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Hamas: A Beginner's Guide
By Khaled Hroub
Is Hamas a genocidal organization devoted to the extermination of Jews through never-ending terrorism? Or is it an increasingly moderate national liberation movement?
These are the two poles in the debate regarding the precise nature of Hamas, the Islamist group that emerged in Gaza in the late 1980s and now finds itself holding the reins of the Palestinian Authority government.
Hamas: A Beginner's Guide is the latest contribution to this debate. Hroub, who was born in Bethlehem, is the author of an earlier academic work: Hamas: Political Thought and Practice. This latest work, however, is aimed at a wider audience, as it seeks to answer the questions that have arisen from Hamas's January election victory.
As stated from the outset, Hroub aims to provide a primer that is not caught up in political controversies - "there is no intention here to provide an apologetic treatise about Hamas. It is up to the reader to shape her or his own opinion on this Palestinian movement. The purpose of this book, though, is to provide the basic information and necessary clarifying analysis."
This is a worthy aim, but Hroub doesn't always stick to the task.
The book is divided into 10 chapters, each containing a number of questions. There are chapters on Hamas's history, ideology and strategy, as well as less commonly discussed issues such as its relationship to the West and its organizational structure. Most of this provides good information in neat, cogent prose.
Unfortunately, it is in the most controversial sections that Hroub sinks into apologetics. Hamas's frequent anti-Semitic statements are whitewashed, with Hroub arguing that Hamas is anti-Zionist but not anti-Jewish: "The roots of any anti-Jewishness in Arab society are entirely political, in response to aggression, and any other form of anti-Jewishness would be completely refuted from the perspective of Islamic theology."
This is accompanied by a rather narrow definition of a Zionist, as "a person or group whose focus is the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine." The notorious Charter of 1988, which called for the destruction of Israel, is downplayed as "rather obsoleteâ€¦ crammed with rhetoric that is embarrassing to the Hamas of today," and no answer is given to the question of what Hamas envisions for Israeli Jews.
Hroub's treatment of suicide bombings is similarly flawed. He portrays them as simple acts of revenge for Israeli atrocities, ignoring research from the likes of Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism, that suicide bombings are employed because they are strategically effective. As assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said in 2003: "If we perceive that the atmosphere favors such a decision [to suspend suicide bombings], we stop. And when we perceive that the atmosphere has changed, we carry on."
Hroub's book, then, cannot be considered unprejudiced. There is clearly a favored position running throughout - that Hamas is a rational national liberation movement. But because of the author's special insight, based on years of fieldwork, the book may yet prove to be a useful addition to the canon, if the reader takes its denied biases into account.
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