A conversation that I had some years ago in Gaza with one of the leaders of Hamas may help to explain why Hamas persists in what may seem to be quixotic and suicidal attacks on Israel.
By any objective standard these are battles that Hamas cannot win. The likelihood is that the hundreds of jubilant young Arab men who recently poured through a breach in the barrier separating Gaza from Israel and occupied Israeli towns, terrorizing and sometimes killing civilians, will themselves be killed or captured.
Why do they persist in doing it?
I posed this question to Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, who at that time was the political head of Hamas. The issue then was suicide bombings. Hamas and other extreme Palestinian Muslim groups had conducted them against Israeli targets, including marketplaces and ordinary buses.
“Israel has one of the largest armies in the Middle East,” I told him. “These bombings will not do anything to weaken their strength, and this is a war that you cannot win.”
He looked at me as if he was speaking to a naïve young child, and said “yes, maybe in my lifetime you are right. And maybe in my children’s lifetime. And even my children’s children’s lifetimes. But maybe in my children’s children’s children’s lifetimes we might prevail. We cannot lose. This is not our war, this is God’s war.”
I did not know how to respond to this divine timeline of conflict. So I said nothing. But then he added, “besides,” he said, “we need to show them that we’re still at war.”
That last sentence was telling. Sometimes, like many other acts throughout the world that we regard as terrorism, the display of war is in fact the point. As one of those who planned the 1993 attack on the world trade center told me, “you people need to be shaken awake to see the truth—the world is at war.”
Following the dramatic incursion of Hamas militants into Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaimed that Israel was “at war.” I suspect many activists associated with Hamas were nodding their heads. “Finally,” they may have said, “you’ve gotten the point.”
From their point of view, the war to reclaim Palestinian rights from Israel has been going on for decades. What may have appeared to be a peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians was hiding a deep and desperate conflict. Their recent attack on Israel brought it to light, and now all Israelis and all the world can see the war that they have been experiencing for some time.
It is, however, a tragic display of momentary power. It is not just the combatants on both sides who will be killed and injured, but the many innocent civilians in Israeli towns and in Gaza schools and apartments who are caught in the crossfire between Hamas attacks and the government’s militant response.
It will not end well. Netanyahu has pledged to destroy Hamas. This might mean leveling portions of Gaza and its inhabitants to oblivion.
But if both he and Hamas are right, and this is war, than it cries out for what is often the resolution of wars. It calls for explorations of solutions to the underlying conflict that will lead not just to a temporary stalemate but to an enduring peace.