Since the 10/7 attack, Israeli and American leaders have repeatedly compared Hamas to ISIS. When Benjamin Netanyahu first addressed Israel after the attack, he said flatly, “Hamas is ISIS,” after which the phrase became a mantra among those supporting Israel’s invasion of Gaza. President Biden too compared 10/7 to “the worst rampages of ISIS.” Recently a number of writers have pushed against this comparison. While they are right that there are serious theological and political divergences between Hamas and the Islamic State that render a simple identification between the groups misleading, the comparison to ISIS is helpful and perhaps necessary for Israel to succeed in defeating Hamas.
There are, indeed, more differences between Hamas and ISIS than there are similarities. When ISIS was taking land in Iraq and Syria, many of its members and ideologues truly believed that the apocalypse was near and that it was their religious duty to revive, protect, and expand a caliphate uniting all Muslims. A Salafi-Jihadist organization, ISIS’s theological outlook condemns democracy, nationalism, and the modern nation-state as heretical. It pronounced takfir (excommunication) on virtually all Muslims who disagreed with its interpretation of Islam, not least of all Shia Muslims against whom it waged a genocidal war.
This is all quite different from Hamas. While a Sunni jihadist organization, Hamas is more concerned with “liberating” Palestine than it is with theological nuance. Though religiously conservative, Hamas seeks to create an Islamic “state” in Palestine rather than a global caliphate and it openly endorses the concept of Palestinian nationality. Where ISIS considered apostates anyone who participated in democracy, Hamas came to power in Gaza via democratic elections in 2006. Finally, Hamas’s single-minded focus on the destruction of Israel has permitted it to ally itself with Shia extremists in the Middle East, something ISIS would consider further proof of the group’s infidelity.
These are important differences to bear in mind when waging war against Hamas. But they do not detract from the fundamental likeness that merited the analogy in the first place. By slaughtering Israeli civilians, Jewish, Arab, Arab-Jewish, and a host of others, Hamas demonstrated an ideological zeal comparable if not identical to ISIS. Hamas fighters not only murdered families in horrific fashion, but live-streamed their actions, called family members to brag about how many Jews they killed, and generally relished in the gore of their conduct. Hamas is like ISIS insofar as it is an organization that cannot live peacefully with its Jewish neighbor. It is like ISIS because it is genocidal in intention. It is like ISIS because it relishes in bloodshed. This fundamental similarity justifies Israel’s stated objective to destroy Hamas.
In this interpretation, Hamas and ISIS are alike not so much because they share a theological orientation (they do not), but because they both became what scholar Glenn E. Robinson calls “movements of rage.” For Robinson, a movement of rage is one whose members are motivated so thoroughly by grievances and a sense of injustice that they espouse “political nihilism” wherein they embrace utterly disproportionate violence in the pursuit of their aims. In other words, they are not nihilists simply (they still have some positive aspiration), but nihilistic insofar as their passionate rejection of the status quo overshadows the constructive elements of their ideology. Robinson points to ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Khmer Rouge as examples. Hamas’s rampage on 10/7 and its promise to replicate that rampage at any cost qualifies it as yet another “movement of rage.”
Critics of the Hamas-ISIS analogy understand this. It appears that some of the reservation in making the analogy, however, is due in part to their reservation in pursing a “kinetic” solution to the conflict. By linking Hamas to ISIS, one author writes, “the only available options for dealing with it will be military-oriented.” The implication is that a military solution to the problem posed by Hamas would be inappropriate, ineffective, or, if successful in the short-term, would only generate another, somehow more radical, replacement for Hamas in the long-term. But these critics fail to realize that there has yet to be a movement of rage to be defeated without a military intervention.
To be sure, purely militaristic approaches to counterterrorism or counterinsurgency are rarely successful; the wars against Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, for example, have been so drawn-out and cyclical precisely because military superiority was not paired with an equal emphasis on reconstituting broken societies. But the war against ISIS was not “purely kinetic.” Operation Inherent Resolve was paired with significant humanitarian assistance. Between 2014 and 2017, the U.S. alone provided nearly $1.5 billion in direct aid to Iraq to help re-build the country. By 2018, coalition countries pledged $30 billion in credit and investment. This aid was less than the Iraqi government requested, and it was surely not enough to heal all the trauma Iraqis suffered after years under ISIS. But the pairing of a concerted military effort to uproot ISIS with generous international humanitarian assistance succeeded in largely defeating the organization and in preventing another like-minded group from filling the void.
If Israel is to be successful, it should follow through on the implications of the ISIS-Hamas identification and plan with Arab and other international powers to invest in rebuilding the Gaza strip after Hamas has been defeated. Critics are right that the simple destruction of Hamas alone is insufficient to defeat the nasty ideology Hamas. The least Israel and its allies can hope to do in this regard is to not exacerbate grievances in the strip by leaving only rubble in its wake.