Hamas: When the monster turns on its creator

Former cabinet secretary Vappala Balachandran writes about Israel's role in nurturing Hamas as a counterbalance to the PLO, and consequences thereof

(Trigger warning: image depicts death) A Palestinian man cries out holding the body of his cousin, who he pulled from the rubble after Israeli airstrikes in Gaza (photo: Images)
(Trigger warning: image depicts death) A Palestinian man cries out holding the body of his cousin, who he pulled from the rubble after Israeli airstrikes in Gaza (photo: Images)

Vappala Balachandran

How does terrorism originate?

For the last 15 years or so, I have been giving yearly lectures on terrorism to students of journalism at a reputable training institute in Mumbai. The most difficult part of the subject is to explain paradoxes in its history which often defy logic.

For example, President Ronald Reagan had told Americans in a radio address on 31 May, 1986, that effective anti-terrorist action was “thwarted by the claim that — as the quip goes — ‘one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter’’. He added that freedom fighters did not need to terrorise a population into submission. What he said was true of India, which won freedom under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership without violence.

If Reagan was correct, why did the United States consider Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as an acceptable and strategic partner despite an American Library of Congress paper titled Menachem Begin at the National Press Club, March 23, 1978, which had recorded that during the pre-independence days, Begin was responsible for several terrorist attacks: on two British police stations; the blowing up of the British military headquarters in King David Hotel; the execution of two British sergeants to retaliate for the hanging of three Jewish resistance fighters, and the massacre in the Arab village of Deir Yassir that left more than 250 civilians dead?

And yet, a year before Reagan’s address, William Safire, well-known New York Times columnist, had criticised the Reagan administration on 11 October 1985, for not standing by US ally Israel when the latter attacked a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) boat within the territorial waters of Cyprus when it had intelligence that it was meant for terrorist activities on Israel. Safire had criticised Reagan for “allowing” the UN Security Council “to condemn its ally and call for reparations”.

On 24 February 2001, UPI correspondent Richard Sale had claimed that Tel Aviv “gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years” in the late 1970s. He quoted Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, that Israel “aided Hamas directly — the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO”.

This was confirmed on 1 January 2009 by Daniel Barenboim, famous Israeli pianist and conductor, who wrote an article 'The Illusion of Victory' in The Guardian: “We must not forget that before Hamas was elected by the Palestinians, it was encouraged by Israel as a tactic to weaken Yasser Arafat. Israel’s recent history leads me to believe that if Hamas is bombed out of existence, another group will most certainly take its place, that would be more radical, more violent and more full of hatred towards Israel."

On 9 October, 2023, The Times of Israel reported that “Hamas conducted a years-long campaign to fool Israel into thinking the group did not desire armed conflict and could be placated with economic incentives to maintain relative calm".

However, this did not start recently. I had written in 2009, quoting the late Ami Isseroff, known as the 'Socialist Zionist', that successive Israeli governments had unknowingly promoted these fundamentalists, who later became Hamas. There was evidence that the Menachem Begin government had “approved” Sheik Ahmad Yasin’s application in 1973 to recognise his organisation 'al-Mujama', even when it was known that it was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yasin was heading its Gaza chapter.

In fact, Begin and his successor Yitzhak Shamir created “village leagues” who were thought to be helpful to check the secular and leftist PLO of Yassar Arafat. They allowed Yasin to publish a newspaper, collect funds not only from Israelis but also from orthodox Islamic regimes, and helped convert the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) as their base. IUG flourished as the only higher education facility on the Gaza strip with official Israeli help and due to Anwar Sadat’s ban on Palestinian students seeking admission in Egyptian colleges.

By the 1980s, IUG had become the largest university in occupied territories with 4,500 students. Isseroff had even said that Mujama cadre were allowed to keep their cache of weapons to intimidate secular students. The Telegraph (UK) said on 23 March 2004 that deliberate Israeli neglect of Yasin’s bold political activities “nurtured a movement that came to epitomise all that Israel meant by the word ‘terrorism".

In 1983, Yasin formed two secret para-military units: one for the surveillance and punishment of drug dealers, prostitutes, and collaborators with Israel. The other consisted of commando groups that carried out attacks on Israeli targets. This was revealed only after Yasin was killed by a direct Israeli strike on 22 March 2004.

After the recent hostilities started, the Israeli air force went to the other extreme by destroying the Ahmed Yasin Mosque in Gaza on 9 October 2023. Middle East Eye reported that at least 10 mosques were demolished in the recent bombing. This, in turn, is bound to inflame religious feelings all over.

Former Shin Beth (internal intelligence) chief Ami Ayalon, speaking to French newspaper Le Figaro recently, blamed politicians for not listening to security chiefs to realise “the great division of the country around the crisis caused by the justice reform”. Significantly, he also added: “The Israeli government has gone out of its way to ensure that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are no longer partners, giving power to Hamas”. By boycotting the legitimate Palestinian government in the West Bank, “we have tolerated the unacceptable, allowing Hamas to arm themselves on our doorstep since 2006”.

He advocated ground operations to wipe out the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades (the armed wing of Hamas) after telling Palestinians that “our war is not against them”. However, he had no proposal on how to avoid innocent Palestinian civilian deaths in that process.

There is no better way to end this column than by quoting the concluding part of Barenboim’s 2009 article: “I wish for a return of King Solomon’s wisdom to Israel’s decision makers that they might use it to understand that Palestinians and Israelis have equal human rights.”

The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. His latest book, Intelligence Over Centuries, examines the history and workings of the systems in countries like India, Israel and America. Views are personal. (Courtesy: The Billion Press, email: editor@thebillionpress.org)

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