The Hobson’s Choice of Hamas

By Terrell E. Arnold

In late 2005, the Bush administration, along with the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon, promoted parliamentary elections in Palestine. The goal, obvious if unstated, was to provide a popular credential for the government that would be run by the expected to be victorious candidates, members of the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas. Since Abbas had won with a decisive 62% of the votes in a January 2005 election to succeed the late Yasser Arafat, the parliamentary election of January 2006 looked like a slam dunk. Hamas, participating for the first time in a national election, along with five or six small parties stood against Fatah. The results, however, surprised most observers by giving the parliamentary majority to Hamas. Fatah won only 45 seats in the new parliament, while Hamas won an absolute majority of 74 in the 132 seat assembly.
Various pundits agonized over why this occurred. The conventional wisdom was that, after all, Hamas was nothing but a terrorist group. It had no political experience and ran no candidates of known political caliber on the Palestinian scene. As often happens with conventional wisdom, however, this batch was false.
Since its formation in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982-some say as an Israeli-designed counter to Fatah-Hamas had been busy in the countryside. In both the West Bank and Gaza it had developed effective networks for community support. In a manner of speaking, Hamas emulated the performance of Hezbollah in Lebanon, effectively embedding itself in the towns and villages it served. By the election of 2006, Hamas had more than two decades of community support experience under its belt. The people of those communities knew it well. They knew who unceasingly helped them, who had a well-deserved reputation for integrity, and who shared their thoughts on the future of Palestine. Rudely put, it was not Fatah.
At this point, outside forces designed the future evolution of Palestinian politics.
Palestine’s government became a triumvirate. While Hamas was legally empowered to form a new government and did so, the United States and Israel refused to do business with it. Rather they encouraged other governments to ignore Hamas and they set about helping Abbas and Fatah to arrange a takeover, essentially a palace coup. Being better organized in its home base territory of Gaza, Hamas frustrated the 2007 Fatah takeover, retained power in a few pitched battles, while Abbas decided-with US and Israeli help-to take his remaining chips to the West Bank. Thus, the freely elected and street fight winner of an effort to rule Gaza was left to its own devices.
In the West Bank, Abbas and Fatah were pretty well imprisoned by Israel and the United States. Abbas had a security force that was being enhanced-and effectively controlled-by a US general whose job ostensibly was training. The West Bank was surrounded, infiltrated and controlled by Israel Defense Forces who kept dissidents (especially Hamas members) in line, controlled all entry and exit points to and from the West Bank, and did not hesitate to shoot or confine anyone who looked possibly threatening. The name of this game was to keep the imprisoned dwellers in the open air prison of the West Bank moderately comfortable, but unable or disinclined to do anything about their circumstances.
The game plan for Gaza was radically different. Refusing to recognize the Hamas government, the US and Israel, with spotty help from others, set out to harass and starve the Gaza Strip into submission. In late 2008, it was clear that this plan was either working too slowly or not working at all. Hamas had continued to govern and find ways to avert starvation as the US/Israeli boycott of Gaza grew ever tighter. While some Fatah members had filtered out of the region to the West Bank, the people had not deserted Hamas.
US and Israeli assistance policies were used mercilessly to undermine Hamas and bring the people of Gaza to heel. All assisting governments were more or less successfully encouraged to avoid passing any assistance through Hamas. By late 2008 it was apparent that scarcity and near starvation tactics were working but too slowly, and more brutish measures were needed to get the already beleaguered Gaza Strip folk in line. With the best and some of the latest US tools of military destruction freely supplied to them, Israel Defense Forces set out to destroy both Gaza and the will of its people. By the end of January 2009, Israel had virtually demolished Gaza with the IDF "Operation Cast Lead" invasion. More than 1,300 Palestinians had been killed and nearly 5,000 had been wounded. The rest of the world may have been appalled by Israeli brutality, but it chose not to condemn a major war crime.
The grim curtain that shields this atrocity is the charge of anti-Semitism. Under the rule set for this curtain, no one can criticize the murderous work of Israeli forces in Gaza without being called anti-Semitic. A major effort of Israel support groups in the US is now under way to pass so-called hate crime legislation that would make any criticism of Israel a crime under US law. Any Jewish person in the United States who might choose to oppose such a repressive law would be labeled a "self-hating Jew." White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a respected American Jew, has been labeled self-hating because he chooses to serve the interests of his own country, not those of Israel.
