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Palestine: 'Homecoming' of Hamas

The resounding victory recorded by Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections has created new dilemmas. For the western world, Hamas' recent history raises uncomfortable questions about the future of the peace process. In the longer term, however, the victory and Hamas' accession to political power will ensure a renewed debate on issues of Islamic nationalism, resistance and even the relevance of "political terrorism".


‘Homecoming’ of Hamas

The resounding victory recorded by Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections has created new dilemmas. For the western world, Hamas’ recent history raises uncomfortable questions about the future of the peace process. In the longer term, however, the victory and Hamas’ accession to political power will ensure a renewed debate on issues of Islamic nationalism, resistance and even the relevance of “political terrorism”.


amas or the Islamic Resistance Movement won elections to the Palestinian parliament recently. With 76 of 132 seats as opposed to only 42 won by Fatah, this win has thrown Israel and the western world into a quandary over the imminent fate that awaits the political process in this part of west Asia. What has shocked is not the victory but the huge margin of victory by Hamas. Those who expressed shock at Hamas’ gain as something that undermines the peace process should understand that the semantics of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace” process as it has unfolded over the last decade has only facilitated the resurgence of political Islam (Hamas) in Palestine and has now witnessed its eventual triumph. What is more, Hamas, like any other Islamic movement in the contemporary world, is a victim of western stereotype-making which invariably overemphasises its Islamic content while downplaying those patterns that are difficult to accommodate within rigid constructions.

The chapter of peace between Israelis and Palestinians begins not at the Madrid conference after the Gulf war in 1991 but with the Oslo Agreement in 1993. The fundamental flaw with this agreement was its secrecy as it was agreed upon between PLO and Israel, while other Palestinian negotiators were busy reaching a “no-deal” agreement in Madrid. If the Algiers resolution in which the PLO endorsed the idea of two-state solution in 1988 was a breakthrough in which more than 400 Palestinian National Council (PNC) members assented to the resolution, Oslo took most of the Palestinians, except Arafat and his close coterie, by surprise. It was for this reason that able and articulate leaders like Abdel Shafi, Mustafa Bourghuti, Hannan Ashrawi and intellectuals like the late Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish opposed it vehemently. Oslo became a highly contested idea not only in Islamic but also secular sections of Palestinian society. Indeed, Oslo bestowed on the Palestinians an interim Palestinian Authority (PA), a semblance of “self-rule” in six Palestinian cities in 1995 and a blueprint for, however constricted it still remains, a political process. That this semblance of independence was highly transient and ignominiously dependent upon Israeli power of interpretation was evident in the ease with which Israel recaptured the territories and arrogance with which it destroyed those very Palestinian structures of independence during the last, humiliating days of Yasser Arafat’s life.

Nobody seems to question this tyranny of peace where the only means of resistance is a resort to violence and where groups espousing non-violence as their method of resistance have been forced to languish at the margins of mainstream politics. The powers that are now expressing shock over Hamas’ victory were the same powers that pandered to the Palestinian leadership under Arafat, tolerated its corruption, nepotism and favouritism as long as it served their purpose.

While the terror attacks are indeed reprehensible for they achieve little except adding to the further desperation, the international media, for its own compulsions, conveys the image that all is wrong with the region or that is worth reporting is nothing but Palestinian terror. The daily lives of the people and their condition hardly get any coverage because they do not make sensational stories.

Amid the prevalent demagogy where scholars and experts create more confusion than clear it, the most nuanced critique of the Oslo process has come from Sara Roy, one of the few, perhaps the only, scholar who has spent years in Gaza on documenting the Gazan economy and its economic linkages with the Israeli policies of blockades and closure. She contends that these policies have resulted not in the development of Gaza but its “de-development”, a term she uses to characterise a deliberate Israeli policy of retarding and preventing the emergence of a viable economy in the occupied territories [Roy 2002]. Contrary to the pre-Oslo phase, all human development indexes have plummeted sharply after Oslo. Sharon, by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, has received accolades from all quarters for his efforts to strengthen peace, yet what remains untold is the hidden Israeli acceptance of a fact: Gaza is simply unmanageable. It is a sad commentary on the part of Israeli leadership in which what was supposed to be a strategic, albeit painful, decision to pullout of Gaza was capitalised on by Hamas as a

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

major victory and vindication of its violent methods.

