The raids and kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas and two soldiers by Hezbollah have riveted world attention on these groups and raised the question of whether there is something in their devotion to Islam that leads them to consider Israel their sworn and eternal enemy.
What makes these actions particularly troubling to so many Americans, is the fact that both movements have a long history of couching their attacks on Israel in the kind of blatant anti-Jewish rhetoric that reminds people in the United States of Al-Qaeda's existential and seemingly irrational hatred of America.
And it is precisely the role of religion in the two-front war between Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah that causes many to worry that there is no peaceful way to resolve either conflict. But while understandable, this view reduces two interconnected conflicts (pitting Israel against the two movements) to a far too narrowly defined religious foundation. As we seek to understand the current conflict, it is important not to forget the political and strategic motives that have always played a central role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, if too often under a veneer of religious bigotry on all sides.
Both organizations and the larger movements they represent conspicuously define themselves as “Islamic” resistance movements; both see their actions as a legitimate “jihad” against an Israeli state that both see as religiously and politically illegitimate. And both endorse and practice the use of violence, including terrorism against civilians, as a basic tool in achieving their goals.
But it is as misleading to assume that “Islam” is the motivation behind the politics of the two movements as it is to chalk up the actions of the U.S. government to Christianity or the those of the Israeli government to Judaism. This distortion of religion has added fuel to the conflict and given each side a confused picture of the other.
During the civil war of the 1980s, the militant, sometimes terrorist organization Hezbollah created a new set of rules for conflict in the Middle East that permanently changed the balance of power. With its use of suicide bombings and other forms of warfare, Hezbollah managed to drive both the United States and Israel--respectively, the most powerful countries in the world and the region--from Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s success provided a model for groups across the Muslim world who were fighting either foreign occupation or governments believed to be controlled by foreign powers. One group that was particularly inspired by Hezbollah's victory was, not surprisingly, Hamas. Many analysts argue that Hezbollah's victory against Israel was a model for its own strategy of long-term violence as the way to force Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza on terms more favorable to Palestinians than could be achieved through the Oslo-sponsored negotiating process.
Indeed, in the six years since the Israeli pull-out from Lebanon, many terrorism experts have come to believe that Hezbollah has provided funds and training to Hamas, both because of its own long-standing ideological support for Palestinian resistance and on behalf of Hezbollah's Syrian and Iranian allies.
At the same time, Hezbollah set out to fight not just against the Israeli occupation, but also to bring about the destruction of the State of Israel and replace it with Muslim rule over Palestine. It also pledged to fight against “Western imperialism,” and declared the eviction of all Western forces from Lebanese soil a “legal obligation” for Muslims. Given this ideology, it is not surprising that Hezbollah, in its many publications, television programs (broadcast on its satellite TV channel, al-Manar), and pronouncements by leaders, features anti-Jewish sentiments, portrays Israel as worse than the Nazis, challenges the Holocaust as a myth, and declares that “death to Israel" is the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas is a Sunni Islamist movement. As we've seen in Iraq and Pakistan, some ultra-conservative Sunni movements can be virulently anti-Shi'ite; but this sectarian division has never been an issue in the relationship between the two movements, nor has it diminished the influence of Hezbollah on Hamas.
Hamas emerged out of the Palestinian wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987. From the start, Hamas's leadership defined its program “as Islam.” Its platform, or charter, begins with a Qur'anic passage, Sura al-Imran, verses 109-111, which states that “the greater part of [Jews] are transgressors... smitten with vileness” because they disbelieved God's signs, killed Jesus unjustly, and regularly rebelled against God's commandments. More broadly, Hamas declared that the Qur'an was its “constitution,” jihad against the occupation a religious obligation, and the creation of an Islamic state in all of Palestine the movement's goal.
The Hamas charter and numerous subsequent pronouncements and literature make it clear that the movement harbors many anti-Jewish views, while also advocating, in theory, the destruction of the State of Israel and its replacement by a religiously sanctioned Muslim state (Article 11 of its charter describes all of Palestine as a “waqf,” or religious endowment, whose status as God's gift to the Palestinian people mirrors the Orthodox Jewish belief that Eretz Yisrael was deeded to Jews by God. And like Hezbollah, Hamas in its formative years sharply criticized the United States as a more hated enemy than Israel.