The eruption of the third Gaza war since 2008 is yet another manifestation of the growing threat posed by Islamist militants within an increasingly unstable Middle East.
In recent years, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist revolutionary groups have made major gains in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen. They have exploited the chaos of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which have undermined many authoritarian regimes and created ungoverned territories that they seek to dominate.
Nature may abhor vacuums, but Islamist militants love them.
In Iraq and Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the brutal leader of the Islamic State, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, has proclaimed the establishment of a caliphate. He claims to be the successor not only of Osama bin Laden, but of the prophet Muhammad.
Baghdadi seeks to lead Muslims “back to the future”–to an imaginary utopian past. He promises heaven but delivers only hell. His zealous thugs have chopped off the hands of petty thieves and the heads of opponents. He has brought back crucifixion as a tactic of intimidation.
Baghdadi has declared a jihad that will doom Iraq and Syria to civil wars that will last years, if not decades, and shower all neighboring states with destabilizing spillover effects.
On the Gaza Strip, Hamas also invokes jihad in its struggle against Israel. Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is sometimes described as a “moderate” Islamist movement. But there is nothing moderate about its drive to kill Israelis, repress political opposition or persecute Palestinian Christians.
Hamas seized absolute power in Gaza in a bloody 2007 coup, during which it hurled officials from the rival Fatah movement off the roofs of tall buildings. Since then, it has been more concerned with maximizing its power and killing Israelis than in protecting the interests of Gazans.
In effect, Hamas has taken Gaza’s 1.6 million Palestinians as hostages to advance its revolutionary Islamist agenda.
Hamas shares a vision with Baghdadi: a global, zero-sum struggle that will impose a totalitarian Islamic state. They differ over who should lead such a state and the best way to advance this radical agenda. But both ruthlessly unleash horrific violence to destroy their enemies and impose their harsh brand of Islam.
Hamas terrorists hide among Palestinian civilians in Gaza while hurling rockets at Israeli civilians. They know that they cannot destroy Israel in the short run. But they hope to provoke a catalytic war that will galvanize other Arabs and Muslims to join their fight and tip the balance in the long run.
The worse the situation gets in Gaza, the better chance Hamas has of demonizing Israel, posing as the victims rather than the instigators of the conflict and undermining Arab states which fail to support its radical goals. Prominent in the latter group are Egypt and Jordan, which have signed peace treaties with Israel.
Hamas has transformed Gaza into a base for exporting terrorism to Egypt as well as Israel. It has cooperated with other Gaza-based Islamist factions to support Egyptian Islamist revolutionaries that have sparked an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
Hamas, like other Islamist revolutionary movements, sees itself as the vanguard of global revolution. To attain that goal, it is willing to kill countless Israelis and sacrifice an unlimited number of Palestinians.
Welcome to the grave new world.
James Phillips is the Heritage Foundation’s Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs.