What do Hamas and Hizbollah want?
What do they mean by ‘resistance’ to Israel?

Published: 16 January 2009
Briefing Number 229

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Summary::What do Hamas and Hizbollah really want? What's their strategy?

It's too easy for Israel supporters to point to the Hamas Charter (shocking document as it is), and answer that Hamas wish to “destroy Israel ”.

In reality, their goals are more subtle. Hamas cannot militarily destroy Israel as such. Nor can Hizbollah. They believe that the way to achieve the demise of Israel is by so-called “resistance”, which aims at methodically eroding Israel 's resolve. It's this vision which drives Hamas, and the rockets since Israel 's Gaza pullout. And it explains why Hamas are willing to “fight Israel ” knowing that civilian Palestinians will suffer terribly, and knowing that in conventional military terms they cannot “win”.

In 2006 Arab affairs analyst Ehud Ya'ari wrote a description of the Hamas and Hizbollah ‘resistance' doctrine which has proven to be incredibly accurate, and relevant to the Hamas-Israel war of 2009. Ya'ari shows how Hamas strategy has focused on wearing down Israel morally and psychologically, rather than on achieving Palestinian national rights. His analysis goes a long way to explaining why Hamas embarks on behaviour which is on many levels self-destructive for Palestinian civil society.

This Briefing provides the text of Ya'ari's important article, together with added comments by Dr Jonathan Spyer from the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Israel . Both Ya'ari and Spyer are considered moderate, dispassionate and highly expert analysts of the ideas and thinking of the Arab and Muslim world. Their explanation of ‘resistance' doctrine places the conflict between Israel , Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran in a totally different perspective.


What drives Hamas ? What is their strategy? What is their vision?

It is too easy simply to argue that they “want to destroy Israel ”.

This Briefing reproduces a ground-breaking article which was published on 13 November 2006 by Arab affairs expert and commentator Ehud Ya'ari in the Jerusalem Report magazine, on the doctrine of resistance and persistent warfare against Israel – what he termed muqawama . It builds on a speech Ya'ari made at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on 31 October 2006 (Policy Watch Paper 1159, available from www.washingtoninstitute.org ).

Ya'ari's analysis provides a fresh and incredibly valuable way of understanding the war between Hamas and Israel in 2009.

Ehud Ya'ari on Hamas and Hizbollah ‘resistance' doctrine

Ya'ari writes: The Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hizbollah in 2006 has put wind in the sails of the rejectionists across our borders, increasing numbers of whom believe that, finally, they have hit upon an effective plan of action against Israel . Predictably, declarations about the inevitable demise of the Jewish state are back in fashion. More than 30 years after the Arab states and their army commanders came to the conclusion that they had no viable means of removing Israel from the map and stopped talking openly of their desire to annihilate it, the discourse of the Arab world is changing. Following the cue of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, the leaders of Hamas and Hizbollah have broken out in spontaneous hoorahs and the Zionist clock ticking towards its final hour.

It must be stressed that this mood is prevalent primarily among sectors of the Arab public who have always rejected the vision of peace. Now, however, they are drawing their strength from the Lebanon war and are using it to justify their positions, hawking their wares more aggressively and blatantly than they have dared in the recent past. And so the question of Israel 's fate, which was supposed to be off the agenda, has again become the subject of acceptable debate, along with endless discussions forecasting whether it will take one generation, two or three, for the wish to come true.

I suggest calling this worrying phenomenon the muqatama doctrine. The literal translation of the Arabic word muqatama is ‘resistance' but that does not reflect the full meaning of the term. A more correct translation would be “the doctrine of constant combat” or “persistent warfare”, which is how Hizbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, and Hamas's Khaled Masha'al define it.

They argue that the last war proved the doctrine, showing that they could survive even an all-out confrontation with a vastly superior military force such as the IDF.

The future challenge Israel faces is resistance, not conventional war….

Israel will be facing the challenge of the resistance doctrine in the years to come.

It is a different challenge from the one posed by a coalition of conventional Arab armies, and a more complicated challenge by far. Israel found an answer to the conventional threat – see the 1967 and 1973 wars – but so far it has not come up with an appropriate response to the dangers embedded in the muqawama – resistance – not least because our politicians and generals tend to diminish its importance.

Following is a rough guide highlighting the essential points of the doctrine:

•  Peace is not an option, but armistices or ceasefires are an option: The Arab world must not, because of temporary hardship, be dragged into recognising Israel and accepting its existence through peace agreements. When in need of a respite, it is permitted to reach hudna (armistice) agreements, valid for a limited period only, with the ‘Zionist regime'. Usually, the rejectionists speak of annulling the Jewish state rather than extermination, though there are also plenty of calls to expel Jews from Palestine . The hudna idea is nicely illustrated by Hamas's proposal for a ceasefire in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and by Hizbollah's apparent support for the revival of the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Lebanon .

•  I t is not necessary for there to be a balance of forces: It is not necessary to wait for there to be a balance of forces: unlike president Nasser, who aimed to build up enough military might to beat Israel, or Syria's president Hafiz al-Asad, who sought what he called ‘strategic parity', the disciples of the muqawama doctrine reject any delay in fighting unless a hudna is in force. On the contrary, even when the balance of forces is clearly in the enemy's favour, they perform the imperative of continual warfare, if only on a small scale. The military disadvantage can be narrowed through innovative tactics. For example, both Hamas and Hizbollah made a point of kidnapping IDF soldiers from armoured vehicles. Camouflage is an effective defence against aircraft, and old Katyusha rockets or home-made Qassams can provide a response to Israel 's superior fire power.

