The astonishing electoral success of Hamas in Palestine last year sent shock waves around the Middle East, and silenced those commentators who argued that political Islam was burning itself out. For some, the rise of the militant Islamic movement is a clear example of Washington’s attempt to promote democracy in the Muslim world backfiring spectacularly. For others, the election of Hamas was a deeply regrettable decision by the Palestinian
people, which justified economic isolation to prevent a terrorist organization from ruling.
Either way, it was a turning point in Palestinian history. Time will tell whether Hamas can maintain its support at the level of mainstream politics and continue on its path of defiance. Zaki Chehab has no crystal ball. But with his book Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of Militants, Martyrs and Spies, the London-based Arab journalist has given us a colorful first-hand account of a movement, both despised and revered, that must yet play a central role in any resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. As Gaza sinks further into a state of anarchy, this is a well-informed contribution to a highly emotive and pressingly topical issue.
Despite its violent history, only a small fraction of the Hamas budget has gone toward its military operations, with the lion’s share being allocated to its social and welfare programs. These programs, along with Hamas’ clean-handed administration and moral discipline, were inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and have characterized the political activities of its Palestinian offshoot. At the parliamentary elections in 2006, Hamas’ clean image contrasted sharply with the rival secular party Fatah’s history of bad governance, corruption and failed negotiations with Israel. Fatah was left completely shattered after 40 years in power.
After the movement’s inception, which coincided with the first Intifada and was loosely tolerated, as the author points out, by the Israelis then looking for a way to undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas developed its military wing, the Izzedin Al Qassam brigades, "initially armed with nothing more dangerous than plastic guns and knives". Chehab charts the painful and violent years of the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords, when many disillusioned Palestinians volunteered themselves for suicide missions, and touches on the important role Iran and Syria played in supporting and sheltering the movement.
The evidence that al-Qaeda is extending its gruesome activities west of Jordan makes for chilling reading, especially in light of British Broadcasting Corp journalist Alan Johnston’s kidnapping in Gaza last month. Unlike the international terrorist network however, Hamas leaders have insisted they will always act in the interests of their people and that their struggle will never go beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine.
As a journalist who has reported extensively on Palestinian issues and spoken to most of the key figures over the years, Chehab’s style is anecdotal and engaging, though sometimes at the expense of analysis. He is at his best when discussing the prominent personalities that emerged within the movement, as they are successively eradicated by booby-trapped mobile phones or missiles fired from Israeli helicopter gunships.
And their stories provide insight into the nature of the movement. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the crippled "father" and spiritual leader of Hamas, whom the author interviewed many times before Yassin’s assassination in March 2004, is portrayed as a man of charisma, inner strength and deeply held religious conviction, but also as a pragmatist.
Arrested in 1989 and tortured to the point of collapse, Yassin remained in prison until his release in 1997, which was negotiated by the late King Hussein of Jordan in exchange for two Mossad agents who had tried to kill another Hamas leader, Khalid Mishal, in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
From his cell, where fellow prisoners competed to serve him, Yassin urged Hamas members to participate in the 1996 election for Palestinian self-rule. In this way, Yassin set Hamas on the road to political compromise, which he decided was necessary so as not to "give our opponents a free rein to negotiate our future as Palestinians". Ismail Haniyeh, who was to become prime minister 10 years later, was one of those who participated, despite being accused of treachery by other factions in Hamas.
But Yassin and his successors’ strategic decisions were only ever temporary measures, since their long-term goal has never changed: to reclaim the whole of Palestine as it had been before 1948, with Jerusalem as its capital. In the words of one senior Hamas official, speaking after the election, "You will never find anyone in Hamas who will recognize Israel’s right to exist. If you do, he is a liar."
In itself, however, and as some observers have pointed out, this does not entirely preclude the possibility of an agreement with Israel now that Hamas is in power. After all, the hardline Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein signed up to a peace agreement with the British and Irish governments in 1998 that eventually paved the way for a power-sharing assembly, despite decades of violent opposition to British rule.
Contrary to the claims of those who saw the Hamas election victory as dashing any hope of peace, new opportunities for a long-term interim agreement could yet emerge, say the optimists, with the moribund peace initiatives of the past being replaced by bolder and fairer solutions for the Palestinians. The prospects are hardly encouraging.
The decision by Israel, the United States and Europe to cut off the Hamas government’s operating funds and block its free-trade channels abroad has seen Palestinian living standards rapidly deteriorate, sparking vicious internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah and severely undermining the security situation in Gaza. This was only mitigated by Saudi Arabia’s concerted efforts to broker a fragile peace agreement between the two factions in Mecca in February.
The formation of a national-unity government led by Haniyeh and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arose in the wake of the Mecca meeting, and there remains hope that they can maintain a united front that enables them to do business with Israel.
Hamas is not a hostage to its ideology. But in the absence of any significant concessions from Israel, the movement will never discard its core ideological position and make the transition to parliamentary politics. It will not just be the Palestinians who pay the price for Hamas’ failure to do so.
Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of Militants, Martyrs and Spies by Zaki Chehab. I B Tauris & Co Ltd, March 2007. ISBN-10: 1845113896. Price US$34, 240 pages (hardcover).
Simon Martelli is a British freelance journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs.
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