Comparing Hamas to ISIS opens door to 'brutal' Gaza assault, say experts

Arguments based around Raqqa and Dresden are being used to justify Israel's potentially disproportionate use of force in civilian areas

Palestinian families flee after an Israeli strike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. AFP
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The likening of Hamas to ISIS by Israeli and US officials has conjured images of the aftermath of the extremists’ takeover of Raqqa and Mosul, experts have said.

They warned this could be used to justify the “disproportionate” use of force in Gaza.

It is a factor that could also deny the possibility of a future peace process involving Hamas, whose political wing has controlled Gaza for almost two decades since it won elections there in 2006.

Israel has indicated it wants to exterminate Hamas, it will not want to recognise Hamas as a political stakeholder any more,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Israel has called on the 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to leave their homes and move to the south of the densely populated enclave, as it prepares to send in ground troops for the first time in nine years. More than 2,750 people have been killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza, the Palestinian Health Ministry has said.

Israel's bombardment of Gaza began in retaliation to attacks launched by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7, which led to the deaths of 1,400 Israelis and the abduction of about 200 more.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin described the Iran-backed militant group as “worse than ISIS” when he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv last week.

His words echoed those of Mr Netanyahu himself – who declared “Hamas is ISIS” during a media briefing with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week – and US President Joe Biden’s remarks that Hamas’s “bloodthirstiness brings to mind the worst rampages” of the terrorist group.

Hussam Zomlot, the Palestinian head of mission in the UK, said on Tuesday that this language could not be justified.

“Words and terminology are crucial," he said. "From the beginning, Israel wanted to link the Palestinian people to Hamas. And then they linked Hamas to ISIS. That’s linking ISIS to what? The Palestinians.

“ISIS is a group of criminals, mercenaries, who came from all over the world. It has nothing to do with us and the Palestinian issue. That linkage is to justify the war of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians.”

Israeli officials have also drawn comparisons with existential moments in European history, to highlight the gravity of the threat that Israel sees. Tzipi Hotovely, Israel's ambassador to Britain, said questions about a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which is under siege, should not be directed at Israel. "Hamas is in charge of the safety of the Palestinians," she said.

Ms Hotovely referred to the Allied bombings of Germany during the Second World War. "Six hundred thousand Germans were killed in your attacks on Hamburg and Dresden. Why? You knew this was the only way you could defeat the Nazis," she said.

Israeli city of Sderot a ghost town as country prepares for invasion of Gaza

Israeli city of Sderot a ghost town as country prepares for invasion of Gaza

Painting Hamas with the ISIS brush has implications for how Israel is expected to fight its war with the Palestinian militant group, experts told The National.

“There is a danger in comparing Hamas to ISIS, which can indirectly legitimise disproportionate use of violence on civilians in Gaza, under the pretence of fighting terrorism,” Ms Khatib said.

Experts highlighted the US-led coalition’s war with ISIS in 2014, during which Iraqi and Syrian cities were razed, killing up to 11,000 civilians in Iraq alone and displacing hundreds of thousands more.

“The US government labelled its campaign in Syria and Iraq as 'a campaign of annihilation', so for Secretary Austin to be suggesting Hamas is the same or worse is doing little more than encouraging Israel to assume a similarly brutal approach in Gaza,” said Charles Lister, director of the US-based Middle East Institute’s Syria programme.

The 6,000 bombs dropped on Gaza in the first six days of the war, as claimed by the Israeli air force, had already exceeded the rate of US bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which averaged "2,500 per month across 46,000 square miles," he added.

Ms Khatib warned Hamas’s political influence would outlast its military capabilities. “It’s unlikely that Hamas will become irrelevant even if militarily defeated. Israel’s hardline stance being articulated politically and militarily will make it harder for the peace process to be realised in the future,” she said.

A focus on fighting terror would also obscure the “root causes” of the conflict.

“The narrative will be totally overwhelmed by terrorism and security. Whenever these things happen between Israel and Palestine, there is never a root discussion of settler colonialism, of occupation or dispossession,” said Chris Gunness, a former spokesman for the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees.

“Instead the conversation turns to Israel having a right to defend itself and Hamas being a terrorist organisation.

“There is no military solution to the conflict and there never has been. But the chances of a political solution are receding further."

Updated: October 17, 2023, 1:47 PM