The recent violent clash between Israel and Hamas followed a pattern that has become depressingly familiar since Hamas won control of the Gaza Strip in 2006: Hamas instigates violence towards Israel and its civilians; Israel responds with military strikes targeting Hamas’s weaponry infrastructure, but since Hamas has intentionally embedded itself in Gaza’s civilian population, Israel’s strikes inevitably claim innocent lives. The question whether Israel’s response was proportional or excessive saturates the news and media. Eventually the two sides reach a tentative ceasefire, the violence subsides, and attention turns elsewhere—until the vicious cycle repeats.
Most readers, whatever their views on the underlying moral and legal issues, are likely familiar with this pattern. But what does this have to do with corruption? Quite a bit, actually.
For one thing, Hamas’s success in the 2006 elections—which gave the group control of the Gaza Strip—was not because most Palestinians in Gaza shared Hamas’s Islamist ideology or supported its proclivity for violence. Rather, Hamas succeeded largely because the majority of Palestinians were disgusted with the blatant corruption of the Palestinian Authority (PA) under the Fatah party. The widespread corruption within the Palestinian political establishment is widely studied and documented. The PA has been known to fraudulently use U.S. financial assistance and international development aid. PA President (and Fatah leader) Mahmoud Abbas—like his predecessor Yasser Arafat—has amassed extravagant wealth while in office. He’s taken over organizations that were supposed to serve the interests of the Palestinian people, such as the Palestinian Investment Fund, and channeled their resources to line his pockets and those of his allies. He’s refused to be audited, and the lack of transparency and accountability has allowed corruption to go unchecked. So when Palestinian voters went to the polls in 2006, their only choices were the radical, violent Hamas or the corrupt PLO. And in Gaza, where Fatah’s hold was less strong, they chose Hamas because it was the less corrupt option.
Furthermore, at the time of the 2006 elections, it seemed that there was at least a chance that Hamas would turn out not only to be less corrupt than Fatah, but more pragmatic and open to moderation than the group’s violent history would suggest. To be sure, part of Hamas’s appeal was its reputation for its unwavering opposition to Israel. But although Hamas’s violent, anti-Semitic charter remained in place at the time of the election, and the organization had certainly not renounced violence, Hamas participated in the 2006 Palestinian elections with the promise that if Israel were to desist from its offensive against Palestinians, it would refrain from attacking Israel.
But any hopes that Hamas would adopt a more pragmatic approach to the conflict with Israel was dashed only six months later, when Hamas abducted an Israeli soldier and precipitated what would be the first of many rounds of violence—including major conflagrations in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021. Furthermore, despite presenting itself as a cleaner alternative to the corrupt PA, it turned out that Hamas was not much different from Fatah when it came to corruption. And these two phenomena are more closely related than most people realize.
As noted above, Hamas’s political appeal in the 2006 Gaza elections rested primarily on two factors: the belief that Hamas was less corrupt than Fatah, and Hamas’s reputation as a strong, uncompromising opponent of Israel—in contrast to the perceived weakness and vacillation of the PA. The former factor was likely more important in Hamas’s initial political success, but Hamas has turned out to be just as corrupt as the PA, perhaps more so. Hamas’s leaders have just as much penchant for abusing their power for material gain as Fatah’s leaders; the only reason this wasn’t evident back in 2006 was likely that Hamas hadn’t had the opportunity. But as Hamas’s reputation as a cleaner alternative has collapsed, the organization has leaned more heavily into its reputation for its implacable and uncompromising resistance to Israeli “colonialism.” And provoking violence with Israel helps keep the focus there—on the “struggle” with an external foe—rather than on the blatant corruption of Hamas’s leadership. In other words, we see the familiar pattern of promoting external conflict to distract from internal failures. Furthermore, provoking clashes with Israel allows Hamas to blame Israel for Gaza’s dire economic and humanitarian situation (because Israel understandably heightens restrictions on Gaza during and after violent incidents), shifting attention away from Hamas’s corruption and poor management.
Hamas’s corruption and violence are linked in other ways as well. For one thing, when Israel limits the movement of goods and fuel into Gaza, as it does following violent conflict, Hamas’s illegal tunnel economy gains a monopoly on the market. For another, Hamas extracts bribes for things like the provision of medical aid and for travel permits to Egypt, and demand for these things—and, thus, the bribes that can be extracted—surge during times of violent conflict. Conflict with Israel is devastating for ordinary Palestinians in Gaza, but for corrupt Hamas officials, it can be quite lucrative.
In sum, while many people attribute Hamas’s continued violent attacks on Israel to Hamas’s ideology—a reflection of the group’s irrational dogmatic zeal in support of Palestinian national resistance—in fact Hamas’s violence is better understood as opportunistic, pragmatic, and inseparable from its corruption. During its fifteen-year rule, Hamas’s attacks have allowed it to skirt accountability for its corruption. And this in turn suggests that, if the violence is to end, something must be done to address the rampant corruption that condemns so many Palestinians, in both the West Bank and Gaza, to poverty and hopelessness.