• October 26, 2006

Hamas is being punished for moderate behavior

 A remarkable yet mostly overlooked transformation has been taking place within the thinking and political practice of Hamas over the past few years. The process started long before the radical Palestinian movement’s victory in the legislative elections of January 25, 2006, in the West Bank and Gaza. Its essence has been a shift in the justification behind Hamas’ “hard-line” positions: in particular, from their rejection of any concession over the “land of Palestine” on religious grounds – based on the claim that Palestine is waqf (endowment) for successive Muslim generations which no one has the right to compromise on – to a political and pragmatic argument for this stance.

The language may have changed; the policy remains. Hamas’ response to demands that it recognize Israel as a precondition of the inclusion of its government into the regional and international system is a consistent, and political one: Israel itself is “borderless” and the country’s leaders have never – whatever the current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proclaims about his ambition for 2010 – clearly identified the borders of their own state, so what is the geographical extent of the Israel that we are asked to recognize?

Yet this very line of argument is a key to Hamas’ wider transformation; for when Hamas today is asked why it has frozen its jihad against Israel by stopping suicide attacks, its response is to present political (not religious) arguments that link its decision to delicate calculations drawn from the disadvantageous political conditions which surround Hamas as a governing force.

Today, when Hamas is involved in a bloody power struggle with the Palestinian president and his Fatah movement, the parameters of this fierce rivalry too are political; no religious pretexts (such as the old Hamas line that the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] is in essence secular and un-Islamic) are invoked. The change in the rationalizing of Hamas’ positions – gradual and painful though it has been – disconnects the movement from its inheritance of inflexible religious dogma.

The shift is in some ways still in the making and still vulnerable to regression, especially under pressure from the regional and international environment. But if Hamas’ potential interlocutors were wise, they might realize that dialogue and negotiation with a hard-line political Hamas is in principle far easier than dealing with a hard-line religious Hamas.

It seems, however, that “if” can be the biggest word in global politics. For the policies of external players – Israel, the United States, other Western states and Arab governments – are not helping to consolidate Hamas’ turn. Rather, their shortsighted policies – especially the imposition of a crippling embargo on its government – threaten to crush the chance for a more politicized and pragmatic organization to emerge.

A close examination of the internal and external dynamics affecting Hamas casts light on the nature and potential of its gradual transformation.

A vacillation between political and religious impulses is not new in Hamas’ thinking and politics. From its inception in 1987-88, Hamas strove hard to harmonize the two currents within its movement: the national-liberationist and the religious-Islamist. These two forces (each combining intellectual and mobilizing elements) were neither necessarily contradictory nor fully harmonious.

They would walk hand-in-hand in certain periods, clash at others, or move at a different pace – depending on the conjunctural political conditions. At the same time, across Hamas’ rank-and-file, the direction of opinion has been from a “nationalist” to a more “religious” shading. This shift at the base contrasts with that toward a political-nationalist discourse among the hierarchy of the movement.

From the outset, Hamas’ identity and evolution were deeply influenced by both nationalist and religious agendas. In the context of the political world it emerged into – including Israeli occupation pressures on Palestinian society and politics, and the rise of political Islam across the Middle East in earlier decades – it could hardly be otherwise. In this, Hamas’ development echoed that of other Palestinian nationalist movements, such as the Fatah movement which Yasser Arafat established in the late 1950s.

Hamas’ ultimate nationalist aim is to “liberate Palestine.” Unlike its predecessors, however, it adopted an Islamist rather than a secular ideology in order to achieve this aim. By espousing the core ideological objective of other classical movements of political Islam – the establishment of an Islamic state – Hamas’ rhetoric emphasizes that once the “liberation” of Palestine is achieved, the state established on its territory should be an Islamic one.

Hamas’ unexpected victory in the January 2006 elections exacerbated the internal nationalist-religious tension within the movement. It found itself in the international limelight, suddenly obliged – in order to establish its status and credibility in the face of a far larger, and predominantly skeptical, worldwide audience – to sharpen the profile of its nationalist thinking and image at the expense of its religious one.

For Hamas, as well as for Palestinians as a whole, then, the election created a new reality. For the first time since its foundation, the organization assumed the leadership of the Palestinian national movement inside Palestine by democratic elections. Also, for the first time in the history of this national movement, a party that subscribes to Islamist/religious ideology eclipsed all other secular factions, including the alliance between leftists and nationalists.

But this victory was the culmination of a pre-existing trend, as well as the inauguration of a new phase. The very decision to participate in the 2006 elections, made in March 2005, was something of a tormented birth. In the minds of many Hamas supporters (and foes), the decision had to be measured against Hamas’ refusal to join similar elections in 1996, on the basis that these were part of the 1993-94 Oslo agreements between the PLO and Israel, which it had opposed strongly. The controversy within Hamas over participation in the 2006 elections derived partly from the fact that they were effectively organized under the status quo established by Oslo.

