What the World Gets Wrong About Hamas

5 minute read
Monica Marks is an assistant professor at NYU Abu Dhabi who focuses on Islamist movements in the Middle East.

Since Oct. 7, Israelis have struggled to find words raw and powerful enough to convey the trauma of what happened that day. Many have spent the past weeks watching Israeli generals, rescue workers, and forensics experts testify about the grisly ways Hamas killed 1,400 people.

Many Israelis, seeking to understand the horrors of Oct. 7, have turned to comparing Hamas to ISIS. The hashtag “#HamasisISIS” has trended on social media as Israeli leaders—including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—have frequently equated the two. But scholars of Islamist movements like myself, as well as counterterrorism officials, have long understood the comparison to be false. As Gershon Baskin, who has been Israel’s lead hostage negotiator with Hamas since 2006, told me recently: “Its acts of terrorism resemble ISIS, but they don’t have the same ideology.”

The first and most important difference is that Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist Islamist movement. That fused, dual identity differentiates it from ISIS, which is a transnational pan-Islamist movement that wants to gather a universal umma, or community of Muslim believers, into an “Islamic state” untethered from any nationalist project. Hamas, on the other hand, has more localized demands: it identifies “liberation of all of Palestine” from what it terms “the Zionist enemy” as its core goal in its 2017 Charter. There is also the inconvenient fact that ISIS “literally views Hamas as apostates” because of its support from Shia Iran, as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Aaron Zelin recently posted on X

A second key difference is their relative religious extremism. Hamas is religiously conservative, but it does not ruthlessly harass or kill non-Muslims in Gaza simply because of their faith or religious comportment. It tolerates women who don’t wear the hijab, people who sport tattoos, and teenagers who listen to American music. Christians and churches also coexist with Muslims in the Hamas-run enclave. None of this would have been possible under ISIS, a far more religiously extremist organization that tortured and mutilated people to compel their adherence to an ultra-radical version of Islam.

But comparisons between Hamas and ISIS abound in part because they can be politically useful. Insisting that Hamas is ISIS enables Israeli leaders to muffle criticism of the country’s treatment of Palestinians, including airstrikes in Gaza since Oct. 7 that have left at least 8,000 people dead, two-thirds of them women and children. The conflation could also help win over U.S. leaders and public opinion. “Since 1973, every Israeli war has ended early, from Israel’s perspective, because of dwindling support from the U.S.,” one former Israeli diplomat told me recently. “Keeping the U.S. onside here is very important, so this is useful hasbara [public relations] for Israel.” This rhetorical sleight of hand helps convince people that Hamas is not just a threat to Israel, but to French boardwalks or American nightclubs in the way ISIS was.

Read More: Israel's Vow to 'Eliminate Hamas' Is Unrealistic

Unlike ISIS, Hamas has existed for decades and is no mystery. It grew out of a Muslim charity established in 1973 and has a large social service wing. It split from the Palestine Liberation Organization as a result of the Oslo peace process’ failures and pursues violence against Israel. It won the 2006 Palestinian elections in Gaza and remains, along with its rival Fatah in the West Bank, one of two main political forces in the Palestinian territories. It has continuously negotiated with Israel for years on borders, prisoner swaps, and governance of Gaza. It is also, to some extent, the Frankenstein’s monster of Netanyahu, whose policies empowered Hamas in an effort to divide and weaken the Palestinian territories for years.

More from TIME

Hamas justifies horrific acts of terror as resistance to Israel’s occupation and has traditionally exploited the traumas caused by Israeli violence to grow its ranks. To recruit new members, it attends funerals and contacts bereaved relatives of family members killed in Israeli airstrikes. Its militants also capitalize on the deprivation, isolation, and prison-like conditions that have prevailed in the Gaza Strip since Israel began its blockade 16 years ago. 

Nevertheless, Israel last week dropped leaflets that proclaimed “Hamas=ISIS” and warned civilians—who remain trapped in the Strip with nowhere safe to hide—to “surrender.” But that approach is likely falling on deaf ears in Gaza and throughout the Arab world, where most see Hamas as a religious-nationalist Palestinian resistance movement that is directly challenging Israel’s ongoing blockade and occupation.

Israel might—with time, blood, and grit—dismantle Hamas’s principal political and military structures. But the suffering that Israel’s methods—which have so far included cutting off water, food, and fuel to civilians—will cause Palestinians in Gaza is astronomical. Remnants of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or a yet-to-be-formed armed movement can and will exploit these festering resentments to foment future attacks on Israel.

To combat security threats effectively, Israeli leaders must resist facile comparisons and reckon with the fact that, at the heart of Hamas’s appeal among many of its recruits, lies not religious extremism but anger, anguish, and hopelessness. A hydra that feeds off of embittered youths will not be defeated by creating more destruction and despair.

Ensuring that Palestinians get the freedom, dignity, and self-determination they have demanded for over 75 years would be the most effective way to ensure Israel’s long-term security. Unfortunately, for millions of Palestinians and Israelis alike, that outcome looks ever more remote.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.