Hamas's Messianic Violence

Why Hamas frames the Israel-Palestinian conflict with the imagery of divine justice and cosmic warfare, and why it appeals to so many in the West.

A Palestinian fighter from the armed wing of Hamas in the central Gaza Strip on July 19, 2023. Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
A Palestinian fighter from the armed wing of Hamas in the central Gaza Strip on July 19, 2023. Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Oct. 10 2023
About the author

Hussein Aboubakr is an Egyptian-American writer.

The videos released by Hamas’s media wing showcasing their murderous acts from this past weekend bear a visible slogan watermarked on their top right corners reading “Revolution of those who resist.” Last month, in my essay for Mosaic, I attempted to place the evolution of the concept of the Nakba and the Palestinian cause within the history of Arab and Muslim revolutionary thought. While that essay was focused on the realm of ideas and mostly on the previous decades, the events now unfolding force us to see the horrifying application of the ideas of the Palestinian revolution on our phone, computer, and television screens.

Two things were immediately noticeable: the attempts of Hamas to portray its massacres as the beginning of the Islamic redemptive battle for Palestine and the quick, enthusiastic response by many pro-Palestinian activists, both in the Middle East and the West, religious and secular. From the comfort of his office in Qatar, Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, gave a fifteen-minute speech—aired on Al Jazeera—in which he praised the actions of the terrorists and asserted, “This battle is not only for the Palestinian people or only for Gaza. Gaza is merely the lever of resistance, . . . but since this is about al-Aqsa mosque, it is the battle of the [Islamic] nation. I call upon all the nation’s children, no matter where they are, to join the fight . . . of the men who are writing history with their blood and their rifles.”

Haniyeh managed to pack into this short speech every moral and political slogan and symbol the Arab and Muslim masses generally associate with the Palestinian cause, drawing on the well-established tradition of legitimizing all forms of violence against Israel. Haniyeh sees Palestine not as a concrete place or a mere geopolitical issue, but as part and parcel of a collective moral identity, deeply ingrained in the minds of many of his coreligionists. As he and his Iranian backers know well, the slogan “Free Palestine!” stirs a fervor that bypasses rational discourse. Because of this emotional resonance, discussions that begin with the plight of the Palestinians often inexorably lead not just to expressions of vicious hatred of Israel, but to straightforward anti-Semitism—especially within Islamist circles.

Among the ideologies Arab intellectuals imported from Europe in the first half of the 20th century was a strain of revolutionary anti-Semitism that casts Jews as the eternal enemy of the Arab people, and of humanity at large. This is not to say that every Arab or Muslim subscribes to these views, but that they are influential and widespread, and very often fused with much older religious and cultural biases. The result of this ideological influx has been a deadly combination of traditional Islamic hatred for Jews, modern anti-Semitism, and revolutionary fervor—a combination embodied by groups such as Hamas.

When Ismail Haniyeh frames the Israel-Palestinian conflict in Islamic eschatological terms, using the imagery of divine justice and cosmic warfare, he is speaking about it in a way that seems entirely natural to many, if not most, residents of the Middle East. Any kind of nuance is often the first casualty of this apocalyptic rhetoric, and this case is no exception. Moreover, the eschatological visions of fundamentalists—with all their populist appeal among Muslims—merge with surprising ease into modern, secular ideas of revolution for the sake of social justice as understood by sophisticated Westerners with degrees in social science from elite universities.

In revolutionary logic, the ends often justify the means, and violence against a perceived oppressor is not only permissible but heroic. By such reasoning even the rape of women and the torture of children can be seen as deeds done in the pursuit of justice. In fashionable academic jargon, this is simply a form of retributive justice against an illegitimate state built on stolen land. Secular Westerners, like Islamists, are especially inclined toward such views when they see the Palestinian cause as a symbol of some larger revolution—Black Lives Matter, for instance, or the global struggle against imperialism.

For 75 years, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been interpreted in just such ways—by Arab nationalists, by Islamic fundamentalists, and by Western revolutionaries. Today there are countless people who, under the influence such thinking, cannot see the events playing out except through dramatic narratives of historical humiliation, dispossession, and resistance. Rational questions—e.g., how does going door to door slaughtering people in their homes improve material conditions in Gaza?—don’t figure into such thinking. Thus you have, for instance, 31 student organizations at Harvard responding to Saturday’s invasion by condemning Israel.

In the worst cases, this sort of thinking has led to the dehumanization of the Israeli populace and, by extension, Jews as a whole. It can justify, or at the very least excuse, any act of violence, no matter how depraved or barbaric. On social media, one can see celebrations in Egypt, Jordan, and the West Bank of the murder of 900 Israelis, and even rallies to support Hamas at Western cities. The extent of the sympathy for demonic behavior within the Arab world is a reality so unsettling that many Arabs who don’t approve of it are hesitant to discuss it openly. If Palestinians are ever to achieve some measure of actual freedom or meaningful national self-determination, they and their sympathizers will have to find a way to discuss their situation without calling for or condoning the mass murder of Jews.

More about: Gaza War 2023, Israel & Zionism, Nakba, new-registrations