Fawaz Gerges, the University of London’s School of Economics and Political Science, argues in The Nation that Hamas has been moderating its positions since it participated in the 2006 elections, and it also must govern in order to maintain public confidence. Gerges notes:
The Damascus-based Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas’s political bureau and considered a hardliner, acknowledged as much in 2008. “We are realists,” he said, who recognize that there is “an entity called Israel.” Pressed by an Australian journalist on policy changes Hamas might make, Meshal asserted that the organization has shifted on several key points: “Hamas has already changed–we accepted the national accords for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and we took part in the 2006 Palestinian elections.”
Some of the challenges to Hamas have come from more radical jihadist groups, rather than from secular groups like Fatah. One example is Jund Ansar Allah (Warriors of God), who “declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Gaza.” This drew an immediate assault from Hamas, which Gerges describes as “a message to foes and friends alike that it will not tolerate global jihadist groups like Al Qaeda, which want to turn Gaza into a theater of transnational jihad.” As conditions in Gaza have deteriorated, Gerges writes, many young men have joined the radical groups that criticize Hamas for “forfeiting the armed struggle and failing to implement Shariah law.” In this context, Gerges places Hamas in the middle:
Compared with these puritanical and nihilistic groups, Hamas is well within the mainstream of Islamist politics. Operationally and ideologically, there are huge differences between Hamas and jihadi extremists such as Al Qaeda–and there’s a lot of bad blood. Hamas is a broad-based religious/nationalist resistance whose focus and violence is limited to Palestine/Israel, while Al Qaeda is a small, transnational terrorist network that has carried out attacks worldwide. Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have vehemently criticized Hamas for its willingness to play politics and negotiate with Israel. Hamas leaders have responded that they know what is good for their people, and they have made it crystal clear they have no interest in transnational militancy. Their overriding goal is political and nationalist rather than ideological and global: to empower Palestinians and liberate the occupied Palestinian territories.
Unlike Al Qaeda and other fringe factions, Hamas is a viable social movement with an extensive social network and a large popular base that has been estimated at several hundred thousand. Given its tradition of sensitivity and responsiveness to Palestinian public opinion, a convincing argument could be made that the recent changes in the organization’s conduct can be attributed to the high levels of poverty, unemployment and isolation of Palestinians in Gaza, who fear an even greater deterioration of conditions there.
Gerges believes that Israel’s inflexibility is now a greater obstacle to peace than Hamas, citing statements by the former director of Mossad and an analysis from the US Army Strategic Studies Institute:
Despite its frequently reactionary rhetoric, Hamas is a rational actor, a conclusion reached by former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who also served as Ariel Sharon’s national security adviser and who is certainly not a peacenik. The Hamas leadership has undergone a transformation “right under our very noses” by recognizing that “its ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future,” Halevy wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot just before the 2008 attack on Gaza. He believes Hamas is ready and willing to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The US Army Strategic Studies Institute published a similar analysis just before the Israeli offensive, concluding that Hamas was considering a shift of its position and that “Israel’s stance toward [Hamas]…has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking.”
Gerges concludes that the US and Israel must accept that Hamas has legitimacy from the support that it receives from the Palestinian people, encourage the unification of Hamas and Fatah, and realize that any lasting peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will need to include Hamas.
Here are my responses to the article:
- It’s helpful to make a distinction between nationally-based Islamist groups like Hamas and transnational terror groups like al-Qaeda. While they have important similarities (not the least of which is the willingness to murder civilians), they also have important differences and don’t always get along. I summarized historian James Gelvin’s contrast between them here. Also, Gelvin points out later in The Modern Middle East: A History that Hamas’ charter explicitly endorses nationalism. You can see that charter here.
- It’s frightening to think that Hamas, which just a little over a year ago was allowing rockets to be launched from its territory into Israeli towns and uses Palestinians as human shields, is the “mainstream” option in Gaza. Gerges makes an interesting case in this article and certainly knows more about this than I do, but I’m holding out for more evidence that Hamas has changed.
- I’d like to see a two-state solution, but based on what I stated in my last point, I understand why Israel has a harsh stance toward Hamas. So while I’m sure that there are ways that Israel could change its stance, saying that the government is inflexible doesn’t fully take into account recent history.
Hat tip: Jeff Goldberg
Filed under: Israel and the Palestinians | Tagged: Fawaz Gerges, Israel, Middle East, Palestinians | 3 Comments »