Jim Miles: The Palestinian Hamas

The Palestinian Hamas – Vision, Violence, and Coexistence.  Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela. Columbia University Press, New York. 2006.

Reviewed by Jim Miles
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

In consideration of current events with Hamas’ military takeover of Gaza, this book on the Palestinian Hamas is very timely. It would have been timelier in its original version in 2000 at the start of the al-Aqsa Intifada. With precise foresight into the possible problems of armed conflict between Hamas and Fatah, aided and abetted by Israel, it is almost prescient in nature. It is not prescient however, but a thorough accounting of the structure and movement (political, social, and military) of Hamas, the apparent prescience deriving from the always present fear by Hamas that their less powerful position vis-à-vis Fatah and the PLO could one day lead to an armed struggle that their perceptions said Fatah could easily win. 

It can be argued with a high degree of accuracy that Hamas’ victory in Gaza is technically not a coup, as being caught between two rocks and two hard places (PLO/Fatah and Israel/America) necessitated the move for their very survival as a democratically elected government of Palestine. All of which seems absurd, all of which is absurd, the absurdity pointing directly at the American petard of democracy.  It can also be argued, after reading this thoroughly documented and well presented work, that neither the winning of the democratic elections (even if Hamas themselves expected only about thirty per cent of the vote) nor the recent resort to civic violence should have been any kind of surprise. That these two surprises caught western media, pundits, and politicians completely off-guard underlines that they quite simply did not understand Hamas and believed only their own rhetoric about its singular violent, terrorist nature.

The current PLO leader Abbas himself is caught up in this rhetoric, saying, "What happened in Gaza is a bloody and ferocious coup d’etat against Palestinian legitimacy." Unfortunately for him, the elections were very legitimate. As for the coup, what type of reaction could one expect when one’s coalition partner in a unity government is being salaried and armed by both the Israelis and the Americans and making threats to take over all Hamas’ functions? Abbas is trying to create a political solution “on the basis of international legitimacy, the Arab initiative, and [US] President [George] Bush’s vision.”[1] Scary thought when that political legitimacy devolves from an international view now presented by arch-warmonger Tony Blair, from a weak coalition of Arab states that are fearful of the same type of democracy that put Hamas into power in the first place, and from, of all things, George Bush’s “vision”. Middle East politics is operating in the theatre of the absurd with all the insanities that corrupt politicians foment; unfortunately, the Palestinians suffer all the consequences.

To understand Hamas takes a significant amount of reflective thought while reading Mishal and Sela’s The Palestinian Hamas. It is not an easy ‘pop’ read, being more inclined to the academic and sociological manner of examining what is as much, if not more, a social movement as it is a militant terrorist group.  Written by two Israeli academics, Shaul Mishal, Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, and Avraham Sela, with a PhD from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, this portrait presents a very sympathetic and surprisingly positive analysis of the Hamas movement.

Commonly perceived as being solely dedicated to the physical elimination of Israel by violent means, the authors used a series of very ameliorative words to describe the social and political “realpolitik” of Hamas: flexible, innovative, adaptable, conciliatory, resilient, accommodating, tolerant, pragmatic. These descriptions would flatter any political movement and ideology and with the support of concrete examples throughout Hamas’ history, the authors document a movement that has creativity, political savvy, intelligence, and a social conscience. Even less of a surprise then that Hamas first won the legitimate election, and then won the mini civil war to “pre-empt” a Fatah take over (how quickly they learn from their occupiers and oppressors!).

The over-riding word from the above list is flexibility. Operating from a position of weakness, opposed by the PLO/Fatah and later by the PA, manipulated and attacked by Israeli forces, and struggling with their own internal divisions of “inside” leaders and “outside” leaders (those in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon), the overall strategy had to remain flexible to changing circumstances and changing facets of power.  While the book is not about the PLO it does mention that they too struggled with the same divisions, with the same adversary and “became a symbol of Palestinian national identity and of aspirations for independence and statehood.” In 2000, the time of the first edition, the authors concluded “The history of Hamas’s [sic, passim] relations with the PLO, and later with the PA, shows that seeming rivals and enemies can find ways to coexist even if they cannot resolve basic conflicts.”

In the preface to the 2006 edition, there is recognition that “while the al-Aqsa Martyrs [PLO militant group] and other groups could match Hamas’s military activities…none of them…could compete with Hamas’s system of social services.”  From that Hamas realized that its “success among the people in the local government elections represents…common trust in their ability to provide efficient and clean-handed government.” Following the election, Israel, supported by the international community, mainly the U.S., Canada, and the EU, denied the validity of the elections. To add to these complications, Fatah proved reluctant to join in a coalition government, and the PA’s treasury was empty and not about to be replenished through its usual foreign aid and Israeli collected taxes.  Success was certain not to follow. 

Israel initially gave tacit support to Hamas, hoping to counteract some of the progress being made by the PLO on the political front. From the start Hamas “employed a system of consultation and opinion sharing based on committees that represent a spectrum of figures and groups,” established initially as a “social movement” with its “main energies and activities…focussed on providing social and communal services through well-administrated web of institutions, from clinics, kindergartens, and schools to a blood bank and welfare services such as the distribution of food and other basic commodities.” 

All that leads to the counter-intuitive statement – in light of the media presentations – that Hamas’ rise to power “through a democratic process is an unprecedented phenomenon in the Arab Muslim countries,” and leading to the fear from Jordan, Egypt, and the Saudis that their success “will bring about an Islamic radicalization that could threaten their own political stability.”  Ah yes, democracy is messy at its best and needs to be squelched whenever it threatens the powers that be. 

From these overall perspectives the authors discuss how this flexibility and willingness to view the situation in terms of “realpolitik” has affected the group throughout their history. Hamas philosophy is discussed as it relates to the historical developments at different times in their short history. The changing political landscape, the overriding position of being in a subordinate position to both the PLO/Fatah and more so to Israeli occupation, reveals a strong streak of pragmatic action and social democracy.

Having taken the militant pre-emptive action that they did in Gaza, Hamas remains conciliatory to the PLO/Fatah, revealing Abbas as being not much more than an Israeli marionette wishing it could become flesh. What the end result of it all is may be just as surprising to everyone as the democratic election win and the militant consolidation win, but if the powers that be could recognize Hamas’ flexibility and pragmatism, some actual progress could occur. I don’t expect that, my own personal realpolitik, something else will come along to surprise everyone.   

The Palestinian Hamas presents a sympathetic portrait of the movement, a movement with surprising – again the word – flexibility and a high degree of democracy, counter to the western Orientalist view that Islam cannot be democratic.  It is a tightly written narrative, focussing almost exclusively on the Hamas, and introducing components of Israeli action and ideology, and that of the PLO, only as necessary for understanding Hamas itself. It is not a primer, as the reader should at least be familiar with the big picture of the PLO/Fatah and its struggles with Israel, and the bigger picture of Arab insecurity ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ with their relations with both the PLO and Israel. The authors have done a wonderful job of examining a modern phenomenon without the prejudice of western media and politicians, a highly recommended read. 

[1]“Hamas against foreign troops”  English.Aljazeera.  Saturday, June 30, 2007   http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/1AEE36D3-5E18-43FD-9623-6F5EA790F1FC.htm

-Jim Miles writes regular book reviews and occasional commentary to PalestineChronicle.com; he is a prolific Canadian writer and an activist.

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