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A demonstration against the Israeli bombardment in Gaza on December 23 in Istanbul, Turkey. (lker Eray via Getty Images)

Matti Friedman: The Wisdom of Hamas

They understand the war they’re fighting. Many in the West still don’t.

JERUSALEM — In the days after Hamas terrorists invaded Israel on October 7, triggering the current war in Gaza, many believed that Hamas had erred. The word “miscalculation” recurred in news analysis and in statements from Israeli leaders. People here in Israel were galvanized into action by the massacre. Western governments responded with shock and revulsion. The civilians of Gaza were staring at a looming catastrophe. Hamas was in for it now! What were they thinking? 

But as I write nearly three months later, with several acquaintances dead in battle and one still held hostage in Gaza, it’s easier to understand what Hamas leaders were thinking. Indeed, it’s increasingly worth considering the possibility that they weren’t wrong. 

In many ways, Hamas understood the world better than we Israelis did. The men who came across the border, and those who sent them, may have grasped the current state of the West better than many Westerners. More than anything, they understood the war they’re fighting when many of us didn’t—and still don’t.

Some aspects of Hamas’s success are easy to see, like the behavior of the Western press. After dealing with reporters through many rounds of violence since coming to power in Gaza in 2007, Hamas understood that most can be co-opted or coerced, and that coverage of Gaza would reliably focus on civilian casualties, obscuring the cause of the war, portraying Israel’s military operations as atrocities, and thus pressuring Israel to stop fighting.

This may have seemed unlikely in the first few days after October 7, when the shock of Hamas’s barbarism was fresh. But it happened, as we’ve seen in a recent rash of stories containing variations on the claim that this war is one of the worst in history and that responsibility lies with Israel. 

Hamas also knew that when faced with heartbreaking images of civilian death, some Western leaders would eventually buckle and blame the Israelis, helping Hamas live to attack another day. It took about five weeks before this happened to Emmanuel Macron of France (“These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy”) and Canada’s Justin Trudeau (“The world is witnessing this killing of women, of children, of babies. This has to stop.”)

And Hamas knew that the international organizations that bankroll Gaza, like the United Nations, having mostly turned a blind eye to Hamas’s vast military buildup at their expense (and, in some cases, on their property), would focus their fury at Israel alone and do their best to blunt the consequences of Hamas’s actions. 

All of this shows not a miscalculation by Hamas, but an admirable grasp of reality. 

Getting at Hamas’s understanding of what’s going on, and at our own misunderstanding, means asking what the Hamas war is. It’s this question that will help us begin to solve one of the core mysteries of October 7: namely, why a historic massacre of Jews, even before the Israeli response got underway, triggered a powerful wave of hostility not toward the attackers—but toward Jews.

In press coverage, including countless articles I wrote myself in my years working for the international press, the Palestinians are said to be seeking an independent state and freedom from Israeli rule. The Palestinian Authority, affiliated with Fatah, is portrayed as the more responsible actor in Palestinian politics, but Hamas still appears in the context of the same story and the same shared goal.

But this isn’t what Hamas, an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, says about itself. They don’t portray their war as limited to one of Palestinians against Israelis, and in Arabic don’t necessarily use the term “Israel” or “Israelis.” Hamas explicitly understands itself as part of a war that is religious in nature and global in scope, one in which the enemy is the Jews. In this war, they understand themselves to have many allies across the world. And here, too, it’s quite clear they’re right. 

Reasonable Western people—the kind of people who grew up in friendly cities under the Pax Americana of the late 20th century, as I did—always tended to see fragments of the broader war and not the whole picture. We might have noticed a spray-painted swastika here, an anti-Israel boycott there, a synagogue shooting by a Pennsylvania gunman, a Molotov cocktail hurled at a Montreal school, the odd statement from former leaders of countries like France (“heavy financial domination of the media and the worlds of art and music”) and Malaysia (“Jews are ruling the world by proxy”). But the tendency has been to see these all as unrelated data points, rather than an illustration of the disturbing fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world, perhaps billions, believe themselves to be in conflict in some way with Jews. 

These range from much of the populations of countries like Indonesia (where there are no Jews, but where two-thirds of those polled agreed that “people hate Jews because of the way Jews behave”), to members of British labor unions, socialists in places like Colombia and Venezuela, Russian nationalists and many of their sworn enemies among Ukrainian nationalists, professors and students in the American Ivy League, ideologues and influencers in China, and clerics in mosques from Sana’a to Sydney. 

The October 7 attack and its aftermath have finally brought the disparate elements of this struggle against Jews to the surface, its participants surging into the streets and onto social media—suggesting that Hamas knew something important about the world that many of us didn’t see, or didn’t want to. 

When I was a reporter for an international news agency at the time of the Hamas takeover in Gaza in 2007,  I discovered that it was impolitic to mention what Hamas clearly announced in its founding charter from 1988: Namely, that “our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious,” and the Jews were “behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions, and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests.” 

This didn’t sound like “Free Palestine.” But as a rule, on the rare occasions that Western news organizations felt compelled to mention the document, they left those parts out. 

