Israeli fantasies and Hamas realities

Dr. Michael Milshtein  credit: Tomer Shalom
Dr. Michael Milshtein credit: Tomer Shalom

Dr. Michael Milshtein, a Palestinian affairs expert who warned against Israeli complacency regarding Hamas, talks to "Globes" about the failures, and possible hope.

To try to understand how Israel was so willingly duped by an uncompromising foe, "Globes" interviewed Dr. Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University,

Dr. Milshtein, for twenty years you served as the advisor on Palestinian Affairs in COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories), and the Head of the Department for Palestinians Affairs in IDF Military Intelligence at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Today, we will talk about Hamas and its intentions, but before that I must ask: do you understand the failure in intelligence that led to the October 7 catastrophe?

"It's hard to explain. Look, when I was in the army, back in the days of Operation Protective Edge, we knew about Hamas's desire to enter Israeli territory, take over a settlement, kidnap civilians, and raise the Hamas flag. This is nothing new. But this huge mass of 1,500 terrorists, the takeover of so many settlements, and such a large number of murdered people -- this is new.

"As I understand it, there was a kind of failure of imagination, as well as a lack of understanding, perhaps even a lack of appreciation of the enemy's capabilities. There was also an over-reliance on an obstacle (the "technological wall"), that we built for NIS 4 billion, which is supposed to protect us. The wall does protect against tunnels, but it wasn't tunnels this time; it was bulldozers that brought down the fence. It was unexpected, like all the great surprises of history. For example, the Maginot Line - the French built it after World War I as an 'impassable' line of concrete fortifications. What did the Germans do in World War II? They circumvented it from the north.

"Intelligence is built on assessment of intentions and capabilities," Milshtein continues. "In the sphere of intentions, the concept went: Hamas has no desire to promote escalation, they are deterred. This view struck strong roots in both the intelligence services and the country. Therefore, in my view, the intelligence story is part of a much deeper failure."

Describe the concept.

"It goes like this: there is an element on the other side that is much more interested in promoting civilian development than in ideology. Hamas is a ruling party that needs to provide people with education, health, welfare, sewage services, everything. Therefore, if I provide it with permits for trade and allow workers to exit to Israel, I will succeed in giving it something to lose, so that it will be against its interests to attack. The bottom line in this concept was: Hamas has no interest in escalation."

You warned all along that this conception was wrong. A few weeks before the terrible attack, you wrote a column for news website N12, calling the concept, "full of holes". This is just one of dozens of columns you've written on this topic for over two years, alongside academic articles. Did no-one listen to you?

"My voice was heard and reached those whom it had to reach. It's a very complex game because, in the end, you can express your opinion, and people will say, 'In our opinion you're wrong.' Politicians in the current government, as well as the previous one, were proud of the fact that this was Gaza's calmest year.

"During this 'calm' year, Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif worked on the mother of all the bloody surprises we've ever experienced in Israel. This dissonance, between the thought that we have found a trick to tame Hamas, and the reality, is almost impossible for us to grasp. Hamas has no desire to work with you to achieve something like 'the Hong Kong of the Middle East.' They're going to war, and we didn't understand it at all."

Jihad is more important than livelihoods

It's reasonable to think that it should be possible to do business with Hamas, as we do business with the Gulf States, under the Abraham Accords, and as we are trying to do with Saudi Arabia. This is exactly the purpose of "economic peace". Shimon Peres spoke about this when he built the vision for a "New Middle East".

"True, but there are cultures like that of Yahya Sinwar in which, when earning a livelihood and a good standard of living are weighed against the continued promotion of ideological goals and Jihad (holy war) against infidel enemies -- Jihad wins."

What you're saying is that Hamas is neither like Saudi Arabia nor like the Gulf States.

"Hamas is a very, very radical expression of political Islam, and it is totally Jihad. Given that, there can be periods of calm. Israel said of Hamas: 'They're pragmatists, they're not extremists'. What we didn't understand is that Hamas can be extremist and pragmatic at the same time. It isn't perennially self-destructive. It will be pragmatic for two years, then go back to being extremist. That is the vision. Without this vision, Hamas is nothing."

Hamas went all out. If we try to get into the mindset of the organization and its leader, Yahya Sinwar, it's still hard to understand what the ultimate goal is. To annihilate Israel? After all, that isn’t going to happen.

"Not now, but maybe in another 50 years, yes? Yahya Sinwar's perception of a lifetime is different from yours or mine. For us, there is an age when you retire, and there is an age when you die. A he sees it, he is another link in a long chain of historic leaders who will, step by step, realize this vision of the annihilation of Israel, and raising of the Hamas flag over the Temple Mount."

In 2018, in the midst of negotiations for a long-term ceasefire with Hamas, Sinwar wrote a note to Netanyahu: "Take a calculated risk." We saw this as indicating that there was room to "do business" with Hamas.

"It's absolutely clear this was a strategic deception. An attempt to reinforce and project trustworthiness: 'I'm a dealmaker, you can rely on me.' There’s a song by Shalom Hanoch: 'This is your enemy/ just like you / exactly'. But no, your enemy is not like you. He is different and you have to make an effort to decipher how different. This lesson was, unfortunately, soaked in blood."

Diving into Sinwar's mind and ideology

And while Israel talked about "Gaza's calmest year", you insisted we were not seeing the real picture. What made you think that?

"I read the other side's writings in their original language, and I believe them. I simply believe them. Yahya Sinwar goes up to give a speech with an ax or a gun, calls on the people of the West Bank and Israeli Arabs to carry out severe attacks, and we say: 'There weren't many subsequent attacks,' or 'the situation in Gaza is still contained'. Sinwar used the Gazans with permits to work in Israel to bring intelligence from the places where they worked. He also used the export and import permits to smuggle raw materials and arms into the Gaza Strip."

