The Islamic Resistance Movement – Hamas is the abbreviation from the Arabic – has constituted the democratically elected government of the Palestinian territories since January 2006. It swept to power in that year, winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, amidst recognition of the failure of the traditional secular nationalist Palestinian parties, in particular the Fatah party which had dominated the Palestinian leadership for decades. The Washington Post, hardly a friendly voice for the Palestinians, examined the 2006 election results, admitted that they were a stunning blow for Israeli and American officials, and the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas consolidated its hold in the West Bank thus undercutting Hamas’ chance to assume power in that region.
Israel responded to the election results with economic warfare, imposing a blockade of Gaza, encouraging the Palestinian Authority to move against the incoming Hamas officials, and launched punitive raids into the occupied Palestinian territories in 2006. Israel, with the connivance of the American government, encouraged a mini-civil war between the Fatah group (the main component of the Palestinian Authority) and Hamas. It is no secret that the Bush administration conspired to undermine the democratic election of Hamas, and advised President Abbas to dissolve the Hamas organisation. Hamas was able to respond to these manoeuvres and consolidate its position in the Gaza strip, even with the Fatah-Hamas near-civil war over the 2006 and 2007 period. In June 2007, the split between Fatah and Hamas emerged as a split in the Palestinian government, with Fatah controlling the West Bank, and Hamas remaining in charge in Gaza.
This background is necessary in order to understand the latest onslaught by the Israeli military against the population of Gaza. The Palestinians in Gaza, suffering under an economic siege that has undermined basic living conditions, have been fighting for their very survival.
It is interesting to note that in 2006, immediately after the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, several and repeated attempts were made by the Hamas government to establish diplomatic and economic channels with the United States, the European Union and other countries. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, wrote to former US President George Bush, offering to recognise the post-1967 boundaries of Israel, and offered a long-term truce. Cata Charrett, writing in an article called Understanding Hamas for the online magazine Mondoweiss, elaborated that Haniyeh proposed a truce, indicating that stability and security were top priorities for his government, and called for an end to the economic blockade of Gaza on humanitarian grounds.
His letter has remained unanswered until today.
The latest Israeli incursion into the Gaza strip, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, is one part of the long-term strategy of Israel to undermine and demolish the Hamas government, and the chances of building a viable Palestinian state. A ceasefire has taken effect, and at the time of writing is still holding. This provides welcome relief for the people trapped inside Gaza. However, let us make no mistake, the Israelis deliberately targeted civilians, civilian infrastructure, and 2139 Palestinians were killed, 490 of them children. Thousands have been made homeless, with the United Nations stating that 20,000 homes have been rendered uninhabitable by Israeli shelling and air strikes. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) deliberately targeted the economic infrastructure, with factories destroyed, farmland ruined, and even livestock killed by aerial strikes. The Stop the War Coalition UK published an account of the devastation of the Gazan economy; croplands decimated, factories demolished and economic activity grinding to a halt:
GAZA’S ECONOMY will take years to recover from the devastating impact of the war, in which more than 360 factories have been destroyed or badly damaged and thousands of acres of farmland ruined by tanks, shelling and air strikes, according to analysts.
The same article continues:
Almost 10% of Gaza’s factories have been put out of action, said the Palestinian Federation of Industries. Most other industrial plants have halted production during the conflict, causing losses estimated at more than $70m(£42m), said the union of Palestinian industries. The UN’s food and agriculture organisation (FAO) said about 42,000 acres of croplands had sustained substantial direct damage and half of Gaza’s poultry stock has been lost due to direct hits or lack of care as access to farmlands along the border with Israel became impossible.
