Unraveling American Think Tank Perceptions of Hamas and Post-War Visions in the Israel-Gaza War

Dylan Liptack and Isaac Shulman

Analyzing the hashtag #HamasIsISIS: Understanding American Think Tank Comparisons Between Hamas and ISIS

Within the context of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, there are various contentious topics in which the perceptions of American think tank organizations and their effects on policymakers are made clear. One such controversial topic relates to American think tank perceptions pertaining to issues of war-time messaging, and in particular, messaging disputes surrounding comparisons between Hamas and ISIS and Oct. 7th and Sept. 11th. 

In the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7th attacks on Israel, a war of words swiftly erupted between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli supporters. Amidst this battle of information, Israel and its allies abroad were swift to draw comparisons between ISIS and Hamas in an attempt to simultaneously articulate the trauma of what happened that day, garner international support, and provide moral justification for Israel’s ensuing campaign of retribution. The hashtag “#HamasisISIS” would go on to trend on social media platforms like X, formerly known as Twitter, as government officials within both Israel and its allies further reiterated the slogan. 

However, in the wake of such propaganda efforts, many prominent journalists and scholars have since worked to condemn such comparisons as fictitious, warning that such rhetoric oversimplifies the situation and further causes the creation of a harmful “good versus evil” binary that threatens to inflame the ongoing crisis. They argue that there are key structural and ideological differences between ISIS and Hamas. Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist Islamist movement; whereas ISIS is a transnational pan-Islamist movement. This difference in identification, although seemingly arbitrary, is nonetheless significant because it characterizes the objectives, purpose, and behavior of the two groups. Hamas, although Islamist in character, is first and foremost a resistance movement with the finite objective of liberating Palestine. It justifies all its actions as resistance to Israel’s occupation while capitalizing off of the Palestinian desire for statehood and autonomy to garner support. Hamas is subsequently less religiously extreme compared to other Sunni Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS, which is demonstrated by its willingness to take part in parliamentary processes, allow Christians to coexist with Muslims in its territory, and work with Shi’ite actors like Hezbollah and Iran. 

For their part, American think tanks have largely recognized the present dissimilarities between Hamas and ISIS on an ideological basis, which is demonstrated by the relative lack of outright comparisons between the two within the realms of think tank publications. To this end, whenever the phrase “Hamas is ISIS” is brought up or alluded to, an uncommon occurrence, it is often met with reasoning for why that isn’t the case and/or a recognition of the groups’ differences. This can be seen in an article published by Arwa Damon, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, during which she claims “Hamas is not ISIS—not even close—and understanding the differences between them is crucial.” Further, throughout this piece, titled “I Covered the Battle Against ISIS in Mosul. Gaza’s Challenges Will Make It Look Like Child’s Play,” Arwa contrasts the battle against ISIS in Mosul with the ongoing battle against Hamas in Gaza, denoting several key differences between the two events, such as the greater strategic challenge faced by the IDF in uprooting Hamas from Gaza, the higher risk of civilian casualties in Gaza, and the comparatively limited extent of Israel’s post-war planning.

That being said, although it is a rare occurrence, some American think tanks have made comparisons between Hamas and ISIS in regard to the respective actions of each group. In this sense, the nature of Hamas’ Oct. 7th attack on Israel is likened to previous massacres perpetrated by ISIS. In an Oct. 10th special briefing held by the Middle East Institute the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs, Nimrod Goren, proclaimed that “Never before has Israel experienced such a large number of fatalities, casualties, and captives in one day and within its civilian population… Beyond the grief, sadness, and concern, due to the personal, communal, and national losses and uncertainty, there is shock from the ISIS-like atrocities committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians.” In that same press briefing, Charles Lister, a Senior Fellow and the Director of Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs, would also state that “the scale of the violence [on Oct. 7th] eclipsed any single terrorist attack conducted by the Islamic State anywhere in the world, ever.” Outside of the Middle East Institute, Matthew Levitt, the Director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, drew comparisons between Hamas’ Oct. 7th attacks and other large-scale terrorist onslaughts. In an article for the institute, titled “Putting the Hamas Massacre, and Hamas Denials, in Context,” Matthew wrote that “very few terrorist attacks have killed that many people, other than the April 1994 attack by Hutu extremists in Rwanda, who killed 1,200 Tutsi civilians seeking shelter in a church outside Kigali, and the Islamic State’s June 2014 massacre of an estimated 1,700 unarmed Iraqi Shia military personnel fleeing Camp Speicher after the group seized control of Tikrit.” Notably, these comparisons are not driven by an attempt to say “Hamas is ISIS,” as in no way do they blur the lines between Hamas and ISIS on a doctrinal or structural basis. Rather, they seek to contextualize and condemn Hamas’ conduct by pointing to similarities in behavior, targets, and scope between assaults executed by Hamas and ISIS.

