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Hamas as a Political Failure

Commentators in the American and European press too often succumb to a solipsistic way of thinking of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as if only one side had any autonomy or agency. The debate between supporters and critics of Israel is typically couched in the same grammar: Either the Jewish state is acting defensibly, in its own self-interest, or it is not. Thus Tom Segev writes in Ha’aretz that while the latest assault on Hamas military and political infrastructure is morally justified, it represents a strategic blunder. A major fallacy ensues from this one-sided premise, which is that Israel is the sole stimulus for Hamas response, and therefore it alone bears the responsibility for the undeniable misery in Gaza. Those quick to point out how Olmert’s miscalculations have hurt the people he governs will typically suggest that military incursions "radicalize" Arab sentiment, leading to more suicide bombers and more dead Israelis.

Assuming this is true, why is it that the corollary is never asked: namely, how does Hamas radicalize Israeli sentiment? A much remarked-upon fact of the last 72 hours is that Israel’s ultra-left-wing party Meretz has endorsed Operation Cast Lead, a development that should concern partisans of both sides. If there is merit to the "root causes" argument, then surely it applies to the decisions undertaken by a Jewish polity as much as it does to those undertaken by a Muslim one. Or does a belligerent Israeli consensus form in a vacuum? Honest sympathizers of the Palestinian cause should inquire as to what culpability Ismail Haniyeh and Khalid Mashaal bear for the all-but-certain election of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is sure to continue – to coin another witless cliché of this ageless debate – the "cycle of violence."  If, as Hannah Arendt once phrased it, Theodor Herzl and Bernard Lazare were "turned into Jews by anti-Semitism," why would their empowered disciples be any less susceptible to external threats?

From India to Northern Ireland, no colonized population has ever been deemed immune from having the pursuit of its own political interests held up to scrutiny. Indeed, complaints in the Western media about the staggering corruption and incompetence of Fatah have given way to an almost total absence of any serious evaluation of Hamas’s many blunders and failures of foreign policy. Either this indicates an unpardonable bias, which many supporters of Israel allege, or the implicit acceptance of a disturbing reality — that Hamas is still too recalcitrant a political entity to effectively barter with. Judging by its long-term objectives and its short-term behavior, the group is committed to withholding the minimum concessions to its enemy at the cost of incurring the maximum suffering of its people. Derived from an all-encompassing Islamist social movement, Hamas bears a striking resemblance in its political organization to 20th-century fascist parties, a point that must also factor in any assessment of Hamas’s "pragmatic" capabilities.

Originally the outgrowth of the Mujamma’, the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamist movement that took hold in the Palestinian university system in the early 1980s, Hamas is ruled today by an educated elite that seeks to agitate a working-class constituency according to reactionary nationalist principles. It uses the conduits of democracy to implement the least democratic measures-in this case, sharia law. It purports to control the entire state apparatus, including the army, the press, local municipalities, and utilities, while remaining actively hostile to the idea of independent labor unions. (About a year ago, Hamas gunmen attacked the home of the Deputy Secretary General of the Palestinian Federation of General Trade Unions.)

There are two constituent groups within Hamas. The "inside" group devotes itself to the maintenance of social institutions-clinics, kindergartens, blood banks and welfare services. Ismail Haniyeh is the most recognizable figure allied to the "inside" group. The "outside" group controls the political and military establishment of Hamas and is responsible for conducting Gaza’s foreign policy, which includes floating the idea of hudna, or a short-term truce with Israel, or implementing tahdi’a, a period of "calm" associated with the now-expired ceasefire agreement.

The "outside" group is said to be divided by conflicting or contradictory impulses, though bound by the same unwavering objective, enshrined in its charter, of annihilating Israel and erecting an Islamic Palestinian state that would range from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea. The public face of this wing is Khalid Meshaal, who, acting from safe haven in Damascus where he receives succor from the Assad dictatorship and funding from both Hezbollah and the mullahs of Iran, orders jihadist operations, and consents to the firing of Qassam and Grad rockets into southern Israel (even when proxies do the firing, Hamas is still responsible as regional authority). It was the Meshaal-backed leadership of this group that also vetoed the attempt by its more sensible Gazan counterparts to renew the Egypt-brokered ceasefire with Israel, masterminded suicide bombings in Israel during the al-Aqsa intifada, and ordered the kidnapping of IDF solider Gilad Shalit. And it was this leadership that decided last year to instruct the Hamas Executive Force and the ‘Iz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades to overtake the Fatah-controlled security agencies of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, an usurpation that led to a bloody civil war and Hamas’s ouster from the West Bank.

