Douglas J. Feith is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, where he works on a range of foreign and defense issues, including terrorism, arms control, alliance relations, national security policy making. He served as undersecretary of defense for policy from July 2001 to August 2005, where he helped devise the U.S. government’s strategy for the war on terrorism and contributed to policy for the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. He served during the Reagan administration as a Middle East specialist for the National Security Council and then deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy.
Shoshana Bryen: Let’s jump right in. You wrote in an article that “Key Biden team members seem to understand what Hamas is.” Doug Feith, what is Hamas?
Douglas Feith: Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
At its founding in 1988, it published a covenant that defines Hamas as an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement and clarifies its identity, outlines its stand, explains its aims, speaks about its hopes, and calls for its support, adoption, and joining its ranks.
I quote it because there’s nothing like quoting the organization directly rather than just characterizing it.
“Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious.
“There is no solution to the Palestinian problem, except by jihad. The initiatives, operations, and international conferences are a waste of time and a kind of child’s play.
“The Islamic Resistance Movement is an outstanding type of Palestinian movement. It gives its loyalty to Allah, adopts Islam as a system of life, and works toward raising the banner of Allah on every inch of Palestine.
“As far as the ideology of the Islamic Resistance Movement is concerned, giving up any part of Palestine is like giving up part of its religion.
“The motto of the Islamic Resistance Movement is, ‘Allah is its goal, the Messenger is its leader, the Koran is its constitution, jihad is its methodology, and death for the sake of Allah is its most coveted desire.”
This is the language of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928. One reason Israel and Egypt have such a cooperative partnership in dealing with Hamas is that the Egyptian government views the Muslim Brotherhood as one of its main enemies. It therefore recognizes Hamas as a hostile organization.
It’s not just Israel that has been blockading Gaza. Gaza also has a land boundary with Egypt, and Egypt is blockading Gaza. And there’s substantial Egyptian cooperation in trying to keep Hamas from getting weapons and building up its strengths in Gaza because Hamas supports Muslim Brotherhood elements hostile not just Israel but to the Egyptian regime.
Bryen: But a lot of those weapons actually do get smuggled across the Egyptian border into Gaza. So, although the Egyptian government’s position is in line with the government of Israel, the border isn’t closed.
Feith: Hamas gets financial support from Iran, among other places. This is an interesting, complex situation because, as a Muslim Brotherhood organization, Hamas has an ideology very hostile to Shiite Islam. As has been shown frequently in history, however, ideological opponents manage to create strategic alliances against common enemies.
The Shiite Iranians and the Sunni jihadists of Hamas are strategic partners against Israel.
Bryen: One can assume those rocket and missile factories supplied by Iran are part of the infrastructure the Israeli Air Force attempted to destroy.
Feith: Yes. There is a question about how good the intelligence was. Do the Israelis know the locations of all these key facilities? The ones they know about can be destroyed. But you don’t know what you don’t know.
Hamas’s Moral Depravity
There’s also the problem that Hamas, as a matter of practice, locates its military production facilities and its military operational bases to ensure that when the Israelis attack those facilities, there will inevitably be large civilian casualties. This really deserves attention because it is unique in history. No party to a war has ever before, as an element of its strategy, purposefully arranged to maximize civilian deaths on its own side.
I doubt you can cite another example of a country that makes one of its fundamental strategic planks the maximization of civilian casualties on its own side. So, Hamas is doing something that is really innovative, morally horrific and…
Bryen: Disgusting. In June, the UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace and Security said openly, overtly, unequivocally, that Hamas locating its military effects inside of civilian neighborhoods and firing into civilian neighborhoods in Israel is a war crime and it needs to stop immediately.
Feith: It is surprising, and it may be the first time that a UN official made a statement like that about Hamas and did not balance it to set up a kind of moral equivalency with Israel. It may reflect that what Hamas is doing is even worse than the war crime of using civilians as human shields.
`The purpose of using human shields in war is to protect what the human shields are shielding. The purpose is not to kill the human shields. In fact, a war party that uses human shields benefits if those human shields are not killed.
