What is Hamas?

About the author
Dr. Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University where she completed her doctoral studies in international development and education. She serves on the Advisory Boards of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), an American private voluntary organization working in the Middle East, and the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University. In addition to her academic work, she has served as a consultant to international organizations, the U.S. government, human rights organizations, private voluntary organizations, and private business groups working in the Middle East.
Book Review Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad by Matthew Levitt. Yale University Press, in cooperation with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2006. 324 pages, $26.00, hardcover.

At the beginning of the first Palestinian uprising, I was living in Gaza and spent much time in the refugee camps interviewing families about the political and socioeconomic changes taking place around them. Despite the harsh living situation, Palestinians were filled with a palpable sense of hope and possibility that has since evaporated. Hamas was then struggling to create a popular constituency, despite overwhelming support among Palestinians for secular nationalism. That was 18 years ago, and neither I nor anyone else ever thought that Hamas would one day emerge as a major political actor: democratically winning legislative elections, defeating the majority Fatah party and heading a Palestinian government.

In his recent book, Matthew Levitt, who is deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and an expert in financial counterterrorism, argues that Hamas is strictly a terrorist organization that is not only a domestic threat but a global one, a part of an international jihad network with links to al-Qaeda that must be met with force. He further argues — and this is the core of his book — that despite the existence of differentiated political, social and military sectors within Hamas, they are all part of the same “apparatus of terror.”

Levitt devotes significant attention to attacking the Islamist social sector (dawa) and Hamas’s charitable institutions. It is the principle aim of his book to show how Hamas uses its extensive social-service network-mosques, schools, kindergartens, orphanages, hospitals, clinics, sports clubs, youth clubs-to further its primary political agenda, which he claims is the destruction of Israel. He argues that through its social support structure and services, “Hamas leverages the appreciation (and indebtedness) it earns through social welfare activities to garner support — both political and logistical — for its terrorist activities.” Levitt summarizes his argument as follows: “The general deprivation of the Palestinian people in the Israeli-occupied territories predisposes them to favor the much-needed social support that Hamas provides.” He continues, “In addition to purchasing goodwill, charities also create a built-in logistical support umbrella underneath which terrorist operations are sheltered and operate.” He explains that the dawa network operationally supports terrorism through recruitment, employment and financing and by providing institutional legitimacy.

His evidence, at times interesting, particularly with regard to Hamas’s external sources of financing, is more often than not based on assumption, extrapolation and generalization. For example, as evidence for how religious organizations raise money for Palestinian terrorism, Levitt quotes from a pamphlet produced by a Quranic memorization center that was sponsored by the Ramallah-al Bireh charity committee. The pamphlet listed 30 ways to enter heaven, including “Jihad for the sake of Allah by fighting with one’s soul and money.”

In another example of how hospitals are used to support terrorism, Levitt briefly describes the Dar al-Salam Hospital: “According to information cited by the FBI,” the hospital is considered a Hamas institution because it was founded with “Hamas funds and protection.” But Levitt fails to provide any real evidence of these funds or how and why they are considered “Hamas.” The assumption is that these ties, even if they are shown to exist, are inherently evil and can be nothing else.

In a chapter on how the dawa teaches terror and radicalizes Palestinian society, Levitt writes, “Recipients of Hamas financial aid or social services are less likely to turn down requests from the organization such as allowing their homes to serve as safe houses for Hamas fugitives, ferrying fugitives, couriering funds or weapons, storing and maintaining explosives, and more.” He cites as evidence for this sweeping statement one resident of Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza who fed Hamas militants daily. The possibility that Palestinians receive support from Hamas institutions without preconditions or that popular support requires more than the lure of financial incentives and free social services does not enter Levitt’s argument. Levitt also claims, “When angry, frustrated or humiliated Palestinians regularly listen to sermons in mosques in which Jews, Israelis and even Americans are depicted as enemies of Islam and Palestine, Hamas’s official policy may not restrain individual enthusiasm.” One wonders how Mr. Levitt knows these things, given that he appears never to have stepped inside a Hamas institution in Gaza or the West Bank or to have conducted any fieldwork at all.

While these arguments are oft-repeated in today’s media, Levitt does little to address research that supports a very different conclusion regarding the Hamas dawa. Some of the key findings of this research point to institutional features that demonstrate no preference for religion or politics over other ideologies, particularly in programmatic work; an approach to institutional work that advocates incrementalism, moderation, order and stability; a philosophical and practical desire for productivity and professionalism that shuns radical change and emphasizes community development and civic restoration over political violence; and no evidence of any formal attempt to impose an Islamic model of political, social, legal or religious behavior, or to create an alternative Islamic or Islamist conception of society.

