Hamas's path to reinvention

About the author
Khaled Hroub is director of the media programme at the Gulf Research Centre, Dubai, and of the Cambridge Arab Media Project in association with the director Cambridge Arab Media Project in association with the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000), and Hamas: a Beginner's Guide (Pluto Press, 2006), and editor of Political Islam: Context versus Ideology(Saqi books, 2010)
A remarkable yet mostly overlooked transformation has been taking place within the thinking and political practice of Hamas over the past few years. The process started long before the radical Palestinian movement's victory in the legislative elections of 25 January 2006 in the West Bank and Gaza. Its essence has been a shift in the justification behind Hamas's "hardline" positions: in particular, from their rejection of any concession over the "land of Palestine" on religious grounds (based on the claim that Palestine is waqf [endowment] for successive Muslim generations which no one has the right to compromise on), to a political and pragmatic argument for this stance.

The language may have changed; the policy remains. Hamas's response to demands that it recognise Israel as a precondition of the inclusion of its government into the regional and international system is a consistent, and political, one: Israel itself is "borderless" and the country's leaders have never - whatever the current prime minister Ehud Olmert proclaims about his ambition for 2010 - clearly identified the borders of their own state - so what is the geographical extent of the Israel that we are asked to recognise?

Yet this very line of argument is a key to Hamas's wider transformation; for when Hamas today is asked why it has frozen its jihad against Israel by stopping suicide attacks, its response is to present political (not religious) arguments that link its decision to delicate calculations drawn from the disadvantageous political conditions which surround Hamas as a governing force.

Today, when Hamas is involved in a bloody power-struggle with the Palestinian president and his Fatah movement, the parameters of this fierce rivalry too are political; no religious pretexts (such as the old Hamas line that the PLO is in essence secular and un-Islamic) are invoked. The change in the rationalising of Hamas's positions - gradual and painful though it has been - disconnects the movement from its inheritance of inflexible religious dogma.

The shift is in some ways still in the making and still vulnerable to regression, especially under pressure from the regional and international environment. But if Hamas's potential interlocutors were wise, they might realise that dialogue and negotiation with a hardline political Hamas is in principle far easier than dealing with a hardline religious Hamas.

It seems, however, that "if" can be the biggest word in global politics. For the policies of external players - Israel, the United States, other western states and Arab governments - are not helping to consolidate Hamas's turn. Rather, their short-sighted policies - especially the imposition of a crippling embargo on its government - threaten to crush the chance for a more politicised and pragmatic organisation to emerge.

A close examination of the internal and external dynamics affecting Hamas casts light on the nature and potential of its gradual transformation.

Khaled Hroub is a scholar and broadcaster. Among his books are Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000), and Hamas: a Beginner's Guide
(Pluto Press, 2006)

The national and the religious

A vacillation between political and religious impulses is not new in Hamas's thinking and politics. From its inception in 1987-88, Hamas strove hard to harmonise the two currents within its movement: the national-liberationist and the religious-Islamist. These two forces (each combining intellectual and mobilising elements) were neither necessarily contradictory nor fully harmonious.

They would walk hand-in-hand in certain periods, clash at others, or move at a different pace - depending on the conjunctural political conditions. At the same time, across Hamas's rank-and-file, the direction of opinion has been from a "nationalist" to a more "religious" shading. This shift at the base contrasts with that towards a political-nationalist discourse among the hierarchy of the movement.

From the outset, Hamas's identity and evolution were deeply influenced by both nationalist and religious agendas. In the context of the political world it emerged into - including Israeli occupation pressures on Palestinian society and politics, and the rise of political Islam across the middle east in earlier decades, it could hardly be otherwise. In this, Hamas's development echoed that of other Palestinian nationalist movements, such as the Fatah movement which Yasser Arafat established in the late 1950s.

Hamas's ultimate nationalist aim is to "liberate Palestine". Unlike its predecessors, however, it adopted an Islamist rather than a secular ideology in order to achieve this aim. By espousing the core ideological objective of other classical movements of political Islam - the establishment of an Islamic state - Hamas's rhetoric emphasises that once the "liberation" of Palestine is achieved, the state established on its territory should be an Islamic one.

Hamas's unexpected victory in the January 2006 elections exacerbated the internal nationalist-religious tension within the movement. It found itself in the international limelight, suddenly obliged - in order to establish its status and credibility in the face of a far larger, and predominantly sceptical, worldwide audience - to sharpen the profile of its nationalist thinking and image at the expense of its religious one.

For Hamas as well as for Palestinians as a whole, then, the election created a new reality. For the first time since its foundation, the organisation assumed the leadership of the Palestinian national movement inside Palestine by democratic elections. Also, for the first time in the history of this national movement, a party that subscribes to Islamist/religious ideology eclipsed all other secular factions, including the alliance between leftists and nationalists.

But this victory was the culmination of a pre-existing trend, as well as the inauguration of a new phase. The very decision to participate in the 2006 elections, made in March 2005, was something of a tormented birth. In the minds of many Hamas supporters (and foes), the decision had to be measured against Hamas's refusal to join similar elections in 1996, on the basis that these were part of the 1993-94 Oslo agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel, which it had opposed strongly. The controversy within Hamas over participation in the 2006 elections derived partly from the fact that they were effectively organised under the status quo established by Oslo.

