Many people have questioned what Hamas has to gain in its recent escalation of violence with Israel. In the political arena, both domestically and abroad, the conflict with Israel presents many significant gains.
Ongoing conflict with Israel is a means through which Hamas is able to keep its ideology and identity intact with little compromise. Hamas, an Arabic acronym for “the Islamic Resistance Movement,” is an Islamist fundamentalist organization that believes in the implementation of an extreme vision of Islam as well as the abolition of the State of Israel, which it maintains has “occupied Islamic lands.”
Significant is the fact that the words “Islamic,” “resistance,” and “movement” are not merely metaphorical, but accurately define the identity of Hamas.
Since its was founded in January 1988, during the early months of the first intifada, two of the core facets of Hamas’s identity have been their belief in the need for Palestinian society to be organized in accordance to the doctrines of Koranic Sharia law and the Sunna [teachings of the prophets], as well as the eradication of the State of Israel, which it views as a “Zionist entity” – a foreign occupier of Islamic lands.
As stated in Article 11 of Hamas’s charter, which was published near the time of its formation, the “land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf [gift from God] throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it.”
Article 15 of Hamas’s charter goes on to say that “When our enemies usurp some Islamic lands, Jihad [holy war] becomes a duty binding on all Muslims.”
For Hamas, peace with Israel would mean forgoing its core beliefs. It cannot accept recognition of a State of Israel existing on land Hamas views as Palestinian, and cannot end its holy war against Israel. Conversely, perpetual conflict not only reduces the need to compromise, it also provides a platform for Hamas to strengthen its identity and ideology.
It is not only in helping to solidify the dominant aspects of its identity and ideology that provides the potential for political gain to Hamas. The escalation of violence with Israel also provides the potential for political gain in the Palestinian domestic political arena.
Although an analysis of polls put out by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey suggest show that support for the Palestinian Fatah government has increased in comparison to the Hamas government following the 2006 Palestinian elections, a comparison of polls that have been published over the past 9 months show that support for Fatah by the Palestinian public is starting to decline.
For example, currently, 39 percent of Palestinians say they would vote for Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, while 30% said they would vote for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. However, in June of this year 49% of Palestinians said they would have voted for Abbas compared to 44% for Haniyeh, and three months before that 54% of Abbas and 42% for Haniyeh. Some policy experts have attributed the decline in support for Abbas’s Fatah party to the “Egyptian Revolution” and the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood government there, which Hamas is an offshoot of.
The decrease in support for Fatah has been linked to the overall living conditions in the West Bank and Palestinian Territories. Many Palestinians support the policies of Fatah over Hamas, however, in times of conflict, the policies of the parties can be pushed aside under the pretense of Palestinian nationalism.
In political science, there is something called the “rally around the flag effect,” which is used, for example, to explain short-term support for an American president during times of international crisis. Following the last Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Operation Cast Lead, polls published by the same institute showed a brief boom in support for Hamas, followed by a decline in the decrease of tensions that followed.
As one Gazan citizen remarked approvingly in the recent violence with Israel: “They are also terrorized on the other side of the border. To be honest, I thought Hamas had forgotten about fighting Israel. I was wrong.”
Historically, as Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies points out, from the time of its inception, within the West Bank and Gaza Strip Hamas was seen by many Palestinians as sticking to nationalist principles, while Fatah, which had acknowledged Israel’s existence, was perceived as being weak.
Couched in terms of nationalism, the escalation in Israel is a way for Hamas to appear to be the main protectorate of Palestinian interests. As well, the potential for a “rally around the flag effect,” even if it is short lived, can help to disrupt support for Fatah, given the fragility of the political Palestinian landscape.
A final political benefit Hamas gains from its war with Israel is an increase in its legitimacy on the international stage. Within two days of the escalated violence Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil made an official visit to Gaza to pledge his support for the Palestinian people.
Secondly, the United States, European Union, Canada, as well as many other countries have designated Hamas a terrorist organization. The war, and in particular cease-fire negotiations, provide Hamas with a platform on the international stage to make demands.
Finally, any of its demands that are met in those negotiations may be marketed to the public as a means of bolstering Hamas’s domestic support.
Such was the case in the Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange, in which Hamas released the kidnapped soldier Schalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
As Palestinian analyst Khaled Abu Toameh remarked, 85% of Palestinians considered that exchange a good deal.
It can be concluded that the current escalation of violence with Israel has provided Hamas with several means to make political headway, both in the Palestinian political arena as well as the international arena, while to a large degree remaining within the framework of its current ideology and identity.
The writer is CEO of the an international political consulting firm. He previously worked in House of Commons Canada. His forthcoming book is entitled Multiple Modernities in the Contemporary Scene.