Hamas’ Road to Politics

We need three generations for our plans one to listen, one to fight and one to win.”Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood

“In the history of people and nations, suffering hits everyone,” said Khalid Mesha’al, political leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas. “But those who respond to that suffering and translate it into action are usually few in number.”

Mesha’al is one of a handful of Palestinians who helped build the Hamas movement, transforming it from a cadre of religious dissidents to one of the most feared and powerful Islamic forces in the Middle East.

As Wednesday’s Palestinian election approaches, with Hamas’ closest rival, the Fatah party, in disarray, Israelis are forced to think the unthinkable: the group that launched hundreds of suicide bombers to kill more than 350 of their countrymen and wound more than 2,000 others, may be the principal partner in negotiations for the future of Middle East peace, and eventually form the government of a new Palestinian state.

After the election, pollsters predict, Mesha’al and his organization are likely to be a significant political force. If so, their success will be built on patience as well as violence, assembling an organization that has, in less than two decades, put down deep roots in the Palestinian community.

Hamas represents, in the minds of people here, the resistance, the faithful Muslims, the good and incorruptible and they also have a great social network of services for women, children and youth,” says Gaza psychiatrist Eyad al Sarraj. “When people vote overwhelmingly for Hamas, it’s because they trust them more than any others.”

And, he points out, “Hamas is the main framework of security here. When children become teenagers, they have seen how powerless their fathers are, unable to protect their families. But Hamas takes on the role of the father, and identifies itself with the ultimate father, God. God cannot be defeated as your father was.”

The first tentative roots of Hamas were in Egypt, and in the sandy soil of Kuwait, where Mesha’al and thousands of other Palestinians migrated as Israel won progressive victories against Arab neighbours who had formed an alliance to destroy the Jewish state.

In Mesha’al’s farm village of Silwad alone, two-thirds of the 19,000 inhabitants fled after the Six Day War in 1967. They were among 1 million Arabs displaced as Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, a stunning victory that shocked and demoralized the Arab world. The bitterness of exile became one of the pillars of the Hamas movement.

“I left Palestine when I was two, but I was born on its soil,” says Umm Mohamad, a 65-year-old woman who lives in a dirt-floored room in a Lebanese refugee camp. “The next generations remember nothing, so they ask visitors from Palestine to bring them bottles filled with the earth of our homeland.

“Hamas understands our longing, and they are the only ones who can help us to return, with the grace of God.”

Religion is the foundation of Hamas, separating it from the late Yasser Arafat’s more secular Fatah movement.

“Hamas is the Islamic Resistance Movement,” says Azzam Tamimi, director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought. “It was set up officially in 1987, but it did not happen in a void. Its tradition goes all the way back to 1928 and the Muslim Brotherhood formed by Hassan al-Banna.”

Under al-Banna, a Egyptian scholar, the Brotherhood seized on issues that had plagued Muslims for decades, their economic and political backwardness, their losses under colonialism, their declining faith in a materialistic age. It fiercely opposed the creation of Israel.

In Kuwait, Mesha’al followed the Brotherhood’s radical teachings and looked for ways to strike against the Israeli occupation. But they found themselves shut out of the tightly-controlled Palestine Liberation Organization that formed the core of Palestinian resistance.

“They decided to set up an independent student movement which branched out in the U.S., Britain, European, Arab and other Muslim countries,” says Tamimi. “It helped to pave the way for building all the Palestinian institutions that made them so successful: welfare, charities, the university in Gaza, schools, orphanages.”

In the 1970s, the Kuwaiti-based students had religion, ideology and organization. But they were unprepared for the explosive birth of Hamas in Gaza in 1987 at the hands of the Egyptian-educated Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Within a year, Hamas had instigated strikes, imposed strict discipline on its rapidly increasing followers and rejected the legitimacy of the PLO to speak for all Palestinians. It published a covenant that ruled out any compromise with Israel, declared all of Palestine a Muslim state and announced a holy war against the Jewish state.

Initially, the Israelis allowed Yassin to continue building educational and charitable institutions in the Palestinian territories, aware that Hamas’ growing influence was weakening Israel’s chief enemy, Arafat.

When Hamas adopted suicide bombing as its primary military tactic and dozens of Israelis died, its appeal continued to strengthen among angry and despairing Palestinians.

The Israeli authorities realized they were too late to eliminate what had now become their Number 1 enemy, displacing what many Palestinians saw as a corrupt, incompetent and self-serving PLO. While Arafat and his cronies took from the community, many believed, Hamas gave blood and treasure.

Israel’s targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders also increased the group’s popularity. The killing of Yassin and other high-ranking Hamas officials created a pool of new recruits.

The mounting death toll of Israelis and Palestinians led some Israeli officials to urge a different approach to dealing with Hamas. Some put their hopes on a political transformation.

“We see it as a terror organization, but not only that,” says Ami Ayalon, former admiral and former director of the Israeli security service Shin Bet. “It’s a movement and a fundamental way of life. They have charities, they have municipal leadership, they have an education system and they have the al Qassam, the terror wing.”

Now, with a Palestinian election imminent, Hamas may be ready to reap what it has spent so many years sowing, a new kind of political power.

Hamas wants the success of the Palestinian democratic experiment because it is our strong weapon, along with the resistance,” says Mesha’al. “It will liberate our land and regain our rights.