Sinwar, Milshtein says, certainly took into account that the Israeli response to the terror attack he planned would be devastating. "With a single event, Sinwar not only completely erased all the civil achievements and concern for the Gazan public, but brought a terrible catastrophe on Gaza. I don't think he really cares. He also takes into account that he might die; he's not afraid of that. To understand Yahya Sinwar, we must dive into his mind and into his ideology."

Sinwar, who grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp and rose through the ranks of Hamas's military wing, sat in an Israeli prison for 22 years. He was released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in November 2011, along with more than 1,000 other terrorists. Milshtein, who at that time was the head of the Department for Palestinians Affairs in IDF Military Intelligence, had his eye on Sinwar even then.

"It was clear to me that he was a huge shining star in the movement," he says. "When we went over the names of the prisoners who were about to be released in the Shalit deal, I remember there was talk about how he was not a threat. People said: 'He's already getting old, approaching 50, he was in prison for many years. He's lost it. He'll probably sit at home and write his memoirs.' I said: 'You don't understand what Hamas is. Hamas is a lifelong project in the framework of which people are willing to sacrifice their lives for the greater goal.' And indeed, a split-second after he was released, Sinwar became a very dominant figure in Hamas."

Hamas members are not religious leaders, Milshtein emphasizes, but they are very religious. "They are not graduates of religious studies, they are not 'rabbis', per se, but they are devoutly religious. Many of them are electrical engineers, teachers, doctors and pharmacists.

"And when they enter into a deception like this, they rely on rulings that say, you are now in 'tahdiya'. Tahdiya is not coexistence with the enemy; it is a respite that a warrior needs in order to regroup and regain strength. And when he feels strong enough, using deception and surprise, he will attack his enemy to kill him. A warrior has full permission under religious law to break any obligation he has undertaken. Those who did not understand this were stunned by the October 7 attack."

"There is hope, but not as long as Hamas is in power"

You say that the vision of Hamas is Jihad. On the other hand, they are also the leaders of the population in Gaza. Why don't they aspire to head their own political entity?

"It could become a political entity, as a stop along the way to the destruction of Israel. I have met and spoken with Hamas people in the past. A very senior leader told me: 'I can live with you, but I will never recognize you and your rights. Moreover, when I have enough power, I will break through the borders, and I will destroy you.’"

One of Israel's assumptions was that when a radical entity comes to power, it becomes more moderate.

"Not true. I said it in the discussions: I don't know of any serious ideological entity that, after coming to power, became more moderate. The Nazis, when they came to power, were not exactly moderate. The Islamists came to power in Iran, and we know what that looks like. ISIS, when it established a state, was not a moderate state."

Sounds discouraging. Is there hope?

"There is hope. But this hope cannot materialize as long as Hamas is in power. Under Hamas, Gaza will never be Singapore or Hong Kong."

So where will it come from?

"For example, from a transformation that starts from within, an Arab Spring. Perhaps the younger generation will say to themselves: What kind of life does Hamas offer me? Only war, blood, and battles. I'll say something that’s a mixture of speculation and wishful thinking: after Israel hits Gaza very hard, conditions may be created for a new leadership in Gaza. There are two things we can't build our plans on: bringing the Palestinian Authority back to Gaza - this won’t happen; the Palestinian Authority barely controls the area of Judea and Samaria -- and we must not entertain the fantasy of bringing a multinational, inter-Arab force to Gaza. Who has the wherewithal to control 2.2 million Gazans?"

Your doctoral thesis dealt with the memory of the Palestinian 'Nakba', and these days you are researching the situation of the young generation of Palestinians. What kind of future do you foresee for Israel and the Palestinians in the coming decades?

"Israel is moving in an unplanned way - irrational, in my view - towards the reality of a one state solution. There are fantasists who say that the vision of two states is dead, so we'll go for one state. We'll respect one another. And I say, two nations that fight each other like Medieval tribes, can they live together? What we'll have here is Bosnia. The Balkans.

"The world embraces us now. That won't happen if we become like South Africa. In the one state situation, we can be either a Jewish state or a democratic state, but not both. If the Jews rule, even with an Arab majority, that is not a democracy. And if they are all citizens with equal rights, maybe we will have to say goodbye to the notion of a Jewish state."

Do the Palestinians want a Palestinian state?

"Palestinians aged 18-24 are in such deep despair over the notion of the two-state solution, that some say: you know what, go on, give me one state, but on condition that you give me citizenship, social security, and a passport, the ability to fly out of Ben Gurion Airport, and have a good life. Public opinion polls show that Palestinians, especially the younger generation, are beginning to fall in love with this idea of one state.

"It's important to remember something: the Palestinians have an insane national split. The hatred between Ramallah and Gaza is crazy. So, in the best-case scenario, we'll end up with three states for the two peoples."

To try to end on a hopeful note, do you also find some kind of window of opportunity in the existing situation?

"It’s a very narrow crack, and it relates to the dominant involvement of Qatar in the relations between Israel and Hamas, especially in Gaza. It is now clear to us that the Qatari DNA is pro-Hamas. Up until now we said that Qatar plays a role in the 'economic peace'. After all, they're a walking wallet, giving money to mosques, to public sector workers, and for all kinds of welfare projects.

"Today, we understand very well who we are dealing with. The entire leadership of Hamas now sits in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and they are conducting the war from there. Therefore, it’s time for Israel to think of an alternative to this bad actor. The alternative could be through our new friends, the Saudis and the Emirates. It is quite clear they will have a much better influence on the region than Qatar, which turned out not just to be a bad actor, but a tool for evil, a tool that helps Hamas."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on October 23, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Dr. Michael Milshtein  credit: Tomer Shalom
Dr. Michael Milshtein credit: Tomer Shalom
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