Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Hamas Dilemma:Part of the problem or part of the solution?

Israel E. Altman*


The Gaza impasse is causing Europe to rethink its stance toward Hamas. Hamas remains on the EU terror list and the EU considers the PA, not the Hamas government in Gaza, as its sole interlocutor. But recent events are triggering a new European debate where proponents of engagement with Hamas are gaining ground.
What should the EU approach to Hamas be? Hamas plays a central role in Palestinian society and politics, and its influence on the prospects of a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord is crucial. Hamas also won a democratic election in January 2006. Shouldn’t the EU engage Hamas formally as a partner in the international efforts to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Will such engagement not convince Hamas to moderate its positions and conduct? And isn’t it the case that isolation, by contrast, will further radicalize it?

So far, Hamas has not made any concession on the three conditions for engagement laid out by the Quartet – recognition of Israel, acceptance of the agreements which the PLO and the Palestinian Authority signed with Israel, and renunciation of terror- but do not these conditions demand that Hamas part with all its cards before negotiations even started? In short, shouldn’t Hamas become a part of the solution?

Hamas’ objectives

To answer this question one needs first to look at how Hamas defines itself and its goals. Article 8 of its Covenant (of 18 August 1988) states that “Allah is its target, the Prophet [Muhammad] is its model, the Koran is its constitution, jihad is its path, and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.” Unlike its main Palestinian rival, al-Fatah (“the Palestine National Liberation Movement”), Hamas (whose full name is "the Islamic Resistance Movement") is not a national liberation movement, whose objective is to establish a Palestinian nation- state in parts of historic Palestine. Hamas is a religious and revolutionary movement – a crucial distinction whose implications are sometimes not fully understood – whose objectives and strategies are anchored in religious doctrine.

Like its mother movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas is a movement of resistance to the present state order in the Middle East, where the Ottoman order was replaced by a system of nation-states set up by the West. Like the Brotherhood, Hamas rejects the separate Arab nation-state, and strives for the creation of a unified Islamic state under the Caliphate. Hamas’ ideological point of departure, like the Brotherhood’s, is the struggle between Islam and the West. It conceives of the conflict with Israel as part of a civilization war, where Israel is seen as the spearhead of the West’s imperialist onslaught against Islam.

Hamas therefore rejects the PLO’s approach to the conflict, which regards it as a political-national one between the Palestinian nation and the Zionist movement. Its struggle to liberate all of historic Palestine (not just the West Bank and Gaza) is not a national Palestinian struggle. Furthermore, Hamas holds that Zionism and the loss of Palestine are the cause of the weakness of the Muslim world, not its result, as others maintain. Hence for Hamas the struggle to destroy Israel has a universal Islamic dimension, which by far exceeds the national interests of the Palestinians. This underlying worldview explains Hamas’ willingness to join ranks with disparate regional forces – the regional “Resistance Front” (“Jabhat al-Mumana’ah”), that includes Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and which is supported by Hamas’ sister organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt and Jordan. They all share the desire to undo the regional status quo, which is dominated by pro-Western states, and to eliminate Western influence, in all its manifestations, from the region.

Regardless, Hamas said that it accepted the idea of setting up of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. However, this is not a point of departure from its ideology, dictated by the more mundane realities it now confronts as it sits in government. Establishing an Islamic state in Gaza and the West Bank will only be a stage towards the liberation of the entire Palestine, and even that will not be the final goal: as Hamas’ foreign minister, Mahmud al-Zahhar, recently put it, liberating all of Palestine is only an intermediary objective of Hamas, while its strategic goal is to reconstruct the Islamic Caliphate in the region as a whole: “For us, resistance is not a tactic, it is our culture”, he said. And While the PLO’s, and al-Fatah’s, view of the conflict with Israel as a political one allows some room for compromise, Hamas’ religious prism precludes it. As Hamas’ official manifesto states, it is absolutely unacceptable for it to concede any part of the land or to give the Zionist occupation any sort of recognition, and the idea of a political settlement to the conflict is utterly unacceptable and contradicts Islamic law.

Can the realities of power change Hamas’ ideological purism?

A frequently heard argument is that even hardliners can embrace pragmatism if brought into the spheres of power. Has Hamas’ electoral victory created that potential, which the West has blindly failed to exploit by refusing to engage? Hamas was totally surprised by its victory in the January 2006 legislative elections. It contested them not in order to become the government, as that would expose it to pressures to make ideological concessions; rather, it sought to use the elections to advance its long-term plan to establish its presence, and eventually domination, in the Palestinian representative bodies, as a means to take over the PLO and turn it into an effective tool for the Islamic struggle. Once in power, Hamas preferred ideological purity to realism. In the tension between Hamas’ convictions as a religious resistance movement and what is required from it as a national government, the imperatives of the resistance movement have so far taken precedence over the interest of the state. Hamas’ unwavering rejection of the Quartet’s three demands in spite of the consequences of that rejection for the Palestinian population it rules well illustrates this choice.

