/

A Revealing Portrait of Hamas

Hamas officials discuss their motivations, political objectives, and the human costs of their armed uprising against Israel

34 mins read
Children use candles for lighting in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis, on Oct. 20, 2023. (Photo by Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua)

This lengthy article was initially featured in Drop Site, a recently co-founded, independent investigative news organization established by the author. We have chosen to republish this piece to support the subscribers of this crucial independent media outlet, who bravely pursue the truth, a pressing necessity in our current times.- Editors

The past nine months of Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza have spurred an unprecedented global awakening to the plight of the Palestinian people. At no point in the 76 years since the formation of the state of Israel and the unleashing of the Nakba has there been such sustained and open anger at Israel and such widespread solidarity with the Palestinians. The massive demonstrations in cities across the globe, the severing of diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, the recalling of ambassadors, rulings from world courts against Israel, and mounting demands for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state—none of this would have taken place without the impetus of Hamas’s armed insurrection on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent war of annihilation in Gaza. 

This reality poses uncomfortable but ineluctable questions. From Hamas’s perspective, was Operation Al Aqsa Flood a successful operation? Hamas undoubtedly knew that Israeli retaliation would include the killing of many Palestinian civilians, even if the horrific scale of Israel’s assault was unforeseen. Was October 7, then, a collective martyrdom operation launched without the consent of 2.3 million Palestinians? And, for the many people who proclaim their support for the Palestinian cause but reflexively condemn the violence of the October 7 attacks, how can they realistically separate the two? 

Drop Site conducted a series of interviews with senior Hamas officials alongside a comprehensive review of its statements and those of its leaders. I interviewed a variety of Hamas sources on background for this story and two—Basem Naim and Ghazi Hamad—agreed to speak on the record. I also spoke to a range of knowledgeable Palestinians, Israelis, and international sources in an effort to understand the tactical and political aims of the October 7 attacks. Some people will inevitably criticize the choice to interview and publish Hamas officials’ answers to these questions as propaganda. I believe it is essential that the public understand the perspectives of the individuals and groups who initiated the attack that spurred Israel’s genocidal war—an argument that is seldom permitted outside of simple soundbytes.

Hamas leaders cast their operations on October 7 as a righteous rebellion against an occupation force that has waged a military, political, and economic war of collective punishment against the people of Gaza. “They have left us no choice other than to take the decision in our hands and to fight back,” said Dr. Basem Naim, a senior member of Hamas’s political bureau and a former government minister in Gaza. “October 7, for me, is an act of defense, maybe the last chance for Palestinians to defend themselves.”

Naim, a medical doctor, is a member of the inner circle surrounding former Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the chief political leader of Hamas, who is based in Doha, Qatar. In the aftermath of October 7, Naim has served as one of the few Hamas officials authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the movement. In an interview, Naim offered an unapologetic defense of the October 7 attacks against Israel and said that Hamas was acting out of existential necessity in the face of sustained diplomatic and military assaults not only on Palestinians in Gaza, but also the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.

“The people in Gaza, they had one of two choices: Either to die because of siege and malnutrition and hunger and lacking of medicine and lacking of treatment abroad, or to die by a rocket. We have no other choice,” he said. “If we have to choose, why choose to be the good victims, the peaceful victims? If we have to die, we have to die in dignity. Standing, fighting, fighting back, and standing as dignified martyrs.”

Polls suggest that Palestinian support for Hamas remains strong. Prior to the October 7 attacks, opinion polling in Gaza and the West Bank indicated that support for Hamas was on the decline, with one poll finding that just 23 percent of respondents expressed significant support for Hamas and more than half registering negative views. “The October 7 war reversed that trend leading to a great rise in Hamas’s popularity,” Arab Barometer reported.

A more recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, whose findings were released in mid-June, found that two-thirds of the Gaza population continued to express support for the October 7 attack on Israel, with more than 80 percent asserting that it put Palestine at the center of global attention. More than half of Gaza residents polled indicated that they hoped Hamas would return to power after the war. “They lost confidence in peace with Israel. People believe that the only way is now to fight against Israel, to struggle against Israel,” said Ghazi Hamad, the former Hamas deputy foreign minister and a longstanding member of its political bureau, in an interview. “We put the Palestinian cause on the table. I think that we have a new page of history.”

“Israel has now spent nine months [fighting in Gaza]—nine months. This is [a] small area. No mountains, no valleys. It is a very small, besieged area—against Hamas’s 20,000 [fighters],” Hamad continued. “They bring all the military power, supported by the United States. But I think now they failed. They failed.”

Dr. Yara Hawari, the co-director of Al-Shabaka, an independent Palestinian think tank, said that assessing the role Hamas’s October 7 attacks played in the growing global movement to support Palestinians raises complex moral questions. “If the Israeli regime hadn’t embarked on a genocide in Gaza, would we be facing this kind of level of solidarity? I think it’s a difficult thing to answer. It’s also an uncomfortable one because I don’t think Palestinians anywhere should pay in blood for the solidarity of people around the world and certainly not in over 40,000 people killed,” she told me.

