15 June, 2006Issue 5.2EssaysPolitics & SocietyThe Middle EastTravelWorld Politics

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Hamas 2.0

Patrick Belton

In Ramallah, in the coffee shops and falafel stands of the city, its people were talking over politics, seeking acceptable terms for parsing a political reality where certitude lay only in all having changed utterly. Green flags fluttered from the city’s light posts, limning perhaps March in Temple Bar and that other peace process; but this is the land of Temple Mount, and a different nationalist movement slouches toward East Jerusalem to be born. Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawwama al-Islamiyya or the Islamic Resistance Movement) had from its inception in 1987 set itself as counterpoint to Yasser Arafat’s Fateh movement—godly where Fateh was secular, clean where Fateh was corrupt, a provider of services where the Fateh-run Palestinian Authority did not, maximalist where the Fateh had abandoned Palestinian claims to the preponderance of the western British Mandate. The decision of Hamas to integrate into those Palestinian institutions born of Fateh and Oslo reflected elder statesmanship on a number of hands, Palestinian and Egyptian, and an odd alignment of strategic judgments, some in the event mistaken.

Their integration was to have been gradual; they were not meant to win. Unlike the Liberal Democrats of 1985, Hamas candidates of 2006 did not go to their constituencies to prepare for government, but to gain a junior partnership within a coalition, or perhaps a pristine opposition. Government nevertheless is what they got, aided by turnout substantially higher in Gaza, their most reliable source of support, and by a crash course in electoral artistry throughout the staggered municipal elections that led up to the national polls.

Is this change in Hamas’s behaviour—with less armalite, more ballot box—tactical or does it indicate a more profound shift within the organisation? Much hangs on the answer. But answering requires a look to the movement’s recent history and strategic underpinnings underlaying its move toward electoral politics, its factions and the incentives it faces from this point onward.

What precisely has changed in Hamas? In a word, tahdi’a, a calming in its paramilitary operations. The Hamas whose members attacked unveiled women during the 1987-93 Intifada has in government forsworn any programme of religious social change. Conceived on a platform that Islam is the answer, it has permitted restaurants in Bethlehem to serve alcohol and remain open during Ramadan and attracted votes from grateful Christians in Ramallah and Taibeh who remember that it was Hamas who defended them against Fateh attacks upon their businesses and churches. The Hamas that in 1993 correctly saw Oslo as motivated by a shared Israeli, PLO and international desire to stymie it, in 2005 concluded a treaty with Arafat’s successor to meld itself to those Oslo institutions and to the PLO it had for its entire existence stood outside.

The key lies in the last of these. With the failure of the peace process after the American-mediated Camp David summit, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority were brought closer by an undifferentiated Israeli response to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, by the PA’s increasingly fraught relations with Israel and the United States and by Hamas’s restraint in seeking to undermine a fractious PA. Weakened by Israeli attacks but positioned to claim victory for Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, Hamas saw its moment to change its chips into political power. Abu Mazen’s programme of tempting the Israelis to negotiate required Hamas be either crushed or co-opted, and he was in no position to attempt the former. Cementing conditions for a grand bargain was the rise of a new cadre of leaders within the two organisations, sharing long roots of mutual respect, during a time in which each lost their historical founders, Hamas’s Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat, within eight months of each other. Marwan Barghouthi, the jailed Fateh organiser, like many young-guard members of Fateh, is closer to Hamas politically than his own party’s leadership. Neither Barghouthi nor Hamas leader Khaled Masha’al has ever made a major statement of policy without advising the other in advance.

With politburo head Khalid Masha’al negotiating for Hamas, and Egyptian intelligence director and longtime regional deal-crafter Omar Suleiman lending a hand at midwifery, the two sides arrived at a grand bargain. The Cairo Declaration, signed on 19 March 2005 by the Palestinian leadership, Hamas and twelve other Palestinian factions, bound its signatories to forswear arms in internal Palestinian disputes and observe a period of unilateral tahdi’a toward Israel once the Gaza withdrawal had begun. The leadership agreed to hold municipal and legislative elections without delay, with talks on the Islamist parties’ incorporation into the PLO to follow.

