The Transformation of Hamas | The Nation


The Transformation of Hamas

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About the Author

Fawaz A. Gerges
Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics...

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Letters published in the February 22, 2010 issue of the Nation.

Israel's assault on Gaza is radicalizing mainstream Muslim opinion. And regardless how this war ends, Hamas will likely emerge a more powerful force than before.

Something is stirring within the Hamas body politic, a moderating trend that, if nourished and engaged, could transform Palestinian politics and the Arab-Israeli peace process. There are unmistakable signs that the religiously based radical movement has subtly changed its uncompromising posture on Israel. Although low-key and restrained, those shifts indicate that the movement is searching for a formula that addresses the concerns of Western powers yet avoids alienating its social base.

Far from impulsive and unexpected, Hamas's shift reflects a gradual evolution occurring over the past five years. The big strategic turn occurred in 2005, when Hamas decided to participate in the January 2006 legislative elections and thus tacitly accepted the governing rules of the Palestinian Authority (PA), one of which includes recognition of Israel. Ever since, top Hamas leaders have repeatedly declared they will accept a resolution of the conflict along the 1967 borders. The Damascus-based Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas's political bureau and considered a hardliner, acknowledged as much in 2008. "We are realists," he said, who recognize that there is "an entity called Israel." Pressed by an Australian journalist on policy changes Hamas might make, Meshal asserted that the organization has shifted on several key points: "Hamas has already changed--we accepted the national accords for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and we took part in the 2006 Palestinian elections."

Another senior Hamas leader, Ghazi Hamad, was more specific than Meshal, telling journalists in January 2009 that Hamas would be satisfied with ending Israeli control over the Palestinian areas occupied in the 1967 war—the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. In other words, Hamas would not hold out for liberation of the land that currently includes Israel.

Previously Hamas moderates had called at times for a tahdia (a minor truce, or "calm") or hudna (a longer-term truce, lasting as long as fifty years), which implies some measure of recognition, if only tacit. The moderates justified their policy shift by using Islamic terms (in Islamic history hudnas sometimes develop into permanent truces). Now leaders appear to be going further; they have made a concerted effort to re-educate the rank and file about the necessity of living side by side with their Jewish neighbors, and in so doing mentally prepare them for a permanent settlement. In Gaza's mosques pro-Hamas clerics have begun to cite the example of the famed twelfth-century Muslim military commander and statesman Saladin, who after liberating Jerusalem from the Crusaders allowed them to retain a coastal state in the Levant. The point is that if Saladin could tolerate the warring, bloodthirsty Crusaders, then today's Palestinians should be willing to live peacefully with a Jewish state in their midst.

The Saladin story is important because it provides Hamas with religious legitimacy and allows it to justify the change of direction to followers. Hamas's raison d'être rests on religious legitimation; its leaders understand that they neglect this at their peril. Western leaders and students of international politics should acknowledge that Hamas can no more abandon its commitment to Islamism than the United States can abandon its commitment to liberal democracy. That does not mean Hamas is incapable of change or compromise but simply that its political identity is strongly constituted by its religious legitimation.

It should be emphasized as well that Hamas is not monolithic on the issue of peace. There are multiple, clashing viewpoints and constituencies within the movement. Over the years I have interviewed more than a dozen leaders inside and outside the occupied territories. Although on the whole Hamas's public rhetoric calls for the liberation of all of historic Palestine, not only the territories occupied in 1967, a healthy debate has grown both within and without.

Several factors have played a role in the transformation. They include the burden of governing a war-torn Gaza and the devastation from Israel's 2008-09 attack, which has caused incalculable human suffering and increasing public dissatisfaction in Gaza with Hamas rule.

Before the 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas was known for its suicide bombers, not its bureaucrats, even though between 2002 and 2006 the organization moved from rejectionism toward participation in a political framework that is a direct product of the Oslo peace process of the 1990s. After the elections, the shift continued. "It is much more difficult to run a government than to oppose and resist Israeli occupation," a senior Hamas leader told me while on official business in Egypt in 2007. "If we do not provide the goods to our people, they'll disown us." Hamas is not just a political party. It's a social movement, and as such it has a long record of concern about and close attention to public opinion. Given the gravity of deteriorating conditions in Gaza and Hamas's weak performance during last year's fighting, it should be no surprise that the organization has undergone a period of fairly intense soul-searching and reassessment of strategic options.

Ironically, despite the West's refusal to regard the Hamas government as legitimate and despite the continuing brutal siege of Gaza, demands for democratic governance within Gaza are driving change. Yet Hamas leaders are fully aware of the danger of alienating more-hardline factions if they show weakness or water down their position and move toward de facto recognition of Israel without getting something substantive in return. Hamas's strategic predicament lies in striking a balance between, on the one hand, a new moderating and maturing sensibility and, on the other, insistence on the right and imperative of armed resistance. This difficult balance often explains the tensions and contradictions in Hamas's public and private pronouncements.

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