“We have surpassed the numbers of the Nakba by at least three times in terms of those killed. And an entire place has been destroyed. Gaza doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been destroyed completely. So I think that it’s certainly been a very revealing moment,” said Hawari, who is based in Ramallah. “Had October 7 not happened, would that have been revealed to people around the world or not? It’s an uncomfortable thing to think about for sure.”

Hamas has emphasized that its aim on October 7 was to shatter the status quo and compel the U.S. and other nations to address the plight of the Palestinians. On this front, informed analysts say, they succeeded. “On October 6, Palestine had disappeared from the regional agenda, from the international agenda. Israel was dealing unilaterally with the Palestinians without generating any attention or any criticism,” said Mouin Rabbani, a former UN official who worked as a special advisor on Israel-Palestine for the International Crisis Group. “The attacks of Hamas on October 7 and their aftermath played a crucial role, but I think just as much credit, if you will, goes to Israel, if not more so,” he added. “If Israel had responded in the way that it did in [previous assaults on Gaza] in 2008, 2014, 2021, it would have been a story for a number of weeks, there would have been a lot of hand wringing, and that would have been the end of it.”

“It’s not only the actions of the colonized, but also the reaction of the colonizer that has created the current political reality, the current political moment,” Rabbani said.

U.S. and Israeli officials often respond to questions about the staggering death toll in Gaza or the mass killing of women and children over the past 9 months by casting blame solely on Hamas. They have treated the events of October 7 as if they granted Israel an open-ended license to kill on an industrial scale. “None of the suffering would have happened if Hamas hadn’t done what it did on October 7,” is a sentiment Secretary of State Antony Blinken is fond of repeating.

That is clearly untrue. But does multi-decade brutality of the Israeli occupation absolve Hamas of all responsibility for the consequences of its actions on October 7?

“These deaths should be on the conscience of the Israeli leaders who decided to kill all these people,” said Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine and widely viewed as the leading U.S. historian of Palestine. “But they also to some extent should be on the consciences of the people who organized [the October 7] operation. They should have known, and had to have known that Israel would inflict devastating revenge not just on them but mainly on the civilian population. Do you credit them for this?” Khalidi added. “The end result may be the permanent occupation, immiseration, and perhaps even expulsion of the population of Gaza, in which case I don’t think anybody would want to credit whoever organized this operation.”

The Palestinian-American novelist and author Susan Abulhawa has twice traveled to Gaza since the siege began last fall and has been unapologetic in her defense of Palestinian armed resistance. She rejects the notion that Hamas is responsible for Israel’s mass killing of civilians in Gaza since October 7. “It’s kind of like telling the folks in the Warsaw uprising that you should have known that the German military was going to respond the way they did and you are going to be responsible for the deaths of other residents in the Warsaw ghetto,” Abulhawa said. “Maybe that’s true, but is it really a moral point to make? I don’t think there has ever been so much scrutiny on an indigenous people, on how they’re resisting their colonizers.”

Abulhawa, whose novels include Against the Loveless World and Mornings in Jenin, told me, “As a Palestinian, I’m grateful for it. I think what they have done is something that no amount of negotiation was ever able to achieve. Nothing else we did was able to achieve what they did on October 7. And I should say, actually, it’s not so much what they did, but it was Israel’s reaction that led to a shift in the narrative because they’re finally naked before the world.”

Men in the Tunnels

The past 76 years of Palestinian history have been a nonstop succession of Israeli atrocities and war crimes. Why did Hamas launch such a monumental action at this specific moment?

The people who can best answer the question of what Hamas was thinking on October 7 are the men in the tunnels being hunted by Israeli forces in Gaza. Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader on the ground, and Mohammed Deif, commander of the Al-Qassam Brigades, are widely understood to have decided how and when the course of history would be altered.

In both Israeli and U.S. media, Sinwar is generally portrayed as a cartoonish villain hiding in his tunnel lair, dreaming up ways to murder and terrorize innocent Israelis as part of a warped, ISIS-style interpretation of Islam. He has been a U.S. State Department-designated terrorist since 2015. “The United States has to have a bogeyman, a Saddam Hussein figure, a Hitler figure,” said Khalidi. “I think Sinwar has been chosen.”

Despite the sinister portrayals, Sinwar’s writings and media interviews indicate he is a complex thinker with clearly defined political objectives who believes in armed struggle as a means to an end. He gives the impression of a well-educated political militant, not a cult leader on a mass suicide crusade. “It’s not this black image of Sinwar as a man with two horns living in the tunnels,” said Hamad, the Hamas official who worked directly with Sinwar for three years. “But in the time of war, he’s very strong. This man is very strong. If he wants to fight, he fights seriously.”

In 1988, just months after Hamas was founded, Sinwar was arrested by Israeli forces and sentenced to four life sentences on charges he had personally murdered alleged Palestinian collaborators. During his 22 years in an Israeli prison, he became fluent in Hebrew and studied the history of the Israeli state, its political culture, and its intelligence and military apparatus. He translated by hand the memoirs of several former heads of the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet. “When I entered [prison], it was 1988, the Cold War was still going on. And here [in Palestine], the Intifada. To spread the latest news, we printed fliers. I came out, and I found the internet,” Sinwar told an Italian journalist in 2018. “But to be honest, I never came out—I have only changed prisons. And despite it all, the old one was much better than this one. I had water, electricity. I had so many books. Gaza is much tougher.”