Resistance was strongest from Hamas leaders in Nablus, other prominent elements from within the diaspora, as well as military commanders such as the elusory Muhammed Deif, who feared losing core supporters to rejectionist organisations such as Islamic Jihad. The organisation’s prison leadership, which enjoys close relations with Fateh members in detention, however, emerged as forceful advocates of Cairo and Masha’al, whose relations with Abu Mazen are understood to be respectful, proved sufficiently stalwart to overcome dissent within the politburo.

Hamas has kept its word, observing the calming with customary internal discipline. When it has fired missiles from Gaza or launched attacks within the West Bank, it has done so within a context of response to Israeli attacks upon Palestinian habitations and its own organization. It has been more observant of the calm than Fateh, and Israeli military sources credit it for the decline of violence in the last year.

After their electoral victory on a platform of reform and change, Hamas have pursued a softly, softly strategy. Theirs is an organisation conscious of the limits of its mandate, stating repeatedly an intent to govern by consensus with other factions. But softly, softly does not constitute a policy and divisive questions will appear over the posture to strike toward Israel and how far to go in responding to international pressure to renounce paramilitary resistance, recognize the state of Israel, and decommission its arms as prelude to rather than dénouement of talks.

There is no reason to think this is only public relations. Doctrinally, Hamas’s founding Charter of August 1988 commits it to view the totality of Palestine as Islamic waqf, consecrated for future generations and of which no portion may be squandered or conceded. Though canonical, there have been periodic statements from prominent members of the movement suggesting a space for doctrinal evolution. Sheikh Yassin referred on a number of occasions to a solution which would leave Israel intact, and indicated armed resistance could cease with a regaining of the 1967 boundaries (‘while Hamas’s overall ideological project is the recovery of Palestine as a whole, it is ready to accept interim solutions based on a mutual cessation of hostilities and Israel’s full withdrawal from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war’). Hamas co-founder Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi similarly stated in 2002 that intifada was about ‘forcing Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders,’ after which the conflict would not end, but would lose its armed character.

Speaking within this tradition of accommodatory rhetoric, Hamas’s West Bank political head, Hasan Yousef, has specified conditions for a long-term, perhaps century-long hudna as being a full and complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the release of all prisoners, recognition of the right of return, and a sovereign and sustainable Palestinian state. Intermediate steps at security dialogue are floated as well: Osama Hamdan, a Hamas negotiator present at Cairo, spoke recently of a willingness to refrain from launching attacks on Israeli civilian targets if Israel agrees to stop attacks against Palestinian civilians.

Returning to the level of authoritative text, though one arguably more tactical than strategic, the Hamas electoral manifesto specified ‘yes to a free, independent, and sovereign Palestinian state on every portion of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem without conceding on any part of historic Palestine,’ and went on to pledge ‘adherence to the goal of defeating the [1967] occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.’ Notable here is what is lacking: calls for the destruction of Israel, or for ‘raising the banner of God over every inch of Palestine’ in the language of the Charter.

The preceding statements do not settle whether Hamas has permanently evolved ideologically, but they go some distance toward establishing the space for such an evolution. Nor does it mean Hamas have accepted Oslo. When I put the question to Hamas member of parliament, Mahmoud Ramahi, over coffee in its Ramallah headquarters, he answered:

There is no Oslo agreement in the fact. There was to have been a Palestinian state in 1998; now we are in 2006 without this good state. How can you speak of an Oslo agreement if the Israelis haven’t agreed to anything they will abide by?

If fostered, the path to peace as well as pragmatic reformist governance in the Palestinian territories may well be open, but moves by the West to withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority may weaken the movement’s doves and strengthen its hardliners. Less hampered by legal restraints or domestic politics than the United States, the onus may well fall upon Britain and Europe to engage Hamas incrementally, to provide calibrated carrots and sticks for various levels of gradual engagement with the international community and its Israeli neighbour.

In one analysis favoured by the former British intelligence official Alastair Crooke, Oslo represented a bestowal of a monopoly of power, armed force and international legitimacy upon one Palestinian faction in return for it dismembering its emerging political rivals. The resulting institutions were thinly rooted in Palestinian society. Now, an inclusive, rejuvenated polity emerging from these elections may turn out to commit the populace to a comprehensive peace settlement. Perhaps not a bad day’s work, if Britain and Europe can get it.

Patrick Belton is a DPhil student in International Relations at Trinity College, Oxford and works as a foreign affairs journalist. He spent the January 2006 parliamentary elections in Ramallah around Hamas candidates and activists. He serves as president of the Foreign Policy Society.