The Heart of Hamas

Review by Yechiel M. Leiter | Originally published in Azure, Autumn 2006

Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad

by Matthew Levitt
Yale University Press, 2006, 336 pages.


Before the war against Hezbollah erupted in July, Israel’s biggest security problem was the ascent of Hamas to governing-party status in the Palestinian Authority. Whether the war will end up having brought an end to Iran’s proxy army or merely its temporary incapacitation, it is clear that the Hamas threat on Israel’s southern and eastern fronts will soon retake center stage. When that happens, we should all hope that American and Israeli policymakers will have read Matthew Levitt’s new book, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad.

Anyone reading Hamas prior to the Lebanon war would not have been the least bit surprised by the kidnappings of Israeli soldiers at Israel’s southern and northern borders. Since its victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas has sought to continue its terrorism while simultaneously maintaining the prestige of an elected government. Months before the cross-border attacks, while pundits prognosticated about a kinder, gentler Hamas, Levitt was concluding his book with the following prescient observation:

Hamas will look north to Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Party of God) for a working model of a militant Islamist group that balances its political, charitable, and violent activities…. Hamas’ emulation of Hezbollah underlies the most significant parallels between the two militant Islamist groups: Tactical flexibility should not be mistaken for strategic change. Both organizations see politics, charity, political violence, and terrorism as viable, legitimate tools to pursue their goals. At times they stress certain tools over others, but at no time do they see these as mutually exclusive.

We are entering a time of searching for a new paradigm to govern the West’s strategy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict: The rise of Hamas to power and the war with Hezbollah have caused the collapse of the unilateral-withdrawal idea, whereas the Oslo strategy has been dead since the second Intifada laid bare its faulty assumptions. As we search for a new way to understand the Middle East, it is imperative that both Israel and the rest of the world see Hamas for what it really is. For this, Levitt’s book is a superb place to start.


Belonging to the realm of what Thomas Sowell called the “constrained vision,” Hamas is concerned only with facts—which appear in abundance. Conversely, the past decade and a half of failed Mideast peacemaking efforts belong to the realm of the “unconstrained vision”: One in which hope and faith in humanity, texturized with large doses of moral equivalency, substitute for sobriety and a willingness to swallow unpleasant truths.

Indeed, the Oslo process could not have gone on for so long if so many facts had not been ignored. Its architects and advocates did not want to get bogged down in the minutiae of Arafat’s countless violations, which they consistently overlooked in the spirit of good intentions and wishful thinking. We must ignore the non-compliance, the argument went, or else we will get Hamas instead. Thus did the process become more important than the peace: Terror was tolerated, and so the Palestinians obliged by voting terror into office.

It is Levitt’s belief that one cannot address the challenge of Hamas and groups like it without coming to terms with inconvenient facts like these. In his controlled prose, he gives us clarity on three crucial points: First, he puts the lie to the popular notion that terrorism arises out of poverty and desperation; second, he demonstrates that there is no effective distinction between Hamas’ charitable and terrorist activities; and third, and most significant, he shows that both of these truths are deeply intertwined.


In the aftermath of September 11, the West began to realize that terror cannot survive without money. If funding is cut, the terror it facilitates is dealt a deathblow. Thus have U.S. and European government agencies and international organizations been working to dry up the funds supporting terror by outlawing the organizations that raise them. But Hamas poses a special challenge to these kinds of efforts. This is because, Levitt explains, of its extensive dawa activity.

Dawa means, literally, a “call” to God. It represents the obligation of every Muslim to proselytize unbelievers and to provide succor to believers. Hamas excels at dawa just as it does at terror, and it needs money for both. Using heretofore classified documents, Levitt shows how Hamas has spread a charitable network throughout the world to advance the dawa. Tens of millions of dollars are raised from individual supporters, expatriates, NGOs, and even governments. Ostensibly these contributions are earmarked for schools, orphanages, and hospitals, but in practice much of this funding is used for the advancement of Hamas’ terrorist agenda. And because money is fungible, this is accomplished frequently without donor consent.

It is difficult to estimate what percentage of the funds Hamas raises is used for genuine dawa activity, and what percentage is siphoned off for the support of terrorism. As Levitt explains:

Hamas leverages the appreciation (and indebtedness) it earns through social welfare activities to garner support—both political and logistical—for its terrorist activities. Indeed, the activities of the group’s political, social, and military “wings” are so intertwined that Palestinian security officials themselves see them as one and the same. In the words of Palestinian Brigadier General Nizar Ammar, “the difference between the [political, social, and military] wings of Hamas is often fiction.”