Even with the ceasefire in place, it will takes years for the Gazan economy to recover. Operation Protective Edge was just the latest in a string of Israeli offensives designed to inflict collective punishment, a crime under international law, on the Palestinians. As Palestinian intellectual Professor Rashid Khalidi wrote in the New Yorker magazine, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear during the latest attack on Gaza that his government demanded control of all the territory west of the Jordan river. The land, resources and wealth of that region was to be under Israeli control, nothing less than that. According to Netanyahu, the Palestinians must accept subordination, no question about that. Professor Khalidi elaborated that:
In the past seven or more years, Israel has besieged, tormented, and regularly attacked the Gaza Strip. The pretexts change: they elected Hamas; they refused to be docile; they refused to recognize Israel; they fired rockets; they built tunnels to circumvent the siege; and on and on. But each pretext is a red herring, because the truth of ghettos—what happens when you imprison 1.8 million people in a hundred and forty square miles, about a third of the area of New York City, with no control of borders, almost no access to the sea for fishermen (three out of the twenty kilometres allowed by the Oslo accords), no real way in or out, and with drones buzzing overhead night and day—is that, eventually, the ghetto will fight back. It was true in Soweto and Belfast, and it is true in Gaza. We might not like Hamas or some of its methods, but that is not the same as accepting the proposition that Palestinians should supinely accept the denial of their right to exist as a free people in their ancestral homeland.
Origins of Hamas
Hamas began in the context of the First Intifada (Uprising) by the Palestinians against Israeli occupation in 1987. There were Islamist-based Palestinian organisations prior to the First Intifada in Gaza and the West Bank. But they had been largely marginalised by the superior numbers and organisational capability of the secular nationalist parties, mainly Fatah, the main constituent party of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The latter, founded in the 1960s, embodied the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinians, fighting against Zionism and Israeli occupation, and served as an umbrella organisation for the various Palestinian political groups. The PLO was never a socialist group, but it did contain Communist and socialist political currents. The PLO emphasised the complete liberation of all of historic Palestine from the Zionist rule.
However, while the secular nationalist parties like Fatah dominated the Palestinian cause, the religiously-based groups were not silent. The antecedents of Hamas reside in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The latter can be viewed as the parent organisation, which gave birth to the Islamist parties that eventually spawned Hamas. In 1948, in the immediate aftermath of the Nakba (catastrophe), the Gaza strip was nominally under Egyptian control. The cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood made their way into Gaza, to establish an Islamist counterpart among the Palestinians.
In 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza directly, the Muslim groups in those territories merged, and began to organise in coordination. From 1967, the number of mosques and religiously-based schools in Gaza increased, along with social services, charities, helping the needy, medical clinics and welfare groups. The Islamist parties stressed the need to assist the downtrodden, and their standing increased among the people. In 1973, the Al-Mujamma al-Islam (Islamic Centre) was founded. This organisation is the direct ancestor of Hamas. In 1978, the Israeli occupation authority in Gaza formally recognised the Mujamma, this at a time when the PLO was ignored and slandered as a terrorist organisation. How ironic that today, Hamas faces the same snubs and slanders.
The Israelis at this stage looked upon the growth of the Islamist opposition as a necessary and beneficial development, because the Islamist groups provided a strong counterweight to the dominant secular nationalist Palestinian parties. The Israelis encouraged the growth of Al-Mujamma, even recognising it as a legitimate group and providing it funding. While it is incorrect to state that Israel created Hamas, the policy of the Israeli government to cultivate a religiously-based opposition to the secular parties in Gaza helped to lay the groundwork for the rise of Hamas. Israel’s tactic of tolerating the growth of politically Islamist parties corresponded to the wider US strategy of cultivating ties and encouraging the growth of politically conservative Islamist forces, such as Saudi Arabia, as a necessary blockage to the development of secular-based Palestinian and Arab nationalism. Islamist parties were a useful bulwark against the more politicised Arab and Palestinian movements. Clashes between the PLO and Mujamma supporters were not uncommon, and no doubt the Israelis looked upon such clashes with smug satisfaction.
