This is a fascinating insight into Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which has taken control of the Gaza Strip. Zaki Chehab, a leading Palestinian journalist, has closely followed its emergence over the last 20 years into a pivotal player on the Israel-Palestine stage. Hamas is the main rival to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Fatah (the faction of president Mahmoud Abbas and former leader, Yasser Arafat).
Chehab begins with Hamas’ victory in elections to the Palestine Legislative Council on 25 January 2006. Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats, with 45 going to Fatah, three to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), two each to the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and Third Way, and several independents.
The result was not what the polls had predicted, or Israel’s intelligence services expected, a source of anger in the Israeli press: “If they don’t know what’s happening in the Palestinian territories, how are we going to rely on them for what’s happening in Iran?” railed an editorial in the daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. It was revealed that the ‘intelligence’ was largely gleaned from the internet.
Hamas had boycotted the previous elections in 1996 in protest at the Oslo peace accords signed by the PLO and Israeli government in 1993 and 1994. This time, Hamas had decided to stand nine months in advance, its election name translating as ‘For change and reform’. Hamas highlighted Fatah’s inability to tackle poverty, unemployment and corruption. According to Chehab, Hamas “omitted any reference to their ambitions to destroy Israel, even hinting at a measured rapprochement”. (p5) It does stand for the introduction of sharia law and the eventual destruction of the Israeli state, although that does not necessarily preclude short-term deals.
On 26 January 2006, Gaza City was festooned with green flags: ‘Islam is the solution’. On 29 March, the US severed diplomatic and financial ties with the newly sworn-in government. And within two months, the Israeli state had arrested ten Hamas ministers, 24 MPs, several council leaders, and a large number of other senior figures.
The Hamas leadership had accepted the need for a coalition government with Fatah. An 18-point ‘prisoners’ document’ gave the Palestinian Authority overall power to negotiate on behalf of its people and was signed by imprisoned leaders from Fatah, Hamas, PFLP, DFLP and Islamic Jihad on 26 May 2006. It called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, with the right to return for all refugees. It aimed to unite the military factions under one umbrella, and included a cautious mention of Israel’s right to exist.
The agreement between Hamas and Fatah crumbled as fighting broke out between their armed wings. The Gaza Strip was taken over by Hamas and is currently under economic and diplomatic siege from the Israeli state and US-led ‘international community’. Fatah controls the West Bank and is negotiating with Israel’s government.
The story behind how Hamas got to this point is remarkable. It is a story of poverty and desperation, oppression, commitment, organisation and charismatic leadership. Hamas’ most important leader was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Born in 1938, he was moved to a refugee camp near Gaza City in 1948. After he damaged his spinal cord in an accident in 1952 he was quadriplegic. By the 1960s, he was attracting large crowds to his weekly sermons.
At this time, Gaza was under Egyptian control. In 1966, in an operation against the Muslim Brotherhood, Yassin and others were arrested and accused of trying to overthrow the Egyptian state. Because of his health, Yassin was put under house arrest on condition he did not preach – a condition he broke immediately.
The six-day war in June 1967 saw Israel take control of the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordon, and occupy Syria’s Golan Heights. The PLO grouped together a number of organisations, carrying out military operations against Israeli forces and Jewish settlers. It had training camps in Syria and Jordan.
The main influence for Yassin and many other Islamists was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna to oppose the creeping secularisation and westernisation of Egypt after the fall of the Ottoman empire. It became a political organisation in 1936, and set up groups in Palestine, Jordan and Syria. In Egypt under Gamal Nasser, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood activists were imprisoned and executed. The movement was forced underground, “… leaving the 1950s and 1960s to the Arab nationalists, communists and others on the left of the political spectrum”, says Chehab. (p19)
There was a bit more to it than that. Following the second world war, mass movements erupted all around the world: from Cuba to Algeria, France to Czechoslovakia, Vietnam to Mozambique. There was also a general acceptance that there is a viable alternative to capitalism – socialism – even though the only existing models were based on the Stalinist former Soviet Union. In spite of the severe repression and economic mismanagement caused by top-down bureaucratic ‘planning’, the Stalinist states provided healthcare, education and infrastructure; the Soviet Union rose from an impoverished dependent state to a superpower.