•  Do not fight over territory - it's better to terrorise and wear down the Israeli civilian population: The goal of the muqawama is the methodical erosion of the enemy's resolve. There is no need to defend territory against Israeli occupation, or to try to conquer land. The essence is to spill blood, and since that is the case, it is better to focus on the civilian population as a primary target. The motto is blood, not land, and the effort is directed at denying victory to the enemy, not at achieving a quick result.

•  Jihad is not a struggle for national rights: In effect, Iran and its associates in Lebanon and Palestine have requisitioned the old formula of the ‘Popular War of Liberation' fashioned by nationalists such as Arafat and leaders of the Algerian revolution, and have injected it with exclusively Islamic content. Fighting is undertaken for the sake of Allah, and not out of patriotic sentiment.

•  The Arab state is not a suitable vehicle for ‘resistance': The muqawama is not merely a military system, but a comprehensive, alternative regime. The Arab states constitute a flawed and inefficient apparatus, unfit to conduct a historic battle. The task must be shouldered instead by the Islamic movements that, alongside their military activity, engage in societal reform through educational, health and business institutions. Hamas and Hizbollah are headed by shura (consultation) councils composed of senior clerics. The ‘shurocracy' is key to rehabilitating the community as well as defeating the enemy, offering an alternative hierarchical structure to dictatorships, monarchies and democracies.

In accordance with this doctrine, Hizbollah is reorganising in South Lebanon , chiefly in the nature reserves outside the villages. Hamas is currently building a paramilitary force similar to Hizbollah's, in Gaza and in the West Bank .

The next confrontation with Israel is coming. It is only a matter of time.

- Ehud Ya'ari, October 2006

Further comments on ‘resistance doctrine' by Dr Jonathan Spyer, IDC

Here are comments by Dr Jonathan Spyer from the Inter-disciplinary Center (the IDC) in Israel , on ‘resistance doctrine'. They are taken from an article which he published in the Guardian newspaper in the UK on 11 June 2007 called the ‘The Long War Strategy'.

•  ‘Resistance to Israel ' is aimed at wearing Israel down, morally, physically and psychologically. [This provides an explanation which is hardly ever heard in the media for the rocket and missile attacks since Israel 's Gaza pullout – Beyond Images] .

•  The aim is to make Israel into a failed state, in which the pursuit of normal life become impossible. Once again, this is the purpose of the rockets since the Gaza pullout. [The same comment applies – Beyond Images]

•  These actions are driven by a state of ‘euphoria' among Arab rejectionists which has been prompted by the perceived success of Hizbollah in Lebanon , which Hamas has been seeking to emulate. Many commentators have pointed out that Hamas has become intoxicated with power in Gaza , brazen in its boasting about its own prowess and Israeli weakness.

•  Western liberals and pressure groups who call for boycotts of Israel and who describe it as a pariah or apartheid state, are depicting Israel as illegitimate and failed. Whether they intend to or not, these campaigners are reinforcing the ‘resistance' doctrine of the Islamists, and those who believe in the doctrine. They have in common the belief that Israel as a Jewish state should simply no longer exist.

•  Finally, Spyer points out that radicals in the Arab world have experienced previous periods of brazen euphoria when they believed that they had found a ‘secret weapon' with which to wear down Israel . These periods were in 1968-1970 and 1990-1991. These periods ended in defeat and humiliation. Spyer points out that this mood of euphoria eventually faded “as a result of a decisive military defeat suffered by its main protagonists….”

Proclaiming the victory of ‘resistance' to Israel , and the wearing down of the Zionist entity…

There have been many declarations in recent months, from Iran , Hamas and Hizbollah, that Israel is a failed state which is being worn down by the ‘resistance'.

Iranian proclamation

“ Israel has weakened by the day….. Today, officials of the Zionist regime acknowledge that Israel is moving towards weakness, destruction and defeat……”

- Iran 's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on 1 October 2008 on Iranian state television (as quoted by the International Herald Tribune, 1 October 2008 )

Hamas proclamation

“Khaled Mashal said that the Palestinians would never cease to resist Israel 's illegal regime, which he said was on the brink of extinction….”

- Jerusalem Post, 27 May 2008 , reporting on a joint press conference between head of Hamas Khaled Mashal and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Hizbollah proclamation

“ Palestine , from the river to the sea, is the property of the Arabs and Palestinians and no-one has the right to give up even a single grain of earth or one stone, because every grain of the land is holy. The entire land must be returned to its rightful owners…. Our lands {ie the land of Palestine from the river to the sea] will be liberated, not by begging to the US or the West, but with will, determination, resistance and sacrifices made by the region's peoples…..”

- Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbollah in Lebanon , in speech reported by Associated Press on 26 September 2008

Beyond Images comments:

Many people see Hamas as extreme. But they believe that this extremism is the result of Israel 's policies, which are generating hatred against Israel , and forcing Hamas to use extreme tactics.

And they also believe that Hamas is motivated by a desire to achieve Palestinian national independence.

The insights of Ya'ari and Spyer challenge these beliefs. Hamas and Hizbollah are driven by a completely different vision: not the desire to create a Palestinian state, but by the desire to wear down and eliminate the Jewish state.

This strategy is a costly one to Palestinian civil society. In the Israel-Hamas war of 2009, innocent civilians in Gaza are paying a tragically high price for Hamas intoxication with the ‘resistance' doctrine.

Related Beyond Images resources

See the areas called Hamas, and Hizbollah and Lebanon , on the Beyond Images All Briefings section of the Beyond Images website.