The historical examples from the charter suggest that in the war against Judaism, the ideologues of Hamas understand themselves to be operating in a broad coalition and carrying on a long tradition. This is true. “Islam and National Socialism are close to each other in the struggle against Judaism,” Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem and one of the fathers of the Palestinian national movement, said in 1944. This was in a speech to members of an SS division he helped raise, made up of Bosnian Muslims. “Nearly a third of the Qur’an deals with the Jews. It has demanded that all Muslims watch the Jews and fight them wherever they find them,” he said, an idea that would reappear four decades later in the Hamas charter. When the mufti testified before a British commission of inquiry in 1929, he quoted The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Tsarist forgery describing a global Jewish conspiracy, which is also the source for parts of the Hamas charter and remains popular across the Middle East. (I once found the book for sale at a good shop near the American University of Beirut.) The Hamas army, known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is named for one of the mufti’s most famous proteges.

The movement became savvy enough to water down its charter a few years ago, but its leaders have remained honest about their intent. “You have Jews everywhere,” one former Hamas minister, Fathi Hammad, shouted to a crowd in 2019, “and we must attack every Jew on the globe by way of slaughter and killing, with God’s will.” 

In the liberal West, no sane person would own up to believing The Protocols. (At least not yet; things are moving fast.) But an Italian can hold a prominent U.N. job, for example, after saying she believes a “Jewish lobby” controls America, and you can hold a tenured position at the best universities in the West if you believe that the only country on earth that must be eliminated is the Jewish one. 

My experience in the Western press corps was that sympathy for Hamas was not just real but often more substantial than sympathy for Jews. In Europe and North America, as we’ve now seen on the streets and on campuses, many on the progressive left have arrived at an ideology positing that one of the world’s most pressing problems is the State of Israel—a country that has come to be seen as the embodiment of the evils of the racist, capitalist West, if not as the world’s only “apartheid” state, that being a modern synonym for evil. 

Jews could no longer officially be hated because of their ethnicity or religion, but can legitimately be hated as supporters of “apartheid” and as the embodiment of “privilege.” The pretense that this is a critique of Israel’s military tactics, or sincere desire for a two-state solution, has now largely been dropped. 

A recent poll suggested that about two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 believe Jews constitute an “oppressor class.” I take this poll, like all polls, with a grain of salt, but even if it's off by half, we’re still seeing signs that many young Americans, like many people who live in other countries and cite completely different reasons, believe that Jews are a problem they need to confront. In this regard, Hamas has reason for optimism.

Many of the Westerners who work in aid organizations and in the press in the Middle East, in my own experience, hold some variation of these beliefs. This includes many Europeans who are only a generation or two removed from days when other Europeans actively prosecuted a physical war against “international Jewry.” These people, who use different language to explain their problem with the same group of people (terms like “apartheid,” “war crimes,” and “supremacy” being among those now in favor) are the people regularly in contact with Hamas, in the offices of UNRWA or Amnesty International. So it can’t have been hard for Hamas to understand that its ideas have traction beyond the Middle East. 

This explains incidents like the striking moment in 2021 when the Hamas military commander Yahya Sinwar told a VICE reporter, “I want to take this opportunity to remember the racist murder of George Floyd.” Palestinians, he said, suffered “the same type of racism.” Sinwar is a fundamentalist sociopath responsible for the carnage in Israel on October 7 and for the resulting catastrophe in Gaza, as well as the murder of several Africans caught in the attack. His statement was echoed in a call by Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan the same year: “What they are doing to the Palestinian people is what they continue to do to our Black brothers and sisters here.” The word “they” was striking at the time. The two of them clearly understood themselves as being part of the same struggle. 

Hamas, like the PLO before it, could always count on fellow travelers from the old left steeped in Soviet propaganda about “Zionist imperialism,” itself a variation on more venerable themes of Jewish control. But important new allies in the West have made themselves apparent with the rise of second-generation immigrants from Muslim countries, some of whom now phrase the war of their parents’ generation in progressive language, and can protest alongside pink-haired kids with “Queers for Palestine” signs, happy to discover they share a common enemy. After the October 7 attack came the jubilant paraglider posters, the applause from Black Lives Matter, and our introduction to a parade of types like the Cornell professor who declared the massacre “exhilarating.” 

From my friends in Jewish communities in North America, I hear about synagogues hiring more armed guards and installing metal detectors, long the reality in what remains of Jewish Europe. There’s a new police post outside my old elementary school in Toronto. In L.A. and London, people I know are hiding their kippot in pockets or under baseball hats. It seems strange to call any of this the “Gaza war.” 

Most of us assumed that whatever one’s approach to Israel, open talk of Jewish villainy and calls for violence were never acceptable. We now know that scores of people, including Ivy League presidents and faculty, believe it depends on the context. Hamas thinks so too, and all of this makes you wonder who really miscalculated on October 7.

CORRECTION: The year of the mufti’s testimony before the British commission was 1929, not 1936, as we originally printed. Apologies for the mistake, which we have corrected.

You can read Matti Friedman’s last piece for The Free Press here and listen to his Honestly episode, about when Leonard Cohen visited Israel during the Yom Kippur War, here.

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