Alright, not everything. And no, not you, smart-arse. Still, it’s been alarming to be reminded over the past month just how delusory much western public conversation on Hamas is. A common perception is that Hamas are in essence recalcitrant fundamentalist extremists, hell-bent on destroying Israel by any means possible. Virulently anti-semitic, misogynist and genocidal, they use whatever weapons they acquire to murder Israeli civilians and perhaps even attack Western targets internationally, without compunction or restraint. There is little awareness in this discourse that Hamas differ in any significant way from the Jihadists of ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
Probably the most valuable basic text in dispelling these delusions is Khaled Hroub’s Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide, which takes on most of the major confusions and misconceptions surrounding the group’s seldom-explained ideology and modus operandi. Hroub is a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Islamic Studies as well as Director of its Arab Media Project, and his work on Hamas is held in very high regard: Foreign Affairs deems it “masterful”; Columbia’s Joseph Massad calls it “the best-researched and most objective” work on the topic, while Harvard’s Sara Roy, a leading expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict, calls it “excellent” and “required reading”.
Firstly, are Hamas anti-Semitic? Hroub’s careful answer is that, though there have been manifold confusions in Hamas’s writings and rhetoric between Jews, Zionists and Israelis, Jewishness is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for Hamas’s opposition. The group draw a sharp distinction, for instance, between “Zionist and non-Zionist” Jews:
“The non-Zionist Jew is one who belongs to the Jewish culture, whether as a believer in the Jewish faith or simply by accident of birth, but … [who] takes no part in aggressive actions against our land and our nation … Hamas will not adopt a hostile position in practice against anyone because of his ideas or his creed but will adopt such a position if those ideas and creed are translated into hostile or damaging actions against our people.”
Rather, it is the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians that evokes Hamas’s resistance. As one of its leaders puts it:
“being Jewish, Zionist or Israeli is irrelevant, what is relevant for me is the notion of occupation and aggression. Even if this occupation was imposed by an Arab or Islamic state and the soldiers were Arabs or Muslims I would resist and fight back.”
Are Hamas committed to the destruction of Israel? In fact, Hroub writes, this phrase is “never used or adopted by Hamas, even in its most radical statements.” Rather, Hamas seeks “the liberation of Palestine.” While this initially meant historic Palestine in its entirety, Hamas are a generally pragmatic organisation rooted in, and responsive to, the needs and wishes of Palestinian society, and in practice back a two-state solution along the lines of the international consensus: Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967, and a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. They frame this in terms of a long-term hudna or “truce” – a term rooted in Islamic tradition that Hamas draw on to justify suspensions of its jihad, or struggle. The group have floated the idea of a Palestinian referendum as a path to a final settlement, allowing the movement to reconcile its initial, hard-line position with its present, pragmatic stance. Hamas state that they would accept whatever outcome the Palestinians themselves chose.
Most commonly invoked to incite alarm about Hamas’s supposed anti-Semitism is its (to cite Roy) “undeniably racist and anti-Jewish” Charter. Yet this document is a singularly unhelpful guide to the modern movement. As Hroub points out:
“The Charter was written in early 1988 by one individual and was made public without appropriate general Hamas consultation, revision or consensus … The author of the Charter was one of the “old guard” of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip, completely cut off from the outside world”.
The document is therefore regarded as an embarrassment, rarely referenced or cited, and starkly divergent from Hamas’s current thinking. As the organisation’s chief, Khaled Meshal, told the New York Times in 2009:
“The most important thing is what Hamas is doing and the policies it is adopting today. . . . Hamas has accepted the national reconciliation document. It has accepted a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem, dismantling settlements, and the right of return based on a long-term truce. Hamas has represented a clear political program through a unity government. This is Hamas’s program regardless of the historic documents. Hamas has offered a vision. Therefore, it’s not logical for the international community to get stuck on sentences written 20 years ago.”
As one official US government agency concluded the same year:
“Hamas has, in practice, moved well beyond its charter. Indeed, Hamas has been carefully and consciously adjusting its political program for years and has sent repeated signals that it may be ready to begin a process of coexisting with Israel.”
