The cleric who legitimized suicide attacks against Israel has reversed his ruling. Hamas isn’t listening

Yusuf al-Qaradawi announced the change a few weeks ago, saying Palestinians now have ‘other capabilities’ they can use. But Gaza’s Islamist rulers are still committed to the ‘strategic weapon’ of ‘martyrdom’

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi speaks to a crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 2, 2014 (Khalil Hamra/AP)
Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi speaks to a crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 2, 2014 (Khalil Hamra/AP)

The relentless suicide bombing campaign of Hamas during the Second Intifada (2000-2005), which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, enjoyed a degree of mainstream Muslim legitimacy thanks to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the highest Sharia authority for the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the Arab world’s most well-known scholars.

Qaradawi famously permitted suicide attacks solely against Israelis, while publicly denouncing the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

But in November, the Egyptian cleric publicly declared suicide attacks, even against Israelis, were no longer allowed. Explaining the reversal, he said the Palestinians had obtained “other capabilities” to defend themselves — a reference to Hamas’s rocket arsenals, used against Israel to devastating effect in recent rounds of conflict.

However, Hamas, founded in late 1980s as a direct splinter group from the Muslim Brotherhood organization based in Egypt, seems to have shrugged off Qaradawi’s ruling and its spokesmen have explicitly dismissed it.

Hamas suicide bombing in Jerusalem on June 11, 2003, which killed 16 people. (Quique Kierszenbaum/Getty Images/JTA)
Hamas suicide bombing in Jerusalem on June 11, 2003, which killed 16 people. (Quique Kierszenbaum/Getty Images/JTA)

In fact, the terror group in control of the Gaza Strip is relentlessly trying to inspire Palestinians in the West Bank to commit suicide attacks.

And while the last decade has seen a dramatic decrease in suicide attacks against Israelis, that is not because Hamas is no longer interested in such attacks, but rather, according to security experts, because it no longer has all the means it had during the Second Intifada to pull them off.

Hamas ‘not obligated’ by Qaradawi’s rulings

It has been 21 years since a cellphone remotely detonated by Israeli security agents killed the man known to most Palestinians as “the engineer,” Yahya Ayyash. Ayyash was the bomb maker and brains behind Hamas’s suicide bombing campaign during the First Intifada in the early 1990s, which fed into the even deadlier suicide bombing campaign of the Second Intifada. He is indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians. Last Thursday, the 21st anniversary of Ayyash’s assassination, Hamas released a statement calling on Palestinians in the West Bank to emulate Ayyash.

“We call on the resistance in the West Bank to follow Ayyash’s approach, and to take cues and lessons from his illuminating experience in sacrifice and resistance,” the official statement said. Such a statement could easily be interpreted as a call for more bombings and especially suicide attacks against Israelis. In fact, Facebook on Thursday shut down over 100 Hamas-linked accounts for taking part in an online campaign by the terror group that asked Palestinians to “be like Ayyash.”

Yihya Ayash (Wikipedia)
Yahya Ayyash (Wikipedia)

Though Qaradawi is the most senior Muslim Brotherhood cleric, his word is not law for Hamas.

Hamas is “definitely not obligated, and are in the very best case informed by” Qaradawi’s rulings, Prof. Uriya Shavit, a scholar of Islamic law at the University of Tel Aviv, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

Shavit, who has written three books on Qaradawi, explained that the Egyptian cleric was considered a “unifying figure” two decades ago when he first gave Palestinians the green light to carry out suicide attacks against Israelis.

“In his age of eminence, it was definitely helpful to Hamas that he supported suicide bombings, so it could say there was broad consensus about it,” said Shavit.

Qaradawi, who lives in Qatar, has been one of the most well-known Sunni jurists across the Muslim world for decades, especially due to a weekly show he had discussing Islamic law on the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera. Rather than being seen as an extremist, Qaradawi, who is the founder of an Islamic legal school called Wassatiye (the middle way), is considered by most Muslims a moderate. He could for example find loopholes for Muslims living in the West to take out mortgages, which would usually be unthinkable as interest is expressly forbidden in Islam.