It is in this context that Levitt makes one of his most important contributions to our understanding of how terror works. Fungible funds, it turns out, are only part of the problem. The crossover between dawa and terror, he shows, extends to works of charity themselves. Ambulances are used to transport suicide bomb belts, schools are used to hide weapons, and charitable organizations are used as recruiting centers for terrorists. Hospitals are used to procure ingredients for bombs, such as the nitric acid and hydrogen sulfide used to produce nitroglycerin explosives, and hydrogen peroxide to make an explosive called TATP, which is favored by Hamas. Dawa-supported doctors use their freedom of travel privileges to smuggle suicide bombers into Israel. Likewise, libraries supported by the Hamas dawa are used for the dissemination of radical sermons glorifying death and murder, and in what is perhaps the most potent symbol of the link between dawa and terror, mosques are used for storing weapons and hosting operational meetings.

In short, Hamas offers a holistic religious doctrine that treats good works toward coreligionists and terrorization of the enemy as two sides of the same coin. “This is why dawa is so critical to Hamas’ survival,” writes Levitt. “Not only does it provide legitimate cover in which to operate, launder money, and recruit, but it promotes suicide and other operations by removing the deterrent of leaving one’s family destitute.”

In what is possibly the most disturbing chapter, Levitt shows how Hamas’ dawa activities incentivize terrorism through education: Schools supported by their charity teach children from the earliest ages to idolize suicide bombers. In this way, Hamas creates a controlled environment in which impressionable minds are filled with images of salvation, providing prefab answers for all of life’s problems. “Polling data suggest that Hamas’ efforts to radicalize children are indeed successful,” Levitt writes. “According to an April 2001 survey conducted by the Islamic University in Gaza, 49 percent of children ages nine to sixteen claimed to have participated in the Intifada—and 73 percent said they hoped to become martyrs.”

Clearly, then, Hamas’ talk of separation between its military and charitable branches is strictly for Western consumption. As Levitt shows in his later chapters, all aspects of the organization support and nurture each other. The recipients of dawacharity, for example, especially in the realm of medical assistance, are beholden to Hamas, as are the individuals who have carried out terror attacks and their families. So, too, are recipients of Hamas financial aid or social services less likely to turn down requests from the organization to allow their homes to serve as safe houses for Hamas fugitives, to courier funds or weapons, or to store and maintain explosives than are people who do not depend on the organization’s handouts. Indeed, these beneficiaries are often grateful for the opportunity to return the favor. In this way Hamas’ social welfare support is largely determined by a cost-benefit analysis that links the amount of aid awarded to the support that aid will buy. In this sense, Hamas certainly does take care of its own: Individuals tied to Hamas receive more dawa assistance than those unaffiliated with the organization. Members linked to terrorist activity receive still more.

This is a critical, yet often overlooked, point. As Hamas leaders themselves admit, contrary to Western perceptions, not all poor people are beneficiaries of Hamas’ benevolence. Rather, only those who support Hamas’ terror activity enjoy the benefits of its coffers. While Westerners tend to paint a picture of impoverished Palestinians turning to terror out of desperation, the truth is that terrorists are born, first and foremost, out of a system of incentives deliberately arranged to breed them.


Hamas is not a page-turner. Levitt is an intelligence analyst, and writes accordingly. But he deserves immense credit for debunking two widely held myths—perpetuated by both Hamas itself and well-meaning leaders in the West—namely, that Hamas terror is the product of desperation rather than deliberate incentivization, and that the organization has distinct wings, one dedicated to terror and the other to charity. What you have, rather, is a single, ideologically motivated and carefully calibrated movement that takes care of its own and turns them into killers of civilians.

Hamas is not meant as a political commentary, yet the political implications that rise from its pages are startlingly clear. Certainly supporters of further disengagement from Judea and Samaria will be shaken; and readers will be forced to acknowledge that there is simply no hope that Hamas will, as Dennis Ross asserts in the foreword, “avoid confrontation for the time being.” Indeed, as a clarion call for a re-evaluation of our perception of and policy toward Hamas, there is no better book than Hamas, and for that, we should be grateful.

Yechiel M. Leiter held senior positions in Israel’s Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Education. Currently he is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

More podcasts: