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Hamas is the enemy of the Palestinian people

Long-read

Hamas is the enemy of the Palestinian people

This reactionary religious movement has never had any interest in national liberation.

James Heartfield

Topics Long-reads Politics

On 7 October last year, Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades attacked southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking another 250 hostage. Despite this demonstration of anti-Semitic barbarism, many Western anti-Israel activists continue to see Hamas as some sort of ‘resistance’ movement, fighting for Palestinian nationhood.

This view couldn’t be more wrong. As Italian journalist Paola Caridi shows in her largely sympathetic account of the group, Hamas: From Resistance to Government (originally published in 2009 but updated last year), Hamas is not and never has been a national-independence movement. It is above all an intransigent, religious movement set on the destruction of Israel.

The exhaustion of Palestinian nationalism

To get to grips with the nature and development of Hamas, it’s important to understand the broader historical background. The central problem here for Palestinians and Israelis is that their national aspirations are irreconcilable.

Israel was founded in 1948, after Jewish people revolted against Palestine’s British rulers. (With a mandate from the League of Nations, the British took over from the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled Palestine for over four centuries, at the end of the First World War.) During the 1920s and especially the 1930s, Palestine’s indigenous Jewish population was supplemented by refugees from Eastern Europe and later Nazi Germany. This growing and increasingly restive populace rebelled against British occupation, just as neighbouring Iraqis did in the 1920s and 1940s, and Egyptians did in the late 1910s and early 1920s. In doing so, these rebellions laid claim to new nations, which claimed descent from ancient civilisations.

Many Arabs, caught in the crossfire of the often violent Jewish struggle for an Israeli state in the late 1940s, fled to the neighbouring territories of the Egyptian-governed Gaza Strip and the Jordanian West Bank. In 1967, Israel defeated the Arab coalition of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War. Through this war, Israel conquered the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, complete with their Arab populations. These became the ‘occupied territories’.

As the Six-Day War demonstrated, the Arab world refused to accept Israel’s existence. Arab nations took Israel as an affront to their own independence. Yasser Arafat, born to Palestinian parents in Cairo in 1929, co-founded the paramilitary organisation, Fatah, in the late 1950s. Its object was to fight for a Palestinian state. In 1967, Fatah joined and became the dominant faction in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which was then a national-independence movement. Arafat became PLO leader in 1969.

Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, visits a military training camp in Algeria, 19 February 1983.
Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, visits a military training camp in Algeria, 19 February 1983.

Israel’s leaders always understood that the national aspirations of Palestinians were irreconcilable with the existence of Israel. Hence, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir insisted in a 1976 New York Times op-ed that there were no ‘Palestinians’, only Arabs, living in Egypt, Jordan and Israel itself.

The conflict between Israel and Palestinians has always had an international dimension. During the Cold War, out of a fear of an Arab nationalist revolt, the US and other leading Western powers supported Israel, while Arab states and the USSR supported the PLO. They saw Palestine as an emblem of resistance against Western domination. This international politicisation of ethnic claims in the Middle East has had terrible consequences, often entrenching and inflaming the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

During the 1980s, the PLO found itself being pulled in two different directions. On one side, Arab states Jordan and Saudi Arabia made peace with the West, distanced themselves from the USSR and began making a cautious peace with Israel. They wanted the PLO to compromise with Israel. On the other side, Syria and Libya wanted the PLO to fight on.

Matters started coming to a head during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The PLO was reluctantly forced to acknowledge Israel’s existence in 1988. The collapse of the USSR, the PLO’s main source of international support, exerted further pressure on Arafat. In 1994, he accepted a subordinate statelet in the West Bank as the ‘Palestinian Authority’ (PA), during the negotiations for the Oslo Accords (1993-95). This proposed ‘two-state solution’ reflected US hopes that the rival claims of Israelis and Palestinians could be reconciled.

The rise of Hamas

Hamas was founded in December 1987, in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp, during an uprising against Israel, otherwise known as the First Intifada (1987-1993).

Many commentators have argued that Hamas’s rise rested on the failure of Fatah. According to this narrative, Hamas offered the unwavering leadership that Arafat’s compromised organisation no longer could. While Fatah was chasing support in UN committee rooms, young Palestinians were taking on the Israel Defence Forces during the intifada. It was to these young men that Hamas appealed.

In December 1987, the first statement under the Hamas name was issued. Hamas said it wanted ‘to awaken the consciences of those who are gasping after a sick peace, after empty international conferences, and treasonous partial statements like Camp David’ (where Egyptian prime minister Anwar Sadat met with Israel’s Menachem Begin in 1978). From that point on, so the story goes, Hamas gradually won more people over to its side by painting the Fatah leadership as having sold out the cause of Palestinian liberation.

But, as Caridi shows in Hamas, there is another side to Hamas’s rise. The same communiqué from 1987 also states that ‘the intifada is here to convince’ the Palestinians ‘that Islam is the solution and the alternative’. Caridi’s careful reconstruction of the rise of Hamas shows that Hamas’s motivations were principally religious, not political. They were right-wing reactionaries, not radicals.