While there can be no doubt that, since its inception, Hamas has engaged in violence and armed struggle and has been the primary force behind the horrific suicide bombings inside Israel, Levitt’s presentation reduces this increasingly complex and sophisticated organization to an insular, one-dimensional and seemingly mindless entity dedicated solely to violence, terrorism and Israel’s destruction. To fully understand the current political stature of Hamas, it is necessary to closely examine the dramatic transitions that have occurred within the organization itself, among Palestinians with respect to their society, and in Palestine’s relationship with Israel.

From the point of view of Hamas, Palestine is an Arab and Islamic land that fell to colonial control with the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The establishment of the State of Israel is viewed as a way to perpetuate colonial authority over the Muslim homeland and is therefore illegitimate. As victims of colonialism, Hamas argues that Palestinians have the right to resist and struggle to regain their homeland and freedom, viewing this as a local and nationalist struggle. Now, almost two decades after its birth, Hamas has grown in size and popularity. While changes have not been made to its frame of reference or objectives, its political discourse has become more refined and streamlined, particularly with regard to its relations with local groups, political factions, other religious communities and other nations.

Unfortunately, Matthew Levitt’s book does not address the critical evolutionary processes — particularly with regard to its organizational structure and political, social and economic role in Palestinian society — that have characterized the Palestinian Islamist movement and Hamas’s rise to power. The ability of Hamas to reinterpret itself over time through processes of radicalization, de-radicalization, de-militarization and re-radicalization is a pronounced and common theme in its historical evolution. Levitt neglects to address the significance behind this commitment to reinterpretation. His analysis aims simply to demonize Hamas, and he discounts the critical connections between changing patterns of protest and structures of society, competing visions of a Palestinian social and political order, and contesting Islamic and secular definitions of meaning and legitimacy. The synergy among these forces has characterized the history and growth of Palestinian Islamism.

Israel’s military occupation, which has long been the defining context for Palestinian life, is almost absent from Levitt’s book. Hamas’s popularity and growing empowerment derive from its role as a resistance organization, fighting against an occupation that is now 40 years old. Israel’s steady expropriation, fragmentation and division of Palestinian lands; settlement construction and expansion; closure restrictions and destruction of the Palestinian economy are not part of Levitt’s discussion, nor is the right of the Palestinians to resist these measures. In those few instances where the occupation is mentioned, it is couched in terms that acknowledge Palestinian hardship — a reality exploited by Hamas — but justified as a response to terrorism. In the absence of any serious examination of Israel’s occupation, Levitt’s portrayal of the rise of Hamas is completely detached from the context within which it was produced and shaped.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the organization is also described as a movement incapable of transformation, ignoring the improvements in Hamas’s political discourse regarding political compromise with the State of Israel and resolution of the conflict. During the period of the Oslo peace process, for example, some dramatic changes occurred within Hamas. The organization was moving away from the extreme and a position of confrontation towards one that was more centrist and moderate. This shift was characterized by a reorientation in policy and strategic emphasis from political/military action to social works and community development. Accompanying this shift was a redefinition of the nature of the Palestinian struggle, which was no longer for political or military power per se but for defining new social arrangements and appropriate cultural and institutional models that would meet social needs without resort to violence. Similarly, the Islamist movement was not advancing a policy of isolation but was calling for greater accommodation and cooperation with both domestic and international actors.

Since Hamas’s victory in the January 2006 legislative elections, there has been a further evolution in its political thinking — as evidenced in some of its key political documents — characterized by a strong emphasis on state-building and programmatic work, greater refinement with regard to its position on a two-state solution and the role of resistance, and a progressive de-emphasis on religion. (See Khaled Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ Through Its New Documents,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 34 (4) (Summer 2006)). These are absent from Levitt’s discussion. Levitt also overlooks questions that are vital to any analysis of Hamas, especially at present. To name just a few, what were Hamas’s ideological, philosophical and structural boundaries? How and why were they reset and expanded? What is the role of religion as opposed to politics in Islamist thought and practice, particularly in the public sphere? Are religion and politics truly unified? Can Hamas reconcile faith and ideology with a demand for a place in the political system?

Levitt’s book has many serious flaws and merits a detailed critique that extends well beyond the scope of this review. His is not a work of analysis or scholarship, to say the least, and despite certain points that are interesting and accurate, anyone wishing to gain a substantive, reasoned and critical understanding of Hamas would do well to look elsewhere.