Indeed, Hamas’ revolutionary nature and contempt for the sovereignty of the secular nation-state were evident when its members destroyed all symbols of the Palestinian Authority (under whose legitimacy they contested and won the legislative elections) when they revolted against it in Gaza last June; or when they breached the Palestinian-Egyptian border last January and, reportedly in coordination with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, sent hundreds of thousands of Gazans into Egypt, in violation of the latter’s national sovereignty.

This contempt was underscored by Hamas Political Bureau chief, Khalid Mash’al, when he stated that “I pressed upon my Egyptian brothers [i.e. the Egyptian government] that we should rapidly reach an understanding on the manner in which the Rafah crossing should be run. [I said to them that] the time has come for the passage to be [controlled exclusively by] Egyptians and Palestinians, and that we ought not restrict ourselves by the international agreement regarding the passage. Time has come for us to be over with that agreement. As I said before, many [international] treaties are done with, particularly those which are unjust…”

Similarly Hamas rejects Western concepts of democracy and political pluralism. According to Mahmud al-Zahhar, in Hamas’ future state only parties whose ideologies are Islamic will be allowed to participate in elections. The elections will be a competition between Islamic parties and groups which consider Islam as their framework of authority and the Koran as their constitution, and they will present to the voter their varying interpretations of Islam’s principles and instructions – including a dhimmi status for Christians and Jews.

Hamas is far from being a totally homogeneous movement. Not everyone in Hamas speaks in one voice, and there are internal tactical disagreements. Some Hamas figures assign more consideration than others to the exigencies of Hamas as a government, and are more attentive to Saudi and Egyptian moderating influences. But it is those elements in the Gaza leadership which uphold Hamas’ doctrine uncompromisingly, and the military arm, which have the upper hand in the debate., .

Moreover, the final word is that of the external leadership, the members of the Political Bureau, and its head, Khalid Mash’al. Based in Damascus, that leadership forms part of the Iranian and Syrian regional schemes, and its agenda has little to do with the welfare of the Gaza population. Its current goal is to take over the West Bank from al-Fatah, to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, and replace the PLO, as the internationally recognized representative of all the Palestinians, with a new, Hamas-dominated structure. Mash’al’s reported recent meeting with the late chief of Hezbollah’s terror operations, ‘Imad Mughniyah, in Damascus illustrates the closeness of the operational ties between the two organizations.

The international community already tried in the past to engage Hamas, betting its money on the more pragmatic elements in the movement, but that did not lead the latter to moderation. A year ago, many considered the Mecca Agreement and the Hamas-Fatah unity government as an opportunity to gradually bring Hamas, or its more pragmatic elements, to accepting the Quartet’s three demands, and in that context several Western governments established a dialogue with Hamas. That effort did not bear fruits: Rather than moderate its positions, Hamas carried out its June 2007 revolt- at least partly as a result of Iran’s lack of enthusiasm over the Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement.

Hamas’ hardline stance is further underscored by its close association with Iran, despite the Sunni/Shi’a tensions and no lack of support across the Sunni world. Hamas considers Iran as a model to be followed and as an ally, both in the Islamic revolution, to which Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood aspire but unlike Iran have never accomplished; and in the defiance of the West and the struggle against its domination of the Middle East.

As for Iran, the “Resistance Front” serves it as a major instrument of influence in two of the main regional trouble spots, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Lebanon, which makes her a major regional player, in addition to her decisive influence on the future of Iraq. Keeping the Palestinian-Israeli conflict boiling, and preserving Hamas as a resistance movement, are therefore key Iranian strategic interests.


Hamas’ behavior and objectives undermine the theory that radical political movements, once included in the political system, and more so when they are in power, are constrained by political realities to become more pragmatic and to moderate their positions. In fact, its kin has consistently proven that theory wrong:

• Iran has not changed its worldview and its objectives since the Islamic Revolution. As recently proven by the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, Iran pursued a nuclear weapon program at the height of its ‘dialogue of civilizations’ with the West under the presidency of reformist leader, Mohammad Khatami. European engagement with Tehran and extensive trade relations did not moderate Iran’s nuclear stance or its support for terrorism

• Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy and Hamas’ close ally, has not changed its worldview, objectives or conduct, or dismantled its guerrilla and terror arms. It continues to act as a state within a state, systematically undermining the authority of the Lebanese government, despite being included in the national Lebanese democratic processes and political institutions, parliament and government alike, and despite being engaged by the international community.

• The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, through its political arm, The Islamic Action front, participates in the electoral processes on the local and national levels alike, sits in parliament and in the past sat in the government. That has not made it either democratic or moderate.

Hamas is no different from its sister organizations and ideological twins. A dialogue with Hamas will not guarantee an easing of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It will grant legitimacy to Hamas to the detriment of Europe’s current Palestinian interlocutors, the Palestinian Authority. What will be the value of a dialogue conducted with the more pragmatic Hamas elements in Gaza, when the strategic decisions affecting the movement are made elsewhere - in Damascus and in Teheran? One reason "al-Fatah" was able to moderate its positions was its success in securing what it called "the independence of the Palestinian decision" from outside forces; this is not the case of Hamas.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy, the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. This essay is based on a briefing recently given by the author at the Transatlantic Institute.


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