Is Hamas an utterly intransigent, implacably violent organisation pursuing genocidal aims? In fact, its leaders have repeatedly proposed a long-term truce with Israel of 10, 20 or 30 years’ duration (with the possibility of continual renewal thereafter), and it has shown itself willing to accept and carefully observe ceasefires. In the words of Avi Shlaim, probably the best-respected historian of the Israeli-Arab conflict:
“The historical record shows that despite its terrible Charter, Hamas is led by pragmatic political leaders who have settled for a two-state solution along the 1967 lines, and who have made every effort to end the conflict by diplomatic means.”
Such efforts, Shlaim notes, include offers to negotiate a long-term truce following its election in 2006, a reprisal of that offer after it formed a national unity government in 2007 – which met with a US-Israeli-Fatah coup attempt – and in the national unity government of 2014, which saw Hamas essentially cede power (gaining no ministerial positions) while agreeing to recognise Israel, renounce violence and respect past agreements. Over the last month, the media have hyped Hamas’ rejection of a ceasefire deal stitched up between its enemies Egypt and Israel without any Hamas involvement – which, since it would see Hamas lose ground from the previous ceasefire agreement Israel was continually violating, was impossible for Hamas to accept. Nonetheless, Hamas quickly responded with its own, long-term (10-year) ceasefire offer – which Israel rebuffed.
2009’s Operation Cast Lead, Shlaim notes, a bloody massacre in which Israel killed over 1,000 Palestinians – most of them civilians – was likewise the result of Israeli provocation and belligerence in the face of Hamas restraint:
“In June 2008, Egypt had brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement. Contrary to Israeli propaganda, this was a success: the average number of rockets fired monthly from Gaza dropped from 179 to three. Yet on 4 November Israel violated the ceasefire by launching a raid into Gaza, killing six Hamas fighters. When Hamas retaliated, Israel seized the renewed rocket attacks as the excuse for launching its insane offensive. If all Israel wanted was to protect its citizens from Qassam rockets, it only needed to observe the ceasefire.”
Further back, Hamas sharply opposed the Oslo peace process of the 1990s (though later participated in the elections it established), but in the context of sharp divisions of opinion and serious reservations across Palestinian society. Many of its objections, echoing those of the left, have been vindicated. “One of the meanings of Oslo,” notes Israeli ex-minister Shlomo Ben-Ami,
“was that the PLO was … Israel’s collaborator in the task of stifling the intifada and cutting short what was clearly an authentically democratic struggle for Palestinian independence.”
“As a matter of fact, neither Rabin nor, especially, Peres [1992-96 Labor Prime Ministers] wanted the autonomy to usher in a Palestinian state. As late as 1997 – that is, four years into the Oslo process when, as the chairman of the Labour Party’s Foreign Affairs Committee, I proposed for the first time that the party endorse the idea of a Palestinian state – it was Shimon Peres who most vehemently opposed the idea. … A Palestinian state was clearly not within Rabin’s priorities either.”
Hamas’ tactic of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians – morally abhorrent and a crime against humanity – did its international reputation no favours, doubtless added credibility to the allegation of genocidal intent, and may have encouraged more extreme groups to adopt the tactic. Nevertheless, this chequered history does not alter Hamas’s real strategic aims. Its leaders declare that “resistance is not an end in itself”; as the movement’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin put it in September 2003:
“If we perceive that the atmosphere favours such a decision, we stop. And when we perceive that the atmosphere has changed, we carry on.”
Far from an end in themselves, suicide bombings were a tactic. Hamas first launched them in 1994, following far-right settler Baruch Goldstein’s vicious massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron’s Abrahimic mosque – but, Hroub notes, quickly realised they “provided the movement with an aura of strength and popularity” amongst Palestinians. Israel hinted that it was willing to negotiate an end to these attacks, but Hamas’s position – “stop killing Palestinian civilians and we will stop killing Israeli civilians” – proved a non-starter for the Israeli government. (During the second intifada, the number of Palestinian children killed was greater than the number of Israeli civilians killed.) Between 2000 and 2005, “tacit agreements” to halt attacks routinely expired as “Israel would waste no opportunity to assassinate one Hamas leader after another”. Indeed evidence suggests Israel overwhelmingly shoots first during a lull.