Plotting a clear path through this political, spiritual, intellectual, and legal jungle is not easy for a Palestinian. It is excruciatingly difficult for a Palestinian politician who stands up in defense of the basic right of the Palestinian people to live and work freely in the country of their ancestry. Hamas does that more precisely and indeed more forcefully than any earlier Palestinian politicians. That is its political appeal.
In Israeli and US views up to this point, that has been the undoing of Hamas. The ostensible problem is that the charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel. While that might be acceptable in any other case as a way to get rid of an invading army that is followed by people who take without giving, Israel has worked hard at keeping itself immune from such considerations.
Israel uses the war crime of the Holocaust to justify the war crime of the Naqba and sixty years of Palestinian repression. Jews who were not killed were driven out of Germany. Palestinians who were not killed or imprisoned in 1947-48 and following years have been driven out of most of Palestine. The Israelis portray this process as restitution. Clearer heads call this a war crime against Palestinians who had nothing to do with the crimes of Hitler’s Germany. The Israeli crimes continue today as Israeli settlers grab more land in the West Bank and Israel Defense Forces eject Palestinians from their ancestral homes in Jerusalem.
The Palestinian problem is that people movements in historic Palestine are too generally interpreted as one way. In the worst sense, Bush codified this pattern when in his September 2005 meeting with Sharon he referred to new Israeli settlements as "facts on the ground" that needed to be taken into account. Sharon and his successors have seized on this concept with every new settlement. Currently, Netanyahu is accelerating new "facts on the ground" around East Jerusalem in order to foreclose any prospect of East Jerusalem as a future capital of a Palestinian state.
The Hamas flaw-as defined by Israel and the US-is that it stands for halting and in some ways reversing the Israeli takeover of Palestine. It has updated its agenda to the extent that it no longer expects to drive Israel into the sea. However, Hamas seeks (a) stopping the continuing takeover of Palestinian lands by settlers; (b) withdrawing Israelis back to the Green Line established at the end of the 1967 war-with perhaps some swaps to even out respective territories to Green Line equivalents, (c) recognition of the right of Palestinians to return; (d) compensation for those who are not allowed to return to their homes and farms; and (e) establishment of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. This is basically the Palestinian aim as embodied in a 2002 Arab League proposal that is promoted currently by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Recognizing that the Hamas position is close to the centerline of Palestinian thinking, Fatah held a conference in early August in which Mahmoud Abbas was confronted by an effort of Fatah members to recapture the Palestinian lead from Hamas. That involved the conferees taking a final position that moved close to the terms of the Arab League proposal. The problem with this position for Fatah, frankly, is that the masters of Mahmoud Abbas are not the Palestinians, but the Israelis and Americans who reject the Hamas position. The US/Israeli position defines a Palestinian moderate as someone unwilling to fight back against Israel’s continuing takeover of the country. Thus, anyone who would fight to keep significant and clearly defined parts of Palestine for its historic peoples is viewed as a "radical".
Hamas learned some time ago that fighting to preserve Palestine for the people of that historic territory was both bad for its reputation and harmful to its health. However, that Hamas idea resonated with most Palestinians. The US/Israeli goal ever since the 2006 parliamentary elections has been to make the Palestinians pay for such bad political judgment.
The punishment has not worked. Most Palestinians still side with Hamas, as the Fatah conference demonstrated. What Fatah leadership saw was that the position led by Abbas since the 2006 election invites increasing political irrelevance. There is for the Palestinian people only one choice: Stick to their guns or watch their homeland evaporate into progressive Israeli settlements, while their much sought after capital gets turned into Israeli parks and condos for wealthy Israel supporters. Predicting the future is a risky undertaking, but the prospects are most likely that Hamas will not budge. After sixty years of repression, neither will the Palestinian people.
– Terrell E. Arnold is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He contributed this article to Contact him at: (This article was originally published in

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