Hamas through the ages

When the peace process is making progress, Hamas is weaker. When the negotiations seem stuck, Hamas is stronger.

hamas (photo credit: majed hamdan / ap )
(photo credit: majed hamdan / ap )
AMONG THE RECENT Wikileaks exposures are conversations that the head of Egyptian intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, held with American diplomats, in which he informs them that Iran had been transferring some $25 million to the Hamas government in Gaza every month. According to Suleiman, the Egyptians have been able to prevent the money from going through Egypt, but it seems that Iran has found other ways to get the money to Hamas.
The fact that Iran is using every possible way to strengthen and transfer monies and weapons to Hamas needs explaining.
From a religious point of view, Hamas is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Many of the heads of the movement were professionally trained in Egypt, where they became members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization which for years has formed the strongest opposition to the Egyptian government. Even before Hamas was established in 1987, activists from the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip were involved in all aspects of social life – demanding that women wear appropriately modest traditional dress, hounding alcohol merchants, attacking night clubs, disrupting weddings and other social events where bellydancing was taking place, tearing down pornographic advertisements, removing drug dealers from the streets, destroying gambling casinos and billiard halls – and all the while encouraging the public to engage in religious studies and opening up kindergartens, clinics, sports clubs, educational enrichment groups, and welfare agencies. The Muslim Brothers in Gaza were able to accomplish this thanks to contributions that came from all over the Arab world, especially from Sunnis.
The Iranians, who are Shi’ites, had no part in these activities. Political-religious enmity has created a split between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites that has persisted for hundreds of years. To this day, we are witness to the bloodbath between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites in Iraq. In mid-December, Sunni terrorists (members of the Baluchis on the Pakistani border) murdered dozens of Iranian Shi’ites in the eastern part of Iran.
So why is the government of the Shi’ite ayatollahs in Iran helping the Sunni Hamas government in Gaza in every possible way? How did this come about?
It’s clear why the administration in Iran aids and supports Hizballah in Lebanon: the Hizballah is a Shi’ite-Iranian extension in Lebanon. Iranian aid to the Lebanese Shi’ites is therefore a natural development and has been going on for years.
But the relationship between Hamas and Iran is a fairly new development. The context and explanation are political and can be summed up succinctly. Pushed into a corner, Hamas turned to Iran: the relationship with Iran has been, and remains, the only chance the Hamas government has to survive. And the Iranians, in turn, are delighted to have a political and military foothold on both the border with Egypt, considered the leader of the Arab world, and the Israeli front.
HAMAS RECENTLY CELEBRATED its 23rd anniversary and the situation was very different back then. Hamas was established as a religious-nationalist movement, in opposition to what was viewed as secular Palestinian nationalism in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Fatah. This opposition was obvious from the outset in the very name “Hamas,” which is an acronym of the Arabic initials for “The Islamic Resistance Movement” – and does not even include the word Palestine. This is no coincidence – in contrast to Fatah, the Islamic-religious aspect of the struggle is the central component, rather than the Palestinian nationalist aspect.
From its inception, Hamas has strived for political legitimacy within Palestinian society and for acceptance as a member of the PLO. Hamas has held dozens of meetings and discussions with representatives of late PA chairman Yasser Arafat. Those meetings usually took place in Cairo and Khartoum, and the negotiations focused on the extent of Hamas’s representation in Fatah institutions and the extent of the funding that Hamas would receive. Hamas wanted 40% representation, but Arafat was willing to offer them only about 10%, making it very clear that he was no less, and perhaps even more, committed to Islam than Hamas.