In his past media interviews, Sinwar has spoken of Hamas as a social movement with a military wing and framed its political goals as part of the historic struggle to reestablish a unified state of Palestine. “I am the Gaza leader of Hamas, of something much more complex than a militia—a national liberation movement. And my main duty is to act in the interest of my people: to defend it and its right to freedom and independence,” he said. “All of those who still view us as an armed group, and nothing more, you don’t have any idea of what Hamas really looks like…. You focus on resistance, on the means rather than the goal—which is a state based on democracy, pluralism, cooperation. A state that protects rights and freedom, where differences are faced through words, not through guns. Hamas is much more than its military operations.”

Sinwar, unlike leaders of Al Qaeda or ISIS, has regularly invoked international law and UN resolutions, exhibiting a nuanced understanding of the history of negotiations with Israel mediated by the U.S. and other nations. “Let’s be clear: having an armed resistance is our right, under international law. But we don’t only have rockets. We have been using a variety of means of resistance,” he said in the 2018 interview. “We make the headlines only with blood. And not only here. No blood, no news. But the problem is not our resistance, it is their occupation. With no occupation, we wouldn’t have rockets. We wouldn’t have stones, Molotov cocktails, nothing. We would all have a normal life.”

Throughout 2018 and 2019, Sinwar endorsed the large-scale nonviolent protests along the walls and fences of Gaza known as the Great March of Return. “We believe that if we have a way to potentially resolve the conflict without destruction, we’re O.K. with that,” Sinwar said at a rare news conference in 2018. “We would prefer to earn our rights by soft and peaceful means. But we understand that if we are not given those rights, we are entitled to earn them by resistance.”

Israel responded to the protests with the regular use of lethal force, killing 223 people and wounding more than 8,000 others. Israeli snipers later boasted about shooting dozens of protesters in the knee during the weekly Friday demonstrations. For many Palestinians these events reinforced the view that Israel’s policies cannot be changed by words.

In May 2021, following a series of Israeli attacks on Palestinian worshippers at Al Aqsa mosque—as well as threats of forced evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem—Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched a barrage of rockets at Israeli cities, killing 12 civilians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with U.S. support, ordered heavy attacks against Gaza. More than 250 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured.

After the end of Israel’s 11-day bombing campaign against Gaza, Sinwar spoke to VICE News and sought to frame the Palestinian struggle in a U.S. context, using recent cases of lethal police violence against African Americans. “The same type of racism that killed George Floyd is being used by [Israel] against the Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and in the West Bank. And by the burning of our children. And against the Gaza Strip through siege, murder, and starvation.”

The Israeli attacks ended when President Joe Biden intervened and told Netanyahu to wrap it up. “Hey, man, we are out of runway here,” Biden told Netanyahu on a May 19 phone call. “It’s over.” Two days later, Israel agreed to a ceasefire.

“The battle between us and the occupation who desecrated our land, displaced our people and are still murdering and displacing Palestinians—confiscating lands and attacking sacred places—is an open ended battle,” Sinwar said. When asked about the killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas rockets, Sinwar became animated. “You can’t compare that to those who resist and defend themselves with weapons that look primitive in comparison. If we had the capabilities to launch precision missiles that targeted military targets, we wouldn’t have used the rockets that we did,” he shot back. “Does the world expect us to be well-behaved victims while we’re getting killed? For us to be slaughtered without making a noise? That’s impossible.”

Two and a half years later, Sinwar authorized the start of Operation Al Aqsa Flood, the single deadliest attack inside Israel in history.

Hamas officials told me that for strategic reasons they timed the attacks to coincide with Shemini Atzeret, the final day of the Sukkot thanksgiving holiday, but more broadly to exploit mounting divisions within Israeli society and the deepening unpopularity of Netanyahu within Israel. On a tactical level, they engaged in extensive monitoring of the Israeli military facilities along what is referred to as the “Gaza envelope” and identified vulnerabilities in surveillance systems and perimeter defenses.

Throughout the two years leading up to the October 7 attacks, Hamas officials told me, they sent Israel repeated warnings to halt the activity of illegal settlements and annexations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Hamas also protested Israel’s mounting attacks and provocations on the grounds of Al Aqsa mosque, the holiest Islamic site in Palestine, and demanded that the U.S. and other nations restrain Israel. “We talked to the mediators, especially the United Nations and the Egyptians and the Qataris: ‘Tell Israel to stop this. We will not be able to tolerate more and more,’” said Hamad, a Hebrew speaker with a long history of negotiating with Israeli officials. “They did not listen to us. They thought that Hamas is weak, Hamas is now just looking for some humanitarian aid, some facilities in the Gaza Strip. But at the same time, we were preparing.”

“We were preparing because we are under occupation,” said Hamad. “We think that the West Bank and Gaza is one unit. This is our people under oppression, under killing and massacres. We have to save them. And Israel feels that they are above the law. They can do anything. No one can stop them.”

“We have said it before October 7 that the earthquake is coming. And the repercussions of this earthquake will be beyond the borders of Palestine,” Naim said.

