Most people in the west have been wilfully mis- or dis-informed about Hamas and believe either that it is made up of wild-eyed men of violence who perpetrate violence for its own sake, or that its main goal is the violent expulsion of all Jewish people from Israel/Palestine.
These impressions are quite misleading.Yes, Hamas has used significant amounts of violence against Israelis since it was founded in 1987. But so too has Israel, against Hamas. Indeed, Israel has killed many times more Hamas supporters and leaders than Hamas has ever killed Israelis. Does that mean we understand Israelis to be only “mindless, wild-eyed men of violence”? No. For both sides, we need to try to understand what they seek to achieve with the violence they use; as well as the conditions under which they can be expected to moderate or end it.
Earlier today, I tried to untangle the intentions/hopes of Israel’s leaders when they unleashed the present wave of violence, here.
Now it’s time to try to do the same for Hamas. It is worth noting upfront that the large-scale escalation was the one that was launched by Israel, yesterday. What Hamas had done, prior to that, was not launch any particularly new surges of violence; mainly, it announced it would not be renewing the six-month-long ceasefire (tahdi’eh) it had maintained, by mutual agreement, with Israel since last June. That, after numerous significant Israeli infractions of the ceasefire, especially since November.
So Question 1 here might be: Why, precisely, did Hamas decide it would not renew the ceasefire? That question probably needs more studying. Israel’s violations in the ceasefire’s last weeks are presumably one factor. But if Hamas really wanted the ceasefire renewed, was there more it could have done to try to negotiate that? I don’t know. One thing I do recall, though, is some angry accusations by Hamas spokesmen in recent weeks that the Egyptian government officials who in the first half of the year had worked long and hard to broker the June ceasefire had ceased (in Hamas’s view) to play an “honest broker” role, and were putting pressure on Hamas to continue the ceasefire on terms much more favorable to Israel than during the first ceasefire.
Egypt, we can note, is deeply entangled in the whole Hamas-Israel dynamic in numerous inescapable ways.
At a broader level than Question 1, Question 2 would be, “What broader strategy has the Hamas leadership been pursuing in recent years, anyway, and how might the present war be expected to impact on that?”
I think I have some answers to that, gleaned over the course of many years of watching the organization, and from interviews I conducted with the elected Hamas leaders in Gaza in March 2006 and with overall Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus last January. You can see a portal to these interviews and most of my other writings on Hamas over the past three years, here. Most of that material was summarized and analyzed in this piece published in the May/June 2008 edition of Boston Review. Few other westerners have had the opportunity to talk with with these Hamas leaders as deeply as I have; and almost none of them have ever done so, as I have, on the record.
- 1.The Hamas leaders do not place nearly as high a priority on achieving a “two-state solution” with Israel as the leaders of Fateh and its allies have for the past 35 years. The Hamas leaders would, however, be prepared to “go along with” some form of a two-state situation– in the guise of prolonged “hudna” (truce)– provided the conditions for that two-state situation do not impinge unacceptably on the national rights of the Palestinians regarding key issues such as territory (especially in and around the Holy City of Jerusalem), refugee rights, and the freedom of political action of the Palestinian state or entity.
2. Until now they have not seen the political dynamics in the region as conducive to the achievement of any acceptable form of hudna, so they have not spent much time trying to explore this option or guide their people toward it. Instead, they have placed their highest priority on the defensive aim of preserving the Islamic and Palestinian presence within the land of Mandate Palestine as strongly as possible. That includes the Islamic/Palestinian presence inside Israel as well as in Gaza and the West Bank.
3. Because of the movement’s historic roots and continuing strong presence in Gaza, they have been very concerned indeed with trying to preserve and strengthen the Islamic and Palestinian presence and institutions in that tiny Strip, which is densely packed with a population, 80% of whom are refugees from lands and properties that are now within Israel . The Hamas leaders saw Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Strip in 2005 and their own win in the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006 as significant victories for their path of armed steadfastness, as opposed to Fateh’s path of relying only on negotiations.
4. To help preserve their gains in Gaza– as well as to win some non-trivial strategic-political depth for the Palestinian movement everywhere– they have placed a high priority on opening the border between Gaza and Egypt for the passage of people and goods, thereby ending Israel’s effectively total encirclement of Gaza, part of which Israel has sub-contracted to Egypt.
5. Hamas anyway has close links at a number of different levels with the political situation in Egypt. Egypt, remember, was the administrative power in Gaza between 1949 and 1967; and prior to 1949 it had many other centuries-old ties with Gaza, too. Also, at the political level, Hamas was the creation of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, an offshoot of the broader MB movement which was started in Egypt and retains deep roots there.
