08/22/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

Israel vs. Hamas: A Clash of Civilizations?

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

During a war, the statements of the belligerent countries' leaders are sometimes more revelatory than the count of artillery shells fired. The war of words surrounding the current Israel-Hamas war in Gaza took a brutal new turn on August 20th, during a press conference of the Israeli prime minister. Never one to mince words, Netanyahu took the occasion of the horrifying execution of photojournalist James Foley to put forth a new account of the current conflict. He declared: "Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas. They're branches of the same tree. You saw the gruesome beheading of James Foley ... It shows you the barbarism, the savagery of these people. We face the same savagery."

With these words, Netanyahu indicated that he intends to ignore Hamas's nationalist motivations completely, and view their actions solely in the context of a stark and age-old binary between good and evil. The result is a tragic universalizing not only of the war between Israel and Hamas, but also potentially of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict as a whole.

The sameness of Hamas and ISIS is an interesting question. Their similar reputations none-withstanding, the likeness of these two organizations is not as straightforward as some may presume. ISIS kills Americans (and other Muslims) and Hamas kills Israelis (and other Palestinians), but ISIS is not currently interested in killing Israelis and Hamas has no interest in killing Americans. Both organizations grew intellectually out of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first Islamist organization founded by Hassan al-Banna in Cairo in the 1920's. But the Brotherhood, unlike ISIS, has never sought the realization of a caliphate -- terrible leader that he was, Muhammad Morsi was democratically elected and never tried to install an Islamic regime in Egypt -- and Hamas, for all practical purposes, is interested not in systems of government but in maintaining power and firing rockets.

But the point of Netanyahu's comment was not to teach the world a history lesson. It is visibly obvious that Netanyahu was, instead, capitalizing on ISIS's own horrendous actions to garner support for his own country's campaign against a different Islamist organization, Hamas. As foul as it sounds, for Bibi the timing of Foley's execution could not have been better. The question, of course, is just how legitimate Netanyahu's comments were -- and what their implications may be.

The word "savage" is grotesque, but any fair assessment of Hamas's actions could not but find it applicable. From throwing its Palestinian enemies from the roof in an undemocratic takeover in Gaza in 2007, to calling explicitly for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, to financing the kidnapping -- and ultimately, killing -- of three Israeli teenagers in June, Hamas has proven again and again that it deserves nothing less than the ire of every citizen of the world. Hamas's actions this summer have been no less offensive than those of its past: firing rockets indiscriminately into the territory of a sovereign country is an undeniable provocation, and every country, Israel included, has an inalienable right to self-defense, in both word and deed.

It should be obvious to all that the premise of Israel's military campaign is emphatically just -- shameful is the country that allows rocket fire on its citizens to go unanswered. But the justice of Israel's war -- a war against an enemy that has committed savage acts -- does not entail the justice of every Israeli airstrike. There is no justification known to man for the killing of hundreds of innocent women and children. A just war does not preclude the possibility of war crimes. And perhaps the worst war crime of all is that which Netanyahu committed in his comments: the dehumanization of the enemy itself.

The notion of the savage versus the civilized man is not new to global affairs, and as such its usage by Netanyahu cannot be considered in a vacuum, or solely in light of Hamas's particular actions. Netanyahu's reference to the term calls to mind Samuel Huntington's 1992 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, where he introduced the "clash of civilizations" into modern political lexicography. The idea, in brief, is that cultural and religious identities -- perhaps most famously, those of the West versus the Islamic world -- are today the primary sources of violent conflict. As simple and alluring as this explanation for the world's current wars might be, intellectuals of different stripes, from Paul Berman to Edward Said, have by and large dethroned Huntington's categorization. But it still remains politically salient; perhaps most of all by segments of the current Israeli government. Netanyahu's comments find their fuller version in the idea that Israel, characterized by some as the robin to America's batman, stands in the foreground of the global fight against terrorism, a lone democracy battling the forces of Islamism and jihad and 9/11.

It is true that Israel stands closer to the U.S. in the war against terror than it does to America's enemies. But Israel's conflict is fundamentally different: Israel is battling the most militant wings of the Palestinian people it continues to occupy, not the Islamist enemies of Western democracy. Nationalist political Islam is not the same as global expansionist political Islam. These forces may both resort to tactics most of the world would designate as terrorism, but this does not undo the fundamental differences of the conflicts. And while the path towards the resolution of the America-al-Qaeda conflict is hard to imagine, the path towards the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is crystal clear: it consists of the cessation of one side's occupation and the other side's violent resistance. Hamas may want to destroy Israel, but most of the Palestinian people will care less if they have a state of their own.

By calling his enemies "savages," Netanyahu reveals that he is unwilling to view the Palestinians for what they are: a people of several million strong who dwell in the same land between the river and the sea, and who are as unwilling as Israel is to leave. Hamas, virulent as it is, is a part of this people and this cause. The worst outcome of the current war may not be the high death toll, but the continuation of the parameters that leave the door open to future wars of similar viciousness. Hamas, for its part, is guilty of moving no closer to recognition of Israel, let alone reconciliation. But then again, Hamas should be no one's model. The Israeli people realize that the justness of Zionism demands the fulfillment of the national rights of the Palestinian people too. As his recent comments reveal, apparently Netanyahu does not.