Hamas differs starkly from Al-Qaeda-style jihadists, then, in its aims, means, targets and fundamental nature. Hamas began by seeking the liberation of historic Palestine, ultimately narrowing that aim to ending the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Al-Qaeda’s focus, by contrast, is pan-Islamic: it seeks to kick the West out of Arab and Muslim countries, tear down corrupt puppet governments and instate hard-line Taliban-style regimes across the Muslim world. Its battleground is global: Al-Qaeda targets the US, the western “Crusader states” that attack Muslim countries, Muslim “apostates” (a category that includes Hamas) and westerners anywhere, ruling out democratic and peaceful means. Far from pursuing any such “global jihad”, Hamas strictly limits its operations to historic Palestine, and has never targeted Westerners. In 2006, for instance, Cechen rebels urged Hamas to break off relations with Moscow over its horrific crimes in Chechnya; Hamas declined, concluding that relations with Moscow were of more value to the Palestinian struggle. It is also a democratic organisation, in some ways to a fault, Hroub suggests: electing senior figures one by one can give it a chaotic leadership structure. Overall, Hamas resemble a national liberation movement far more than a transnational jihadist network.
Early rhetoric about creating an Islamic state is no longer taken seriously – if it ever was – and Hamas now expresses a pluralist outlook, deriving its terminology from international law and mainstream political theory. Again, this reflects its roots in Palestinian society and need to maintain its base of support. Hamas enjoys some electoral support among Christians, backed two independent Christian candidates in the 2006 elections, and appointed a Christian to its ministerial team. Nevertheless, Hroub writes, some research suggests its rule has put pressure on Christian groups, increasing rates of emigration, and moves to impose some conservative Islamic moral codes on Palestinian society have elicited anger and alarmed secularists. In the past, Hroub notes, these have included “soft” forms of influence – through provision of social services, for instance – as well as occasionally “harder”, more forceful forms from some members, though its leadership generally kept them in check. (Human rights groups have also condemned its arrests of journalists and serious abuses against alleged “collaborators”.) Nevertheless, Roy notes Hamas’s “progressive de-emphasis on religion” in power, alongside “the emerging Islamization of Palestinian society and politics”.
Reports of Hamas employing “human shields” and diverting humanitarian resources into fanatical militarism depict a fundamentally despotic organisation – malign toward and parasitic on ordinary Palestinians. This idea has roots in both Orientalist portrayals of Arab leaders and more recent Israeli government propaganda, but largely inverts reality. In fact, Hamas derives popularity not only from concerted resistance to occupation but also the widespread social assistance that forms the bulk of its work, helping sustain Palestinians through increasingly dire poverty. As Roy puts it:
“During the Oslo period especially, the strength of Hamas increasingly lay in the work of Islamic social institutions whose services, directly and indirectly, reached tens if not hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, helping them to survive. They provided services that the Palestinian Authority was unable to provide adequately, if at all. This base supported Islamic institutions largely because they met basic needs for economic sustenance and community well-being with a focus on health and education, community support, and service delivery. Islamic institutions were increasingly viewed as community actors in a context where few such actors existed. … Islamic institutions did not emphasize political violence or substate terrorism but rather community well-being and civic restoration, a role that was (and remains) vital in a context of steady deterioration.”
In power, Hamas’s smashed and vilified tunnels actually provided a lifeline for Gaza’s crippled economy. Hamas’s conspicuous material modesty has also increased its popularity in contrast to the corrupt Fatah leadership. Equally, journalists and human rights monitors find no evidence that Hamas uses “human shields”, but uncover extensive evidence of the practice by Israel – which also, of course, sites military facilities near major populated areas, subsidises the housing of civilians in a war zone, and deliberately risks the lives of captured IDF soldiers.
As Roy concludes:
“While there can be no doubt that since its inception in 1987, Hamas has engaged in violence, armed struggle, and terrorism as the primary force behind the horrific suicide bombings inside Israel, it is also a broadbased movement that has evolved into an increasingly complex, varied, and sophisticated organization engaged in a variety of societal activities vital to Palestinian life.”
To westerners, this may come a surprise. But then, since when has any of us received sane, reasonable commentary from the nightly Two Minutes Hate?