The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply personal to me. I am Israeli, and still have family in Israel. I also have Palestinian friends and acquaintances. Death and suffering are not abstract or theoretical notions. They will always affect someone that I know. As such, it can be a painful topic for me to discuss, but I do want to raise some perspectives that I feel are missing from the popular debates on blogs and social media now that violence has escalated in the Gaza Strip. Needless to say, my views are my own. Difficult Run has multiple voices, and welcomes different views. Before I proceed, I would like to direct the reader to two even-handed and reasonable pieces written by people that I know personally. While I disagree with both to some extent (the Mercurio quote can get tiresome), I appreciate the way that they frame their views, and recommend reading them. It is worth the time.
In this post I want to look at a major aspect of Hamas, the terrorist organization that became the ruling party in Gaza. Recently there have been several voices arguing that Hamas has been “horrendously misrepresented.” Most recently, Cata Charrett claimed that Hamas should be seen as a “pragmatic and flexible political actor.” This is essentially the same argument made earlier by others like Jeroen Gunning who produced pioneering research on the political side of Hamas.1
Hamas’ position, though, is not merely political, but draws deeply from certain metaphysical assumptions which frame their struggle. I’ll grant that divergent opinions certainly exist amongst the Hamas leadership. Some are pragmatists, and many others are decidedly hardliners. However, they do share a certain world-view.
Hamas’ founder, chief ideologue, and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, considered Palestine a waqf, that is, something consecrated to God. He formulated this belief as article 11 of Hamas’ Covenant, its charter document.
“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that. Palestine is an Islamic waqf land consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgment Day… This is the law governing the land of Palestine in the Islamic Sharia…”
Treating the land that way means that any permanent concessions can be construed as blasphemy against God himself and Islam (which of course aren’t considered completely separate concepts). There is also no earthly authority that can do so because it cannot speak for all Muslim generations. Compromise can only be tactical, and thus, limited. It makes negotiating with Hamas to achieve a peaceful state of coexistence a decidedly tricky prospect. As the concept is part of their founding covenant, it cannot simply be laid aside, even when they somewhat moderate their stance, or express some discomfort with the wording.2 For example, much has been made of Hamas dropping the call to destroy Israel from its 2006 election manifesto. However, the evidence suggests that this was downplaying a fundamental position in order to focus on domestic political ambitions. The fundamental position itself did not change. This is despite Charrett’s insistence that the 1988 covenant is irrelevant to understanding the contemporary Hamas. Ghazi Hammad, a Hamas politician, said in 2006, that “Hamas is talking about the end of the occupation as the basis for a state, but at the same time Hamas is still not ready to recognise the right of Israel to exist… We cannot give up the right of the armed struggle because our territory is occupied in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is the territory we are fighting to liberate.”
Hamas has sought not a lasting peace, but a hudna, a temporary, multi-year cessation of violence for which it demands a very high price. Yes, Hamas has offered to recognize the June 1967 borders, but only for 10-20 years, and conditioned on Israel granting Palestinians the right of return and evacuating all settlements outside of said borders. Those terms should be worked out, but as part of a lasting, normative peace. When the twenty years are up (or less), Israel will find itself disadvantaged, its very existence considered an act of aggression. Khalid Mish’al, Hamas’ current leader, wrote in 2006 that, “We shall never recognise the right of any power to rob us of our land and deny us our national rights. We shall never recognise the legitimacy of a Zionist state created on our soil in order to atone for somebody else’s sins or solve somebody else’s problem.” In order to obtain another hudna, Israel will have to make concessions just as big. The possibility of permanent peace is vaguely left to the judgment of the next generation.3
Now, there are Jewish metaphysics of the land, too. The most famous is it being the land promised by God to his people Israel. Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap, a prominent member of Rabbi Kook’s circle in the first half of the 20th century, considered the land of Israel a part of the highest aspect of the Divine. ‘‘In days to come, [the land of] Israel shall be revealed in its aspect of Inﬁnity [Ein Sof], and shall soar higher and higher… Although this refers to the future, even now, in spiritual terms, it is expanding inﬁnitely.’’ Charlap further considered Jewish settlement of the land of Israel as an essential condition for holiness to spread throughout the world. His teachings were very influential amongst radical Jewish settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. More recently, R. Yitzchak Ginsburg taught that Chabad’s seventh rebbe was the manifestation of the Divine, and that in order to return him to this world the land of Israel must be saved from “Arab hands.”4
The major difference that I see is that Israel-even under a right-wing government- has shown itself willing to act against groups with such metaphysical views. When unilaterally disengaging from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the Israeli government dismantled the Jewish settlements, and expelled the settlers. The settler ideology (particularly in the Gaza Strip), as I’ve mentioned, was highly informed by teachings like that of Charlap’s. Such metaphysics, though, do not form an integral aspect of Israeli policy. Israel may be right or wrong about many things like the Gaza disengagement, but that is beside the point. Although I love it dearly, it is certainly an imperfect state. What matters here is the ability to lay aside metaphysics of the land and carry out concessions that are unpopular with many of its constituents.
