The decades-long conflict between Israel and the various Palestinian organizations opposing its existence has lent itself to a variety of social and political interpretations. These interpretations appear appropriate in light of the problems facing the states and populations involved in this protracted conflict. But the recent conduct of Hamas’s operatives in areas surrounding Gaza lends itself to further analysis.
Analyzing the situation from afar requires a psychological practice that is often, perhaps deservedly, a source of scorn and derision: armchair psychology. Armchair psychology, defined as rational, theoretical psychological inquiry without empirical evidence or professional experience, seems virtually unavoidable in this case. I refer to the evident gaiety and glee with which Hamas operatives carried out their attacks on unarmed Israeli civilians — women, children, elderly — living in the area of southern Israel in which they perpetrated their campaign of murder, rape and torture on October 7. Also, we cannot help paying attention to the celebratory reaction of Gaza residents to the rape and public humiliation of Israeli captives that Hamas operatives dragged back to Gaza.
Given this behavior, it is hard to ignore the psychology of the Hamas perpetrators and their delighted well-wishers. The seemingly most appropriate label in these cases is Sadistic Personality Disorder (SPD). Individuals displaying SPD harm other people because it provides them with pleasure and feelings of emotional fulfillment. Seeing someone suffering or unhappy provides them with satisfaction.
What are the risk factors for developing Sadistic Personality Disorder? The literature suggests four characteristics:
— A personal experience of injustice.
— Abuse. Individuals diagnosed with SPD often continually
experience abuse in the course of their development, so
much so that they come to regard pain as a normal part of life.
— Personal failure. The individuals repeatedly experience personal
defeats in achieving their goals and seek vengeance against those
perceived as responsible for their woes.
Poverty. If a person grows up in poverty and has only limited
control over their lives, they may hunger for control, to
dominate others in their surroundings.
Personality disorder on an institutional scale?
Of course, SPD is a personal outlook on the world. Hamas is a complex organization with thousands of members and supporters. How can we make the leap from the individual to the collective? First, we have to understand their history.
Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood by Sheik Ahmed Yassin (1936–2004) in 1988, during the First Intifada. The violent elimination of Jews from the Dar al-Islam (the lands of Muslim nations), Palestine in particular, was its fundamental purpose.
Sheik Yassin and his followers derived their views from the antisemitic writings of key figures in the founding Egyptian Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna (1906–1949) and Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), who expressed what has come to be labeled Islamism. In other words, they aimed to recreate the world of the Prophet Muhammad (570–632) based on the holy Quran and his sacred sayings, the hadith. To achieve this objective, it was often necessary to declare a jihad, or holy struggle, against the enemies of Islam.
When Hamas came to dominate Gaza in 2006–2007, its leaders were faithful to the Islamist agenda, accepting truces and ceasefires with the Zionist entity as seemed necessary. But Hamas’ leaders have never lost sight of its ultimate goals or the means to achieve them. The existence of Israel as an independent Jewish state is a continuing source of collective humiliation.
Hamas, despite all this, is a voluntary organization. Membership is not a requirement for Gazans; to recruit new and retain members, Hamas offers incentives which are largely unattainable. Unlike other organizations in Gaza, Hamas does not promise high salaries or materialistic gains; instead, Hamas attracts and retains members based on their inspirational goals and by providing the organizational framework necessary to reach them.