Image of Tel Aviv University Professor Uriya Shavit, a scholar of Islamic law. (Credit: YouTube screenshot)
Tel Aviv University Professor Uriya Shavit, a scholar of Islamic law. (YouTube screenshot)

Shavit argued that though appreciation for the 90-year-old cleric seems to have diminished in recent years, “he is still one of the most well-known Sunni Arab jurists and Islamists. The fact that he says [suicide bombings against Israelis] are illegal is important.”

In an interview with Washington, DC-based Al-Monitor published December 20, Husam Badran, a Qatar-based spokesman for Hamas and former commander of Hamas’ military wing in the northern West Bank, stated explicitly that the terror group would not accept Qaradawi’s ruling.

“Hamas did not stop the suicide bombings against Israel. Our [decisions] are not dependent on Qaradawi’s fatwas. Rather, we consider martyrdom operations a strategic weapon for responding to the Israeli occupation’s crimes, which include assassinations and massacres, and we proceed with our policy based on Sharia principles. We have a great religious legacy that allows us to carry out such operations, but these operations depend on military conditions on the ground,” he told Al-Monitor.

Hamas in recent years has said it is connected only ideologically to the Muslim Brotherhood and insists it is politically independent, especially after “The Brothers” were outlawed in Egypt in 2013 after a failed stint at governing the country.

Nevertheless, Qaradawi remains close with Hamas’s leadership, and as recent as September 2016 met with group’s leaders Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh In Qatar.

Why Hamas suicide attacks have greatly diminished

Over the past decade, relatively few suicide attacks by people loosely connected to Hamas were carried out against Israelis.

Benedetta Berti (INSS)
Benedetta Berti (INSS)

Benedetta Berti, an expert in Palestinian militant groups for the Israeli institute for National Security Studies, told The Times of Israel she believed Hamas isn’t less committed to suicide attacks. Rather, because Israel “extensively targeted” Hamas at the end of the Second Intifada, built the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank, and has high-level coordination with the PA security forces, Hamas can no longer easily pull them off.

“Over the past decade, at the ideological level, Hamas has not said anything that would make us think that [suicide attacks] are illegitimate. The group has not renounced it formally or informally,” she said.

She pointed out that Hamas has been relying on short- and medium-range rockets to attack Israel, ever since it took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. “There is no indication that we will see a reversal,” she said.

And while the suicide attacks were far more effective at killing Israelis, Berti argued the rockets also serve a “strategic value of projecting power and disrupting normal life in Israel.”

Why Qaradawi reversed ruling on suicide bombings

In a November 18, 2016, interview on Saudi TV, Qaradawi explained that he longer permits suicide bombings against Israelis because they are no longer necessary for Palestinians to defend themselves.

The Egyptian cleric originally permitted suicide bombings even though suicide is expressly forbidden in Islam by utilizing his most popular juristic principle: “Necessity renders the forbidden permissible.”

Since “[the Palestinians] have acquired other capabilities” to defend themselves, Qaradawi said in November, the mitigating principle is no longer applicable. Qaradawi did not specify what he meant “by other capabilities,” but Israeli analysts have understood he meant Hamas’s rockets.

Qaradawi said in his November interview that as far back as 2009, in his book Fiqh al-Jihad (The Jurisprudence of Jihad), he had reversed his ruling permitting suicide attacks against Israelis. However, the interviewer pointed out the general public had likely missed this important reversal as it was only in writing, and was contained within a large two-volume book.

While Qaradawi has publicly reversed his ruling on suicide bombings against Israelis, he is certainly not apologetic about legitimizing such attacks in the past, nor has his militant opposition to Israel shifted.

On Thursday, while Hamas was busy asking its online followers to “be like Ayyash,” Qaradawi was also on Twitter commemorating the assassinated arch-terrorist.

“Yahya Ayyash is not dead, as he lives in the conscience of all of Palestine,” he wrote in poetic Arabic.

Qaradawi ended the tweet: “And the mosque that produced Yahya Ayyash still makes heroes.”


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