But what Hamas is doing is purposefully maximizing Palestinian civilian casualties. It wants to force Israel to have to kill Palestinian civilians because Hamas can then use the Palestinian corpses to delegitimate Israel – to make the Israelis look brutal and inhumane, to make it appear that the Israelis are war criminals.
Hamas’s strategy is deeply ironic, deeply perverse.
The strategy aims to exploit the general respect around the world for the law of war, respect for the principle that civilians should not targeted. This respect is so widespread and intensely held that Hamas’s strategy is to harness it in its ideological war against Israel.
The Hamas strategy therefore is to base its military assets and military operations in civilian areas. That way, when Israel, to defend itself, legitimately attacks Hamas military targets, there inevitably will be large civilian casualties on the Palestinian side.
This innovative and evil strategy is a horrifying regression, a repudiation of the absolute heart of the idea of the law of war. People who take the law of war seriously, and UN officials of course say they do, should recognize that what Hamas is doing here is not simply violating the law, but setting it back centuries, to the era before nations acknowledged their obligation to protect civilians in war.
Perhaps this recognition is what accounts for the extraordinary criticism of Hamas by the UN Special Coordinator that you mentioned. We can only hope that that UN official is properly focused on this and understands how outrageous what Hamas is doing is.
Hamas has adopted this strategy for one reason. It gets rewarded politically around the world by people who cite the Palestinian loss of life and limb in Gaza to condemn – not Hamas – but Israel. The people who do this to deplore Israel often speak as outraged humanitarians, as people who respect the law of war and want to keep civilians safe. But their support for Hamas and denunciations of Israel are rewards for Hamas’s anti-civilian strategy.
Here is the irony and the perverseness of it all. When people with humane instincts side with Hamas because they think Palestinian losses in the war are “disproportionate” and greater than Israeli losses in the war, they are in effect paying for – validating and encouraging – the Hamas strategy that is so inhumane, so regressive, so destructive of the very idea of the law of war.
Bryen: If Hamas maximizes its own side’s civilian deaths because it understands it can turn the conversation to “look at those horrible Israelis killing our children,” the question is, does it work on the Biden administration?
Feith: The Biden team put out mixed signals, which may have been a conscious tactic, or may reflect the reality of different points of view within the administration.
The Democratic Party right now has a vigorous debate underway between two factions. One wing is represented by “the Squad,” congressional representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others. It is intensely anti-Israel, anti-semitic, very outspoken, and reasonably influential. The other faction is the more traditional one, which is generally sympathetic to Israel in principle though it strongly favors Israeli politicians on the left over Netanyahu and his Likud and right-of-center colleagues.
The argument between these factions is also going on within the administration. Statements by both the President and Secretary of State Blinken reflected understanding that Israel needed to reestablish deterrence against Hamas. They gave Israel time to punish Hamas for the rocket attacks against Israel and to diminish Hamas’s military capabilities, and the combination could restore deterrence.
It’s worth noting, the last significant war between Israel and Hamas was in 2014. Here we are seven years later. The Israelis, through major operations of the kind that they’re now engaging in, buy a few years of quiet. Then there is a flare-up three, five, seven years down the road, and Israel has to strike back at Hamas all over again. That’s the way the Israelis have been handling Hamas attacks in recent years. And it looks like Biden and Blinken gave Israel time to do that.
The Biden team was under pressure from abroad and from within the Democratic Party to push Israel harder to stop its military operations. They were trying to have it both ways by giving lip service to the people who demanded a ceasefire, but not actually demanding an immediate ceasefire and not allowing the UN to pass a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire.
Bryen: A ceasefire that leaves Hamas in control of various aspects of its military setup means Hamas gets to determine the timing of the next war as well, which it seems to me, is an intolerable burden on Israel.
Feith: That’s one way of looking at it. There’s a debate in Israel over military strategy. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that Israel was going to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, it was an enormously controversial decision. It was so controversial that it lost Sharon his own political party.
