Most mainstream accounts of the Palestinian Hamas organization present it as a bunch of rabid fanatics, bent on violence and motivated by an irrational hatred of Jews and the state of Israel. This view is reflected both in the mainstream media and in many books published on the topic.
When we separate propaganda from reality, however, what we find is a group that has taken on the mantle of national resistance against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
Hamas describes itself like this: “The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) is a Palestinian national liberation movement that struggles for the liberation of the Palestinian occupied territories and for the recognition of the legitimate rights of Palestinians.”1
In its manifesto in the lead-up to the 2006 elections, it stated: “Our Palestinian people are still living through the phase of national liberation; they have the right to endeavor to regain their rights and end the occupation using all available means, including armed resistance.”2
It is because of this commitment to the national liberation struggle — and the recognition among Palestinians that Hamas, whatever else it may stand for, refuses to concede on the question of resisting Israeli repression — that the organization has won wide support.
Hamas began to gain a hearing in the late 1980s, when the secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), dominated by the Fatah faction led by Yasser Arafat, gave up on the long-term goal of liberating all of historic Palestine — and followed a path of negotiations that resulted in the Oslo Accords of 1993.
The culmination of Hamas’ growing support was the January 2006 elections to the Palestine Legislative Assembly, in which Hamas won a majority.
The reason for this victory lies not only in the failure of Oslo and the continued brutality of the Israeli occupation, but also mass disillusionment with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Hamas’ steadfast opposition to occupation and constant criticisms of Fatah’s compromises, combined with its network of social service and charity agencies, bolstered its image not only among religious Muslims, but also among secularists and Christians.
Despite its victory in free and fair elections, the U.S. and Israel sought to undermine and destroy Hamas. Israel suspended the transfer of tax revenues collected from Palestinians in the amount of $50 million a month. This began the strangulation of Gaza and set off a humanitarian crisis.
While the public strategy involved the collective punishment of the people of Gaza for electing Hamas, Israel and its U.S. ally also undertook a secret operation to overthrow Hamas, funneling arms and money to Fatah fighters to enable them to carry out a coup in Hamas’ base in Gaza. Hamas won the battle for Gaza, and Fatah was routed. Yet mainstream accounts of the conflict present Hamas as having launched a coup in order to come to power.
Israel continued to step up its pressure on the people of Gaza, cutting off much-needed supplies, electricity, and essentials and launching a military assault late last month.
The siege and the latest invasion of Gaza have caused untold suffering, death, and misery. But they have not accomplished Israel’s aim of fomenting a Palestinian opposition ready to topple Hamas. On the contrary, the group continued to gain influence since the 2006 elections.
The reason for this is simple. When a people lose their livelihood, their homes, their loved ones, and their dignity at the hands of an occupying power, they resist — and in this case, the resistance movement is led by Hamas.
If elections were to be held in occupied Palestine, Hamas would likely win again. This is not because all the people of Palestine agree with Hamas’ Islamist principles — and not at all because Palestinians are anti-Semitic fanatics — but because people living under inhuman conditions imposed by an occupying power will turn to organizations that give voice to their aspirations for liberation.
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Hamas was founded in 1987 in the context of the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada. Organizationally, it comes out of the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1945 in Jerusalem.
The Brotherhood was formed as a social welfare organization involved in cultural and social activities. It consciously stayed away from the arena of politics. Even after the formation of the state of Israel and the war of 1948, the Brotherhood maintained this approach. It operated on the premise that its primary goal was to Islamize society — only secondarily would it “prepare the generations for battle” with Israel down the road.
In 1948, when Israel took over and occupied 78 percent of historic Palestine, the movement was fractured and split between the West Bank and Gaza. The Brotherhood developed in different ways depending on the context.
In the West Bank, which came under Jordanian control, it flourished and became a loyal opposition to Jordan’s Hashemite regime. However, in Gaza, under Egyptian administration, its fate was similar to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was persecuted by the ruling party. Under these conditions, it had to go underground and operate in secrecy.
