The aggression and division between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples in the Middle East is both well documented and ingrained in the public consciousness the world over. What is not so widely understood is that the divisions exist across, not simply between, nations. This is most marked by the division between the Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas and has become more significant since Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory. The division is so significant that it has become geographical with Fatah effectively controlling the West Bank and Hamas controlling Gaza.
To assess the impact of Hamas’ political activity it is necessary to establish what their political position is, whether their goals are political or religious and whether the two can be divorced. It is extremely difficult to give a summation of the social and political effects of Hamas given that relations between Hamas and Fatah, and indeed most of the Western world, are in a state of constant political limbo. Given that the occupation of Palestine has become a cause celebre for many political activists throughout the Middle East it is also hard to differentiate between the impact of their actions and those of Hamas.
Even before 2006 Hamas were always formidable and strong opponents to the ruling Fatah party who had dominated the political landscape and been the sole representatives of the Palestinian people since 1948. However, Fatah were acutely aware of the possibility of mobilising Hamas in their role as the armed wing of the resistance movement. Nevertheless, Hamas were broadly of secondary importance until the death of Fatah leader Yasser Arafat. The key ideological difference between the two is that Fatah support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; whereas Hamas do not recognise the existence of Israel as a legitimate state and reject all solutions that do not involve returning land that was Palestinian territory until 1947. This extreme position and complete rejection of compromise has played a key part in the impact Hamas have had in Palestine and the wider Middle East.
The most significant event in their history was the transition of the movement from simply a social movement to an overtly political one. They began as simply the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a primarily Islamist cultural movement, by their very nature non-political, engaging in Da’wa, but avoiding anti-occupation activity. This changed in 1987, during the first intifada, when they realised that lack of political engagement would mean losing grass roots support in Palestine. In 1988 Hamas published what was essentially a political manifesto that reconciled PLO nationalism with religious belief. ‘Territorial nationalism, once abhorred by the MB as ‘idolatry’, is now a function of religious belief’1.
The social element of Hamas is one that is of paramount importance; an integral branch of the movement engages in the Islamic practice of Da’wa, or charitable social activity, which they view as a method of combating the secular nationalism of the PLO. According to Muslim Scholar Reuven Paz ‘approximately 90 percent of the organization’s work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities’. This of course includes control within universities, some of which have been entirely infiltrated by Hamas and the ideals of the MB. In reality broad societal changes in religious affiliation always have political and social roots. It is worth noting that the relatively prosperous middle classes are predominantly Fatah supporters. It is those who seek a scapegoat for their poverty that can be lured into the arms of religious extremists and who are the most vulnerable to those who seek to confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. This is not a trend restricted to Palestine as it can be viewed in many areas of sectarian violence, for example in Northern Ireland and in Lebanon; it is those who find themselves socially deprived that are susceptible to extremists. Of course this is only one of the many parallels to be drawn between these other conflicts. In the case of Hamas their social activities are a big attraction, this is obvious now that they can no longer provide the same level of social welfare and their support is either stagnating or waning.
The politicisation of Hamas effectively meant that some Palestinians living in the occupied territories became more receptive to the ideals of the Muslim Brotherhood; not necessarily through any religious conviction but on the basis of a shared hostility towards Israel and the occupation. It is common for religious extremists, particularly throughout the Middle East to find a reservoir of support amongst those who have no particular religious motivation but are drawn to movements such as Hamas due to anti-Western or anti-Israeli sentiments, if indeed the two can be said to be distinct2.
Arguably the most significant action by Hamas, before their election in January 2006, was the series of guerrilla attacks in Gaza and the West Bank in late 1992, leaving six Israeli soldiers dead. The Rabin government were extremely unsettled by the efficiency with which Hamas’ operations were carried out and ‘inaugurated the worst period of Israeli repression in the occupied territories, certainly since the outbreak of the intifada and arguably since Israel’s occupation in1967’3 This was, of course inevitable as such aggression breeds further aggression by giving credence to the views of the conservatives at both ends of the political spectrum.
