Hamas’s attack on Israel was clearly more than a well-synchronized audacious and savage operation based on several months, if not years, of planning. It also is an act of deliberate mass terrorism. But beyond that it represents an example of strategic nihilism. Indeed, for all this operation’s audacity it is difficult to discern a rational objective (from Hamas’s eyes) to justify the scale of this operation – especially as it is obvious to everyone what the likely Israeli reaction would be and now is to this act of terrorism. This strategic nihilism suggests that whatever political-military objectives Hamas had in mind or now has in mind pales in importance relative to the goal of killing Jews, not just Israelis, an objective embedded in Hamas’s initial charter. In other words, the nihilism here lies in the fact that in practice this operation’s main purposes de facto were to murder Jews and provoke a response that will aim to destroy the Palestinian Authority, which has apparently not gained any meaningful regional support. Nevertheless, any analysis, even in the face of this brutality, must aspire to a coldly rational assessment of Hamas’s objectives.
First, we must assume that Hamas made a decision for war, not just a large-scale terrorist action, to inflict lasting humiliation and intimidation upon Israel. Moreover, since planning began months if not years ago, those objectives had to be discernible and clear to Hamas leaders then even if more and newer goals were subsequently added to the plan. This is especially true for as Clausewitz wrote, “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.” So, unless the Administration’s Saudi-Israeli treaty plan was made public then, torpedoing that process was not likely one of the original goals. However, that purpose was almost certainly added to the planning process as it moved forward because that accord would isolate Iran and confront it with a series of or network of US-brokered and backed alliances. Those alliances build upon the Abraham Accord Agreements, all of which aimed to thwart Iran’s expansionist security policy from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. Second, given Riyadh’s insistence on remedying the condition of Palestinians on the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority (PA), any Saudi-Israel accord would strengthen the PA as the leading organization of the Palestinian people and thus diminish Hamas’s standing with that population.
Therefore, apart from Iran being Hamas’s principal benefactor and supporter, this planning process, aligned to the political situation in Israel where irresponsible government policy neglected Gaza and inflamed the situation on the West Bank, and to Iran’s increasing perception of Western weakness, created a community of interests between them. But beyond negating the US-sponsored peace processes in the Middle East and reasserting Hamas’s primacy in the Palestinian community, there appear to be other objectives that observers have raised as possible motivations for Hamas’ rampage.
Former British Foreign Minister William Hague, for example, has written that it is quite conceivable that Hamas planned and executed this operation not just to scupper the Saudi-Israel deal but to provoke a region-wide war against Israel based on the expectation that a massive Israeli riposte against Hamas would cause such an outrage among Arabs as to trigger this outcome. In other words, Hamas deliberately set out not only to kill Jews but to sacrifice thousands of its Palestinian subjects merely to provoke another war against Israel. Hamas’s calls for Palestinians to disregard Israel’s warning to leave Northern Gaza within 24 hours attests to its lust for a bloody denouement that consumer both Palestinian and Jewish lives. In this regard, as in so many others, Hamas follows Hitler’s logic in 1944-45 when he told his Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, that in the event of an allied invasion into Germany, Speer should prepare to blow up the entire country which had proven itself unworthy of his message. Obviously, these are messages of strategic nihilism, major operations whose purpose is to kill your own people, not the enemy.
However rational it might seem abroad to begin a war to scupper the Saudi-Israeli accords, this idea of provoking an enemy to kill masses of your own people in order to ignite a regional war exemplifies strategic nihilism. And at the same time, this large objective also encompasses several smaller objectives whose nature is essentially psychological rather than strategic and therefore wholly incommensurate with the foreseeable outcome of Hamas’s initial operation.
For example, it is clearly vital to Hamas that it not the PA be seen and acknowledged as the true representative of the Palestinian people despite its visible disdain for their lives and material well-being. Apart from the tangible political and potential economic benefits of being the primary spokesmen of this movement, the psychological benefits conferred by this status seem to be equally important to Hamas, particularly as Arab societies have long been acknowledged to be societies in which honor or shame and status play crucial roles in socio-psychological identity formation. Proving to their own satisfaction that Israel is weak and Hamas is strong despite the actual reality that the opposite is the case, may therefore be a crucial motivating force for planning an operation of this scale. Reinforcing this is the fact that Hamas’s leadership could then present itself in Gaza as warriors for the cause and enhance its domestic popularity despite its constituents’ miserable lives. Proving Israel to be weak and glorifying Hamas’s strength represents a kind of political Viagra for the population to divert their attention from the misery imposed upon them by Hamas’s well-known corruption and endless addiction to war and terror.
On this basis, there are good reasons for suggesting that a compelling motive for this operation and the willingness to risk full-scale war was the desire to validate Hamas’s sense of itself and status within the Arab world even at the cost of thousands of Palestinian lives, another instance of strategic nihilism. We can easily find a comparable example of this willingness to risk large-scale war to prove that we are the great power we conceive ourselves to be in the time of the Austro-German willingness to start a great European war in 1914 and more recently in the time of Putin’s assumption of a similar risk in invading Ukraine. Another common denominator of these examples is the abiding belief that liberal democracies are weak, effete, corrupt, and decadent while “we” are willing to suffer more than “they” are for our country and victory that would then certify our spiritual and cultural supremacy.
To argue that this war owes much if not most of its impetus to Hamas’s perverse sense of self-esteem and attempts to validate that sense of its honor fully corresponds with some of the most fundamental lines of thought on international affairs dating back to Thucydides, who memorably counted fear, interest, and honor as drivers of decisions to go to war. Nevertheless, like ISIS, which clearly inspired this attack, Hamas clearly believed, as did the Russian anarchist Bakunin, that, “the lust for destruction is a creative desire.” Arab populations – if not states – have long been susceptible to a combination of this mentality with a virulent antisemitism, probably influenced as were the original Arab nationalist movements, by Fascist and Nazi thought. And this kind of strategic and moral nihilism now also enjoys a place within Western academia as the demonstrations in the US by college groups peddling this witches’ brew show. Thus, our society too is at risk of falling into this morass of nihilism and increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. Therefore, there is only one answer here. Hamas must be destroyed and the purveyors of this violence here and abroad must be exposed, discredited, and driven out of the public domain.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.