9/11 is Now: Reasoning and Justifications Behind Think Tank Comparisons Between Oct. 7th and Sept 11th

Along with the aforementioned “HamasisISIS” narrative, another set of slogans equating Hamas to Al-Qaeda and linking Sept. 11th to Oct. 7th concurrently made their rounds throughout the public and political sphere. Similarly, to the “HamasisISIS” comparisons, these mottoes were proliferated in order to convey Israeli sentiments, garner support, and give justification for Israel’s response to the Oct. 7th attack. Interestingly however, the “Hamasisalqaeda” messaging differs from the messaging in regard to ISIS, due to it being specifically directed at American audiences, who themselves underwent a deeply traumatizing and highly impactful terrorist attack on Sept.11th. In this sense, drawing a connection between the two events is natural both innately, as Oct. 7th and Sept. 11th each resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, and strategically, as Americans, in emotionally connecting the two, are far more likely to stand behind and support Israel.

Once again, scholars and insightful journalists have dismissed the attempts at equating Hamas and Al-Qaeda as misleading and harmful overgeneralizations for largely the same reasons as before with ISIS. American think tanks, again largely have followed suit, as little to no attempts have been made to compare and connect Hamas and Al-Qaeda on an ideological and structural level. In addition, American think tanks have once more equated the results of actions taken by both terrorist organizations. Going further, the comparisons between Sept. 11th and Oct.7th have largely taken two distinctive routes.

The first lane of comparison is situational, as numerous writers for American think tanks have sought to illuminate various collations between the circumstances and future implications of Oct. 7th and Sept. 11th. According to James S. Robbins, a senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, “Both actions came as a surprise, were technically well executed, and resulted in unprecedented deaths.” The sentiment is further expounded by the President of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Carol Rollie Flynn, who in discussing Israel’s failure to detect the large-scale Hamas attack on Oct. 7th remarks that “this would not be the first time that a country with sophisticated intelligence capabilities failed to respond to threat reporting… the United States took little or no preemptive action in response to CIA assessments during the summer of 2001 of a spike in al-Qaeda activity.” Looking beyond, the aforementioned shared intelligence failures and sophisticated nature of each attack to Oct. 7th future implications, Mohammad Mazhari, writing for the Stimson Center, proclaims that “the current Gaza war, like the 9/11 attacks, is likely to have global ramifications.” In this, he describes how the U.S. proceeded to wage a Global War on Terrorism, invade both Afghanistan and Iraq, and further reshape its foreign policy after it was attacked on Sept. 11th. 

Similarly, Mohammad notes, “The Hamas attack and the Israeli response have the potential to escalate regional tensions and draw in external actors, affecting the entire international community” just as the U.S. did twenty years earlier. In all these instances, the comparisons between the two events are prompted by their inherent similarities to one another. Moreover, they appear to have done so for reasons beyond that of attempted propagandizing, as such justifications are contradictory to the academically driven nature of think tank organizations; although personal bias may undoubtedly have played a role in such coverage. Instead, such comparisons are likely a mere byproduct of the intrinsic character of American political thought with regard to terrorism, which has been almost entirely defined in reaction to Sept. 11th. Consequently, American contextualization of the events of Oct. 7th naturally elicits comparisons to their own experiences of terrorist attacks and actions following it. Likewise, the indisputable fact that both events resulted in staggeringly high civilian casualties and ensuing responses that prompted historic ramifications for Middle Eastern history adds further merit to the comparisons.

