The Israelis are their own worst enemies when it comes to fighting terrorism. The Israelis are like a guy who sets fire to his hair and then tries to put it out by hitting it with a hammer. They do more to incite and sustain terrorism than curb it.
-- Larry Johnson, Deputy Director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism, 1989 - 1993.
We've all done things that didn’t turn out as we planned and that, with hindsight, we probably wouldn't embark upon again. If Israelis could undo one decision that turned out to have unforeseen and disastrous consequences, certainly some of them would choose to reverse the 1967 government's decision to ignore David Ben-Gurion's advice to get out quickly from the newly-occupied Palestinian Territories. But if there is one step that virtually all Israelis would now choose to undo, it would surely be the policy followed by successive Israeli governments in the late 1970's and early 1980's of actively assisting in the development of an Islamist infrastructure in the Occupied Territories, "to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative", as one former senior CIA official put it.
Unlike the PLO, Islamic organizations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were granted licences to operate by the Israeli occupation authorities, allowing them to establish charitable institutions for the propagation of Islam, and to recruit supporters. Israel also provided them with financial support through Brigadier General Yithzak Segev, the former military governor of Gaza, who told journalist Graham Usher: "The Israeli government gives me a budget and we extend some financial aid to Islamic groups via mosques and religious schools, in order to help create a force that can stand up against the leftist forces that support the PLO." According to Segev's memoirs: "There was no doubt that during a certain period the Israeli governments perceived it [Islamic fundamentalism] as a healthy phenomenon that could counter the PLO".
One of the most important societies to benefit from Israel’s encouragement of Palestinian Islamist movements was the “Islamic Assembly”, a Gaza Strip offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Under Israel’s patronage, the Islamic Assembly effectively controlled the mosques of the Gaza Strip, and developed an associated welfare network around them. The mosques became Gaza’s community centers, drawing in large numbers of new worshippers by meeting Gazans’ social and economic, as well as religious, needs.
An Israeli government paper - The Gaza Strip Towards the Year 2000  - showed how seriously Israeli governments underestimated the potential of this policy to blow up in Israel's face. Writing in April 1987, General Shayke Erez, then military governor of Gaza, acknowledged there was an escalation in religious fervor in the Strip, and that the Islamists who were leading it had the political goal of establishing an Islamic state on all of historic Palestine. He concluded, however, that this posed no threat to Israel in the foreseeable future, as "all the Islamic movements want to focus first on the process of winning the hearts and minds of the Islamic camp and only later begin the active struggle against Israel."
Just six months after Gen. Erez reached that conclusion, the first intifada erupted on 9 December 1987, and the Muslim Brothers of the Islamic Assembly took up arms against Israel. The leader of the Islamic Assembly was a respected, wheelchair-bound imam, named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. On the very first day of the intifada, six of Yassin’s followers (including a Khan Younis paediatrician, Abdul Aziz Rantisi) established an armed offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, to join in resisting the occupation. They named it The Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat al Mukawwamah al Islamiyya), but as it began its armed campaign against Israel it quickly became better known by its acronym, Hamas.
Israeli commentators recognised straightaway that the emergence of a militant Islamic opposition to the Occupation was unanticipated blowback from Israeli policy vis-a-vis the PLO. Ze'ev Schiff reported :
In large part this scourge was self-inflicted, for the Civil Administration has contributed considerably to the development of the Muslim groups that came to the fore soon after the start of the intifada. Just as President Sadat had encouraged the growth of the Islamic Associations to offset the leftist elements in Egypt, many Israeli staff officers believed that the rise of fundamentalism in Gaza could be exploited to weaken the power of the PLO. Sadat's fate was to die at the hands of the same pious zealots he had allowed to flourish. The upshot in Gaza was similar: the Muslim movement turned on the very people who had believed themselves so clever in fostering it.
By the summer of 1988, the Israelis had hard evidence that Hamas was conducting armed operations against the IDF in the northern Gaza Strip. Finally acknowledging that the Islamic opposition it had helped create was more opposed to the Occupation than it was to the PLO, Israel clamped down, arresting more than 100 Hamas leaders by September 1988. But of course that was too little, too late. Hamas was a genie that could not be put back in the bottle, and Israelis and negotiations-inclined Palestinians have been bearing the consequences ever since.
So why resurrect this old story now? Well, one of the Israeli commentators who reported from the frontline on the rise of the Islamist resistance during the first intifada was Danny Rubinstein. Today, he is a senior correspondent for Ha'aretz, reporting on the political currents in Palestinian society, and on the workings of the Palestinian Authority. Last week, Rubinstein discussed the claims of the Russian government that al-Qaida was involved in the terrible slaughter at Beslan, and wondered if the Israeli government is today inadvertently paving the way for al-Qaida's infiltration of the Palestinians' struggle, from which it has so far been noticeably absent. (And no, attempts by Israeli intelligence agents to recruit Palestinians for a phoney “al-Qaida” cell in the Territories, in order to pretend that the Israel-Palestine conflict is part of the Global War on Terror, don’t count).
Rubinstein notes that the current Israeli government will not negotiate with either the Palestinian Authority, nor with the Palestinian Islamist movements , but is intent on relying solely on a unilateralist, military-based campaign to undermine and destroy them. He wonders whether Israelis have thought through the long-term implications of this policy, in view of the fact that it is Yasser Arafat’s teetering PA and, above all, Hamas that are preventing al-Qaida from operating on Israel's doorstep in the Occupied Territories:
It is interesting to note that for now, Al-Qaida's infiltration of or participation in the Palestinian struggle is being blocked by Hamas... Hamas's current leadership - or, more accurately, what remains of it after Israel's assassinations - will not lend a hand to involvement by Al-Qaida in their struggle. Like Arafat and the PLO , and also like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which operates under Iran's auspices, Hamas leaders view this as a national struggle against the occupation, not as part of a global struggle against the evils of a decadent West…."We have no interest in being at war with the whole world," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said once.
-- Danny Rubinstein, Many Times Crueler and More Dangerous
The PLO, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas all oppose al-Qaida involvement in the Occupied Territories, because they understand that the Palestinian national cause - which enjoys huge sympathy worldwide – will be degraded and sullied by association with bin Laden. (Which is of course why the Mossad was so keen to manufacture a link between them). And in Hamas' case, there is an additional ideological reason for keeping al-Qaida out of the Palestinian Territories: for all that we in the West tend to regard the various fundamentalist groups of the Middle East as a single "Muslim enemy", in reality the Muslim Brotherhood from which Hamas sprang is actually an outspoken critic and long-term rival of the Saudi Arabian Wahhabism that gave birth to al-Qaida.
For all their violent opposition to the Israeli Occupation, the PLO and the Islamist militants have a limited political agenda that can be accommodated in a negotiated two-state solution. If Israel will not reach an agreement with them, Rubinstein suggests that the enemy that succeeds them in the Palestinian Territories will be of a different magnitude altogether in both its goals and its methods. The possibility that P.M. Sharon's reliance on unilateralism and military force might actually bring al-Qaida to Israel's doorstep is an outcome to which Israelis might want to give more consideration than they apparently gave 20 years ago to the long-term repercussions of nurturing an Islamic fundamentalist alternative to the PLO.
 Cited in Wallach & Wallach: The New Palestinians, pub. Prima Books, 1992.
 Schiff & Ya'ari, Intifada, the Palestinian Uprising, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
 I discussed in an earlier post the prospects for bringing the Palestinian Islamist factions into the political process.
 e.g. Arafat flays al-Qaeda's tearjerker appeal for Palestinians; The London Times via The Times of India, 15 December 2002.