The PLO emerged from the Arab national-independence movements of the mid-20th century, which were inspired by the socialist thinking of Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the principal leaders of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Hamas, in contrast, was rooted in the reactionary, Islamist tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood, repressed in postwar Egypt, was tolerated in Jordan because it was seen as a conservative counterweight to Nasserite radicalism. Caridi quotes a senior Brotherhood leader explaining his group’s support for Jordan’s King Hussein during the ‘Black September’ civil war of 1970, when he turned on Arafat’s PLO, who were then refugees in Jordan. ‘We stood with the king in order to protect ourselves’, explains the Brotherhood leader, ‘because if Nasser’s followers had risen to power, or had a pro-Nasser government been established in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood would have been liquidated just as they were liquidated in Egypt’.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the religious reactionaries who would go on to found Hamas were fighting left-wing radicals for control of students’ unions in the West Bank and Gaza. According to Caridi, violence broke out at the Al-Najah University in Nablus in 1981, Hebron Polytechnic in 1982 and the Islamic University in Gaza City in 1983, where more than 200 were injured.

The decision to organise the Brotherhood in the occupied territories, in the shape of Hamas, was taken before the First Intifada, in a secret conference in Amman in 1983. The aim was not Palestine’s national liberation. It was, as Caridi notes, to translate ‘the [Brotherhood’s] religious message into political practice’.

Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the other groups that formed the PLO in the 1960s drew their ideology from the left. Hamas drew its ideology from the religious right. Its founding charter, published in 1988 and probably written by Hamas co-founder Abdul Fatah Dukhan, states:

‘The initiatives, what is called a “peaceful solution” and “international conferences” to resolve the Palestinian problem, are contrary to the ideology of the Islamic Resistance Movement, because giving up any part of Palestine is like giving up a part of religion. The nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its religion; it educates its members on this, and they perform the jihad to raise the banner of God over the nation’

This charter was Hamas’s principal statement of purpose up until a second document was put out in 2017. It cites several cranky references to the Hadiths and to Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders. It even cites the notoriously anti-Semitic document forged by the Tsarist secret services, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as if it was good coin.

Hamas’s commitment to Palestine is secondary to its commitment to Allah. Article 11 of the charter defines Palestine as an inalienable Islamic property, or waqf. Palestine ‘cannot be subject to the disposal of men’, it says – it is ‘an Islamic land entrusted to the Muslim generations until Judgement Day’. This apparently means that ‘no one may renounce all or even a part of it’.

Hamas’s commitment to ridding Palestine of Zionism is not a commitment to the freedom of the Palestinian people. It’s a commitment to ensuring the Palestinian people’s subordination to God. The charter also rules out territorial compromise. So no matter how much Western supporters of the Palestinian cause might project the hope that Hamas will cease fire and make an agreement with Israel, Hamas itself has no intention of doing so. As Caridi notes, Western negotiators often told Hamas’s political representatives that the 1988 charter is a barrier to any sort of peace, but ‘no one within Hamas’s leadership [was] prepared to disavow’ it.

In 1994, Hamas began to recruit groups of youngsters unknown to the Israeli authorities to carry out suicide attacks. At first, it was claimed that these attacks were retaliation for the IDF’s actions. But as Caridi explains, ‘the reprisal mutated into a “strategy of tension” that aimed to inflict as much damage as possible upon the emerging peace process and the Declaration of Principles [the first of the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993] by [then Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin’s] Israel and Arafat’s Palestine’. Hamas launched indiscriminate attacks inside Israeli cities in cafés, on buses, and at crowded crossroads. It justified these on the grounds that all Israelis were military targets because every Israeli undertakes military service. This, notes Caridi, stretched ‘the concept of a soldier, such that the victims of suicide attacks were no longer civilians’.

Hamas’s intransigence may have been a barrier to getting a hearing in the West, but it appealed to the unhappy Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Many Western anti-Israel campaigners claim that Hamas is resisting Israel’s rapacious expansionism. But that is not really true. Hamas’s rise to power in Gaza came about not in response to Israeli expansion, but during a period of Israeli retrenchment and withdrawal. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel handed over the major towns in the West Bank to the PA. In 2000, Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon, which they had occupied since the invasion of 1982. Then, five years later, Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip. The US, the EU, the UN and Russia, all of whom helped to oversee negotiations between Israel and its antagonists, hoped that Israel’s withdrawal could become the basis of the much anticipated two-state solution.

Hamas militants are seen during a military show in the Bani Suheila district  of Gaza City , 20 July 2017.
Hamas militants are seen during a military show in the Bani Suheila district of Gaza City , 20 July 2017.

But this didn’t satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, nor the religious ambitions of Hamas. Seeing his negotiating power dwindle during the years of talks, Arafat secretly encouraged Hamas to attack Israel. ‘Arafat realised that negotiations without claws will produce nothing’, reported long-standing Hamas militant Mahmoud Zahar. Moreover, Arafat ‘recommended that Hamas carry out a number of military operations in the heart of the Hebrew state’.

