Hamas, like the rest of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist organizations, is transnational. It isn’t completely divorced from ethnic hierarchies and national identities, but they are secondary to its larger agenda of replacing national identity with Islamic identity.
The Arab Nationalists and their terrorist groups, such as the PLO, were at war with Israel for ethnic reasons. The Islamists are at war with Israel for religious reasons. From the perspective of the people being shot at, it doesn’t make much of a difference whether the people trying to kill you are doing it for racial or for religious reasons. But it does help us predict the future trends of such violence.
Hamas rose as part of a regional trend away from Arab Nationalism and toward Islamism. Egypt, once the great hope of Arab Nationalists has been overtaken by the Muslim Brotherhood. Iraq and Syria have tumbled away from their old Baath Socialism and are now defined by sectarian Shiite Islamist politics. Even among the region’s non-Arab powers, Iran is a Shiite Islamist stronghold and Turkey has become a Sunni Islamist power. With the fall of Tunisia and Libya, Arab Nationalism is as good as dead. Islamism is the future.
At the level of the Arab Street, what people want from Arab Nationalism or Islamism is economic prosperity and an end to the ubiquitous corruption that makes daily life so frustrating and difficult. The Arab Nationalists could not deliver on their economic promises, no more than their Asian and Slavic counterparts could. The Islamists, despite their free market posturing, are no more able to reform a system based on bribe infrastructures, monopolies and subsidies. Their ingenuity only extends as far as Islamizing it and financing the whole mess with Western democracy subsidies.
The Islamists may not be able to deliver on their promises, but it’s much harder to pry them out of office, once they get in, as the example of Iran shows us. Islamists dig deeper than your average Socialist dictator and there’s no prying them loose without a bloody civil war.
For Israel that means counting on the Islamists of Egypt or Turkey to fall on their own is a false hope. Neither the Turkish nor the Egyptian military has the will or the strength to remove the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood. If Syria falls, then Israel will be surrounded by a coalition of Sunni Islamist enemies on all sides. And Hamas is only their catspaw, much as the PLO was for the Arab Nationalists of Syria and Egypt.
Until now Israel has had to cope with a region where it was hated primarily based on race. Now it will have to survive in a region where it is hated based on religion. In some ways this will not be so different, but in other ways it will be.
The rise of the suicide bomber was one of the early forecasts of the cult of martyrdom. It is also a reminder that Israel serves as the canary in the coal mine for wider developments in the Middle East. Before the Muslim Brotherhood took power by winning an election in Egypt, Hamas took power by winning an election. The Arab Spring came to Israel years earlier, but as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, the Arab Spring was neither Arab nor a Spring; only an Islamist winter.
In its ancient history, Israel has often found itself in the path of conquering empires whose goals went far beyond the small land and minute number of people that they were confronted with. The Romans expected that sorting out Judea would be a minor matter. Instead it became a bloody series of wars that went on for centuries. The Roman Empire’s goal was not Judea, it was to control the region, and the pesky Jews were just in the way.
Islam aspires to be an empire once again and the Jews are once again in the way. The war against Israel, whether carried on by the Arab Nationalists or their Islamist successors, was always about the ambitions of men who wanted to build empires, rather than about the narrow strip of land that is of little use to anyone but the small number of people who inhabit it.