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By Matthew Levitt
Yale University Press
336 pages; $26
In the foreword to Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad by Matthew Levitt, former US envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross poses a series of questions.
"Who is Hamas? Where did they come from? How do they fund their activities? Why do they seem to have roots in Palestinian society? Can they accept anything but struggle and conflict with Israel? Will they ever lash out at the United States, or will they always restrict their terror to Israel?"
Where Ross leaves off, author Levitt continues.
"How does Hamas, a militant Islamist group in a relatively secular society fatigued by conflict, attract and retain its base of operatives and supporters? How does it radicalize, recruit and dispatch Palestinian suicide bombers and still woo Palestinian voters to vote it into power as the ruling political party?"
This is but a sampling of Levitt's queries in the opening of his book, Hamas, ultimately leading to a thesis that is backed up by open-source material and declassified reports from worldwide intelligence organizations.
Asserts Levitt: Hamas is a unitary organization in which political, military and social wings are interconnected. The linchpin is the dawa - an Islamic concept meaning to preach or propagate the religion and which covers "a wide spectrum of outreach activity, from outright proselytizing to charitable giving and social welfare activities."
Matthew Levitt, now a deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the US Department of the Treasury, researched and wrote this book while serving as senior fellow and director of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a leading think tank headquartered in Washington, DC. His colleague there was Dennis Ross, the institute's counselor and noted expert on Middle East affairs.
That both Ross in his foreword and Levitt in his introduction open with a litany of questions is somewhat telling. This terrorist organization that won a surprise victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections has shaped and then reshaped the Israeli-Palestinian political reality for nearly 20 years, yet remains elusive, begetting more questions than answers.
Reading through this book, that relationship is inverted as answers are offered, leading to an important conclusion for Levitt: "Denying Hamas the logistical, financial and recruitment networks provided by its dawa infrastructure would therefore go far toward disrupting its ability to carry out the suicide bombings and other attacks that are its hallmark."
This conclusion is backed up by chapter after chapter which pick apart the organizational and leadership structure of Hamas, its personnel and tactics, with each conclusion more sobering than the last. One section, titled "The Logistics of Terror," is perhaps the most revealing, as Levitt explains how charities, student organizations, athletic and recreational groups recruit Palestinian youth to the Hamas movement. The end results are tragically well known in Israel.
To research and write this book, Levitt relied heavily on open-source intelligence material from the American and Israeli intelligence apparatus. This opens Levitt to criticisms of one-sidedness. Though Levitt does cite intelligence reports from Arab governments, which mirror the claims of the US and Israel, that doubting critique of this book may linger for some readers.
Yet consider the author's professional and educational background. Dr. Levitt received his PhD in international relations from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and taught at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. He worked as an FBI analyst, providing tactical and strategic analysis in support of counterterrorism operations, then joined the Washington Institute and now works at the Department of the Treasury.
Unlike many other authors who profile terrorist organizations and leaders - many of whom are journalists who write books on this subject with a flare for the dramatic that reads like a Hollywood thriller script - Levitt is constrained by his experiences, defined by policy analysis and academic research. His writing style can be colorless and matter-of-fact. The journalist's credo of telling both sides of a story is not part of Levitt's professional experiences and it shows. Humanizing this enemy is not Matthew Levitt's goal, nor should it be.
A maxim in political science states: "Where you stand depends in part on where you sit." Levitt brings his institutional understandings and experiences to this book. To issue a blanket criticism that Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad is therefore an unworthy read would be a fallacious and simplistic claim. Levitt is a leading - if not the leading - expert on Hamas.
The work may not offer a window into the grievances of a Hamas operative, but it does help explain the countless intelligence and anti-terrorist agents pursuing this terrorist organization. Those insights alone are valuable.