Controversial as it was, once Israel got out, there was no substantial political support for Israel re-taking Gaza. You hear hardly anybody in Israel saying, “We wish we controlled Gaza.” And so, the Israelis are constrained. They would like to destroy Hamas and its capabilities, but they don’t want to pay the price of taking over Gaza again. The question then is, is there a middle ground where the Israelis can go in on the ground, destroy Hamas, destroy the infrastructure, and then leave? There might be large Israeli casualties if they did that, and even larger Palestinian casualties, strong international condemnation and Israel’s position in the world would suffer.
There are other people who say the Israelis should go in on the ground, do the job they need to do, and their position in the world wouldn’t be that much worse than it is now when they get denounced anyway. Maybe they could clean up the Hamas problem to a much greater extent than they can by trying to fight it from outside and from the air.
The Iran Deal
Bryen: It is important to understand that there is unanimity in Israel about what Hamas is, but what to do about it, not so much. You mentioned Iran. The Biden administration is pursuing a new deal with Iran, in the course of which they have decided, openly, to leave things off the table: human rights, support for terrorism, including Hamas and Hezbollah but also the Houthis. Does that stoke this problem at this time? Did Hamas and Iran think they had a clear shot at Israel because the Biden people were more interested in the Iran deal?
Feith: I think that is slightly less clear. There are people in the administration at senior levels who are precisely in line with the way you’ve described the policy. But my sense is there are some people who show at least some awareness that the world has changed in the years since the Obama administration made the Iran deal.
The world has changed, in ways that have made Iran a lot weaker than it was five, six, seven years ago.
America’s unilateral sanctions on Iran were far more effective than almost anybody I know believed was possible. Most people, including people who were in favor of a very hard line toward Iran, like myself, believed that to be effective, U.S. sanctions needed to be supported internationally, multilaterally; that the United States by itself would not be able to put a really effective squeeze on Iran. But the squeeze that the Trump administration put on unilaterally turned out to be far more effective than I believed was possible. You have to give the Trump administration credit for having seen that unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed in a very strong fashion could constrain the Iranian economy far more than almost all the experts said was possible.
To give you an example, as a result of the economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, Iranian oil exports went down from around 2.9 million barrels a day to 0.5 million barrels a day. That’s stunning. It devastated the value of the Iranian currency. It drove prices up throughout Iran, which created enormous political unhappiness and mass demonstrations against the regime. The Iranians were brought to their knees economically.
As they are trying to revive negotiations with Iran, there are people in the administration who realize that the Iranians are crippled economically. And so that allows for a harder line by the United States.
I do think that the Biden administration is making a terrible mistake in trying to keep a narrow focus on the nuclear program rather than bringing into the dialogue with Iran all of the Iranian activities that are counter to American interests. I also think it’s a mistake to talk about relieving the Iranians rapidly from our economic pressure. Whatever hope we have of concessions from the Iranians – agreement to back off on the activities that are harmful to us – come from that enormous economic pressure. We should keep them there. But the Biden administration’s strategy seems not to take this properly into account.
Nevertheless, they’re not just rushing into a deal. They are not relieving the economic pressure immediately. And it’s possible that some top administration officials are just claiming to want to restore the old nuclear deal while actually focusing on taking advantage of the Iranians’ weakened position. So far, we don’t have a deal. If the administration maintains the position that they want one, but they can’t achieve one, while keeping the Iranians in a severe economic squeeze, that’s not a terrible position. I’d feel better if they had a smarter declaratory position, more in line with the more hard-headed position that some hawks are advocating. But you can’t expect the Biden people to sound like hawks, that’s not their political constituency.
Funding the PA Equals Funding Hamas
Bryen: But whether that gives aid and comfort to Hamas and its decisions to fire at Israel is still an open question.
Feith: Something that may be encouraging Hamas is the Biden administration’s decision to restore economic aid to the Palestinians, despite continuing Palestinian support for terrorists. That could have affected Hamas calculations. It may have led Hamas leaders to think that they would not pay a severe price with the United States by launching their rockets at Israel.