As Hamas delivered messages through international mediators, it simultaneously held regular secret meetings in Gaza where its leaders brainstormed potential ways to confront Israel. “We had meetings in the political bureau of Hamas in Gaza, and we discussed the situation all the time. What was put on the table was an evaluation of Israel in the West Bank and Al Aqsa mosque,” said Hamad. “Hamas decided to do something in order to make a kind of deterrence to Israel.” They also wanted to send a message to the Palestinian masses: “We are not weak [like] the Palestinian Authority.”

Hamad said the discussions focused on actions that would force the world to pay attention to the plight of Palestinians, but also to send a message to Israel. “We are going to show them that we can do something in order to harm you and to hurt you,” he said. “What is the other alternative? Either we, as Palestinians, are waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for many years for some countries, the international community, to do something in order to save the Palestinians, or we can go in the violent way to make a kind of shock, in order to get the attention of the world.”

Naim said Hamas had concluded that Israeli policy could only be altered through violent resistance. “I have to say we are also reading history very well. We [learned] from the history in Vietnam, in Somalia, in South Africa, in Algiers,” he said. “At the end, they are not peaceful NGOs who will come and say, ‘Sorry we have bothered you for some years and now we are leaving and please forgive us.’ They are so brutal and bloody that they will not leave except with the same tools they are using.”

Hamad and other Hamas political officials said that while they participated in the strategy meetings in Gaza leading up to the attacks, most of them were not privy to the operational details or timing of the operations. “There is a special group headed by Sinwar, who took the decision for October 7. A very narrow circle,” he said. “We did not know anything about this. We were surprised with October 7.”

Palestinians check a damaged vehicle after Israeli strikes in central Gaza Strip city of Deir el-Balah, on April 2, 2024. (Photo by Yasser Qudih/Xinhua)

A Surprising Collapse

Before October 7, the prospects for a Palestinian state were becoming slimmer and slimmer. The conditions in Gaza were dire and there were no signs of improvement because of the intense Israeli blockade and lack of interest from the world. Residents of the Strip, according to polls, were increasingly apportioning blame for their misery on Hamas—one of the central aims of Israel’s collective punishment strategy. The U.S. was spearheading a series of diplomatic initiatives to normalize relations between Israel and Arab states. The Abraham Accords, launched under President Donald Trump, effectively excised the issue of Palestinian self-determination as a condition for normalization, a major victory for Israel. Israeli provocations and attacks against worshippers at Al Aqsa were becoming a regular occurrence. Israel was aggressively moving forward with its annexation of Palestinian land and armed settlers were conducting deadly paramilitary actions, often with the support or facilitation of the government, against Palestinian farms and homes in the occupied territories. 

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank was widely despised for its corruption and collaboration with Israel, including through the brutal actions of its U.S.-backed security forces. The PA, often referred to as a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation, routinely arrests dissidents, union organizers, and journalists, in addition to people Israel has identified as security risks. 

Hamas wanted to shatter the status quo on Gaza, position itself as the defender of the Palestinian people, and open possibilities for a new alignment of political power to replace what they saw as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Vichy rule. At its highest level, Operation Al Aqsa Flood was to be the opening salvo in what Hamas hoped would be a decisive and historic moment in the war for the liberation of Palestine.

On a tactical level, the October 7 operations exceeded Hamas’s projections. “It was very surprising for us how speedy one of the strongest brigades in the Israel Army—the Gaza brigade is one of the strongest, most sophisticated groups of their army—to collapse within hours without any serious resistance, and that even the state as a whole, for hours and maybe days, continued to be paralyzed, were not able to respond in the proper professional way,” said Naim, the Hamas political bureau member. 

“They were able to create this image of undefeated, undefeatable army, undefeatable soldiers, the long hand of Israel, which can hit everywhere or strike everywhere and come back, relax, to drink at some cafe in Tel Aviv, like what they have done in Iraq, in Syria, Lebanon, everywhere. I think it has shown that [Israel’s self-promoted reputation] was not reflecting the reality.” The attacks, he said, showed Palestinians and their allies that “Israel is defeatable and liberation of Palestine is a good possibility.”

Nine months after the attacks, Israel remains in a state of shock and disbelief over the total failure of its vaunted military and intelligence agencies to protect the most vulnerable areas of Israel.

“Hamas won the war on October 7. The fact that they were able to conquer parts of Israel and kill so many Israelis,” said Gershon Baskin, an experienced Israeli negotiator in regular touch with elements of Hamas. “They took out Israel’s electronic surveillance system with drones that you can buy on Amazon and hand grenades. They took down Israel’s internal communication systems in the kibbutzim all around the Gaza Strip. They were so much more sophisticated than Israel.”

Hamas “never imagined that there would be no Israeli army when they crossed the border into Israel,” said Baskin. “One of the Hamas leaders told me, ‘If we knew there was going to be no army there, we would have sent 10,000 people and conquered Tel Aviv.’ And they’re not mistaken. They had no army there, and when they encountered the [Nova] music festival that they didn’t know about, they went on a killing spree.” 

