Trying to Understand Hamas

Trying to Understand Hamas

For the last few years I have had a somewhat idiosyncratic views on Hamas, even for someone on the Zionist left.  To the dismay and raised eyebrows of friends with whom I usually see eye to eye, including some connected with Partners for Progressive Israel, I have maintained that Israel and the US must seek to engage Hamas and that a Hamas/Fatah reconciliation is necessary for peace.  I’d like to explore these thoughts at some greater length in this posting.  
Let’s stipulate that Hamas’s covenant is a bloodthirsty and anti-semitic document, deriving from selected Quranic and traditional Muslim brotherhood sources, with some spicy additions from European racist anti-semitism.  You can explore it here.  Let’s also stipulate that there are very few Palestinians who welcome Israel’s presence in the Middle East, but many who are prepared to coexist with it because they want to move on with their lives.

Where I differ with my comrades on the Zionist left is, I think, that I see ideology, even the most heartfelt, religion-based ideology, as likely to be flexible in the space of a generation.  Law-based religions like Islam and Judaism can change rapidly – but they deny to high heaven that they are changing – and probably believe it themselves.  Look at religious Zionism.  Until the aftermath of the Six Day War they identified largely with the most dovish parts of the Labor party.  The hawks – gathered around Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook at Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva – were a small fringe.  Within twenty years they had taken over religious Zionism – and it’s the doves who are fringe in religious Zionism – gathered around Kehillat Yedidya in Baka, in South Jerusalem.

Back to Hamas.  I have little doubt that those who wrote the Hamas Covenant in early 1988 believed what they wrote.  As a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, they took the ideology as they found it.  They were animated by religious zeal and Palestinian nationalism – and rejection of the moderating trends in Fatah that few Israelis other than General (ret.) Yehoshofat Harkabi recognized.  They wanted to continue resistance (“Hamas” is an acronym in Arabic for “Islamic Resistance Movement”).

But an ironic thing started happening very soon.  Hamas started recognizing the real world of Israeli power and offered truces and other signs of moderation.  I wrote a long paper on Hamas in 2009, subtitled “Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility” with a Palestinian colleague, in which we documented this process.  It was published by the US Institute of Peace; you can find it here

Since then the process has, if anything, intensified, but it is anything but linear.  Every few months a top Hamas leader says something favorable about the two state solution or even the Arab Peace Initiative, which is invariably followed by a partial or full retraction.  This makes it clear that Hamas is internally torn; between those who think there are advantages in moderation and those who want to stick with the hardline political line.  Neither is a trick and neither is the whole story.  What they agree on is that Israel shouldn’t exist and that Israel doesn’t want a peace that Palestinians could live with.  What would throw the organization into disarray is a credible process in which Israel showed it was ready to adopt a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.  Then the divisions could no longer be papered over.  But the hardliners seem to have little to worry about; such a process does not seem to be imminent, despite Secretary Kerry’s arduous efforts.

I am not arguing that Hamas is composed of closet moderates or that it does not mean what it is saying; Hamas contains many political realists, not just fanatics.  You do not have to be a religious fanatic to be skeptical that Israel will ever move out of the territories and allow a Palestinian state to exist.  Ministers of the current and many past governments say it all the time.

Hamas represents about 25-35% of the Palestinian population; it’s too big to ignore.  Some portion of that fits the profile of those who will never be reconciled to Israel’s existence.  But it is a small portion; most of these have long since left Hamas and joined smaller, more militant organizations like Palestinian Islamic Jihad or al-Qaeda affiliates, and are fighting actively against Hamas.  Hamas contains the comparative moderates, difficult as it is for Americans and Israelis to accept.  Hamas has to keep looking over its right shoulder to be sure it’s not alienating too much of its base.

Finally, in the last year, Hamas had to face a very hard decision, whether to keep allied with its old friends and weapon suppliers, Syria and Iran, or to go with the so-called Sunni Axis, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are the main supporters of the Syrian rebels.  They opted for the latter.  Saudi Arabia and Qatar are principal supporters of the Arab Peace Initiative; they consider Bashar As’ad and Iran far more dangerous than Israel.  That is a fundamental shift for Hamas; even though they denounced the latest moderation of the API, they will be under a lot of pressure to accept it if Israel ever does.

It is simply not possible for Fatah to accept a peace process without Hamas’s acquiescence.  Hamas is too big to ignore and, like Israel, it is not going anywhere. Cut off from the rejectionist front, i.e., Iran and al Quaeda-like jihadis, it is likely to accept a peace plan similar to the API, but it will not itself “recognize” Israel, nor will it do so before Israel does.  I will discuss why I think this is the case in a subsequent column.

Thus, I think it is not helpful to write Hamas off as simply part of the problem.  It must be understood in the changing context of the Middle East, in a clear-eyed manner. It has been changing; we have to encourage that process.

By | 2013-05-09T02:00:00-04:00 May 9th, 2013|Blog|0 Comments

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