Gaza, the Quran and the Torah: Is the Middle East conflict now a religious war?

Hamas and right-wing Zionism offer conflicting religious narratives — with little room for compromise

Published June 19, 2024 5:15AM (EDT)

Israelis hold placards against the war in Arabic, Hebrew, and English during a demonstration on June 8, 2024. (Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Israelis hold placards against the war in Arabic, Hebrew, and English during a demonstration on June 8, 2024. (Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

During this month's traditional Flag March on Jerusalem Day, which commemorates Israel’s capture of the city's historic eastern sector during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, marchers could be heard shouting racist, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slogans, according to reporting from Haaretz, the BBC, AFP and other sources.

One marcher reportedly shouted: "This is my country. I am the owner here. I'm the boss here, there is no Palestine.” Reporters also recorded such chants and slogans as "We will burn your villages" and "All Arabs can suck it."

Israel's national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has a lengthy track record of right-wing and anti-Arab provocation, said at the march: "We send a message to Hamas: Jerusalem is ours. Damascus Gate is ours. The Temple Mount is ours." That can be understood as a direct provocation, since what Jewish Israelis call the Temple Mount also includes Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. "With the help of God," Ben-Gvir told the cheering crowd, "the full victory is ours.”

Ben-Gvir is a member of Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right cabinet as leader of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) an ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab political party that won six seats in Israel's 2022 Knesset election. His party is now crucial to Netanyahu's flimsy governing coalition, especially now that the "war cabinet" created after last October's Hamas attack has been dissolved.

Ben-Gvir was formerly a supporter of the banned political party Kach, a right-wing Zionist group originally founded by Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, which Israel ultimately designated a terrorist organization. He reportedly once had a portrait on his living-room wall of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish extremist who killed 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 more in a 1994 mass shooting at the Cave of the Patriarchs in the occupied West Bank.

Otzma Yehudit represents one extreme within Zionism, depicting it as an essential component of Orthodox Judaism, which regards the Torah as a divine text revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Many Zionists, but not all, believe that “Eretz Israel” — generally taken to mean the entire territory of Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River — was promised by God to the Jewish people.

But Theodore Herzl, the 19th-century founder of modern Zionism, was an entirely secular figure and quite likely an atheist. In the words of his Encyclopedia Britannica entry, Herzl viewed the "Jewish question" in Europe not as "a social or religious question but a national question.” Herzl argued specifically that "matters of faith" should be entirely "excluded from public influence.”

Until recently, religion did not play a prominent role in Israeli politics, and the Jewish state's leaders were generally secular politicians. On the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, it's fair to say that Islam has been the driving force of Hamas since its establishment in 1988.

The Palestine Liberation Organization and the allied political party Fatah, which preceded Hamas by about 20 years and are internationally recognized as legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, have a largely secular and nationalist viewpoint and have included at least a few Palestinian Christians. Longtime PLO leader Yasser Arafat inclined toward socialist views, and as a young man moved away from an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Palestinian leaders to the left of Arafat, like George Habash, Nayef Hawatmeh and Yasser Abd Rabbo, were often Marxist revolutionaries who drew support from liberation movements in the developing world and sometimes from the Soviet Union or its allies. While such Palestinian militant groups engaged in spectacular acts of violence at times — including the infamous attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich — they did not frame their conflict with Israel in religious terms. 

One major irony in the backstory of Hamas is that for many years before the group was established, its future leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was tolerated and even encouraged by the Israeli government, as a counterweight to the Palestinian nationalists and leftists who were seen as more dangerous.

Yassin’s Islamist charity group was allowed to build mosques, schools, hospitals and other community facilities. According to a 2009 report in The Wall Street Journal, the Israeli governor of Gaza during the late 1970s said he had maintained regular contact with Yassin, and had arranged for him to receive medical treatment in Israel. Yassin’s ally Mahmoud al-Zahar reportedly met with top Israeli officials to plot against Arafat and other socialist or Marxist Palestinian leaders.