Khalidi also believes that Hamas was not prepared for its own operational success on October 7. “I don’t think they expected the Gaza division to fall apart. I don’t think they expected to overrun a dozen or more border settlements. I don’t think they expected thousands and thousands of Gazans to come out of this prison that Israel has created and kidnap individual Israelis. I don’t think they expected the kind of killing that took place in these border settlements. I don’t think all of this was planned, frankly,” he told me. “There was absolutely no control of the battle space. There was no control of this area. The Israeli army took four days to reoccupy every single military position, every single border village. So there were two days, three days, in some cases more, during which there was complete chaos. I’m sure horrific things happened.”

Hamas has consistently denied allegations that its fighters intentionally killed civilians on October 7. In a manifesto published on January 21, titled “Our Narrative,” Hamas sought to explain Operation Al Aqsa Flood, though the document consisted mostly of general grievances. Among the tangible aims of the attacks in Israel, Hamas said, its fighters had “targeted the Israeli military sites, and sought to arrest the enemy’s soldiers to [put] pressure on the Israeli authorities to release the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails through a prisoners exchange deal.”

“Maybe some faults happened during Operation Al Aqsa Flood’s implementation due to the rapid collapse of the Israeli security and military system, and the chaos caused along the border areas with Gaza,” it continued. Sinwar reportedly acknowledged to his comrades after October 7 that “things went out of control” and “People got caught up in this, and that should not have happened.”

Rabbani said that it is undeniable that Hamas killed civilians during the October 7 attacks and expressed serious doubts about the group’s official position that Al Aqsa Flood was focused solely on targeting the Israeli military. “Hamas has a history of this—its suicide bombings against civilian buses and restaurants and so on during the Second Intifada,” he said. Rabbani recalls reading accounts of the October 7 attacks and watching videos from that day of Israeli civilians being killed or captured. “My initial view was that these were probably people who had been suffering in Gaza their whole lives, didn’t expect to go back alive, and wanted to go out with a bang. I’m sure that’s the explanation for some of these cases,” he said.

“But I also wonder to what extent it was premeditated. I’d be very interested to learn to what extent Hamas intended to inflict a terribly traumatic blow on Israeli society, and not only the Israeli military,” he added. “There is evidence to support it. There is also evidence to contradict it. But I think it’s a question worth examining in more detail.”

The discourse surrounding the killing of Israeli civilians on October 7 has been a central element in shaping public opinion on the war. “So much of the rage in Israel is a function of this very high toll of civilian death,” said Khalidi. “War leads to civilian deaths, but this was far beyond what could or should have been acceptable under any circumstances, and that is also on the planners of this operation. I think that’s a hard thing to say, but I think it’s something that should be said.”

Israel’s social security agency has determined the official death toll from October 7 to be 1,139 people. Among those killed, 695 were categorized as Israeli civilians, along with 71 foreign civilians and 373 members of Israeli security forces. As horrifying as the civilian death toll was on October 7, the message was and remains firm from U.S. and Israeli officials: Israeli lives are worth exponentially more than those of Palestinians.

Hamas has said that its forces targeted military bases and illegal settlements, characterizing the killing of civilians in the kibbutzim as collateral damage in battles against armed settlers “registered as civilians while the fact is they were armed men fighting alongside the Israeli army.” Hamas officials suggested that many of the confirmed dead Israeli civilians were killed in crossfire, “friendly fire” incidents, or intentionally killed by the Israeli Army to prevent them from being taken alive back to Gaza. “If there was any case of targeting civilians,” Hamas alleged in its manifesto, “it happened accidentally and in the course of the confrontation with the occupation forces.”

Abulhawa charged that the Israeli and U.S. governments launched a coordinated propaganda campaign in the immediate aftermath of October 7 aimed at dehumanizing Palestinians and successfully crafted a false narrative of Hamas fighters as bestial monsters who killed for the sake of killing. She cited the volume of horror stories of sadistic crimes allegedly committed by Hamas fighters, including the beheading of babies, that have been promoted by Israeli and US officials, including Biden, only to later be disproven under scrutiny from journalists and independent researchers. “They said that they beheaded babies, that they eviscerated a pregnant woman, that they burned a baby in an oven, like really horrific violence that seemed just evil and gratuitous to kill Jews. That was the narrative,” she said. “It had not even a seed of truth.”

Hamas’s Naim credited the October 7 attacks and the nine months of armed insurgency against the invading Israeli forces for elevating the plight of Palestinian liberation to the center of global attention. “This popular support everywhere, especially in America and Europe, do you believe this would happen by a workshop in Washington, D.C., discussing between Palestinians and Americans how to run Rafah crossings?” he asked. “Unfortunately, this is the way. There is no other way.”

Hamad told me that no one involved with the planning of the October 7 attacks that he spoke with predicted the full scope of Israel’s response and that many Hamas leaders expected a more intense and prolonged version of previous Israeli attacks on Gaza. “This is a point that is very sensitive,” he said. “No one expected this reaction from the Israel side, because what happened now in Gaza, it is a full destruction of Gaza, killing about 40,000 people, destroying all the institutions, hospitals and everything. I know the situation is horrible in Gaza. It’s very, very hard. And we need at least ten years to reconstruct Gaza.”

“This war is totally different,” Hamad said. “Totally different.”