Perhaps Hamas will change into a truly moderate force. Perhaps.
4 thoughts on “A Little on Hamas”
Interesting article, but I think that you should consider also the historical background. This article appeared a few days ago on Ha’aretz:
The carnage witnessed in these last few days in the Gaza Strip carries with it a major lesson: Instead of turning Palestinians against Hamas, the Gaza blockade makes them more dependent on the group. But while most of the commentary is focusing on the Palestinians’ responsibilities for the election of Hamas in 2006 (it’s worth noting that over 53 percent of the population in the Gaza Strip is now under 18 years of age and thus didn’t vote), on Egypt’s role, or on analyzing who started this new round of violence, very few are concentrating on the historical roots of this tragedy.
The population in the Gaza Strip is mainly composed by families of Palestinian refugees. Many of them were expelled in 1948 from Najd, Al-Jura and Al-Majdal, present-day Or Haner, Sderot and Ashkelon (a city of Canaanite origins, that included, until 1948, al-Majdal). These villages were razed to the ground by the Israel Defense Forces to prevent the return of their inhabitants. The latters were transferred by bus to the camps and the cities that form the present-day Gaza Strip.
In the years to follow, several cases occurred in which refugees, or “infiltrators,” crossed the armistice lines to collect possessions and pick up unharvested crops, or to raid Israeli settlements adjacent to the Strip. In that phase, a number of Israeli fatalities occurred and, in historian Benny Morris’ words, “Israel’s defensive anti-infiltration measures resulted in the death of several thousand mostly unarmed Arabs during 1949-56.”
Despite the anger and fears connected to its tragic past, the population in the Gaza Strip remained largely apolitical and very hesitant toward the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor of Hamas.
The first local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, already at the time composed by different factions, was established in Jerusalem in 1946. Its first representatives, however, arrived from Egypt in 1936 with the aim of encouraging the Palestinians in their struggle against the British strategy for the region and Jewish immigration.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Brotherhood weakened due to the harsh repression carried out by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. After the Six-Day War of 1967, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) shifted increasingly toward violence and terrorism, a strategy that Hamas’s precursors did not embrace.
They chose instead to focus on social and cultural activities – benefiting for this from the tolerance of the Israeli authorities, which regarded them as a counterbalance to the main enemy, the PLO – in an environment that was increasingly turning toward religion. Between 1967 and 1987, the year in which Hamas was founded, two decades after the beginning of the Israeli occupation, the number of mosques in Gaza tripled from 200 to 600.
Hamas was created in 1987 during the outbreak of the first intifada. Its founder, the Al-Jura-born Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, established its movement out of the largely dormant Brotherhood’s Gaza branch and with the aim of assuming a driving role in the revolt of 1987.
The organization carried out its first attack against Israel in 1989, killing two soldiers. Sheikh Yassin was sentenced to life in prison and 400 Hamas activists were deported to the Israeli-occupied South Lebanon, where Hezbollah and Hamas established their ties.
Iz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas’s military branch, were established in 1991. Two years later, they started to carry out terrorist attacks in the West Bank, and from April 1994 – two months after the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in a mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs – they began their suicide bombings inside Israel. Anti-Semitic statements by several Hamas members and clerics, similar to those included in the Hamas Charter of 1988, since then became increasingly common.
In March 2004, Sheikh Yassin was killed by an Israeli missile strike. Hamas survived and began to participate in the electoral process, gaining increasing support among the local population, mainly thanks to its social activities and the effects of the Israeli occupation.
Following Hamas’ victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Ismail Haniyeh, the newly elected prime minister, sent a dispatch to U.S. President George W. Bush, asking to be recognized and offering a long-term truce with Israel and the establishment of a border on the lines of 1967. His message, as a similar one sent to the Israeli authorities, remained unanswered. A similar destiny was reserved in the same months for the Arab League’s peace initiative.
As in the case of the Likud Charter of 1999 (whose main principles, including the rejection of a Palestinian state, have never been retracted), also Hamas was still far from being ready to recognize the State of Israel, but was willing to adopt a pragmatic approach.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to respond to Hamas’ takeover of Gaza with a blockade played into the hands of the organization’s military wing. Furthermore, the failure of Hamas’ political wing to remove the Israeli closure undermined any attempt to explore pragmatic solutions.