What Israeli authorities perhaps understood too late was that Yassin, al-Zahar and their colleagues always viewed Israel as their ultimate religious and historical enemy. The mosques, hospitals and schools were part of a package deal that included the establishment of Hamas and then its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, along with strict gender segregation, mandatory hijab for women and other conservative principles understood to come from the Quran.

What Israeli authorities perhaps understood too late was that the leaders of Hamas always viewed Israel as their ultimate religious and historical enemy. Building mosques and schools was part of a package deal.

Indeed, one could say the Quran, Islam's holy book, has become Hamas’ most important weapon against Israel. About one-third of the Quranic text directly or indirectly concerns the Jews – and most of that is negative, with repeated references to the Jewish people as “killers of prophets.” The first sentence in Hamas' 1988 charter quotes a famous verse suggesting that Allah has placed an eternal curse on the Jews "on account of their unbelief.” (In 2017, during a period of negotiations with Israel and the U.S., Hamas published a watered-down version of its charter that removed that reference, but never officially revoked the original.)

Hamas carried out its first attack against Israel in 1989, killing two Israeli soldiers. That began about 15 years of low-level conflict, during which Israeli officials killed several Hamas leaders, including Yassin, al-Zahar and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and injured, arrested or deported hundreds of other militants. 

Hamas' religious war against Israel has accompanied a contradictory relationship with the U.S. On one hand, the group has held secret or indirect meetings with American officials for years. On the other, Hamas constantly criticizes the U.S. for supporting and supplying Israel, for invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, and for attacking other Muslim countries, including Yemen and Somalia. Rantisi, who succeeded Yassin as Hamas leader, once declared that George W. Bush was an “enemy of Muslims” and that America had "declared war against Allah.”

Hamas' strong identification of Islam with its campaign against Israeli occupation has attracted more overt support from distant Muslim countries than from nearby Arab governments, many of which have official or unofficial ties to Israel. Led by the theocratic regime in Iran, predominantly Muslim nations such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia largely seem to consider the Zionist project and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms. 

The most religious and most conservative elements of Zionism now appear to dominate the movement for the first time, as well as the Israeli government.

These issues were detailed in a recent academic paper published by the Beirut-based Al-Zaytouna Centre, “Non-Arab Muslims and Operation Al-Aqsa Flood" (a reference to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel). The paper stresses the importance of “Ummat Al-Islam,” or the worldwide "Islamic nation," seen by many Muslims as the only true form of nationalism. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, "Arab and Muslim countries responded from an Islamic perspective," the paper continues. "They launched extensive media campaigns, called for volunteers to fight against the Soviet forces, and established popular and official donation funds.”

That reaction throughout the non-Arab Muslim world was far more effective — with thousands of volunteers fighting alongside Afghan militants — than anything that has happened during the current Gaza war. But non-Arab Muslims remain strongly concerned with the fate of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which remains under Israeli control. 

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Back in Israel, the most religious and most conservative elements of Zionism now appear to dominate the movement for the first time, as well as the Israeli government. Netanyahu may have great difficulty ending the war in Gaza without alienating the Orthodox far right and destroying his governing coalition. 

In March, Dutch journalist Caroline de Gruyter published an essay in Foreign Policy entitled “Israel and Palestine Are Now in a Religious War,” relating the current Gaza conflict to the immensely destructive European religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, which gave birth to modern nation-states on that continent. “Both in Israel and Palestine, the main internal division is between those who are secular and those who are religiously motivated," she writes. "On both sides, the religious camp seems to be getting the upper hand. …The two camps that deeply believe God has given them the land are incapable" of resolving the conflict, "because it requires them to renege on the fundament on which their faith and identity are based.”

Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for Israel's left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, wrote something similar last November, arguing that “None of the international coverage and commentary on Hamas’s massacre in Gaza border communities, and the war it triggered, has addressed its religious aspects.” 

Hamas and Zionism, Pfeffer wrote, are both “rooted in religion,” and the contradictory national narratives that drive them are “fundamentally religious.”

By Mohammad Ali Salih

Mohammad Ali Salih has been a Washington correspondent for Arabic-language publications in the Middle East since 1980.

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Analysis Gaza Islam Israel Judaism Religion War