The second lane of comparison adopted by American Thinks Tanks between Sept. 11th and Oct. 7th is physiological, as they have attempted to both understand and communicate the degree to which Hamas’ attack has impacted the Israeli national psyche through comparisons between it and the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. A common denominator within most of these comparisons is the author’s mentioning of the similarly high civilian casualties caused by each attack. A political Analysis paper published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the various international reactions to the Hamas attack on Israel, in describing Oct. 7th states that “it represents the largest number of Jews killed in a single day since the Holocaust, and currently ranks as the third-deadliest terrorist attack of all time, exceeded only by Islamic State massacres and the 9/11 attacks.” Taking things a step further, during an expert panel commentary hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Emily Harding, the director of the Intelligence, National Security, and Technology program and deputy director of the International Security Program at CSIS, stated: “if 9/11 had happened at the same scale as October the 7th, 40,000 Americans would have died.” Hammering this point home, in the same panel, Dr. Dan Byman, a senior fellow here at CSIS, affirmed that Israel is probably experiencing a heightened degree of trauma from the event due to the small size of the country in which “people know one another very well” and “if they didn’t lose a family member themselves, they know someone who did.” Such likenings are again, an innate component of American political thought, in regard to comprehending terrorist assaults, which also makes such comparisons an effective means of conveying information to the American public. Moreover, like before, such comparisons are not unwarranted, as both attacks resulted in triple-digit civilian death tolls and a profound sense of grief and subsequent anger to swell among the respective populaces. Consequently, although it may be easy to disregard comments comparing and proportioning the Oct. 7th to Sept. 11th as mere instances of advocacy aimed at garnering American public support for Israel, and that may be true to an extent, doing so, nevertheless misses the point, for drawing the connection between the two events can also serve as a means through which people today can learn from the lessons of the past in order to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated again.

American think tanks have demonstrated themselves to be uninterested in the various debates and messaging surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict, instead focusing on facilitating understanding of various elements of the War and providing potential pathways for policymakers to take. On occasion, they have identified similarities in behavior between Hamas and ISIS and further contextualized Oct. 7th through comparisons with Sept. 11th. These comparisons were done, both as an innate quality of the American character of these organizations and as a means to comprehend and condemn the actions of Hamas on Oct. 7th. Further, these comparisons assist think tanks in the fulfillment of their primary goal of guiding American policymakers through both the design and implementation phases of policy. Consequently, such comparisons in themselves are an integral aspect of think tank educational strategies, as they seek to facilitate understanding among government officials and those they represent through likening aspects of current events to previous and far more familiar ones. Moreover, drawing comparisons to previous circumstances with similar prefaces is an important tool to assist policymakers in learning from past lessons to not make the same mistakes twice. Lastly, the limited focus placed on addressing online and public debates on the labeling and likening of Hamas to other terrorist organizations is in and of itself a means of guidance for policymakers, as it directs their focus away from petty disputes and instead towards solutions to the ongoing crisis.

Hamas in Focus: Evolution, Governance, and the Aftermath of Conflict

In addition, another important lens through which the perceptions of American think tanks can be understood is through their predictions regarding post-war Gaza, and the role Hamas will, or won’t, play. In this, American think tanks consistently show their dedication to guiding policymakers through the intricate dynamics of the Israel-Hamas conflict, as they provide insights and draw comparisons that deepen our comprehension of the situation. Furthermore, as global attention now shifts to the aftermath of the war and the potential scenarios for post-war Gaza, these think tanks play a pivotal role. Exploring their views on Hamas’s role in the reconstruction process yields valuable insights into the complex considerations shaping the region’s future.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, has established two goals for the military campaign: the release of hostages held by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the dismantlement of both the political and military capabilities of Hamas. Focusing on the latter objective, understanding what this means for post-war Gaza is extremely complex. Israel has a track record of failing to achieve the entirety of their outlined military objectives as evidenced by the First Lebanese War in which it succeeded at removing the PLO’s ability to conduct cross-border raids from Lebanon but failed to remove Syrian influence, the Second Lebanese War in which Israel did not define its objectives and was met with internal criticism for its poor strategic planning. Based on this historical pattern, and the underlying truth that there are no certainties in war, Hamas’ role in the governance of the Gaza Strip cannot be immediately ruled out.