“The differences between the party’s platform and the Islamic Charter [of Hamas]”, in Menachem Klein’s words, “do not represent an attempt at deception or the empty and unconsidered use of words. They are a product of a change and modification of lines of thought as a part of the process by which Hamas has become a political movement.”
Hamas’ pragmatic evolution could be seen also in the phase following the implementation of the Egypt-brokered cease-fire of 2012, that was supposed to end or significantly ease the closure of Gaza and to guarantee Israel’s security needs. During the three months after the agreement, only one attack (two mortar shells) occurred. In the same period, Gaza suffered regular incursions and the local population, as recorded by the Israeli NGO Gisha, was once again prevented from conducting a normal existence.
The point of dredging up this complex history is not to deny Hamas’ responsibility for its actions: Its rockets threatening Israeli cities are immoral and counterproductive. Furthermore, several Hamas leaders and sympathizers have often focused on opposing Israel on principle, rather than in ameliorating the conditions of the Palestinian people.
Finally, Hamas has frequently misdirected the Palestinian cause from one where Palestinians demand their legitimate right to a state, or at least to full rights (full citizenship), to an inter-Palestinian quarrel between Hamas and Fatah, or a Gaza-Egypt dispute over the Rafah crossing.
But Hamas’ responsibilities cannot be detached from its context and from the role played by Israel in the entire process. Contrary to the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) and other similar groups, devoid of deep anchorages in the local societies and based on obsolete ideologies, Palestinian factions are firmly rooted in the history of their land. They are the product of some wrong decisions, but also, if not especially, of a century of suffering, oppression, and a long-standing quest for self-determination.
Any solution that will not address each of these issues is doomed to fail.
Thanks for leaving such an informative and interesting comment. As someone who struggles to understand what is going on in the Middle East, I really appreciate your contribution.
Shal, thanks for commenting. I actually read Haaretz daily. Here is the link. http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.608906
Kamel actually has some factual errors, such as this. “As in the case of the Likud Charter of 1999 (whose main principles, including the rejection of a Palestinian state, have never been retracted), also Hamas was still far from being ready to recognize the State of Israel, but was willing to adopt a pragmatic approach.” This motion was proposed in 2002 by Eli Cohen (the MP, not the spy), and accepted by a majority of the Likkud Center, however, Ariel Sharon ignored it and continued talks with the Palestinians. Subsequent Likkud leaders have done the same. This isn’t terribly analogous to the Hamas Covenant, and really only shows the weakness of the Likkud Center when it comes to opposing, say, a Prime Minister.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, the Brotherhood weakened due to the harsh repression carried out by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. After the Six-Day War of 1967, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) shifted increasingly toward violence and terrorism, a strategy that Hamas’s precursors did not embrace.”
As far as this goes, Kamel is right that Nasser harshly repressed everything associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. That is why Hamas’ precursors did not embrace violence. They were in no position to do so. The Marxist-ish PLO then had the upper hand in Palestinian politics. However, Yassin in the 80s encouraged violence against collaborators, secularists, progressives, and Marxists even before Hamas was created. The military branch may have been foundeed in 1991, but Hamas engaged in violent activity against Israel since 87, as Kamel mentioned. Now, something else not mentiond, why is Hamas’s military branch named the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades? Izz ad-Din al-Qassam was a Muslim cleric in Palestine, with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s. He formed several armed gangs, including al-Kaf al-Aswad (the Black Hand) targeting Jews and Palestinian collaborators, until he was killed by the British in a 1935 stand-off in Samaria. Yassin and the Hamas were deeply influenced by his legacy.
“In the years to follow, several cases occurred in which refugees, or “infiltrators,” crossed the armistice lines to collect possessions and pick up unharvested crops, or to raid Israeli settlements adjacent to the Strip. In that phase, a number of Israeli fatalities occurred and, in historian Benny Morris’ words, “Israel’s defensive anti-infiltration measures resulted in the death of several thousand mostly unarmed Arabs during 1949-56.””
I like Morris and was given his book on Israel’s Border Wars of 1949-56, from which the quote is taken. This book, though, is not without serious flaws. Basically, Morris magnifies Israeli cruelty and flaws, minimising Arab and Palestinian ones, and downplays the actual violent incursions. http://www.paulbogdanor.com/israel/morris.html
“Hamas survived and began to participate in the electoral process, gaining increasing support among the local population, mainly thanks to its social activities and the effects of the Israeli occupation.”
It was also Fatah’s rampant corruption and ineffectiveness which allowed Hamas to present itself as the force that could take care of Palestinian domestic needs, honour their culture, and carry out a determined armed struggle. Hamas knows too well that if they moderate their stance substantially, other groups can utilise the same strategy and take over power.
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