For the last six weeks, Hamas has been organizing protests under the slogan “the march of return.” The protests are presented to the world as peaceful demonstrations, but as the demonstrations unfold, Hamas operatives begin to activate their people urging them to breach the Gaza/Israel border fence. Then, they proceed to instruct their terrorists to use gun fire against Israeli soldiers, and fly inflammable kites aimed at burning fields. Participation in protests is encouraged either by offering payment to participants or by applying direct threats. Women are sent to the forefront of the marches to give Western TV crews the impression that the demonstrations are genuine, spontaneous and conducted by innocent and defenseless individuals.
The purpose, of course, is to trigger an Israeli reaction that would lead to the killing of Palestinians, as martyrdom has always been part of Hamas strategy and indoctrination. That killing would provoke a reaction of anger in the Palestinian and Arab streets. The world would react with outrage. The United Nations would follow with a condemnation while too many western analysts and media would repeat the unfounded notion that the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians causes violence and terror.
The last wave of violence was planned on the day the United States transferred its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That provided an additional reason to mislead the public and make it believe that Hamas has a reasonable motive to start terror activities, regardless of how many times the group has undermined and destroyed the peace process by weakening the Palestinian Authority, murdering its soldiers and carrying terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. There is no need to remind our readers that Hamas has vowed to destroy the state of Israel.
However, this time there might be a deeper reason why Hamas started its provocation.
The Arab world finds itself in the midst of a very serious internal struggle for its soul. The Arab Spring has slowly begun to change the social contract between the Arab people and its rulers. Arab states are now forced to take into account the well-being and desires of their citizens, long scorned by Arab secular autocracies. Arab states try to avoid a mass rebellion and thus they are trying to respond to some pressing domestic issues.
For decades, Arab authoritarian regimes and religious fanatics used Israel as a scapegoat, as an external enemy and a big threat. This is not easily sold to the Arab public today. Arabs may not think highly of Israel but Israel is not their priority. As a young Arab intellectual told me: “We don’t care about the Palestinians. It is not our problem. We care about ourselves and our future prosperity.” In the Arab world, priority is given to economic improvement, restoration of security, reduction of high levels of illiteracy, and the future of their children
Thus, though Islamic radical extremists and violent groups have tried to capitalize on the chaos generated by the Arab spring in order to gain political power, they so far have failed to achieve what they wanted and expected.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed with the blessing of the majority of Egyptian parties and groups. The government of Abdel Fattah El Sisi that deposed the Brotherhood is indeed authoritarian. However, according to several Arab intellectuals with whom I recently spoke, it enjoys support from Egyptians by virtue of the fact that during the year that the Brotherhood ruled Egypt, the country fell into a state of chaos, insecurity and disarray. Furthermore, he added, Egyptians are watching what is happening in other countries of the region such as Syria, Libya and Yemen where civil wars are having devastating effects. Egyptians view El Sisi as the person who saved the unity of the country and restored order. My Arab interlocutors told me cut and clear: people are afraid of Islamists and religious fanatics.
Along these lines, in Tunisia, the Islamist party known as “Enhanda” understood that Tunisian citizens were not willing to live the kind of life that Islamists proposed. Thus, it evolved into a party that attempts to adapt to what Tunisian citizens really demand, which is freedom from tyrannical rule and better conditions. Enhanda also accepted defeat in the elections and transfer of power. Furthermore, the leader of the party, Rachid Ghanouchi openly and publicly rejected the Iran/Taliban type of religious coercive/totalitarian rule.
Likewise, the atrocities committed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the fact that ISIS ruled part of these territories, became living proof of what living under Islamic rule is like. This has contributed to discrediting Islamists as well. As I was told by one of the Arab intellectuals I spoke with, “How is it that these organizations that represent religious extremism carry signs that call for Death to America and Israel but we, Arabs, are the only ones dying”?
In fact, even regarding Israel, things have begun to change. El Sisi has introduced the peace agreement with Israel in the curriculum of Egyptian schools; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman recognized Israel’s right to have a homeland (thus indirectly also recognized the right of the Jewish nation to have a homeland); and; Bahrain, in an unusual statement, recognized Israel’s right to defend itself. In addition, these countries and Israel have been working together for some time to counteract Iran’s regional expansion.
To be sure, radical Islam has not yet been defeated. There is still a long way to go to remove its toxic and malicious influence. However, they are in military and political retreat despite their continuous acts of terrorism. ISIS is being defeated in the Levant. Iran has been pushed to the corner and forced to beg to the Europeans to keep the deal so vital for their economic survival. Furthermore, recent confrontations between Iran and Israel in Syria and the destruction of Iran’s infrastructure in Syria have exposed Iran as weak and vulnerable.
Most importantly, as the Tunisian and Egyptian case show, the situation generated after the Arab Spring has shown that their ways are not accepted by a large segment of the Arab public. As it was previously mentioned, Islamist parties such as Enhanda have turned pragmatic and focused on economic challenges , which is the priority of the Arab street.
Thus, Hamas’s bombastic acts such as the “March of Return“ were aimed to serve not only Palestinian Islamic radicalism. It is important to remember that Hamas is not just a Palestinian organization. It views itself as part of a larger Pan–Islamist movement. It is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and it is supported by Iran, ISIS, Qatar and last but not least Turkey. Turkey, that once was presented as a model of democratic Islam (even by our own former President Barack Obama), is clearly showing its radical Islamist face. As scholar Soner Captgay pointed out last February, Islamic law is gaining ground in large sectors of Turkish society. Turkey’s military actions in Syria have been described as “jihad”; Turkey’s 90,000 mosques were instructed to recite the Koran’s ‘Prayer of conquest”; and; national police are actively involved in intimidation and censorship of writings and comments considered to be offensive to Islam. Turkey’s Ministry of Education is using its power to impose Islamic practices in public schools and force teachers to bring students to pray in local Mosques.
Turkey’s foreign policy has been to make alliances with Iran and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It facilitated ISIS activities while launching a war against Kurdish groups that were fighting the Islamic State. In its rhetoric, Turkey is as hostile to Israel and to the Jewish people as any radical Islamist group and Iran and is currently a key supporter of Hamas.
The bloodshed and immolation of Palestinians organized by Hamas is not only an attempt to revive the Palestinian cause but also revitalize radical Islam in general.
Hamas actions are not about freedom for the Palestinians, the site of the American Embassy, or about the Israeli blockade. It is about the radical Islamic agenda, Palestinian and beyond, seeking a new impulse in the midst of defeat and isolation.