis)proportionate attacks on non-combatant civilians” to understand its nature, since these are key operational criteria provided by international humanitarian law to constrain and enable violence. 

The Hamas attack of October 7 targeted a number of Israeli military posts as well as kibbutzim close by the Gazan border and rapidly expanded to include additional civilian targets when Israeli resistance proved to be minimal. Operating on foot, by motorcycle. and by car, Hamas militants killed about 373 Israeli security personnel and about 766 civilians, according to the Israeli government (not accounting for friendly fire casualties). Where the group had time, it engaged in deliberate acts of murder, humiliation, and abuse of the civilians of several kibbutzim before its militants were killed themselves, but not before carrying off around 240 hostages to Gaza. It is clear that the group’s treatment of Israeli non-combatant civilians violated international humanitarian law as it was indiscriminate. The same applies to Hamas’ targeting of Israeli residential areas and civilian facilities around Gaza by rocket before October 7. In short, Hamas’ violence makes little to no distinction between Israeli combatants and non-combatants. Its methods at close quarters are crude and brutal.

Israeli bombardments of the Gaza strip—most recently in 2009, 2014, 2022 and 2023, as well as its violent suppression of the 2018/2019 Gaza border protests—feature a mix of relatively cautious targeting of Hamas militants and much more indiscriminate aerial attacks. While there is dispute about the extent of deliberate Israeli bombing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza during previous campaigns, past levels of destruction and numbers of dead Palestinians suggest carelessness at the very minimum. However, the purposeful targeting of civilians became crystal clear during the current offensive. It has been augmented by the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, such as mosques and schools, even after the fighting. Such tactics are grounded in Israel’s Dahiya doctrine, which stipulates large-scale civilian destruction as a way to break an opponent’s will to fight.      

This is the result of a change in Israel’s objective from suppressing Hamas (before 7 October) to eliminating the group (after 7 October), including its perceived support base. In Gaza’s densely populated environment, in which militant and civilian infrastructure is interwoven, the Israeli state must target civilians and civilian structures to realize its objective. It does so through the brutal application of industrial-scale firepower and with disregard for the fact that the Israeli state itself is responsible for the making of Gaza’s environment through displacement, occupation and blockade. The sheer scale of destruction and death by the thousand, many of which children, indicate that Israeli forces have stopped caring to differentiate between Hamas fighters and infrastructure on the one hand and their civilian counterparts on the other. This likely amounts to war crimes and some IDF soldiers have already incriminated themselves online in the expectation of enjoying full impunity for their deeds. 

Implications for Peace

The preceding analysis allows for at least two conclusions. To begin with, the violence deployed by Hamas and the Israeli state respectively is not fundamentally different if reviewed against a legal, political, and operational standard. In terms of legality, Hamas may resist occupation, just as Israel may maintain order and engage in counterinsurgency operations in the territories it occupies – both within the confines of international humanitarian law. In political terms, both entities deploy violence in pursuit of extremist goals. In the case of Hamas it is somewhat ambiguous how extremist its goals really are, whereas in the case of Israel it is clearer of late. Operationally, both entities use violence in an indiscriminate and disproportionate manner with the key difference that Israel does so on a far larger scale than Hamas. More precisely, between 2008 and mid-2023, Israel killed at a ratio of 21:1 (present casualty numbers of both sides suggest this ratio may rise). 

These insights have important ramifications for peacemaking efforts. The first is that the international community has tilted the odds against peace by sanctioning Hamas but not the Israeli state despite the fact that their use of violence is comparable in key regards. Even though the Israeli state is far more powerful and commits far higher rates of violence, it is Hamas that faces greater international opprobrium. The international community further diminishes the prospects for peace by excluding Hamas from peace negotiations even when the Israeli state is not. This situation is reminiscent of the PLO before the Oslo agreements. Israel could not bring itself to negotiate with the group until it did. Countries like Turkey and Qatar could sponsor Hamas during peace negotiations and vouch for its actions after the present Israeli military campaign, on the understanding that excluding the movement from peacemaking efforts will likely cause them to fail. If 7 October is invoked to object to such a course of action, recall that Yitzak Shamir was in charge of an armed resistance group, Lehi, when it committed the Deir Yassin massacre, slaughtering between 115 and 250 Palestinian civilians. He went on to become prime minister of Israel.

I owe a debt of thanks to Jalel Harchaoui, Nancy Ezzeddine, Ko Colijn, Peter Haasbroek and Omar Hossam Auf for their review of this essay. The content is naturally my own responsibility.