Hamas, established in 1987 as the Gazan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, was initially founded to carry out armed operations against Israel. In its founding, Hamas was intended to be a religious alternative to the secular Fatah. In 2006 the Change and Reform Bloc, representing Hamas, won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, securing a majority in parliament. Unprepared for the responsibilities of the newfound authority, Hamas attempted to form a unity government with Fatah. Fatah, which wanted Hamas to acknowledge the pre-existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, rejected the formation of a unity government. As a result of Fatah’s unwillingness to cooperate with Hamas, Ismail Hanyiaa was voted Prime Minister by the parliament and selected a cabinet composed solely of Hamas members. This led to a growing tension between Fatah and Hamas that was reflected geographically with the West Bank Palestinians favoring support towards President Mohmud Abbas and Gazans in favor of Hamas. In June 2007 these tensions erupted into a civil war in Gaza with Hamas leader Khalid Mish’al attributing the violence to “a Palestinian party determined to stay in power and retain its privileges, unwillingness to accept the results of Palestinian democracy and the ballot box.”

In response to efforts to delegitimize Hamas, political leaders in Gaza have spent the ensuing years centralizing political control over the Strip. While to many in the Western world, Hamas is recognized as a “non-state actor,” it has taken on the task of providing and governing its Palestinian constituents. These responsibilities include governance roles, providing security, administration, and other governmental functions for its 2.2 million citizens. In addition to satisfying governmental needs in the Gaza Strip, whatever body takes over Gaza following the war will also need to improve the existing infrastructure and rebuild what has been demolished.

Regional Dynamics: Abraham Accords, Post-War Diplomacy, and Policymaker Considerations

Amidst these challenges in Gaza, perspectives on the future governance of Hamas vary widely, particularly in analyses emerging from American think tanks. Despite the prevailing notion that Hamas’ days in control of the Gaza Strip may be numbered, predictions span a spectrum, ranging from the group achieving its objective of forcing a stalemate to facing complete dismantlement. In his article “Israel Could Lose,” Jon B. Alterman, Senior Vice President and Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests that while a traditional military defeat is highly unlikely, diminishing public support for Israel raises the possibility that Hamas could force a stalemate. In this scenario, although Hamas’ political and military power would be severely wounded this would be considered a win for Hamas. Hamas would have succeeded in living another day and further inspiring future generations to resist Israel. Altman continues to explain what Israel must do to avoid this future, including winning back global support and reinvigorating the weak Palestinian Authority. Alterman cites the need for strong cooperation between Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to lay the foundation for rebuilding Gaza and legitimize any future government. Additionally, Israel needs to find a way to separate the Palestinian populace from Hamas and ensure that any form of Palestinian solidarity that emerges post-war is centered around an alternative to Hamas. Without an alternative that can “credibly… advance Palestinian aspirations for both prosperity and self-determination,” there will always remain a large fraction determined to inflict hardship upon those who afflict them. This is very telling for what Altman believes will happen once the war effort shifts towards a reconciliation effort. Alterman believes that despite Israel’s claims of occupying Gaza indefinitely, they will withdraw from Gaza and seek to find stability with the help of other regional actors.