A Palestinian cooks food at a school in the northern Gaza Strip on April 27, 2024. (Photo by Abdul Rahman Salama/Xinhua)

Prisoner Dilemma

International mediators have restarted negotiations between Hamas and Israel and there are indications that some type of incremental agreement may be on the horizon, though the permanent ceasefire that Hamas has demanded seems unlikely. “The main issue is Hamas won’t do a deal without the end of the war and Israel won’t do a deal that ends the war,” Baskin told me.

Israel has insisted that Hamas disarm and that the group be barred from participating in the post-war governance of Gaza. Hamas has maintained it will remain a political force with the right to armed defense against Israeli occupation. “America should understand, and this is very important, Hamas will be part of the Palestinian scene,” said Hamad. “Hamas will not be expelled. Hamas created October 7 and created this history.”

According to a member of Hamas’s negotiating team, the Palestinian representatives have observed U.S. mediators growing increasingly frustrated with the Israeli side. “Everything that [Israel] needs, they call the babysitter. The United States is fed up now from the Israeli behavior,” said the Hamas official, who asked to remain anonymous. “They are scared that this war will be wider in different regions, so they want to control Netanyahu and his madness. They are trying to [put] more pressure on Israel to accept this ceasefire. They are trying, but I think until now they did not use all the cards in order to push Israel. I think it’s like their spoiled boy.” The Hamas negotiator told me he has the impression that “the United States is trying to deal gently and softly with Israel, trying to apply pressure, but not squeeze them in the corner. Because of this, now there is a big conflict and dispute between Israel and the United States.”

Of all the objectives of the October 7 attacks, the one that Hamas was most confident would yield concrete results was freeing Palestinians from Israeli jails. According to Israeli figures, more than 240 people, including Israeli soldiers and civilians as well as foreigners, were taken back to Gaza during the Hamas-led attacks.

Sinwar has consistently prioritized the liberation of Palestinian prisoners. It was how he gained his own freedom in 2011, in an exchange that saw Sinwar and more than 1,000 other Palestinians freed from Israeli jails in return for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. “It isn’t a political issue, for me it is a moral issue,” he said in 2018. “I will try more than my best to free those who are still inside.”

Naim said Israel has historically shown a willingness to pay a high price for the return of its soldiers, including freeing Palestinians it characterizes as terrorists. “Some of them are now [in prison] for more than 45, 44 years,” he said. “They have also exercised a lot of pressure on the leadership to do something.” 

But, three weeks into the war, when Sinwar officially proposed a sweeping deal to release “all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance,” Israel rejected it. 

Baskin has served as a shadow peace negotiator with a variety of Palestinian factions. He played a central role in negotiating the Shalit deal and has continued to work behind the scenes on hostage issues since October 7. Hamas, he said, knew the only chance to free the “impossibles”—high-value Palestinian prisoners including those who had been convicted of killing Israelis—would be to take large numbers of military personnel hostage. “For the soldiers, they wanted to free all the Palestinian prisoners in Israel, those serving life sentences,” Baskin said. “At that time, there were 559 Palestinians serving life sentences. That was their main target, getting all of them.”

Eventually, under both domestic and international pressure, Netanyahu agreed to a limited exchange deal. During a brief truce last November, Hamas released 105 civilian hostages to Israel in return for 240 Palestinians—mostly women and children—held captive by Israel. “[Hamas] made a quick deal with the Israelis,” said Baskin. “It was three prisoners for every hostage. I think that was an amazingly low price.”

Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas official who worked with Sinwar, was emphatic that Hamas did not intend to take Israeli civilians hostage. “What we planned was just for military purposes, just to destroy this part of the Israeli army who controls the situation in Gaza and to take some hostages from the military—soldiers—in order to make a kind of exchange,” he said. “I don’t deny that there were some mistakes done by some people, but I am talking about the decision of Hamas, the policy of Hamas.”

Baskin told me it was immediately clear that Hamas did not prepare for holding so many civilians and was caught off guard when other Palestinian groups and individuals who flooded into Israel that day took large numbers of hostages, including senior citizens and children. “They ended up simply taking people back into Gaza without thinking about the logistics, about what price they wanted for them,” Baskin said. “From day four of the war, I was talking to Hamas already about a deal for the women, the children, the elderly, and the wounded, which I thought was the low hanging fruit, because Hamas would not have been set up to deal with them. They wanted to get rid of them.”

Israel has used the civilian hostages as the primary justification for their continued siege. Hamad confirmed that negotiations began almost immediately after the October 7 attacks. He told me that “from the first week, we talked to some people, some mediators, that we want to return the civilians, but Israel refused.”

Hamad added that Hamas informed international mediators last November that it was working to track down more civilian hostages taken by other groups or individuals so it could return them to Israel. “We asked them, ‘Please give us time now to look for people,’” Hamad said. “But Israel did not listen to us and they continued to kill people.”

A major point of contention in the current negotiations, Hamas negotiators told me, is Israel’s continued refusal to free Palestinians it characterizes as terrorists with “Jewish blood on their hands.” Hamas has insisted that if Israel wants its soldiers returned, it must free Palestinian resistance fighters, including those convicted of murdering Israelis. In the negotiations, Israel has insisted it maintain veto power over Hamas’s list of Palestinian prisoners it wants freed in any deal. 