In 1967, when Israel annexed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the two Muslim Brotherhoods were brought together. This fused the clandestine and more militant tactics of the Gaza wing with the moderate tactics of the Jordanian one.
From 1967, the organization sought to expand its influence in a number of ways. Between 1967 and 1975, it launched a campaign to build mosques throughout the Occupied Territories. In this, it had the support of Israel, which had started to view the Brotherhood as an ally against the secular nationalist PLO, which dominated Palestinian politics.3
This dovetailed with a larger strategy adopted by the US in the region where, directly or indirectly through Saudi Arabia, it supported and funded Islamist groups as a bulwark against secular nationalist parties.4
In 1973, the Islamic Center (al-Mujamma al-islami) was founded in the Gaza Strip. The Mujamma, whose goal was to Islamize Gazan society, set up schools, medical clinics, day care centers, youth and sports clubs, and other social and communal forums tied to the mosque.
In Gaza, the number of mosques increased from 77 in 1967 to 200 by 1989.5 The combination of mosques and social welfare organs would prove to be crucial means for propagating the movement’s message and for recruiting cadres, at a time when the secular movements largely ignored these spheres.
Nevertheless, the Islamists remained marginal players on the political scene. Up until the late 1980s, the Fatah movement and the PLO dominated Palestinian politics, with other more left-wing nationalist organizations vying for influence.
Once again seeking to counter the secular nationalists, the Israeli government recognized and formally licensed the Mujamma in 1978. For Israel, now led by the conservative Likud Party, the Islamists’ hostility to the left made them useful allies. At times, Israel even funded these forces.
The Mujamma, in turn, routinely clashed with secular nationalists and far left forces. In 1980, it set fire to the Palestinian Red Crescent office, which was a stronghold of the left. After 1983, it engaged in violent clashes with PLO members for control over the Islamic University of Gaza. The most bitter and violent confrontations were with more far left groups, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
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In 1987, a popular Palestinian uprising, known as the Intifada, erupted first in the Gaza Strip and then in the West Bank. The Muslim Brotherhood (in the form of the Mujamma movement) was posed with a new reality that challenged its gradualist approach to Islamizing Palestinian society.
Up to this point, the Brotherhood had strategically refrained from direct political activity in the national arena, concentrating on its social welfare organs. But it now ran the risk of losing credibility if it did not take part in the uprising. Hamas was set up by the leadership of the Brotherhood to respond to and participate in the Intifada.
Even before the Intifada, a debate had been brewing between the quietist and militant sections of the MB’s membership. As Khaled Hroub, one of the most authoritative writers on Hamas, explains:
Internally and by the time of the Intifada, the rank and file of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood was witnessing intense internal debate on the passive approach to the Israeli occupation. One [section] pushed for change in policy toward confrontation with the occupation, thus bypassing [the other section, which stood for the] old and traditional thinking whose focus was on the Islamization of society first. . . When the Intifada erupted, the exponents of the confrontational policy gained a stronger position.6
Hamas was the product of the pressure exerted by the more nationalist and confrontationist section on the leadership of the Brotherhood.
Around this time, the PLO, which had previously relied on the strategy of armed struggle to liberate all of historic Palestine, began to gravitate towards a more compromised stance. In particular, it relinquished the long-term goal of liberating all of Palestine and recognized the right of Israel to exist, and it opted for negotiations over struggle to form a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Many Palestinians held out hope that the Oslo peace process might address the horrific conditions under which they were forced to live. Yet by 2000, the sham of Oslo was exposed, leading to the second Intifada.
Hamas was able to grow and gain influence because it rejected Oslo, by holding on to a vision of liberating all of historic Palestine. In short, the weakness and wrong turns of secular nationalism and the left created the opening for Hamas to grow.
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Hamas today is a different organization than the one that was founded in 1987.
For instance, its 1988 charter makes little effort to distinguish between an anti-Zionist and an anti-Jewish stance. Yet the experience of fighting against the occupation and for national liberation transformed the organization — in 1990, it published a document stating that its struggle was against Zionists and Zionism, and not Jews and Judaism.