This idea of regional actors advancing post-war Gaza seems to be corroborated by Gerald Feierstein, senior fellow on U.S. diplomacy at the Middle East Institute, and director of its Arabian Peninsula Affairs program. Feierstein authored the article “The Abraham Accords Can Still Help Bring Peace to the Middle East,” wherein he contends that, despite the perception that the Abraham Accords might enable Israel to enhance its diplomatic standing without addressing the Palestinian question, the nations that have already normalized ties with Israel will play a crucial role in shaping the region’s future. One potential route to finding an amicable solution that Feierstein articulates is to model a future summit based on the Madrid Conference. The Madrid conference was “organized in October 1991 following the first Gulf War. While the main focus of Madrid was to promote peace between Israel and its neighbors, including the Palestinians, there was also a broader effort to engage the region in measures to address critical challenges, including water, environment, arms control, refugees, and economic development.” Using this structure of an all-encompassing regional focus, in addition to creating the frameworks for a peaceful future between Israel and Palestine, the nations of the Abraham Accords would be responsible for rebuilding the Gazan infrastructure, government, and civil society. Feierstein goes on to state that the most important step for peace is that both the Israelis and Palestinians bring in new leadership that is willing to make concessions and compromise. What is truly interesting is that in Feierstein’s calculations, despite the mounting hostility among the signatories of the Abraham Accords directed towards Israel, all of these nations are united on the belief that “Hamas, with its Iranian backers, is a significant threat to their interests and the region at large. They recognize as well that ties to Israel enhance both their own security and economic development.”

Contrary to the notion that Hamas’ days in Gaza are numbered, Nathan J. Brown, a non-resident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests that evaluating the conflict without expecting a clear post-war arrangement is more practical. In his article, “There Might Be No Day After in Gaza,” Brown lists three key assumptions: Israel will impose military buffer zones in Gaza for an indefinite period of time, Israel will increase the capacity for its security forces to operate within populated regions, and Israeli settlers will not return to Gaza. Additionally, Brown lists the key actors involved as Hamas, multilateral organizations, Arab states, and Israel. Brown is under the impression that Hamas’ political wing will be rendered unable to govern, but the military wing, although wounded, will not be destroyed. As a result, it is likely that Hamas’ military wing will increase its grasp over the organization and seek to pose a threat to any governing body that collaborates with Israel. Multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, would not have the capacity to expand their existing programming to include governing Gaza. Arab states have no desire to play an active role in Gaza but if they were persuaded, they would only participate administratively and would refuse to provide security on Israel’s behalf. Lastly, it is difficult to know with certainty what Israel’s long-term desires are, given the political division that has run rampant through the country in the lead-up to this war. What can be gathered from Brown’s analysis is that the vague belief that Hamas will play no role in the days after the war is unlikely, the conditions for a central government of any form to exist in Gaza are extremely bleak, and the prospect of a low-level conflict persisting after the war is high.

It is natural for there to be discrepancies among think tanks in their predictions for post-war scenarios given the complex interconnected variables and incomplete information they are working from. However, the logic that underpins their predictions can be used to determine the critical points that American policymakers look to. Alterman and Brown predict a future in which Hamas is around following the war. This conclusion is derived from an understanding that Israel’s biggest military obstacle extends beyond the battlefield to encompass global perception. Additionally, Alterman, Brown, and Feierstein all corroborate that the surrounding Arab states, including the states of the Abraham Accords, will play a role in post-war Gaza. Although each expert agrees on the same conclusion, they come at it from different approaches. Alterman bases his assessment on the need for these countries to build legitimacy for the next ruling power, Feierstein on the shared threat that the Iranian-backed Hamas pose, and Brown on the belief that they are heavily persuaded to play an administrative role. These insights become integral in designing foreign policy strategies that not only address military aspects but also navigate the intricate landscape of international perception. America, being a staunch ally of Israel will likely attempt to incorporate strategies to improve Israel’s public perception in their policies. Additionally, these policymakers will likely plan to collaborate with regional actors on post-war strategies and attempt to leverage ties with the Abraham Accords nations to shape the region’s future.

Dylan Liptack is an American third-year undergraduate student at Saint Norbert College. He is a Political Science and International Studies double major with a concentration in Middle Eastern Studies. He is currently enrolled in a study abroad program in Jordan through the School for International Training (SIT) and is also participating in an internship program with the Politics and Society Institute.
Isaac Shulman is an International Studies major with double minors in Political Science and History at Muhlenberg College. Currently, he is studying Geopolitics, International Relations, and the Future of the Middle East at the School for International Training (SIT) in Jordan. Actively engaged in learning Arabic to deepen his understanding of the regional nuances, he has concurrently undertaken an internship at The Politics and Society.

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