Hamas negotiators told me that the fact that their forces have managed to sustain a nine-month armed insurgency against Israel in Gaza despite being outgunned and subjected to large-scale attacks with powerful weapons provided by the U.S. has sent a message to the negotiators that Hamas has its own red lines. “Nine months have passed and our resistance has not been exhausted, nor has it relented, nor has it subsided,” said the spokesperson for the Qassam Brigades, known by his nom de guerre Abu Obeida, in a July 7 audio message. “We are still fighting in Gaza without support or external supply of weapons and equipment, and our people are still persevering without food, water, or medicine, and under a criminal, unjust genocide war.”

Last weekend, Netanyahu released a list of what he called “non-negotiables” in any agreement with Hamas. Among these was preventing the smuggling of weapons from Egypt, the return of a maximum number of living Israeli captives held in Gaza, and barring Hamas fighters from returning to northern Gaza. The most contentious aspect of Netanyahu’s list is his insistence that Israel reserve the right to resume its full-scale war in Gaza, a notion that Hamas has consistently rejected. 

Hamad believes the mediators, including those from the U.S., are aware that Netanyahu views the continuation of the war as linked to his own political survival. While a preliminary agreement may be reached for another exchange of captives, Netanyahu has reiterated his vow to destroy Hamas militarily. 

“He wants to prove that he is [continuing the war] in order to achieve his big goals or what’s called the ‘total victory’ in Gaza. But I think he could not convince even the Israeli community, the Israeli parties and his partners in the coalition,” Hamad said. “Every day that he is losing soldiers and tanks, what’s the big achievement of Netanyahu? To kill civilians. So I think that the negotiation is stuck on this point, that there is no seriousness, strong will from the Israeli side to have an agreement with Hamas.”

“If you look to the text on both sides, it is easy to bridge the gaps,” Hamad added. “Israel is working very hard in order not to achieve an agreement, because I think that this agreement will dismantle the coalition in Israel. I think this will be the end of the political career for Netanyahu.”

A masked militant from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, appears in a photo dated August 18, 2023. © Adel Hana, AP

An Unsustainable Status Quo

The October 7 attacks are often portrayed by U.S. leaders as having occurred in a historical vacuum—an alternative reality where Hamas, unprovoked, obliterated the peace. But for the people of Gaza, there has been no true peace. For 76 years, only a morsel of freedom has ever existed and for most of the past two decades it was restricted to the imaginations of a people confined to an open air prison surrounded by the occupation’s military bases and dotted by gated communities housing Israelis enjoying life in a bucolic setting.

In the years preceding the October 7 attacks, under presidents Trump and Biden, Hamas watched as Israel became more emboldened as prospects for Palestinian liberation receded to the footnotes of Washington-led initiatives aimed at normalizing relations between Israel and Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Netanyahu’s position was: “We must not give the Palestinians a veto over new peace treaties with Arab states.”

Just two weeks before the October 7 attacks, the Israeli leader delivered a speech at the UN general assembly in New York, brandishing a map of what he promised could be the “New Middle East.” It depicted a state of Israel that stretched continuously from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Gaza and the West Bank, as Palestinian lands, were erased.

During that speech, Netanyahu portrayed the full normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia as the linchpin of his vision for this “new” reality, one which would open the door to a “visionary corridor that will stretch across the Arabian Peninsula and Israel. It will connect India to Europe with maritime links, rail links, energy pipelines, fiber-optic cables.”

Hamas monitored these developments carefully and saw the U.S. moves toward circumventing a Palestinian resolution in its normalization campaign as an existential threat. “If Saudi Arabia signed, it means the whole region, when it comes to the Palestinian question, will collapse. It is not a plan. It is not a peace process. It is an integration of Israel in the newly created Middle East. They have started to talk about Middle East NATO,” Naim said. “It is a coup against the heritage, the history, the values of this region and against the future, all this together.”

According to Abulhawa, “The status quo was unsustainable and untenable, especially when Arab leaders began normalizing and the writing was on the wall for our total disappearance and total destruction.”

While Netanyahu’s vision for a new silk road through a Middle East without Palestine was certainly a concern, Rabbani doubts that Hamas believed it could derail the Abraham Accords. The desired impact, he said, was likely to send a message to the Arab public about the complicity of their rulers in crushing Palestinian aspirations as they carved out agreements with Israel. “If you look at the history of Arab-Israeli normalization agreements, Palestinian blood has never undermined them,” Rabbani said. “When Palestinians look at the region, they feel genuinely abandoned by their own leaders, by those who they consider to be their natural allies and natural champions, by the international community as a whole.”

Arab nations have “to play this sort of balancing act between not upsetting their domestic population and being just the right amount of critical of the Israeli regime,” said Hawari, the political analyst at Al-Shabaka, adding that she has “no expectations from these despotic regimes” to defend Palestinians. “I think the Saudis will push for certain conditions not because they particularly believe very strongly in Palestinian sovereignty, but because also they know that, domestically, Palestine is still a popular cause in Saudi Arabia.”