The Mujamma organisation was not political, or at least looked up politics and fighting the occupation as a secondary issue. The main goal and activity of the group was to Islamise the society. New mosques and schools were built, charities started, medical services provided, youth and sports clubs opened, and community activities were associated with the mosque. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the Mujamma group had been building up the trust and goodwill of the population in Gaza, permeating the social and economic structures of the society, and they were in a strong position to launch themselves as the Hamas organisation in 1987 amid the first intifadah.
Throughout the 1980s, the PLO had suffered a series of defeats, and ended up retreating from their strongholds in Lebanon, relocated to faraway Tunis. While it is out of the scope of this article to examine in detail the reasons for these setbacks, suffice it to note that the PLO leadership began to retreat politically from the core demands of the Palestinian struggle – the return of the pre-1948 refugees, the reversal of all the measures of Zionism, the one-state solution for the whole of Palestine, the failure to address the apartheid-like conditions of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
As John Rees, organiser with the Stop the War Coalition UK, and editor of Counterfire online magazine states in his article:
The Palestine Liberation Organisation adopted a one-state solution as its aim in 1969. In January 1969 Fatah declared that it was not fighting against Jews, but against Israel as a racist and theocratic entity. The fifth national council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in February 1969 passed a resolution confirming that the PLO’s objective was ‘to establish a free and democratic society in Palestine for all Palestinians whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews’. Only successive attempts to compromise with US-inspired peace processes have moved the PLO away from this initial goal.
As the PLO withdrew from these basic demands, their popularity with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza began to diminish. With the weakness of the secular nationalist PLO, the Hamas group was ready to step into the breach. While the Mujamma organisation largely abstained from politics, Hamas adopted an avowedly political approach, and proposed political solutions based on their religion.
It was in this period of the First Intifadah that the Hamas organisation was established with the explicit political goals, namely the liberation of Palestine from Zionist colonisation, the return of the pre-1948 Palestinian refugees, and the foundation of a new independent Palestinian state. These goals were elaborated, along with the religious basis of Hamas’ worldview, in the foundational charter of that organisation. The Lillian Goldman Law Library of the Yale University Law School has kindly provided the full text of the Hamas charter. Go read the whole document – Hamas Charter 1988 – here it is.
This charter has been the obsessive focus of Israel’s supporters and Hamas’ detractors for the alleged inclusion of the goal of the destruction of Israel. Firstly, nowhere in this charter is that phrase ever used. There is talk about the liberation of historic Palestine, though what that involves is left unresolved by the document’s authors. The charter, written at the time of the first intifadah, represents the political thinking of Hamas at that time. This is the period when Hamas, moving from a purely religious interpretation of the Israel-Palestine conflict to a political one, responded to the realities on the ground. To depict Hamas as an intractable, unyielding menace to the very survival of Israel is more a matter of emotional sensationalism and not based upon a sound understanding of political and economic reality.
Khaled Hroub, director of the Arab Media Project at Cambridge University and a Palestinian refugee, authored a book called Hamas: A Beginner’s Introduction. He addresses the question of the charter, the target of such obsessive propaganda by Israel’s supporters. Hroub wrote this book back in 2006, when Hamas’ political strategy was paying off electoral success. He states that any suggestion that Hamas, or any other Arab political party, intends on physically destroying Israel is naive and slanderously false. Hamas’ charter is actually irrelevant to the day-to-day operation of that organisation. Hamas has moved into the political sphere, and is responding to the challenges and obstacles of the political process.
In fact, let us clear up another misconception: No, Hamas is not ISIS and ISIS is not Hamas. That is the title of an article by Larry Derfner, feature writer for The Jerusalem Post, as well as the correspondent in Israel for the U.S. News and World Report. No, Hamas is not hell-bent on exterminating every single person that opposes its views, like ISIS. No, Hamas is not targeting ethnic and religious minorities, like ISIS is currently doing. No Hamas does not want to establish a worldwide caliphate, like ISIS intends on establishing. However, Derfner elaborates that the most important difference to note is:
the decisive one between Hamas and ISIS, of course, is that Hamas represents a nation under foreign rule, which means Hamas is fighting a war of self-defense against Israel. ISIS is trying to take over a nation, or nations, that are beset by civil war, so ISIS, being the most murderous, totalitarian and feared of any of the factions, is fighting a war of aggression.