The dominant feature of that post-war period was the leftward radicalisation of workers and the poor. It was the failure of these movements to fundamentally improve the lives of the masses which created the fertile ground for a later revival of right-wing political Islam. The regimes became increasingly authoritarian, living and working conditions became increasingly harsh. Then, when the Stalinist system disintegrated in 1989-90, many people proclaimed the death of socialism. It is into that political vacuum that the Islamists have stepped.
Yassin set up an Islamic organisation in 1976, helping to form the Islamic Compound, of which he was president from 1978-83 (when he was imprisoned). Chehab shows that the Israeli state contributed to the growth of Hamas: “The Israeli government perceived its staunch enemy to be the nationalist and secular PLO and, by allowing Islamist rivals to flourish, believed that opposing Palestinian groups would do its work on the ground in a way that did not necessitate active Israeli involvement”. (p20)
By the early 1980s the Islamic Compound was the largest foundation in Gaza. By the beginning of the first intifada in December 1987, the Islamist groups which were to form Hamas were well established.
The intifada had erupted in Jabaliya refugee camp where 60,000 people lived in urban squalor just north of Gaza City. The funerals of four Arab workers on 8 December turned to confrontations with Israel Defence Forces (IDF) positions. (All Palestinian groups claim the credit for starting the intifada which was, in reality, a popular uprising.)
Hamas was set up on 8/9 December at an emergency meeting called to discuss the situation. It made its first statement on 14 December, calling for an escalation of action throughout the Gaza Strip. It was named the Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat al Mokawama al Islamiya – HMS). Hamas (zeal in Arabic) was chosen as the acronym.
Hamas has a number of wings: political, communications, security, youth, intifada, prisoners. The youth wing, predominantly men under the age of 18, mobilise strikes and demos, graffiti, support bereaved families, organise education for students locked out of colleges, etc. The precursor of the military wing now known as the al-Qassam brigades (Ez Ed Din al-Qassam) was set up by Yassin and headed by Salah Shehada in 1983. From the beginning, Hamas launched daring, even foolhardy, attacks and kidnappings.
Yassin was arrested again on 18 May 1989, his year-long trial providing great publicity for Hamas. He was charged with establishing a mujahedeen organisation with the aim of eradicating Israel and replacing it with an Islamic nation. He was sentenced to life but was released on 1 October 1997 in exchange for two Mossad (Israeli secret service) agents who had bungled an assassination attempt on another Hamas leader, Khalid Mishal, in Jordan.
Hamas’ first suicide bomber, Raed Zakarneh, struck on 6 April 1994, killing eight Israelis at a bus stop. This was in response to Baruch Goldstein who had killed 29 worshippers at the al-Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron with a hand grenade and automatic rifle.
By October 1994, Hamas’ leading explosives expert, Yehia Ayyash, was responsible for the deaths of 70 Israelis with over 400 injured. His family members were rounded up and tortured. The electricity to his village was cut off in collective punishment. Ayyash was killed by an explosive device in a mobile phone he was using on 5 January 1996. Kamal Hammad, the informer who had led Israeli forces to Ayyash, was reportedly paid a million dollars and moved to a safe house inside Israel.
Salah Shehada was killed when an Israeli F-16 fighter jet fired a one-ton ‘smart’ bomb at the apartment block he was in. Sixteen civilians were also killed, nine of them children (Ra’ed Mater was 18 months old, Diana Rami Mater two months). Then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, considered the operation a great success.