6. The Hamas leaders have stressed the importance of opening the Gaza-Egypt border since at least 2006; and that stress continues till today. See, for example, this news release from Hamas, earlier today. This demand assumed high visibility when hundreds of thousands Gazawis bust down the fence between Gaza and Egypt earlier this year. But for Hosni Mubarak’s ossified but US-supported regime in Egypt, this demand is extremely problematic. Mubarak is bound by the terms of the 1979 Israel-Egypt treaty not to support any forces hostile to Israel. (The same treaty also severely limits the number of security personnel of any kind that he can deploy anywhere near his border with Gaza or Israel.) Plus, the main supporters within Egypt of closer Egyptian ties with Gaza are the Egyptian MB, who pose a significant domestic threat to the legitimacy– or perhaps even the survival– of Mubarak’s regime…
So now, given the ferocity of Israel’s assault against Gaza, it is a time of tough reckoning for all pro-American bodies within the region, and first in line among them are Fateh and their associates in the leadership of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Administration– and the Government of Egypt.
Tomorrow (Monday), the Muslim Brotherhood has called for big demonstrations in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Let’s see how the regional dynamics of the coming weeks unfold…
One final question: How might the new situation of the that Israel has launched on Gaza be expected to impact on Hamas’s attainment of its political-strategic goals?
In response to that I’d say, first, that the Israelis do seem to have achieved quite a degree of tactical surprise in the timing of their attack against Gaza. The Palestinian casualties were quite a lot higher than would have been the case if Hamas had been expecting it at that time, and had been able to evacuate installations like the police stations.
On the other hand, Gaza doesn’t have a whole lot of deep, well-protected underground shelters for its people to go hide in, such as are found in all Israel’s population centers. Most of Gaza’s 1.5 million people have to play the role of sitting ducks whenever Israel’s US-supplies warplanes roar in. They have no alternative.
The casualty rate is tragic, tragic– for Palestinians and for all of humanity. How many potential Einsteins or Baryshnikovs are among the children and young people whose lives are snuffed out or forever blighted by these terrorizing air-raids??
But at a cynical, Realpolitik level, these casualty levels are not, actually, all that bad for Hamas and its attainment of its political goals. They severely undermine Abu Mazen, Hosni Mubarak, and all the other cast of corrupt and US-supported leaders in the region.
These raids will also not succeed in snuffing out Hamas, a movement which is as much an idea of religiously-buttressed resistance, as it is an actual political party. You can’t snuff out such a movement simply by killing even hundreds of its members or supporters, or scores of its leaders. Israel pursued the leadership-decapitation strategy through much of the 1990s and early 2000s. It killed three or four successive generations of Hamas leaders with its broad strategy of assassinations– but the movement as a whole only dug in deeper.
So what, at the end of the day, do the Hamas leaders want? They want, firstly, what all other other people in the world want: the ability to nurture and build their national community in their own national homeland free of the threat of violence, encirclement, and siege from any outside powers. They want their land and resources to be free of the threat of being expropriated by any outside power. They want free access to their holy places and the ability to exercise control over them. They want satisfactory redress or restitution for the injustices of the past.
These aims are not so different from what most Israelis want for themselves, too. Are the national goals of Israelis completely incompatible with those of the pro-Hamas Palestinians? I don’t think so. In an environment in which the equal humanity and the basic needs of all people are respected, people of good will could certainly see a way in which the claims of Hamas’s Palestinian supporters and those of Israelis could all be met to a degree sufficient to allow the continued peaceful coexistence between the two peoples within the land that to which both are deeply attached.
Today, we might still seem to be far away from such an environment. But the notion that the claims of Jewish Israelis should everywhere and always be completely privileged over those of Palestinians is an anachronism in today’s world. It is an anachronism, true, that has been upheld for many decades now by the US, which has been the predominant power in the international system since at least the 1970s. But it’s an anachronism that can’t be given continued credence in the international system for very much longer.
The United Nations has a fine set of guiding principles– including the principles of human equality and of the need to solve conflicts through means other than violence– that are needed in the interconnected world of the 21st century more than ever before. It is time those principles were brought to bear on the long-stormy relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. If that happens, then creative ways can be found to include Hamas in the urgently-needed task of finding a workable political solution to this conflict.
In this deeply tragic relationship as all others, war can most certainly not today provide any satisfactory answer.