As Hroub wrote in 2000:
Hamas’ doctrinal discourse has diminished in intensity since the mid-1990s. And references to its charter by its leaders have been made rarely, if at all. The literature, statements and symbols used by Hamas have come to focus more and more on the idea that the core problem is the multidimensional issue of usurpation of Palestinian land, and the basic question is how to end the occupation. The notion of liberating Palestine has assumed greater importance than the general Islamic aspect (my italics).7
This does not mean that Hamas has ceased to be an Islamist party. Its day-to-day activities still involve a strong religious dimension. It devotes time and energy to educating its membership in its particular interpretation of Islam, to leading daily prayers, and to fighting “vice” in the streets.
At certain times, Hamas members have intervened to stop what the organization defines as “immoral” behavior, such as partying, drinking alcohol, not wearing the hijab, mixed swimming, and so forth. One such incident occurred in 2005 in Gaza, when a Palestinian women was killed and her fiancé beaten up after they were found in his car at a beach.
Hamas’ position on women is reactionary; it sees them as primarily responsible for the home and family life. While it has repeatedly insisted that it will not force women to wear the hijab — and has, for the most part, carried through on this — there is an indirect pressure exerted on women to follow Hamas’ views on veiling, if they wish to seek their help.
Women can join Hamas, but their realms of activity are limited to charities and schools. They are largely invisible, and not one woman has occupied a leadership position in the organization since 1987. While a limited number of women have carried out suicide attacks, that task is assigned primarily to men.
Nevertheless, it bears underling that Hamas is not as reactionary as the Taliban. It doesn’t prohibit women from operating outside the family sphere. Thirteen of the 66 Hamas candidates who ran for election in 2006 were women. Yet despite seven winning their seats, only one woman was included in the cabinet — and, predictably, she was put in charge of women’s affairs.
Hamas also differs from more fundamentalist Islamist parties in that it accepts the concept of the nation state, rather than the ummah, a religious community formation. Its party structures are modeled on Western ones, and its internal affairs are carried out in a more or less democratic manner. The leadership inside Palestine is elected from within, and by the rank and file. It is also not anti-science or anti-technology.
Hamas exhibits all the contradictions of modern Islamist parties. It achieved prominence because of a political vacuum caused by the collapse of secular nationalism and the left. Yet given its politics and class basis, it doesn’t present a long-term solution to the economic and political problems faced by the people who turn to it.
The class basis of Islamism is the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie. In general, this class does not have the social weight necessary to bring the system to a standstill or force concessions from powerful groups.
This problem is further compounded in the case of Hamas by the context of occupation. Hamas draws support from merchants, business people, and the rich, but its cadre and leadership are drawn largely from the educated middle classes or de-classed people in refugee camps.
This explains why Hamas vacillates between armed struggle and radical pronouncements on the one hand, and ceasefires and concessions on the other. Ultimately, these strategies are a dead end.
Palestinian liberation will depend on support from outside the Occupied Territories — most obviously, from the region’s working classes, among whom massive sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinian cause exists.
Israel’s assault on Gaza stirred huge demonstrations around the world, from Indonesia and Pakistan to South Africa and Europe — with some of the largest in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey.
In Egypt, in particular, the working class has expressed both anger against the neoliberal Mubarak regime and sympathy for the Palestinian cause — a revolt that toppled Mubarak would remove a crucial source of complicity with Israel’s occupation.
A strategy that offers hope for Palestinian liberation would connect workers’ struggles throughout the region to the fight for one secular, democratic state in Palestine. And that would lay the basis for a lasting peace in the Middle East.
4 See Robet Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, New York:Henry Holt and Company, 2005.
5 Mishal and Sela, p. 21.
6 Hroub, 2006, p. 13.
Deepa Kumar is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University. She is currently working on a book on Political Islam, US Foreign Policy, and the Media.