The ensuring repression had the effect of radicalising the Palestinian population. It could be said that extremists such as Hamas serve to perpetuate violence, mutual mistrust and hatred between communities. Just as any political extremists it is in their interests to whip up the, sometimes justified, fears of a vulnerable community. This may well be their motive, since Hamas do not wish peaceful negotiations to succeed; their goal is the elimination of the state of Israel. Though this is possibly an unattainable but if at all it is through violence not diplomacy.
The attacks ostensibly exacerbated the sectarian violence, however they also created the necessary incentive for secret peace talks to take place between Israel and the PLO. The upshot of these talks were Israel’s partial military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, a compromise and thus a preamble to the ‘Declaration of Principles’ signed later that year which laid out significant terms for the continuing peace process. ‘If Hamas has done nothing else, these military operations and their dramatic political fallout would have ensured it at least a footnote in the annals of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But Hamas is much more than it’s military arm.’ Hamas does not simply engage in political violence; it has blurred the line between political and religious activism and violence. Though many secular PLO nationalists would see their movement as entirely distinct from the religious zealots in control of Hamas 4
Until recent weeks the election of Hamas as the most powerful party in Palestine had brought the peace process to a grinding halt. The UK and US boycotted the 2006 election, misguidedly believing that this would coerce Hamas into recognising the legitimacy of the state of Israel. This is a position they have formally rejected by their refusal to sign the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 and formalising the animosity between Hamas and Fatah. This has lead to a situation where the party with the most political clout do not recognise, and therefore will not negotiate with, Israel. Until last week the line had been that no one would talk to Hamas or recognise them as having any political legitimacy. Many fear that Hamas’ apparent commitment to democracy will not endure and should they gain more power they will begin to address democratic freedoms, particularly those that arise from the separation of state and religious authorities.
Recent weeks have been significant due to the realisation that any agreement that does not have the support of Hamas is completely redundant. Even if Fatah and leader Mahmood Abbas were to sign an agreement it could not be imposed without the support of Hamas. The election of Hamas also has implications in the wider Middle East, approximately four million Palestinian refugees have been created by the occupation since 1948, it should be noted that not all of these are ethnically Muslim, it is a common misconception that Hamas supporters are entirely comprised of religious extremists, many refugees of varying ethnicity support Hamas on an entirely political level. There is an increasing awareness amongst refugees that Fatah will never negotiate their return to Palestine but that Hamas will persist with the objective of retuning Palestinian refugees to their homeland.
Hamas have also gained a hero status due to their counter-insurgency against Israel, not unlike other militarised political groups in the wider Middle East, for example Hezbollah5. The semantics of the term ‘counter insurgency’ is an interesting one in the assessment of Hamas’ political activity. Although labelled ‘Islamic Terrorists’ by the West they regard their military action as being within their right of self-defence under the UN charter of Human Rights. However, the Geneva Convention states that aggressive actions with non-military objectives are not lawful. This makes the suicide bombings, used so frequently by Hamas illegal, even in self-defence. Hamas and their supporters cite the large number of civilian casualties caused by disproportionate Israeli counter-attacks. But the issue of legitimacy is a political and legal minefield and not one, which can be sufficiently addressed in this essay.
Interestingly in this case, and indeed many similar cases both parties claim to be acting in self defence and term their actions ‘counter-insurgency’ or ‘low intensity conflict’ rather than ‘terrorism’. The term ‘terrorist’ can only be employed if the original aggressor is identified; in a case such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is almost no hope of reaching international compliance on who the original aggressor is6. The distinction between ‘terrorism’ and ‘counter insurgency’ may seem like a simple semantic distinction but it calls into question whether some of Hamas’ militant actions are legitimate in international law and therefore is very important in assessing the politics of Hamas as the question of political legitimacy is an important one.
In recent months this status has been diminished by the inability of Hamas to provide jobs or welfare, primarily because of the international isolation. Those who worked or required health care in Israel have been left almost destitute or without the sufficient healthcare. As mentioned above, providing social and financial aid to the people of Palestine has been a crucial weapon in Hamas’ armoury, the loss of such an important weapon may be the reason Hamas and President Hamiya have become more open to international diplomacy in recent weeks.
