No Mr. Netanyahu, Hamas is not ISIS

Politicians find it difficult to resist the temptation of scoring cheap political points

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
8 min read

Political leaders are not elected for their good taste or finesse. However, a recent tweet by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which compared the Hamas movement to ISIS, displayed very poor taste combined with flimsy evidence. The tweet showed an image taken from the video of American journalist James Foley’s repugnant execution. Below the screenshot of the execution video, appeared another horrific photo of the execution of a Palestinian by Hamas. Both instances exemplify terrible atrocities, for which those who genuinely care about human rights can find no excuse. Nevertheless, this does not make the two organizations identical, nor does the comparison between the two organizations serve Israel’s best interest.

People around the world are as appalled by the brutality of the ISIS killings, as they were by the brutal executions of the Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. Both should be utterly condemned. However, these movements are not synonymous in their ideology or in their methods. Regrettably, it had become a habit of the Israeli prime minister to aggravate the debate with Israel’s enemies by comparing them with far worse past and present phenomena. A few months ago, he compared Iran to Nazi Germany, followed by this more recent comparison between ISIS and Hamas. In a speech last week, he managed to bundle together Hamas with ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram as endangering the free world.

Politicians find it difficult to resist the temptation of scoring cheap political points

Yossi Mekelberg

Though all have been accused of committing gross violations of human rights, associating Hamas with the other groups was mainly aimed at justifying harsh measures against the organization. It might appear at first sight as an astute public relations stunt to discredit his enemy. Yet, because it is far from being accurate it will most likely act as a boomerang, harming the very policies Netanyahu is trying to advance.

Many pitfalls

Political scientists are well aware of the many pitfalls of comparative politics. One of them is selection bias. It is the case of focusing on facts that are convenient for supporting an argument while ignoring other information which might lead one to question the very same argument. Politicians use this method very frequently—Netanyahu, for propaganda reasons, perfected it. He was quoted as saying “Hamas is like ISIS. ISIS is like Hamas. They are branches of the same tree. They are the enemies of peace. They are the enemies of Israel, they are enemies of all civilized countries. And I believe they are the enemies of the Palestinians themselves. I am not the only one who believes that.” This type of rhetoric might galvanize the Right in Israel, perhaps also in the United States, but will find very little support elsewhere. In fact, it will most likely backfire, as many will question his own commitment to peace. Those who subscribe to equating the two movements, argue that both want to establish an Islamic Caliphate, attack foreign nationals, persecute minorities, abduct journalists, stage public executions and harbor global ambitions. There is no denial that the Hamas has been involved with some these violent acts, none of which are justifiable or excusable. Nonetheless, while brutality seems to be part of ISIS’ organizational DNA, Hamas is a much more complex organization. It has shown a considerable level of pragmatism and rationality on a variety of issues and a readiness to negotiate when its interests were served by engaging with other actors in the international community, including Israel. This is also a movement which has gone through considerable changes since its establishment back in the late 1980s. Furthermore, Hamas is far from been monolithic as the Israeli government likes to portray it.

Its entry into the Palestinian framework through participating in elections, and more recently its entry into Palestinian reconciliation government with the Fatah, reveals a political movement in evolution. The military wing of Hamas, which involves its armed struggle against Israeli occupation, has committed some deplorable acts of violence and abuses of human rights. Yet, it is still a far cry from ISIS’ brutality and ideology.

The oversimplified comparison is obvious in its aim. The gruesome photos of slain Western hostages, together with the mass atrocities against Shiites, Christians, and Kurds, shocked the world into action. The formation of a wide international coalition to fight against ISIS in Iraq, which only short time ago seemed impossible, is very swiftly becoming a reality. In the mind of the Israeli government, equating Hamas with ISIS also means international acquiescence to similar measures against the Hamas. Netanyahu is not naïve enough to think that he can build an international military coalition against Hamas, but he would like to be granted a carte blanche by the international community to take whatever military actions needed to eradicate the Hamas. Moreover, by supporting action against ISIS, Netanyahu is attempting to position Israeli in the forefront of war against international extremist militancy.

Superfluous intervention

In truth, this superfluous intervention is causing more harm than good to the process of building a coalition against ISIS. The American administration and its allies would like Israel to keep a very low profile. Any association between the budding coalition with Israeli would deter Arab and Muslim countries from joining. Israeli involvement, especially so soon after the war in Gaza, will only slow down if not collapse the diplomatic effort of building a credible international force to contain the murderous militancy of ISIS.

Politicians find it difficult to resist the temptation of scoring cheap political points, or to forgo oversimplification when a complex approach is needed. This is exactly where Netanyahu is failing in his superficial comparisons. Equating Iran with Nazi Germany is as farfetched as likening Hamas to ISIS. Hamas is not ISIS. These comparisons are counterproductive because they can easily be refuted. If the Israeli government is serious about supporting a coalition against ISIS, it should do it behind the scenes and refrain from any public statements of support. Additionally, the most helpful contribution would be to show more flexibility and pragmatism in the peace process with the Palestinians. There is a broad international consensus that the lack of resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and the outburst of violence between the two, is one of the sources of the spread of extremism. A peaceful solution will not resolve all the ills of extremism in the region, but will surely aid in relieving it. This would require Israel to accept an inclusive process with all Palestinian factions. Israel might find that the best way to counter extremism is to be less intransigent and more forthcoming in her daily dealings with the Palestinians. Injecting some hope into the lives of those who suffer under the misery of the occupation might just do the trick.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending