The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Coexistence By Shaul Mishal & Avraham Sela (2000)
Mishal and Sela’s book chronicles and scrutinizes the roots of Hamas, its emergence onto the Palestinian political scene during the first Intifada – including its political struggles with the PLO and PA after the signing of the Declaration of Principles during Oslo, and its record since its establishment. The authors begin the book by noting that Hamas is primarily identified as a murderous terror organization associated with Islamic fundamentalism and suicide bombings – an organization that is unshakably fundamentalist and monolithic with a fanatic vision.
Yet contrary to the prevailing image, the authors’ main argument is that Hamas is essentially a social movement, and that it is much more flexible and willing to adapt to prevailing political realities than it is given credit for. The authors place Hamas within the context of other Islamic movements, asserting that, “violence has been relatively marginal in the conduct of mainstream Islamic movements in the Arab world, embodied primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood whose activities and interests have focused on religious guidance and education, communal services, and, since the early 1980s, increasingly on political participation.”
In fact, Hamas evolved from the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamic political activity emerged in the late 1920s in Mandate Palestine with the young Muslim Men’s Association. The Muslim Brotherhood then came onto the Palestinian scene in 1945; by 1947 there were 38 branches with more than 10,000 members. In 1973 the Muslim Brotherhood was institutionalized with the foundation of the Islamic Center in Gaza. The Muslim Brothers in Palestine generally refrained from violence, like their predecessors, and focused on social, religious and cultural activities instead. Because of this, Israel generally tolerated them, and continued to do so even through the first year and a half of the first Intifada, before they started to crack down on the organization.
Hamas eventually emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987 within the context of the first Intifada. The Muslim Brotherhood (the Mujamma’) had mostly refrained from violence until then, but felt compelled to adopt “an actively combatant posture” that was more in line with the mood of the Palestinian population at the time. Hamas split off from the Mujamma’ as a separate body in order to protect the latter from Israeli reprisals. Thus, the authors argue that Hamas adopted jihad as a strategy because of the Intifada. The authors assert that Hamas rewrote its pre-Intifada history and framed itself as a jihadist nationalist movement that had merely been preparing for the Islamic nationalist armed struggle, to refute the claims that it had been dragged unwillingly into the Intifada, which the authors suggest was actually the case. Throughout the book, the authors argue that violence is a strategy for Hamas and not a goal, presumably to illustrate that its violence can be abandoned.
Outwardly and publically Hamas’ s agenda, embodied in its charter, includes liberating Palestine through a holy war against Israel, establishing an Islamic state on its soil, and reforming society in the spirit of true Islam. Outwardly, Hamas also refused to recognize the PLO and later the PA as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Yet privately, Hamas was willing to solve its ideological and political dilemmas, including the risk of direct confrontation with the PLO/PA and Israel, through flexibility and adaptability.
The authors argue that, “A comparison of Hamas’s declared principles with its concrete actions shows that it has been in Hamas’s interest to become politically active, to ensure its survival, and not to exclude the possibility of a settlement – albeit temporary – through nonviolent means.” Thus the organization has invested it’s “political imagination… and its organization energies” toward balancing “constantly growing conflicting considerations, competing demands, and contradictory needs.”
To support their argument that Hamas is a pragmatic organization willing to adapt to realities on the ground, the authors include a lengthy secret document that was circulated among Hamas’s rank and file in 1992 as a response to the Madrid talks in 1991 and the burgeoning peace process. The document reflects the understanding on the part of Hamas that it could not preclude the possibility of “an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian settlement.” The document was written with a nonideological and non-Islamic tone, and without the demonization of Israel or Jews, who the authors note are “usually referred to as descendants of Satan, monkeys and pigs” in Hamas propaganda. The document laid out the possible political scenarios that could emerge from the peace process and possible elections, as well as the various responses Hamas could take, including the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The authors argue that adaptability, not fanaticism, is the cornerstone of how Hamas conducts itself politically. Hamas managed its conflicting and contradictory commitments to a renewed Islamic Palestinian nationalism, the fostering of a new Islamic social order, and the liberation of Palestine through holy war on the one hand, and communal interests on the other with controlled violence against Israel, negotiated coexistence with the PLO and PA, and calculated participation in PA administration. The authors assert that it’s extremist tendencies are balanced by its recognition of political constraints and the political realities on the ground by noting that Hamas did not eliminate the possibility of joining the new, emerging Palestinian political order. Indeed, in 2006 Hamas did attempt to join it.
The book is not a polemic, nor is it apologetic toward Hamas – it does not shy away from what the authors call the “horrific” impact of the suicide bombings. Yet it is a dispassionate attempt to provide a thorough and realistic revisionist understanding of the organization – where it came from, what its policies have been, and placing those policies within the context of the political realities from which they emerged. It’s informative, if slightly repetitive at times, but well worth the read if you seek a deeper understanding of Hamas.