As Israel continues its assault on Hamas targets, diplomats in Cairo and Qatar are trying to persuade Hamas to free the 240 hostages held in Gaza. While the Israeli media have focused understandably on the civilians and soldiers Hamas seized, the terror group also holds another group hostage: the Strip's 2.2 million Palestinians.
Just as Hamas is using the Israeli hostages as leverage in negotiations for aid, a cease-fire, and the release of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, it also exploits the Palestinians it governs. The militant Islamists are using Gaza's Palestinians as human shields to deter Israeli bombings, and, should the Israeli air force strike civilian targets, as evidence of Israel's indifference to Palestinian suffering and of the country's alleged war crimes.
In some respects, Hamas seems to care even less about the people it rules than the Israeli hostages it holds. And it surely does not care at all about creating a Palestinian state. While polls show that most Palestinians yearn for an independent homeland, Hamas does not. As Hamas's Mahmoud al-Zahar has said, Palestine is only "a toothbrush in our pocket." What Hamas and virtually all militant Islamists seek is a theocratic Islamic empire throughout the region and, indeed, the world, governed according to their dark interpretation of Islam.
The Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's ideological forefather, has long called martyrdom for its cause "our aspiration." Thanks to Hamas's cynical placement of its command centers and tunnel network directly under Gaza's hospitals, mosques, and apartment buildings, there is no shortage of potential martyrs. So far, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, more than 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been "martyred," most of them women and children. For Hamas, these deaths have the added benefit of leading much of the world to blame Israel, not Hamas, for the widespread civilian suffering in Gaza.
Hamas does not object to such sacrifice. The more Palestinian deaths, the louder the world outcry grows for a cease-fire and an end to Israel's "genocide" against Gaza's Palestinians. In fact, Hamas has done what it can to ensure an ever-rising death toll. When Israel repeatedly warned Palestinians to leave Gaza City and move south before its October 27 land invasion, Hamas told them to stay, and blocked the main road to prevent them from fleeing. And rather than set up shelters and food centers for those temporarily displaced in the south, Hamas has left them homeless, hungry, and vulnerable.
The group held Gaza's Palestinians hostage long before its barbaric October 7attack. After rejecting a power-sharing arrangement with the Palestine Authority to govern the West Bank and ousting the authority from Gaza in 2007, Hamas has consistently refused to hold even a rigged election. Small wonder: according to a survey conducted in the West Bank and Gaza days before October 7 by Arab Barometer, a research network run by Amaney Jamal, dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, in partnership with the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (and supported by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy), a majority of Gazans were fed up with the militant Islamists' stewardship of the Strip and the extreme economic hardship Hamas's periodic rocket attacks on Israel imposed on the Strip's residents. If a presidential election had been held in Gaza, only 24 percent said they would vote for Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader.
The survey also showed that most Gazans rejected Hamas's autocratic ideology. Unlike Hamas, which is committed to destroying the Jewish state, a majority of those surveyed said they favored a two-state solution and an independent Palestine and Israel living side by side. On the eve of the terror attack, just 20 percent of Gazans said they favored a military solution that would destroy Israel. But Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since 2008, most recently in May, and polling data suggest that Palestinian support for Hamas rises whenever Israel cracks down on Gaza.
The pollsters say support for Hamas is likely to see a similar bump after Israel's devastating bombing and land invasion. But whether these attitudes will endure is unclear. While Israel's efforts to end Hamas's hold on Gaza may not result in the safe release of Israel's hostages, the Palestinians of Gaza may eventually stand a chance of being freed.