Arafat’s cynical ploy cost many lives as Hamas, once again, sent young men strapped with explosives to their deaths. This was the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005. Not only did this strategy waste innocent lives and gullible recruits – it also fatally undermined Fatah. Israeli hawks were confirmed in the belief that Arafat was not a trustworthy partner, and Hamas got the status of the legitimate and unwavering champion of the Palestinian people. Arafat nursed the viper that would in time destroy Fatah.

Hamas’s intransigence did create a tactical problem. The religious commitment to the waqf left no room for pauses in fighting. Conscious that the civilian population was war weary, Hamas’s religious scholars revived the idea of hudna or ‘ceasefire’. This was modelled on the Prophet’s 7th-century Treaty of al-Hudaybiya with the Makkans, where he agreed to suspend hostilities so that his followers could make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Mousa Abu Marzook, then head of Hamas’s politburo, explained hudna as ‘a way of accepting an interim solution that is consistent with the Sharia, namely an armistice’. Abu Marzook explained that: ‘This differs from a peace agreement in that the armistice has a set duration, and it does not require the usurpation of rights by the enemy.’ So after five years of the Second Intifada, Hamas offered a hudna.

Western policymakers hoped that this was a sign that even Hamas could be tempted into the political process. But they failed to understand that hudna was strictly temporary and entailed no recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Peace, for Hamas, was (and is) only a tactical pause allowing it to regroup and prepare for the next war.

In the mid-2000s, Western policymakers tried to bolster Fatah and the PA. After Arafat’s death in 2004, they pushed for his Fatah successor, Mahmoud Abbas, to be elected as the president of the PA. But once Hamas decided that it would also stand in the PA elections, it won a handsome majority in the assembly in 2006. A tense stand-off between the Abbas presidency and Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, eventually led to conflict in Gaza.

In 2007, Abbas’s Presidential Guard forces were defeated by Hamas, which then took control of Gaza. So it was that Hamas took indefinite control over Gaza through a coup, while President Abbas carried on governing the West Bank and representing the PA.

Caridi explains well Hamas’s many attempts to break out of its international isolation. It sought alliances with Egypt under the brief government of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. It also reached out to Turkey, Qatar and, latterly, Iran. At the same time, the US and the EU made attempts to embrace Hamas as a partner in peace, too.

Yet throughout Hamas made little attempt to hide its ambitions. The more that Western politicians invited Hamas to talk, the more its representatives made it clear that their goal is to destroy Israel. As Caridi records, in 2012, Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashal gave a speech in Gaza City that coined the slogan since adopted by US college protesters: ‘Palestine is ours from the sea (Mediterranean) to the river (Jordan), from the north to the south. There will be no concessions, not even on a square centimetre of the land.’

In 2017, after years of fielding hostile questions from journalists and policymakers about the 1988 charter, Hamas issued a new one, although it has never repudiated the original. The language was more modish, but the meaning had hardly changed. The charter defines Palestine as the land ‘which extends from the River Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west’ – in other words, including the entire land of Israel. The ‘establishment of the Zionist entity’ and the ‘expulsion’ of the Palestinians does ‘not annul the right of the Palestinian people to their entire land and [does] not entrench any rights therein for the usurping Zionist entity’.

Elsewhere, the charter seems to be pitched in terms that will appeal to US college campuses: ‘The Zionist project is a racist, aggressive, colonial and expansionist project based on seizing the properties of others.’ There is talk, too, of adhering to ‘international norms and laws’, a clear attempt to curry favour with Western observers. The charter even tries to rebrand Hamas’s anti-Semitism – it conveniently claims anti-Semitism is a purely European phenomenon – as anti-Zionism, stating: ‘Hamas does not wage a war against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine.’ This glosses over the fact that ‘the Zionists who occupy Palestine’ happen to be Jewish.

There were still plenty of red flags throughout the new charter, suggesting that Hamas was preparing to wage all-out war against Israel. It states that Hamas will continue fighting Israel using ‘all means and methods’, and calls the commitment to ‘armed resistance’, ‘a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws’. But the voguish talk of adhering to ‘international norms’, and the utterly unconvincing disavowal of anti-Semitism, succeeded in deceiving global powers into thinking Hamas had changed. As Hamas’s international spokesman, Osama Hamdan, noted at the time the new charter was published, it received ‘positive responses from Sweden and Norway along with positive signs from Britain… in addition to the supportive positions from Russia and China’.

Since the 7 October attack, the Israel Defence Forces have occupied most of Gaza and are dismantling Hamas’s fighting capability. But Western policymakers still seem unable to see Hamas for what it is. They continue to believe that Hamas must be a part of the eventual peace settlement. This is based on a fatal misunderstanding. Hamas is not an authentic representative of Palestinian people. It is a degenerate expression of the dead end that Palestinian nationalism has reached. It cannot govern or make any kind of settlement that is not the prelude to further conflict.

The sooner Palestinians rid themselves of Hamas and all that it represents, the better.

James Heartfield’s latest book is Britain’s Empires: A History, 1600-2020, published by Anthem Press.

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Topics Long-reads Politics

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