When the Palestinian Authority was established in Gaza, Arafat created an Islamic movement with a similar name: Halas. Offering money and positions, he was able to lure away Hamas activists. After Arafat’s death, Hamas won a clear victory in the 2006 elections for the Palestinian parliament, and a government headed by Hamas leader Ismail Haniya was formed. For a year and a half after the elections, discussions between the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the heads of the Hamas continued regarding the establishment of a national unity government. Hamas was willing to pay almost any price for recognition of its victory in the democratic elections by the Palestinian movements, the Arab governments and the entire world – that is, in order to gain legitimacy for its rule. Almost any price, that is, but not every price – not the price involved in recognition and acceptance of the agreements between the PLO and Israel. This was more than Hamas was willing to agree to.
The same is true today: Anyone who followed the celebrations in Gaza marking the anniversary of the establishment of Hamas could hear Haniya, head of the government (which in Ramallah is referred to as “the government that was fired”) declare again and again: “We will liberate Palestine from the sea to the river, and we will never – never! – recognize Israel.”
At the same time, the heads of Hamas occasionally make proclamations that seem more moderate. Two weeks ago, in a meeting with foreign journalists in Gaza, the same Haniya said that his movement would accept the results of any referendum on a peace agreement with Israel, even if the agreement were to contradict Hamas’s principles. Furthermore, he declared, “Hamas would not oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with its capital in Jerusalem, and a solution to the refugee problem, including the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.”
Hamas spokesmen permit themselves to make these kinds of proclamations because they feel strong. Ever since the military coup that took control of Gaza in June 2007, they have achieved some important successes. Hamas security forces have been able to maintain law and order in Gaza and they got rid of the various Fatah militias and the large clans, leaving only a few, small armed cells of the extremists, which Hamas permits to occasionally lob rockets and missiles over southern Israel, as long as they don’t dare use their arms within Gaza.
Within the context of their stable government, members of Hamas continue to occasionally meet with Abbas representatives. These talks always fail, but the central sticking point is no longer recognition of Israel but rather Hamas’s refusal to place its security forces in Gaza under control of the PA commanders in Ramallah. In mid-December, a Fatah spokesman announced that the movement was considering ending these reconciliation attempts. Hamas representative Salach Bardawil responded: Don’t do us any favors. “There’s no point in talks with the PA because it collaborates with Israel,” he retorted.
Hamas media, especially Internet sites, publish items about persecution, arrests and torture of Hamas activists in the West Bank; and the media in Ramallah publishes items about persecution, arrests and torture of Fatah activists in Gaza. For example, in early December, Al- Quds magazine in East Jerusalem wrote that some 40 Fatah activists, listed by name, were arrested and interrogated in northern Gaza. The media in Ramallah regularly publishes items about the Hamas “modesty patrols” that forbid showing “embarrassing outfits” in women’s clothing stores; the attacks on Christians; and the changes in school curricula to include more religious instruction.
Thanks to its ties with Iran, the Hamas government has been able to survive. It has survived three years of economic siege thanks to the money, food and other goods that pass through the tunnels. And it managed to turn the Turkish flotilla incident into an impressive political victory. The Israeli government refuses to apologize to the Turks over the attack on the flotilla because in Israel it would be viewed as a national disgrace – but we forget that the real disgrace is that the flotilla forced Israel to change its policies and to remove the economic siege of Gaza. Not only do goods make their way into Gaza freely these days, now there is talk about allowing exports as well.
Yet in the final analysis, Hamas’s success in establishing its control over Gaza does not stem solely from its relationship with Iran, but rather also – and perhaps primarily – from the political failures of Abu Mazen and his government in Ramallah. Loyal to the peace process and to recognition of the State of Israel, Abu Mazen and the heads of the PLO have been conducting peace talks with Israel since the Madrid Conference in 1991 – that is, for nearly 20 years. Hamas rejects the diplomatic process and seeks to perpetuate the armed struggle.
The peace process has known ups and downs. When it is making progress and the PLO can claim achievements, Hamas is weaker. That’s the way it has been throughout all the stages of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and in Gaza. But when the peace process is in regression and the negotiations seem stuck, Hamas is stronger.
It should come as no surprise, then, that today Hamas is more popular than ever before.