A protest demanding the release of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas militants outside the HaKirya military base in central Tel Aviv.

A protest demanding the release of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas militants outside the HaKirya military base in central Tel Aviv. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg)

In the grim aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, a slogan spread.

“Hamas is ISIS,” declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, linking the grotesque slaughter carried out by the Palestinian faction’s militants to the ravages of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria almost a decade prior. The latter — driven by an apocalyptic, millenarian creed — had embarked on a frenzy of killing, torture, grisly execution and abductions of civilians from communities of supposed apostates and enemies. The reports of what Hamas fighters did across towns and kibbutzim in southern Israel recalled the cruelty and savagery of the Islamic State’s rampage.

And, in the Israeli view, it merited an equivalent response. “Just as the forces of civilization united to defeat ISIS, the forces of civilization must support Israel in defeating Hamas,” Netanyahu said.

The refrain became a hashtag, and has been echoed by Israeli officials and politicians across the spectrum, as well as by Israel’s allies. A week after the massacres, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described what Hamas did as “worse than ISIS.” On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared alongside Netanyahu and took the analogy further, suggesting that an international coalition the likes of which fought al-Qaeda and the Islamic State should now defeat Israel’s quarry. He said that Israel was not alone and that “France is ready for the coalition, which is fighting in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, to also fight against Hamas.”

What that means in practice is still unclear. Israel is preparing for the next phase of its offensive against Hamas, which Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on Tuesday “must be erased off the face of the planet.” Relentless Israeli bombardments of the besieged Gaza Strip killed 5,791 Palestinians and compounded an already devastating humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the United States has rushed aid and military assets to the region. Along with European allies, the Biden administration is attempting to tamp down the possibility of the conflict turning into Middle East conflagration.

Given the scale and horror of Hamas’ carnage, the invocation of ISIS is not surprising. Oct. 7 marked the single bloodiest day in Israeli history, and the bloodiest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust. More than two weeks later, journalists are still learning more grisly details from Israeli authorities of how Hamas militants allegedly butchered toddlers and babies, raped women and incinerated terrified civilians in their homes. Israeli officials have vowed a merciless campaign of retribution against “human animals” and framed their actions, which have led to soaring Palestinian civilian death tolls, in the same moral light as battles against Nazis, let alone the global campaign to defeat ISIS.

But scholars of the Middle East contend that such rhetoric deliberately flattens the deep forces at play. Saying there’s no distinction between Hamas and ISIS is “an effective tactic to paint it — and all Gazans, given many Israeli leaders’ generalizing language — as inhuman, irredeemably evil and therefore legitimate targets for savagery in reprisal,” argued Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. She added that Hamas’ Islamist character and theological convictions were arguably less important than its self-styled vision of being the armed standard-bearer of Palestinian national liberation.

Itzchak Weismann, an Israeli historian of Islamist movements at the University of Haifa, concurred. “There’s a tendency to say that [Hamas] was always ISIS. But that’s not necessarily true. It’s an organization that responds to the situation,” he told Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week, pointing to how Hamas has tolerated other religious groups in Gaza. “Hamas tried to be inclusive of all of Gaza’s population. ... In contrast, ISIS would murder any Muslim who didn’t pray at the correct time. You can’t just say, ‘ISIS slaughtered people and so did Hamas, so they’re the same.’ That’s very superficial.”

There’s also the small wrinkle, noted Aaron Zelin, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that ISIS “literally views Hamas as apostates” because of its ties to the Shiite theocratic regime in Iran.

Israel’s desire to wholly eliminate Hamas may be understandable, but analysts query whether it’s actually possible. It would require a brutal ground war even more fraught and complicated than the effort to drive ISIS out of its redoubts in Iraq and Syria. Though chased from their so-called “caliphate,” their ideology has hardly been expunged and ISIS offshoots proliferate in various parts of the world.

Andrew Exum, a former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration who helped craft the anti-ISIS strategy, warned of the hideous toll exacted on civilians as coalition forces recaptured ISIS’ main strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. “The human costs of recapturing Raqqa and Mosul were staggering,” Exum wrote, adding that, “like Gaza, too, Raqqa and Mosul are large urban areas: Avoiding large-scale civilian casualties was impossible.”

And even if Hamas is crushed and shorn of its ability to threaten Israel with the horrific violence it unleashed on Oct. 7, it won’t address the context from which Hamas emerged and has since operated. That includes, as U.N. Secretary General António Guterres observed at the Security Council on Tuesday, more than five decades of Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories, the predations of an Israeli settlement project emboldened by the far-right government of Netanyahu, and the collapse of any political process to reckon with the absence of a Palestinian state or Palestinian political rights within Israel.

“For all of Israel’s efforts to paint it as the Palestinian branch of the Islamic State, and as reactionary and violent as it is, Hamas is an Islamic nationalist organization, not a nihilist cult, and a part of Palestinian political society; it feeds on the despair produced by the occupation, and cannot simply be liquidated any more than the fascist zealots in Netanyahu’s cabinet,” wrote Jewish American author and critic Adam Shatz, in an essay in the London Review of Books.

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