To give a sense of the toll of this coup took on the people of Gaza, I quote at length from B’Tselem, the Israel Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which by no means flatters Tel Aviv or ignores its violations of international humanitarian law:

From the beginning of the year to mid-November, at least 344 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured in the fighting between the factions. B’Tselem’s figures indicate that at least 73 of the dead, 22 of them children, were not taking part in the hostilities and were killed during street fighting or from gunfire during demonstrations. Some three hundred of the dead were killed in the first six months of the year, the vast majority of them in the Gaza Strip. 160 persons were killed in June alone. The casualties occurred during violent clashes between members of the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus, most of whom belong to Fatah and are loyal to Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas, and Hamas militias, headed by the Hamas Executive Force and the ‘Iz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

Media reports and investigations by Palestinian and international human rights organizations indicate that in the weeks leading up to the Hamas takeover of the security apparatus in the Gaza Strip, the organization’s militias abducted several senior members of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces and executed them in cold blood without trial. Other PA security officials who were abducted were tortured. In some instances, they were shot in the legs as "punishment" before being released.

After the Hamas takeover, the street battles came to an almost complete halt. The ruling Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, headed by deposed PA prime minister Isma’il Haniyeh, has imposed an oppressive regime against its critics, especially those identified with Fatah. The Executive Force carries out arrests daily. The prisoners are held for a number of days and no charges are filed against them. Amnesty International has taken many testimonies from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have been arrested in this manner, and the victims report being ill-treated and tortured.

The Executive Force has frequently broken into the homes of Palestinians in search for weapons in the hands of opposition members. The militias have used excessive force in dispersing demonstrations in the Strip over the past few months. The gravest use of excessive force occurred on 12 November in response to a Fatah demonstration in Gaza City commemorating the death of Yasser Arafat: seven Palestinians were killed, including a twelve-year-old boy.

Something very much like this scenario was anticipated by Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela in their book The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence, which made the provocative case for viewing Hamas in paradoxical terms of what the authors called "flexible rigidity" or "pliant conformity." That is to say, the Islamists could brook compromise and short-term negotiation despite outward posturing as relentless warriors of theocratic nationalism. Yet in presenting their thesis, Mishal and Sela also conceded that the landslide legislative victory in 2006 caught Hamas off-guard, and the party was not ready to assume full political responsibility. The seeds of administrative failure were planted in its electoral success, and the internal tensions of the organization may have only been heightened to the point where "controlled violence" gave way to a third intifada, which now looks to be very much in the offing.

How that intifada is to be waged should be clear to anyone paying attention to the way Hamas has acted in the past and has chosen to "defend" its people. As Jeff Robbins, a former US delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, points out:

In direct contravention of international law, Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as human shields, utilizing homes, schools and community centers as launching pads, content in the knowledge that if innocent Palestinian civilians are caught in the cross-fire, it will be Israel that is criticized. This amounts to a sort of Daily Double of human rights violations: the use of innocent Palestinians as human shields for the infliction of violence upon innocent Israelis.

No proponent of Palestinian rights can in good conscience look admiringly on such barbarism. Whatever its behind-the-scenes complexities, Hamas has clearly committed itself to an unsustainable status quo of militant authoritarianism, more concerned with saving face than altering the material conditions of its constituents.  The economic sanctions imposed on the strip by Israel, justified or not, would be eliminated with the basic concession of Israel’s right to exist and the repudiation of terrorism as a legitimate means of resistance, two things Hamas stubbornly continues to refuse as Gazans continue to starve. It may well by the case that the group is capable of "flexible rigidity," but so far, only the most rigid and lethal exponents of permanent jihad and messianism have had their way. A hardheaded editorial in Der Spiegel stated the matter bluntly:

[A]s bloody as the Israeli offensive has been, it comes largely as the result of a deeply cynical calculation on the part of Hamas. The Islamist group must have known that Israel would not tolerate the incessant cross-border rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip indefinitely. Since the six-month cease-fire between Hamas and Israel ended on Dec. 19, dozens of rockets once again began landing well inside Israel, killing one civilian last week and another, an Arab-Israeli, on Monday.

And if the underlying hope was that an extraordinary retaliation would take place, how can anyone pledge confidence or faith in a party that begs for the punishment of its people?  A Hamas defeat at the polls would certainly be a welcome occurrence, if still an insufficient resolution to a systemic problem. Palestinians lack a viable political program that places statehood, peaceful coexistence, and socioeconomic wellbeing at the fore, where these interests don’t require academic specialists to decipher them. Call it Fatah without the kleptocracy, or social democracy with teeth. In searching for such a program, or at least the philosophical underpinnings that precede it, Palestinians might take a lesson from an unlikely tutor: 19th-century Zionists. Was there ever any problem Diaspora Jews faced that they thought could not be solved by the temporary salves of charity and favorable international publicity? What the early Zionists came to realize was that without first addressing the integral political crisis of the Jewish nation, the cultural and humanitarian concerns would never be adequately resolved. For today’s Gazans, an ambulance driver who swears upon the Protocols of the Elders of Zion may serve a proximate physical need, but can he really serve a long-term national interest?

Lazare put it astutely when he described the main affliction of the Jewish establishment in the Diaspora as "the demoralization of a people made up of the poor and downtrodden, who live on the alms of their wealthy brethren, a people revolted only by persecution from without but not by oppression from within, revolutionaries in the society of others but not in their own."

It would be too depressing if Palestinians failed to absorb the dialectical wisdom of this judgment.

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