This brings us to the issue of terrorism. There is an inherent peril in discussing terrorism because of definitional ambiguities in its definitions. For scholars like Walter Laqueur (2001) who have spent years studying the phenomenon, the effort to write a “general theory” of terrorism is a hopeless undertaking because the term “terrorism” has been used in so many different contexts so as to become meaningless. It is this ambiguity which has evoked many arguments against the study of political terrorism and the eventual futility of such an endeavour. To quote Laqueur again on one such argument: “According to one of the arguments frequently used against the study of political terrorism, many more people have been killed throughout history … as the result of crimes committed by governments than by terrorism from below”. Noam Chomsky (2002) takes this very argument in his critique of the current debate concerning terrorism. For him, the preliminary questions prior to the initiation of debate on terrorism are:

(i) what is terrorism? and (ii) what is the proper response to it?

In an attempt to answer the first question, Chomsky cites those violent actions by US and Israel at various points of time which were never documented as terrorist actions. In answer to his second question, Chomsky insists on fulfilment of the most elementary moral truism that any principle which applies to antagonists must also apply to “us”. Those who do not rise to this minimum level of integrity cannot be taken seriously “when they speak of right and wrong, good and evil”. This makes any discussion on terrorism extremely difficult.

There is yet another kind of difficulty one encounters in discussing terrorism whose nature is strictly academic. The difference between the assumptions of two scholars representing two opposite positions will illustrate the point clearly. There is Raphael Israeli who, in his book War, Peace and Terror in the Middle East (2003), goes to great lengths in attempting to establish the root causes of Palestinian terrorism and makes a review of Arab literature and educational syllabi to prove the Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism prevalent in the Arab world. He has even coined a term ‘Islamikaze’ to describe Palestinian acts of suicide bombing. At the other end of the spectrum is Asaf Hussain’s Political Terrorism and the State in the Middle East.

Though he offers some valid insights into the question of terrorism, he makes some fundamental assumption which renders his analysis wanting on many levels. Since the term “Islamic terrorist” is a stigmatised one, according to Hussain, he uses the term “Islamic commando units” because terming it as Islamic fundamentalism is tantamount to “putting the Quran into action”.

In the conventional reading prevalent in the current scholarship on the issue, Islamic revivalism is predicated upon two dominant themes. First, it seems to contradict the nationalist narration of a postcolonial west Asian state which is evident by the fact that violent opposition to the state underlines almost all the contemporary radical movements of the region. The second theme has culminated into what has come to be known as “resurgence theory” which stipulates that the decline of Arab secular/nationalist politics has triggered the rise of political Islam. Hamas, on either account, remains outside the pale of these rigid western stereotypes. In its charter it has tried to reconcile Islam with nationalism by declaring that “nationalism, from the point of view of the Islamic Resistance Movement, is part and parcel of religious ideology. There is not a higher peak in nationalism or depth in devotion than jihad” (Article 21). Secondly, during the period (1960s to 1970s), when, as per the resurgence theory, the decline of secular politics was giving way to Islamic revivalism, nationalism was the dominant idea in Palestinian politics. It is this reason that makes local circumstances and historical particularities of each movement crucial for a better comprehension of the scenario than a simple conception of “Islam” as seen in opposition to secular/ nationalist politics.

Islamist Politics

The history of Islamist politics in Palestine (occupied territories) begins with the Muslim Brothers when Sheikh Yassin (the spiritual head of Hamas who was killed in 2004) set up a small welfare and charity-based society called the ‘Majuma’ (Islamic Congress) in 1973 in Gaza. In the first decade of occupation (1967-77), it emerged as a culturalist and social movement with a goal to restore the “Islamic personality”. It was only in the second decade (1977-87) that it began to confront the nationalist movement, whether it involved dominating the Islamic University of Gaza, Birzeit University in the West Bank or securing overall general control of the Palestinian population. These advances were the result not only of the acute internal crisis within the PLO following its 1982 military defeat in Lebanon, but also, as Beverley Milton-Edwards contends, because of the understanding on part of the Israeli occupation authority which viewed the rise of political Islam as useful in countering Palestinian nationalism. It was during the tumultuous period of the first intifada in 1987 that Islamists faced an acute dilemma of whether to continue to oppose nationalists or to lose the ideological control of the Palestinian streets; Hamas was created to reconcile this dilemma. The fact that Islamists had to create Hamas and Hamas, in turn, had to ideologically reconcile Islam with nationalism can be legible only if this conflict is understood as a national struggle on the part of the Palestinians.

