If you write anything critical of Israel’s actions in the West Bank, you’re immediately inundated with letters complaining about Hamas. “Hamas is a death cult,” these letters run. “They’re religious fanatics. They use children as human shields. How can you defend Hamas?” Along these lines, in a widely noted New York Times op-ed Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the US and Israel should try to strengthen the secular Palestinian party Fatah and work to weaken Hamas.
Yet it’s worth reminding ourselves in the not too distant past, the exact opposite strategy was followed. In the 1970s both the United States and Israel thought that secular left-wing Arab nationalism was a bigger threat than religious fundamentalism. For that reason, Israel worked strongly to empower Hamas and undermine Fatah.
In his 2006 book The Iron Cage, historian Rashid Khalidi describes “the transformation of the Palestinian branch of Muslim Brotherhood and its offsprings, Hamas, from the protégés of the Israeli occupation into Israel’s fierce enemy.” As Khalidi notes, “For well over two decades after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel …[used] the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas in Gaza as a counterweight to the nationalist Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). This reached the point where the Israeli military occupation encouraged Brotherhood thugs to intimidate PLO supporters.”
Khalidi’s account is bolstered by a 2006 article a 2006 article by United Press International Reporter Richard Sale which offer details on the Israel/Hamas collaboration:
Israel and Hamas may currently be locked in deadly combat, but, according to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials, beginning in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years.
Israel “aided Hamas directly — the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization),” said Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies.
Israel‘s support for Hamas “was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative,” said a former senior CIA official.
So basically we see a see-saw policy: support Hamas one day to weaken Fatah, support Fatah the next day to weaken Hamas. In the larger scheme of things, all these policy shifts make perfect sense: they are part of the long-standing imperialist tradition of divide-and-conquer. It’s the inability to see Israel as following an imperialist strategy that prevents a true understanding of what’s happening now.