The Hamas charter does contain anti-Semitic statements. It conflates Judaism with Zionism, makes a reference to the notorious and execrable forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and recycles long-refuted tropes about Jewish monetary influence inciting the French and Russian revolutions, Jewish financial power being a uniquely nefarious originator of major political upheavals. These statements are inexcuseable, but they are also irrelevant, along with the charter itself, because Hamas has developed its politics and worldview from the narrow dichotomy between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ into a more sophisticated understanding of imperialist politics and the role of western colonialism in creating the tragedy of Palestine.
Hamas has not repudiated its charter, and it has maintained that document as an historical artifact. Indeed, Hamas leaders and documents, especially in the lead-up to the 2006 elections, made no mention of any such calls for the destruction of Israel. Such claims never featured in any election documents, or in its 2006 election manifesto. In the run-up to the 2006 elections, Hamas released its platform to the public. The manifesto maintains its support for armed struggle, opposition to Zionism, and an acceptance of an interim Palestinian state should Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 borders.
It is not unusual for political parties to move away and develop from their original founding documents: the Australian Labour Party has in its founding platform statements that call for the socialisation of the means of production, but the party has implemented economic and political reforms that have paved the road to privatisation and corporatisation of government assets. There are many complex political reasons for this, and the course of these reforms is up for debate. The current ALP leader Bill Shorten has repudiated the description of his party as socialist, and is demanding that Labour further accommodate the needs of big business. The equivalent process overtook the British Labour Party in the 1980s, with that organisation moving away from its socialistic roots and adopted a pro-corporate agenda when in power. Once again, the evaluation of this course can be debated, and is being debated both within and outside these parties.
The purpose here is not to have these debates over again, but to assert that political parties adapt and change according to economic and political realities. However, there is one party in the Middle East that is implementing its charter until today.
The Likud party of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly states in its charter that there will be no Palestinian state west of the Jordan river. The Likud charter goes on to state that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza represent the implementation of Zionist values, and constitute an asset in the defence of the state of Israel. Netanyahu’s government has not repudiated this charter, but is actually making it a reality on the ground until today. The latest Israeli offensive into Gaza was another episode of what Israeli officials like to describe as “mowing the lawn”; just as the Palestinians in Gaza get themselves organised into something resembling even the possibility of a viable state, Israel moves in to mow the lawn, undermining any chance of a survivable Palestinian state taking hold.
It is interesting to note that Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas political leader, did state that his organisation was ready to peacefully co-exist with Jews, Christians, and all other ethnic and religious minorities. He elaborated that;
Asked by veteran interviewer Charlie Rose whether he could foresee living beside Israelis in peace, Meshaal said only a future Palestinian state could decide whether to recognize Israel.
“We are not fanatics, we are not fundamentalists. We are not actually fighting the Jews because they are Jews per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers,” he said.
“I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians and the Arabs and non-Arabs,” he said. “However, I do not coexist with the occupiers.”
Hamas has developed an understanding of the multidimensional nature of the Israeli occupation, and articulated a political opposition to the Zionist project of colonisation. Hamas has accepted the concept of a Palestinian nation state, but not abandoned the more generalised Islamic concept of the Ummah; the wider Islamic community composed of Muslims around the world.