Abulhawa said that while she understands the value of the quest to fully understand the specific motivations and objectives of Hamas’s operations on October 7, it is essential to view it as a logical consequence of history. “Palestinians have, for decades, tried every possible avenue to shake off this oppression, this unrelenting, violent colonizer. So this was going to happen sooner or later. It was inevitable that something was going to come to a head, particularly in Gaza,” she said.

“If you go back to the 1940s after the Nakba, there was a decade or so when Palestinians were just pleading with international bodies, going from one place to another, trying to negotiate for justice, trying to go home, trying to figure out a way. And there was no movement. We were completely irrelevant. Nobody even acknowledged us,” Abulhawa added. “It was only until Palestinians resorted to armed resistance that the world finally admitted that, ‘Oh wait, this is an indigenous population that does exist.’ It was only after we started hijacking planes and resorting to guerrilla warfare in the spirit of leftist guerrilla movements of that era that there was any movement towards liberation.”

It was that armed resistance that created the space for the peace negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that many Western leaders hailed as a breakthrough. The 1993 and 1995 signings of the Oslo accords, brokered by the Clinton administration, were opposed not only by Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other armed resistance factions, but also by prominent intellectuals. “Let us call the agreement by its real name: an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles,” wrote Edward Said in a prescient 1993 essay for the London Review of Books. “It would therefore seem that the PLO has ended the intifada, which embodied not terrorism or violence but the Palestinian right to resist, even though Israel remains in occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.”

Those agreements led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the concept of limited Palestinian self-governance embedded within the fabric of Israel’s apartheid regime that enforced the pre-October 7 status quo.

In the aftermath of Oslo, both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad engaged in periodic campaigns of armed struggle against Israel, including through suicide bombings and attacks on civilians. This culminated in the launch of the Second Intifada in September 2000 that lasted more than four years. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a network of paramilitary forces aligned with Arafat’s ruling Fatah movement, joined the armed uprising. In the two decades following the intifada, much of the armed resistance has consisted of intermittent rocket attacks launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza and occasional, small-scale attacks against Israelis.

The post-intifada era of largely symbolic armed confrontation of Israel has unfolded in the midst of a political wasteland where the PA, Israel, and the broader international community led by the U.S. have presided over the decay of the dream of Palestinian self-determination. “After Oslo, we are talking about a disastrous political track,” said Naim. “After 30 years, the West Bank is annexed. Jerusalem is mostly Judaized. Al Aqsa is nearly totally controlled. Gaza is totally separated, isolated and besieged for 17 years, a suffocating siege.”

Israel has mastered the exploitation of the specter of armed Palestinian resistance to justify its own wars of conquest and annihilation. And it has done so with the backing of the U.S. and a refusal by successive administrations to apply international law to Israel or to respect UN resolutions. 

“The problem that the West has with Palestinian resistance is not terrorism. It’s not the targeting of civilians. It’s not armed resistance. It’s resistance full stop,” Rabbani said. “Whether it’s massacring civilians or successfully hitting military targets or popular mobilization or boycott campaigns, there is not a single form of Palestinian resistance that the West is prepared to accept.”

The October 7 attacks and the subsequent guerrilla war in Gaza against the Israeli military has undoubtedly raised Hamas’s political standing among many Palestinians. This support, though, may not necessarily translate into political and electoral victory down the line. “Whereas they clearly are in a stronger position politically than the PA, which is seen as a subcontractor for the occupation and as clapped out, exhausted, corrupt and so on by most Palestinians, that doesn’t mean that there are not criticisms which many people are not willing to voice right now because they are standing up to the Israelis,” Khalidi said. “Their resistance, the fact that they’re still fighting the Israelis on the one hand makes a lot of Palestinians, especially the ones farther away from Gaza, heartened. On the other hand, what has happened to the people of Gaza leaves a lot of Palestinians, especially the ones in Gaza, not so happy.”

Rabbani agreed that how people in Gaza will ultimately judge Hamas’s responsibility for the apocalyptic devastation they’ve endured remains unpredictable. “I think there will also be many Palestinians who will look and say, ‘Okay, the Gaza Strip has been reduced to rubble. You’ve left the people of the Gaza Strip defenseless and subject to genocide. And yes, Israel did it. Israel is responsible. But that’s on you as well.’” At the same time, Rabbani says the attacks of October 7 represent a historic chapter in the cause of Palestinian liberation and compared it to other pivotal moments in anti-colonial struggles in South Africa and Vietnam that came with significant death tolls among civilians. “There’s no denying the catastrophic consequences,” he said. “But my sense is that the changes in the longer term—of course without in any way trying to minimize the enormously unbearable damage that has been inflicted on an entire people—will, in the end, be seen as a critical turning point akin to Sharpeville, Soweto, Dien Bien Phu.”

Abulhawa said that during her trips to Gaza she talked with people about how they viewed Hamas and encountered what she described as complex, nuanced, and sometimes contradictory perspectives. “The trauma is profound. And they’ll tell you two conflicting ideas in the same breath. On the one hand, they’re angry. And sometimes some people will blame Hamas, but everybody knows who’s bombing them. Everybody.”

Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill is a co-founder of Drop Site and author of the books Blackwater and Dirty Wars. Reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog