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Hamas is not ISIS. Here's why Netanyahu says it is anyway.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Lior Mizrahi/Getty

On Thursday, the day after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) published a video of the group beheading American journalist James Foley, the official twitter account of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted something of its own.

"RT THIS: Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas. They're enemies of Peace. They're enemies of all civilized countries," the tweet read, along with images of the ISIS beheading video and of a 2012 incident in which Hamas members dragged a Palestinian behind a motorcycle in a gruesome punishment for "collaborating" with Israel.

The tweet was deleted, but replaced by another with the ISIS flag where Foley's execution had been. Netanyahu then used the phrase — "Hamas is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas" — in two public speeches, first at a Saturday news conference with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and again at a Sunday cabinet meeting.

As an analytical matter, Netanyahu's argument is flatly false. While Hamas and ISIS are both rightly classified by the US as terrorist groups, both target civilians, and both espouse Islamic and Arab supremacism, that does not make them at all linked, much less identical.

The two groups are totally distinct. It's not just that there is no known connection, operational or otherwise, between Hamas and ISIS, although there isn't. They ultimately follow very different ideologies: Hamas will talk about Islamist extremism, but it is ultimately a Palestinian nationalist group first and foremost, one that is fighting to establish its vision of a Palestinian state. One of Hamas's most important supporters historically has been the government of Iran, which is actively fighting against ISIS in Syria, where it has been sending arms, money, and men. If Hamas and ISIS were really the same thing, then presumably Iran would not fund one half of the group and then send Iranians to die fighting the other half. And Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal publicly rejected any Hamas-ISIS comparison.

ISIS, on the other hand, comes from the same ideological strain as al-Qaeda, a jihadist movement called Salafism, which rejects the idea of nationalism and seeks a pan-Islamic caliphate. Even within Gaza, the Palestinian territory that Hamas rules, there is sometimes-violent tension between Hamas and the local Salafist groups that follow something more akin to the ISIS worldview.

For years, al-Qaeda has denounced Hamas as non-believers. (While ISIS is a new group, it grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq). In 2006 and 2007, al-Qaeda issued 12 statements rebuking Hamas: for participating in a secular Palestinian government that does not impose their extremist interpretation of sharia law, for tolerating Palestinian Christians, for agreeing to ceasefires with Israel, for signing on to international agreements with governments that al-Qaeda considers to be infidel, and so on. Osama bin Laden even once said Hamas had "lost its religion," effectively rejecting the group.

So why is Netanyahu pushing the idea that ISIS and Hamas are the same when they are clearly different? His language might be a hint: always in English. So might be the timing of these messages: right after ISIS publicly beheaded an American citizen and threatened to murder another.

Netanyahu knows that American foreign policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict is crucial for Israel, and could even be decisive. He also knows that American support can wax and wane. For this reason, he has long framed violent Palestinian groups like Hamas as contiguous with global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. In other words, he's been trying to convince the Americans for years that Israel and the US are facing the same threat, so the US should back Israel against Hamas just as fully as it fights anti-American groups such as ISIS. In 2008, he said this a little too directly, arguing that the September 11 terrorist attacks had benefitted Israel, because they had "swung American public opinion in our favor."

So Netanyahu is trying again to convince Americans that our enemy and his enemy are one and the same, so therefore the US should adopt Netanyahu's hard-line stance against Hamas, should increase its support for Israel, and should definitely stop "second-guessing" Israel's heavy-handed military actions in Gaza. It's hard to imagine it working, but that's not stopping him from trying.

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