Oslo and beyond
The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 between the Israeli authorities and the PLO, represented the culmination of a long process of retreat by the Palestinian side. The PLO basically relinquished all the basic demands of the Palestinian liberation movement, while the Israelis made symbolic concessions. It is not necessary to go into the full details of the Oslo accords here; further information can be found in the article by the present author here. The salient point to note here is that the Oslo agreement, while being presented to the world as a mechanism of peace, is actually a device to undermine the legitimate grievances of the Palestinians, and undercut any possibility of an independent Palestinian state. Fatah and the PLO became an instrument of continuing the occupation, albeit by indirect means. Israelis were no longer directly deployed, even though the settlements remained and have expanded. Fatah, which eventually became the Palestinian Authority, was now responsible for policing the Palestinian territories. This abstention of leadership by Fatah allowed Hamas to step up and fill the gap.
The Israeli settlement expansion continued apace after 1993, Palestinian political prisoners still languished in Israeli jails, and the pre-1948 refugees remained stuck in refugee camps. Hamas began to campaign against the terms of the Oslo agreement, which they portrayed as capitulation to the occupiers. By 2000, with the eruption of the second major Palestinian intifadah, disillusionment with the Oslo process and the Palestinian Authority ran high. Hamas emerged as the undisputed leader of the uncompromising demands for Palestinian liberation. Its work among the poor, its social welfare services and educational programmes, and its unwavering commitment against the Israeli occupation won it adherents, and translated into electoral victory in 2006.
There are many criticisms to be made about Hamas’ underlying religious perspective, its stance on women, socially conservative positions on abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, all the usual issues that involve the debates between the secular and religious. In this, Hamas is no different to the similar debates that occur in the Christian-majority countries, like the United States, Australia and Britain. The point to emphasise hear is that while Hamas is struggling for the survival of the Palestinians, it is the duty of all humanitarian people to support its legitimate fight against the Israeli assault and blockade of Gaza. To use a parallel example, the international community’s support of the East Timorese people’s struggle for independence did not hinge upon the East Timorese giving up their traditional Catholic faith. Hamas is fighting the honourable fight.
Mustafa Omar, an Egyptian socialist explains, support for Hamas is unconditional, but not uncritical. Hamas is fighting against a barbaric enemy, a powerful military force that is deployed against civilian infrastructure in Gaza. The disproportionate use of unrelenting force by the occupying power, Israel, is lost amidst a barrage of emotionally sensationalist claims about Hamas rocket attacks, fired randomly as a desperate defensive measure which may cause civilian casualties. Hamas militants have carried out rocket attacks, that is true. Israel has used the entire Gaza strip and the Palestinian trapped inside as guinea pigs for testing its military technology, with Israel being the largest per-capita arms exporter in the world. Israel can rightly claim that its weapons work successfully in combat, having been used in Gaza with maximum impact.
Having tested their weapons against a defenceless civilian population, Israeli armaments manufacturers sell their wares to the highest bidder. All this business activity could not be done without the partnership of the United States. As the Stop the War Coalition UK explained;
The Israeli arms industry operates in close cooperation with its bigger sister in the US. The military aid the US gives to Israel ensures this cooperation, and every conflict in the Middle East contributes more to the profits of US arms giants (such as Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon) than to the Israeli arms companies.
What has Hamas proposed in the middle of all this death and destruction? The activist and author Medea Benjamin lists the practical demands raised by Hamas while the latest Israeli assault on Gaza was occurring:
- Withdrawal of Israeli tanks from the Gaza border
- Freeing the prisoners arrested after the killing of the three youths
- Lifting the siege and opening the border crossings to commerce and people, under UN supervision
- Establishing an international seaport and airport under U.N. supervision
- Increasing the permitted fishing zone to comply with international norms
- Reestablishing an industrial zone and improvements in further economic development in the Gaza Strip
Benjamin explains that these proposals are not only reasonable, but a basis for constructing a durable peace settlement. It is time to talk with Hamas as a serious negotiating partner, and stop libellously dismissing it as a fanatical, uncooperative terrorist organisation. Hamas has based its appeals to the wider community on international laws and human rights, laws that the United States government has routinely broken. Hamas speaks for the Palestinians of Gaza – let us listen to them seriously.