In fact, the March 2005 decision was coupled with two equally significant decisions: a freezing of Hamas’ suicide attacks and an agreement to join the PLO. Hamas was here making important leaps in the direction of becoming a more politicized movement at the expense of a being a religion-inspired military one. For a lengthy period before, during and after the elections, Hamas remained committed to a one-sided cease-fire in the face of all Israeli incursions in the Gaza strip and the West Bank. But the equally important point is that all arguments over taking part in the elections were anchored in political loss-gain calculations, rather than in religious fatwas.

In practice, Hamas’ campaign for the 2006 elections was based on an impressive “electoral platform” of 14 pages, which offered a political, social, educational, legal and environmental program that could almost fit into that of any other secular Palestinian faction. Hamas deliberately minimized its “religiosity” in an effort to represent the entire Palestinian constituency.

In trying to absorb the shock of winning the elections, Hamas has advanced its moderate and pragmatic outlook further. It invited the defeated Fatah movement to join a national unity government on the basis of an even more secular political program. The secularization of Hamas’ politics manifested itself again in the June 2006 “prisoners’ document” created by leaders of Hamas, Fatah and other factions in Israeli prisons, which was then endorsed by their counterparts on the outside.

Meanwhile, the wider external regional context, with its currently fast-moving developments, merits a closer look.

In the eyes of Israel, the United States and the West in general, seeing a Hamas committed to hard-line aspirations emerging toward a position of leadership of the Palestinians was already an unimaginable nightmare; to see it materialize in free and fair elections was stupefying.

It was not just the West that was worried. Several Arab governments – including those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, states significantly close to and with influence in the conflict – were also unhappy to see an organization effectively aligned with their “collective enemies” (that is, political Islam) coming to power by democratic elections. They see this outcome as encouraging other Islamist movements to aim not just for power-sharing through elections, but for outright power control.

By contrast, other regional players rejoiced in Hamas’ victory. The “arc of resistance,” as it is sometimes called, to American policies in the region is led by Iran, but it includes Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and (potentially) the Shiites of Iraq whose loyalties extend to solidarity with their Iranian coreligionists. These parties saw the result of the Palestinian election as an opportunity to further include Hamas in their range of sympathy. Thus, Hamas’ election victory has been in many ways a turning point that has – directly or indirectly – affected many parties engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Within this regional context, the Israeli-American opposition to Hamas’ government suffers from a double flaw: It is incongruous in terms of democratic principle, and it is counterproductive in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it strips all moderate voices within Hamas of credibility. The failure of Hamas’ government, now the focal point of the Israeli-American strategy toward the movement, would have the effect of pushing Hamas back to the militarized approach of the pre-election period.

Rather than a strategy of containment designed to bring Hamas further into the arc of politics and its compromises, the United States and Israel seem content to drive Hamas back toward its previous radicalism, in which the tactic of suicide attacks played a central role. Such an attempt to besiege Hamas in the hope of breaking its will to make greater concessions is a stance full of risks, not least that it will only make a desperate Hamas even more ready to accept Iran’s offers of much-needed support.

Iran’s regional ambitions, by opening a route out of the deadlock facing Hamas in almost all directions, work to undercut the movement’s nascent inclination to moderation. The Iranians’ interest in using Hamas as a future bargaining card with the US and the West is for Tehran also a neat component of its own wider strategy of extracting political leverage (with or without nuclear capabilities) and Western recognition of its regional role.

In a nutshell, the regional configuration seems at present to be limiting the potential for Hamas’ pragmatic evolution to continue.

A deep irony of this situation is that the most peaceful and calm period that Israeli cities enjoyed over almost the past two years was the period in which Hamas was preparing for the elections and after the movement took power in Palestine (until, of course, the invasion of Lebanon on July 12 and the Hizbullah missile and rocket attacks that ensued). Hamas refuses to make verbal concessions on the issue of clear-cut recognition of the right of Israel to exist. It says that it acknowledges Israel as an existing fact on the ground, no more. Yet, in power, it has stopped attacking Israel as it used to do when it was part of the opposition to Palestine’s governing authority.

This again highlights the rhetoric-practice dichotomy. Hamas needs to keep its rhetoric high and loud, refraining from any blunt offer of recognition of Israel, in order to compensate for the slow, daily “undoing” of its military struggle. If Hamas gives in on both rhetorical and practical fronts, it will lose out greatly in the eyes of its supporters.

For the time being, then, the choice for Israel, the United States and other concerned states seems to be: Do you prefer a rhetorical Hamas in power (observing a practical truce), or a rhetorical and military Hamas in opposition, where the resumption of suicide bombings is only one step away?

Khaled Hroub is an Arab media specialist and director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project, University of Cambridge. This commentary first appeared on the Open Democracy Website, and is published by permission.

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