There is a widespread view that Hamas is irreparably opposed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict and committed to the destruction of Israel, which recent reports on Hamas have never failed to underline. This view has gathered strength from the reading of the Hamas Charter published in 1988 which is the first exposition of Hamas’ ideological platform. Inundated with quotes from the Quran, the charter reflects the intellectual state of mainstream Palestinian Islamism during the early 1980s and its 36 articles go little beyond repeatedly proclaiming the movement’s Islamic identity, its opposition to anything it defines as non-Islamic, and its dedication to jihad in all forms as the only guaranteed salvation. Yet to understand Hamas today by reference to a nearly 20-year old founding document is of limited value as the Hamas of 2006 is not what it used to be in 1988. The blanket criticism of Hamas as Islamic terrorist organisation does not explain its internal dynamics, its dilemma of leading a popular movement with exclusivist Islamist tendencies, and its efforts to accommodate the present by resorting to pragmatic policies. After all scholars like Graham Usher (1997) and many others in International Crisis Group [ICG 2004] have all predicted political participation, in one form or the other, by Hamas.

A ‘Changing’ Hamas

In the final analysis, the rise of Hamas in Palestinian politics could be attributed to two nationalist crises: one is the crisis

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006 of representation aggravated by an unaccountable and inadequate national leadership, the other is an ideological crisis on the question of the social agenda and content of any future Palestinian polity. While the overwhelming mandate to Hamas in the recent parliamenatry elections alleviates the first, it is on the second crisis that the international community has expressed its grave concern. It is true that the social and religious agenda which Hamas has come to champion so far has been one wherein its conflict with Israel has been framed in essentialist terms with no possibility of a negotiated settlement; such concerns remain oblivious to some obvious changes that are apparent in Hamas of late. One such change has been its espousal of the process, if not the structure, of Oslo. From total rejection of Oslo and its comcomitant framework to not only accepting it but using it to acquire power, Hamas has come a long way. Now that Hamas has come to power, it is more likely that the logic of power would make it more pragmatic and realistic. The real irony of the situation is the dilemma which has two sides: for the western world, it is a question of recognising Hamas now that it is the democratic choice of the Palestinians, while for Hamas it is the question of how to sustain this consensus without appearing to compromise on its Islamic basis. In terms of analogy, the “earthquake” in Palestinian politics is comparable to what happened in Israeli politics in 1977 when Likud came to power for the first time. History stands testimony to the fact that the most durable agreement of Camp David I between Israel and Egypt in 1978-79 was cut during the Likud regime. It is indeed true that much has changed since then but in negotiated settlement there are two fundamental conditions to be met, one is of articulation and representation of genuine interest and the other, to deliver what is agreed upon. At the moment, it is Hamas and certainly not Fatah which is in a position to do both. Whether Hamas’ change in status is a boon or bane, only time will tell but the world community or at least the international quartret (US, Russia, UN and the EU) would do well to give it a chance.




Chomsky, Noam (2002): ‘Who Are the Global Terrorists?’ in Ken Booth and Tim Dunne (eds), Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 128-37.

ICC (2004): Who Governs the West Bank? Palestinian Administration under Israeli Occupation, International Crisis Group Middle East Report, No 3, Amman/Brussels, September 28.

Israeli, Raphael (2003): War, Peace and Terror in the Middle East, Frank Cass, London.

Laqueur, Walter (2001): A History of Terrorism, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick New Jersey.

Roy, Sara (2002): ‘Why Peace Failed: An Oslo Autopsy’, Current History, Vol 101, No 651, January, pp 8-16.

Usher, Graham (1997): ‘What Kind of Nation? The Rise of Hamas in the Occupied Territories’ in Joel Benin and Joe Stork (eds), Political Islam: Essays From Middle East Report, I B Tauris and Co, London.

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

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