Yassin was killed by camera-guided missiles on 22 March 2004. He was replaced by Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi, a doctor who was also brought up in a Gazan refugee camp. He was a co-founder of the Islamic Compound and Hamas. Rantisi was held under house arrest in 1981 for refusing to pay taxes and calling doctors out on a general strike. The Israeli state sold off his medicines and equipment. In 1986 he was barred from working as a doctor because of his political activism, after which his political activity increased.
Rantisi was the first to be arrested as a Hamas leader, on 15 January 1988. He was jailed for 21 days for trying to stop IDF soldiers breaking into his room. On 4 March he started a two-and-a-half year sentence for launching Hamas and editing its first statement. He was released on 4 September 1990 but was detained three months later for a year, before being deported to Lebanon in December 1992. He then coordinated operations between Gaza and those in exile.
Rantisi was assassinated on 17 April 2004, his car hit by rockets fired from an Israeli helicopter. Khalid Mishal, head of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus, took effective control.
Israel’s deportation policy helped Hamas’ influence spread. From the end of 1999, nearly 500 Hamas members were deported to southern Lebanon. Chehab notes a shift in the camps: “Previously, the PLO had been admired for spending generously on these community projects but, following the first Gulf war when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Gulf states punished the PLO for supporting Iraq, depriving it of the funding it had received since the 1960s. Islamic charities in the Gulf region began switching their financial generosity and allegiances to Hamas”. (p130)
Maintaining the cohesion of the movement was not easy, especially treading the tightrope of international relations. The importance of this task was illustrated when Yassin was released in 1997 and toured the Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Hamas gained as a consequence of antagonisms between the Iranian regime under Ayatollah Khomeini from 1979 and Arafat. Firstly, the PLO tried to intervene in the Tehran US embassy hostage crisis from November 1979. Then the PLO backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, which began on 22 September 1980! In November 1994, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and demonstrators broke into the Palestinian embassy in Tehran, demanding the replacement of PLO staff by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Iranian media described the PLO as agents of Israel and the US. The PLO also fell out of favour with the Syrian regime in the mid-1990s, while Hamas opened a bureau in Damascus.
On the other hand, the links between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood stoke up the suspicions of the regime in Egypt. And Jordan attempts a precarious balance between deals with Israel, close geographical, cultural and economic ties with the West Bank, and strong links with the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped defend the regime from left-wing Palestinians trying to overthrow the monarchy in the 1970s.
The concluding paragraph of this book sums up Chehab’s approach: “The facts on the ground are that, whatever Hamas’ political fortunes, they are not just going to melt into the background, nor will any military action succeed in eradicating them… Hamas is not some alien guerrilla force. It is someone’s brother, neighbour, or the guy who gives your son money for his education. For as long as these people represent the Palestinian people at the ballot box, the west and any future Palestinian Authority will have to accept it for what it is – a leopard that is unlikely to change its spots – and negotiate with Hamas”. (p227)
At first sight that seems to be a perfectly reasonable view to take. But there is an unbridgeable gulf between the positions of the US-backed Israeli state and Hamas. The only meaningful discussions will take place when Palestinian and Israeli working-class people come together to try to resolve questions of economic development, resource sharing and borders.
Unfortunately, that looks a long way off at present. It would require mass action and democratic control of the movement by the mass, as opposed to small-scale terrorist acts such as suicide bombings, which reinforce the grip of the Israeli state on its own population and give it the excuse to bulldoze homes, kill and round up civilians. It would require class appeals to fight against poverty and exploitation.
The desperate plight of the Palestinians is reflected in their struggle. They have seen peace deals come and go. They have been lied to and betrayed by their own leaders. The question is not whether they wholeheartedly support Hamas. But what alternative is there? The policies of the Israeli state are designed to systematically humiliate, criminalise and brutalise the whole of the Palestinian population. Zaki Chebab sums up the current impasse (p101): “Israel’s quest to ghettoize the Palestinians served to radicalise the population. The desire for vengeance and the resulting cycle of blood and death have created the ideal conditions and fertile recruiting ground for Hamas”.