The global horror at Hamas’s barbarism against children, women and the elderly, followed by the harrowing images of death and destruction from the Israeli military’s pummeling of Gaza, have obscured an ugly truth: Israel aided the birth of the Frankenstein monster it is now seeking to crush.
In the 1980s, influenced by the CIA’s training and arming of mujahideen (Islamic holy warriors) in Pakistan from multiple countries to fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, Israel aided the rise of the Islamist Hamas as a rival to the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah.
The first Intifada that flared in 1987 as a spontaneous protest movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands was a wake-up call for Israel. To divide and undermine the nationalist Palestinian movement led by Arafat, Israel lent support to the anti-PLO Hamas, which was formed in the early days of the Intifada under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a quadriplegic and partially blind cleric.
Israel’s fundamental objective was to thwart the implementation of the two-state solution for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By aiding the rise of an Islamist terrorist group whose charter rejected recognizing the Israeli state, Israel sought to undermine the idea of a two-state solution, including curbing Western support for an independent Palestinian homeland.
Hamas actually emerged out of the Israeli-financed Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s military governor of Gaza, Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, disclosed in 1981 that he had been given a budget for funding the Palestinian Islamist movement to help counter the support and power of Palestinian secularists. U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer said in late 2001 that, “Israel perceived it to be better to have people [Palestinians] turning toward religion rather than toward a nationalistic cause,” resulting in the growth of the Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories “with the tacit support of Israel.” And a former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, argued that, “Israel started Hamas,” adding, “It was a project of Shin Bet [the Israeli domestic intelligence agency], which had a feeling that they could use it to hem in the PLO.”
Arafat, for his part, called Hamas “a creature of Israel,” telling the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso in late 2001 that “Hamas was constituted with the support of Israel. The aim was to create an organization antagonistic to the PLO. They received financing and training from Israel.” Avner Cohen, a former Israeli religious affairs official who was involved in Gaza for more than two decades, echoed Arafat’s words in 2009, saying, “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation.”
Israel’s spy agency Mossad was long involved in a divide-and-rule strategy in the occupied territories. In a 1994 book, “The Other Side of Deception,” a Mossad whistleblower explained the rationale behind aiding Hamas: “An Arab world run by fundamentalists would not be a party to any negotiations with the West, thus leaving Israel again as the only democratic, rational country in the region.”
About seven years before the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces in Pakistan, Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin via missile strike in 2004. But by then Hamas — the first Islamic group to embrace the use of suicide bombers — had become an uncontrollable terrorist monster.
Israel’s tacit ties with Islamists paralleled America’s use of jihadists against the Soviet Union. The CIA-trained mujahideen became Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in 2010, “We trained them, we equipped them, we funded them, including somebody named Osama bin Laden … And it didn’t work out so well for us.”
America’s troubling ties with Islamist rulers, groups and warriors were cemented when President Ronald Reagan’s administration employed Islam as an ideological tool to spur jihad against the Soviet forces that invaded Afghanistan. In 1985, at a White House ceremony attended by several mujahideen from Afghanistan, Reagan declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.”
Israel, like the U.S., may have been guided by the proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But, as history attests, “the enemy of my enemy,” far from being a friend, often openly turns into a foe.
Yet Israel and the U.S. have both been reluctant to draw appropriate lessons from the Western roots of international jihadist terrorism. Under President Obama, America and its allies toppled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, creating a still-lawless jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep. They then moved to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, fueling a civil war that enabled the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS), many of whose foot soldiers were CIA-trained, anti-Assad jihadists.
Israel likewise maintained its covert nexus with Hamas even after the 1993 Oslo I Accords and its 2005 military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. In fact, Qatar, a longtime sponsor of jihadist groups, funneled $1.8 billion to Hamas just between 2012 and 2021 with the consent of Israel, which thought that a regular flow of funding would discourage Hamas from challenging the status quo.
Former President Jimmy Carter said in a 2013 CNN interview that he met with Hamas leaders several times and they appeared willing to accept the existence of Israel, but that Netanyahu’s determination to impose a “one-state solution” precluded any meaningful negotiations. Netanyahu reportedly told a Likud party’s meeting in 2019, “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas,” adding, “This is part of our strategy — to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”
Israel’s current military operations cannot crush Palestinian aspirations for statehood. But Hamas’s capability can be sufficiently degraded in the current war so that it no longer poses a potent threat to Israel.
The bigger challenge comes from the terrorism-glorifying ideology of Hamas and other Islamists. Western and Israeli funding of Islamists since the 1980s, including the help of oil sheikhdoms, has fomented militant Islamic fundamentalism that, paradoxically, targets the West and Israel as its enemies.
After the Gaza war ends, the West and Israel need to join hands to discredit the ideology of radical Islam through a long and sustained campaign of persuasion, not bombs and bullets.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
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