In fact, the March 2005 decision was coupled with two equally significant decisions: a freezing of Hamas's suicide-attacks and an agreement to join the PLO. Hamas was here making important leaps in the direction of becoming a more politicised movement at the expense of a being a religion-inspired military one. For a lengthy period before, during and after the elections, Hamas remained committed to a one-sided ceasefire, in the face of all Israeli incursions in the Gaza strip and the West Bank. But the equally important point is that all arguments over taking part in the elections were anchored in political loss-gain calculations, rather than in religious fatwas.

In practice, Hamas's campaign for the 2006 elections was based on an impressive "electoral platform" of fourteen pages, which offered a political, social, educational, legal and environmental programme that could almost fit into that of any other secular Palestinian faction. Hamas deliberately minimised its "religiosity" in an effort to represent the entire Palestinian constituency.

In trying to absorb the shock of winning the elections, Hamas has advanced its moderate and pragmatic outlook further. It invited the defeated Fatah movement to join a national unity government on the basis of an even more secular political programme. The secularisation of Hamas's politics manifested itself again in the June 2006 "prisoners' document" created by leaders of Hamas, Fatah and other factions in Israeli prisons, which was then endorsed by their counterparts on the outside.

Palestine in the world

Meanwhile, the wider external regional context, with its currently fast-moving developments, merits a closer look.

In the eyes of Israel, the United States and the west in general, seeing a Hamas committed to hardline aspirations emerging towards a position of leadership of the Palestinians was already an unimaginable nightmare; to see it materialise in free and fair elections was stupefying.

It was not just the west that was worried. Several Arab governments - including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, states significantly close to and with influence in the conflict - were also unhappy to see an organisation effectively aligned with their "collective enemies" (that is, political Islam) coming to power by democratic elections. They see this outcome as encouraging other Islamist movements to aim not just for power-sharing through elections, but for outright power-control.

By contrast, other regional players rejoiced in Hamas's victory. The "arc of resistance", as it is sometimes called, to American policies in the region is led by Iran, but it includes Syria, Hizbollah, Hamas and (potentially) the Shi'a of Iraq whose loyalties extend to solidarity with their Iranian co-religionists. These parties saw the result of the Palestinian election as an opportunity to further include Hamas in their range of sympathy. Thus, Hamas's election victory has been in many ways a turning-point that has - directly or indirectly - affected many parties engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Within this regional context, the Israeli-American opposition to Hamas's government suffers from a double flaw: it is incongruous in terms of democratic principle, and it is counterproductive in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it strips all moderate voices within Hamas of credibility. The failure of Hamas's government, now the focal point of the Israeli-American strategy towards the movement, would have the effect of pushing Hamas back to the militarised approach of the pre-election period.

Rather than a strategy of containment designed to bring Hamas further into the arc of politics and its compromises, Tel Aviv and Washington seem content to drive Hamas back towards its previous radicalism, in which the tactic of suicide-attacks played a central role. Such an attempt to besiege Hamas in the hope of breaking its will to make greater concessions is a stance full of risks, not least that it will only make a desperate Hamas even more ready to accept Iran's offers of much-needed support.

Iran's regional ambitions, by opening a route out of the deadlock facing Hamas in almost all directions, work to undercut the movement's nascent inclination to moderation. The Iranians' interest in using Hamas as a future bargaining-card with the US and the west is for Tehran also a neat component of its own wider strategy of extracting political leverage (with or without nuclear capabilities) and western recognition of its regional role.

Also in openDemocracy on Hamas and Palestinian politics:

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation"
(18 November 2004)

Jane Kinninmont, "Life after Sharon: Palestinian prospects"
(10 January 2006)

Eóin Murray, "After Hamas: a time for politics"
(30 January 2006)

David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east"
(1 February 2006)

Yasser Abu Moailek, "A Palestinian choice"
(27 January 2006)

In a nutshell, the regional configuration seems at present to be limiting the potential for Hamas's pragmatic evolution to continue.

A deep irony of this situation is that the most peaceful and calm period that Israeli cities enjoyed over almost the past two years was the period in which Hamas was preparing for the elections and after the movement took power in Palestine (until, of course, the invasion of Lebanon on 12 July and the Hizbollah missile-attacks that ensued). Hamas refuses to make verbal concessions on the issue of clear-cut recognition of the right of Israel to exist. It says that it acknowledges Israel as an existing fact on the ground, no more. Yet, in power, it has stopped attacking Israel as it used to do when it was part of the opposition to Palestine's governing authority.

This again highlights the rhetoric-practice dichotomy. Hamas needs to keep its rhetoric high and loud, refraining from any blunt offer of recognition of Israel, in order to compensate for the slow, daily "undoing" of its military struggle. If Hamas gives in on both rhetorical and practical fronts, it will lose out greatly in the eyes of its supporters.

For the time being, then, the choice for Israel, the United States and other concerned states seems to be: do you prefer a rhetorical Hamas in power (observing a practical truce), or a rhetorical and military Hamas in opposition, where the resumption of suicide-bombings is only one step away?