What to make of Hamas?

As reported in recent days, Hamas this week announced a shift in its ‘emphasis from armed struggle to non-violent resistance‘. This development ties in to the discussion prompted by the last KoW post that dealt with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. One question discussed then was the level of threat posed to Israel by the groups and states surrounding it.

Obviously Hamas’ declaration will inform this debate. Since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006 there has been speculation that the group, now with formal power, would moderate its aims and tone down its rhetoric. After all, Hamas emerged as a radical splinter from a more moderate movement; who is to say it cannot evolve in the opposite direction. But is this what is happening?

Clearly, it will depend on who you ask: much like everything else in the Middle East, or in politics in general, Hamas’ announcement of a shift away from violence will be interpreted differently depending on pre-existing convictions and party lines. For example, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev has already warned that ‘No one in the international community should have illusions as to Hamas… This is a movement that is terrorist to the core’.

What Regev and other concerned analysts base themselves on is of course Hamas’ rhetoric about destroying Israel and its actions oriented toward that goal. Treating these two aspects separately, the violence has lately tailed off, though it is uncertain whether this reflects reduced capability or an actual change of heart. Regardless, Hamas’ previous violence against Israel would not in itself preclude more constructive engagement in the future – after all, PLO followed this very path.

It is really in the rhetoric where Hamas has boxed itself into a corner, on three counts. First, its conciliatory statements clash with several other declarations, such as the pledge during Hamas’ anniversary celebration this very month, that ‘armed struggle’ is the ‘strategic choice for liberating Palestinian land from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea’. It is difficult to see comments such as these as anything but a declaration of endless and existential war against Israel.

Second, there is of course the infamous Covenant, a 1988 document released by Hamas upon its creation and which is deeply anti-Semitic (almost ludicrously so – it blames Jews for, inter alia, the ‘French Revolution, the Communist revolution, and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there’). Unless Hamas somehow renounce their covenant, or it somehow comes to be viewed as irrelevant to its actual political goals, any type of rapprochement between Israel and Hamas looks highly unlikely.

Third, and as Glenn E. Robinson explains in his cogently argued chapter ‘Hamas as a Social Movement’ (in Quintan Wiktorowicz’ book Islamic Activism), Hamas has long framed its struggle as a combination of direct action and patience (or sabr) – both are used toward the end of defeating Israel. Meir Litvak picks up on this too, pointing to Hamas’ pragmatic use of hudna (or short-term ceasefires) as a means of regaining strength during times of weakness and continuing the armed struggle by other means. What both authors suggest is that when Hamas appears conciliatory, it is in fact being deceptive. Thus, the recent prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier, does not indicate an ability to negotiate with Hamas, but its pragmatic use of non-violent means to make its violent campaign more effective. And the same, so the argument goes, applies to Hamas’ apparent renunciation of violence.

This analysis may very well be correct, but the problem is that it is also self-fulfilling. The reason Hamas frames concessions or passivity as part of sabr or hudna is so that it can present even weakness and accommodation as part of the bigger struggle (‘it’s all part of the plan’). Thus, the group can maintain its hard-core credentials whether it decides to attack or lay low. But because this combination of struggle and patience can justify any activity on the part of the group, it is also largely meaningless – at least in terms of understanding the group’s behaviour.

Indeed, referring to these frames when analysing Hamas’ behaviour can only lead to one conclusion – the one arrived at by Regev above. If we dismiss every instance of moderation or conciliation as examples of hudna or sabr, the inevitable conclusion is that engagement of any type is self-defeating. But this is also an argument that is impossible to disprove, at least within its own logic.

This is not to say that Hamas’ rhetoric of moderation is sincere. Maybe this is a short-term ploy to amass strength during a time of weakness. But what we need is an analytical lens that does not ineluctably lead us to this conclusion. Better to welcome Hamas’ apparent shift from violence, take it at face value, seek to derive as much advantage from it as possible, all while – of course – keeping up our guard. Look out for fresh opportunities rather than repeat tired bromides: will this shift split Hamas, are there intra-group dynamics that can be seized upon, even exploited?

Whatever Hamas’ intentions, there is a long way to go before we can start thinking of negotiations like those between PLO and Israel. One giant stumbling block will be Hamas’ covenant and anti-Semitic rhetoric, which make permanent conciliation all but impossible. But rather than have these challenges obscure possible opportunities, let’s find opportunities to deal with the challenges.


3 thoughts on “What to make of Hamas?

  1. Yes, it could be that Hamas joining the PLO makes a peace agreement less likely (not that I think a peace agreement was likely to begin with due to unfortunate dynamics on all sides, but many people keep up the faith). No longer possible to broker a West Bank only deal with Abbas (if it ever was).

  2. Cincinnatusjr says:

    I for one will not hold my breath awaiting Hamas to act consistent with its latest pronouncement for western consumption. As we view it’s actions going forward in this new light we must also include its various indirectly linked factions that do so much of Hamas’ bidding, especially (im)plausibly deniable wet work.

  3. Nina Musgrave says:

    In terms of looking at how Hamas conceives its use of violence and how this is going to evolve, it is also worth looking at Palestinian politics internally, especially considering how Islamic Jihad is gaining in strength militarily.

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