The administration sent an unconstructive signal by restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority. Hamas may have read it as a sign of possible sympathy for them. They got a lot of sympathy from John Kerry last time around, in 2014, and they may have thought that the Kerry team had returned. If they believed that, they’re probably now somewhat disappointed.
Bryen: It’s okay with me if they’re disappointed. How much of this has to do with Hamas-Fatah political warfare? Hamas demands that Israel leave the Temple Mount and stop evicting people from the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. This is an entry by Hamas into the political workings of what has historically been the Palestinian Authority’s purview on the eastern side and the West Bank and in Jerusalem. How much of this is violence between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian narrative?
Feith: To understand a phenomenon as large as war, you have to take a lot of things into account. And certainly, the things that you’ve just highlighted are an important element of the current politics. They provide triggers and political opportunities for action by Hamas to score points against the PA, to make the PA leadership look, not just corrupt, but old and tired and ineffectual. And so, Hamas looks young and vigorous, rising to the defense of Arab interests in Jerusalem. There is political competition between Hamas and the PLO people who run the PA.
Causes and Triggers
But people, and journalists in particular, often fail to see the forest for the trees by focusing on current political issues – the triggers for current action – rather than the deeper motivations. The dispute over the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem and the clashes between Israeli police and Arab demonstrators on the Temple Mount at the al-Aqsa mosque may be triggers, but they are not the cause of the Hamas-Israel war. When journalists say that those things caused the war, it’s as ignorant as believing World War I was caused by the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. There’s a difference between a war’s triggering event and a cause. No serious person should believe that the war between Hamas and Israel is about rental payments in Sheikh Jarrah.
And that’s why I emphasized the importance of the Hamas Covenant. I want to remind people to take a step back and see the strategic picture and not get lost in the details of the current scene and its particular disputes. Hamas is at war with Israel because its members believe that Israel’s existence is an offense against Islam, and against the Arab and Palestinian people, and the only way to remedy the injustice and dishonor caused by Israel is to end its existence. That’s why there’s a war between Hamas and Israel.
There is no lack of excuses for Hamas to initiate active combat. There’s no shortage of rocks to throw, and there’s no shortage of incidents between Israelis and Palestinians that can be used as an excuse – a trigger – for violence.
It’s misleading and ignorant for journalists and government officials around the world to believe that what is motivating Hamas, which has a strategic commitment to Israel’s destruction, is some petty quarrel that Hamas happens to cite for its own immediate political purposes.
The Abraham Accords
Bryen: A concluding question: do you think Israel’s relationship with the Gulf states will extend beyond the fighting in Israel this spring and continue to provide benefits for both sides in the future?
Feith: The Abraham Accords represent a strategic decision by Arab countries that, in the life and death matter of the Iranian threat against them, the Israelis are enormously valuable and effective allies. That is even more important to them than giving support to the longstanding Palestinian war against Israel, especially because Palestinian leaders are generally on the side of Iran. That really antagonizes the Gulf Arabs. And the Palestinian leadership is in any event corrupt and ineffectual.
The UAE and Bahrain were repudiating the idea that the United States and Israel could make substantial diplomatic progress – and increase strategic cooperation – with the Gulf Arabs only after Israel reached a peace settlement with the Palestinians. The idea had dominated U.S. policy for decades. The Gulf Arabs are now saying, however, “It’s not true. We’re willing to have closer cooperation with Israel and the U.S. to deal with our important strategic problems, even if the Palestinians remain benighted and violent and pro-terrorist and un-constructive.” That’s what gave rise to the Abraham Accords.
The current fighting with Hamas further shows that Arab parties to the Abraham Accords give more weight to their own particular strategic concerns than to the political preferences of Palestinians. None of those parties cancelled or suspended the Accords as a result of the Hamas-Israel war – further proof that the leaders of the UAE, Bahrain and the other parties are no longer willing to subordinate their national security interests to the policies of Hamas and the PLO.
Bryen: Doug Feith, on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Quarterly, thank you for an enlightening conversation.