Ultimately Hamas’ inability to compromise and continued use of political violence against civilians has been self-defeating. Their extreme position makes it impossible for other groups, such as Fatah, to work with them and means that the Palestinian political landscape is dominated by backbiting and in fighting. Rather than presenting a united from against the Israelis and their de facto allies the US, all groups have spent too much time trying to quell the civil unrest that stems from the deep political division that exists within the West Bank and Gaza rather than between Israel and Palestine.
The continued use of political violence by Hamas is revered by a minority of extremists in the wider Middle East, but has broadly created less sympathy for the cause, especially in countries with increasing levels of pluralism and feminism such as Iran. Since the Hamas control of Gaza there is an increasing sense that Hamas’ objectives are religious since jail sentences are based around the recital of the Qur’an from memory. The more intellectualised middle-classes have resorted to praying on the street, as they believe the Mosques have been sullied by Hamas’ use of religion as a political weapon.
In conclusion Hamas’ politics have been counter-productive in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Their strong-arm tactics have allowed the PLO to have their campaign’s image tarnished throughout the Middle East and particularly the Western world. Their employment of suicide attacks have provided a casus belli for Israeli conservatives and a seemingly legitimate reason for the continued support of Israel by the US.
Relations between the West and the Middle East can arguably never improve without a viable Palestinian state. The Alliance of Civilisations report (2006) suggested that one of the primary causes of radicalisation in Iran and the wider Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Citizens of many Muslim countries view US-funded Israeli military operations in Palestine as an attack on Islamic culture and values that is spreading throughout the region. However, Hamas’ continued demand for redrawing of boarders to those pre 1947 is an unrealistic ambition and is not helping to create a viable Palestinian state, quite the reverse in-fact. In this sense Hamas’ politics drastically undermine the relations between the West and the Middle East and some think perpetuate a culture of political violence throughout the Middle East. This is particularly true of Iranian conservatives who are closely linked to Hamas, though Hamas is keen to retain its own identity and not be seen as one with Iran.
So it is fair to say that in the wider Middle East the effect of Hamas’ politics has been mixed; of course there are some religious zealots who support the use of political violence but broadly the Middle East is becoming more liberal and pluralistic and Hamas have bred resentment for sullying the name of a just and legitimate cause. Hamas have created a situation in which there is as much division within their society as between those and their enemies. Put simply their violence against civilians, religious dogmatists and inability to compromise has hampered the peace process and has been as damaging for the Palestinian peoples as it had for the Israelis.
Noam Chomsky, Failed Sates: the abuse of power and the assault on democracy, Penguin Books, 2007.
Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: United States, Israel and the Palestinians, Pluto Press, 1999.
Jean-Francois Legrain, ‘Hamas, legitimate heir of Palestinian nationalism?’ Political Islam in the Middle East, Washington, United States Institute of Peace, 1994.
Matthew Levitt, Hamas: politics, charity and terrorism in the service of jihad, Yale University Press.
Menachem Klein, Hamas in Power, The Middle East Journal 61.3, Summer 2007.
Graham Usher, Palestine in Crisis, Pluto Press, 1995.
Simona Sharoni and Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Understanding the Contemporary Middle East: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Lynnes Rienner Publishers, 2002.
1 Jean-Francois Legrain, ‘Hamas, legitimate heir of Palestinian nationalism?’ Political Islam in the Middle East, Washington, United States Institute of Peace, 1994.
2 Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: United States, Israel and the Palestinians, Pluto Press, 1999.
3 Graham Usher, Palestine in Crisis, Pluto Press, 1995.
4 Menachem Klein, Hamas in Power, The Middle East Journal 61.3, Summer 2007, pg. 442
5 Matthew Levitt, Hamas: politics, charity and terrorism in the service of jihad, Yale University Press.
6 Noam Chomsky, Failed Sates: the abuse of power and the assault on democracy, Penguin Books, 2007.
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