Future of a Place Strangling in Its Past
When one reads or watches news coverage of the Middle East, one can all to easily come away with the sense that there is nothing that can be done to ameliorate the situation there. It often seems as if the earth has somehow shifted underneath the region and the Israelis and the Arabs were inhabiting the territory of Ancient Greece and the players — the ultra-Orthodox Israeli settlers determined to push the borders of their nation ever-farther outward, the Holocaust-deniers, the dispossessed Palestinians, the state of Israel as the lone democracy in the area, Saudi billionaires disbursing their money — are trapped in a play by Euripides or Sophocles.
As this paper explores, this play that we are watching in the Middle East, is a play about fate and about the Fates. A play in which each actor must react to what has come before. A play about a world in which there are no free choices, no actions independent of the past. Only a constant reaction to a previous reaction.
But this is not true, or not entirely. Despite the fatalistic nature of events in the Middle East — for certainly many of the players do seem to feel as if they were trapped in an endless cycle of reaction to previous incursions, to past violence, to the decisions made in previous generations — the current players in the polity of the Middle East do have the power to make decisions about their present and their future. Certainly these decisions are limited by what has come before. Certainly the inhabitants of the Middle East are not precisely the masters of their fate. But they do have a hand in guiding the future.
Thus when we examine the future of any of the groups in the Middle East, including Hamas, the focus of this paper, we must understand that their future will arise from the actions that they make today.
A Brief History of Hamas
As noted above, it is impossible to predict — even in the vaguest outlines — the future of any of the players in the Middle East without looking to the past. It is true, of course, that all peoples and all regions have a foundation in the past. But how flexible perceive that relationship to be varies greatly. Immigrants from Europe to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed (in large measure) that they could change their lives by unchaining their destinies from those of their ancestors.
This is much less true in the Middle East, where people feel themselves deeply enmeshed with what happened to their families generations into the past. And not only do they feel that this connection is very real, but they tend to celebrate their connection to their past. Hamas is no different. It is hard for those of us growing up in the United States, a nation based in no small measure, on the idea that we can each reinvent ourselves, to understand how strong a pull there is on both Arabs and Jews from their past.
Hamas — the name is an acronym for the Arabic words meaning “Islamic Resistance Movement — is a Palestinian (and Islamic) social welfare and political organization that also includes a military arm. In June 2007, the group won a large majority in the Palestinian Parliament — and defeating the other major Palestinian political party, Fatah — in a series of violent encounters, Hamas began its governance over the Gaza territories. Despite its electoral win, Hamas is still considered to be a terrorist organization by many nations, including Canada, Japan, Israel, the European Union, and the United States. Britain and Australia classify Hamas’s paramilitary organization as a terrorist group but do not give thus designation to the group as a whole.
It had taken Hamas twenty years to get from its origins to this electoral victory. The group was founded in 1987 by Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, and Mohammad Taha. The birth of Hamas thus coincided with the First Intifada, an uprising by Palestinians against Israeli control of the Palestinian Territories. Attacks against Israel continued through 2005, renouncing them the next year. In addition to launching military attacks against Israel, Hamas has repeatedly called for the end of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, with both of the territories being replaced by an Islamic Palestinian state. In other words, Hamas — in its founding covenant — calls for the end of the state of Israel.
This brings us to one of those points when Hamas has the power to shape its own future. It is difficult to imagine that the United States (or indeed many of the European nations) allowing for a Palestinian takeover of the state of Israel. While progressive political elements in both the United States and in Europe have frequently and adamantly protested the ways that Israel has treated the Palestinians, it is much more likely than not that at least the United States would intercede militarily if Palestinian or other Arab forces tried to overthrow the Israeli government.
Ambivalence Toward Israel
Hamas itself has been — at times — ambivalent (at least in public) about its future relationship with the state of Israel. For example, in April 2006, after its electoral victory over Fatah, Al-Zahar (one of the founders of Hamas) stated in a speech that he thought that the future might see a peaceful co-habitation between neighboring Israeli and Palestinian states. And yet, even as holding this out as a possibility, he also (and in much stronger language) argued for a future in which Hamas had triumphed over Israel and the Jewish state no longer existed. He said that he dreamed of a world: he dreamed “of hanging a huge map of the world on the wall at my Gaza home which does not show Israel on it . . . . I hope that our dream to have our independent state on all historic Palestine (will appear). . . . This dream will become real one day. I’m certain of this because there is no place for the state of Israel on this land” (Toameh, 2006).
Al-Zahar, in the same speech, said that there would be room in the Palestinian state that he imagined for Jews as well as Christians to live alongside the majority Muslims, but that the state would be governed by Muslim precepts. The future of Hamas will rest in no small measure on how it decides to shape its future with Israel. This is a complicated calculation for the leaders of Hamas, given that much of their current legitimacy and support arises from the strength of their opposition to Israel. If they were to reduce the urgency of their calls for the elimination of the state of Israel, they would find themselves more acceptable to the non-Arab world, but they might lose the support of both Palestinians and other Arabs.
It is important to note that the covenant of Hamas connects its future to the very origins of Islam. This is one of the aspects of the organization that makes it harder for both leaders and followers to be flexible: If they believe that they are walking in the footsteps of the Prophet, then it would be apostasy to change their path. Article five of the covenant reads:
Time extent of the Islamic Resistance Movement: By adopting Islam as its way of life, the Movement goes back to the time of the birth of the Islamic message, of the righteous ancestor, for Allah is its target, the Prophet is its example and the Koran is its constitution. Its extent in place is anywhere that there are Muslims who embrace Islam as their way of life everywhere in the globe. This being so, it extends to the depth of the earth and reaches out to the heaven.
“Dost thou not see how Allah putteth forth a parable; representing a good word, as a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed in the earth, and whose branches reach unto heaven; which bringeth forth its fruit in all seasons, by the will of its Lord? Allah propoundeth parables unto men, that they may be instructed.” (Abraham – verses 24-25). (http://www.mideastweb.org/hamas.htm)
For many in Hamas, a Palestinian state must put down its roots like a great and ancient tree in the land that is now Israel. So long as Hamas maintains an exclusive claim to the territory that is now Israel, it will remain a revolutionary force but not a nation-state that is given wide acceptance in the world at large.
This is not to say that Hamas does not have allies. Those inside the Arab world are to be expected. But it has allies beyond its neighbors, including Russia. After Hamas’s electoral victory, Russian leader Vladimir Putin came out in support of Hamas.
Putin was quoted as telling a joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Madrid, where he was on a visit, that “Russia is maintaining contacts with the Hamas organization and intends in the near future to invite the leadership of this organization to Moscow.”
Putin reiterated that Russia does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and urged the global community to work with a Hamas-led Palestinian government.
“Hamas has arrived at the doors of power through legitimate elections,” Putin said. “We must respect the Palestinian people and we have to look for solutions for the Palestinian people, for the international community, and also for Israel. Contacts with Hamas must continue,” he added. (Hamas not a terror organization)
The leaders of Hamas have some chance to make an alliance with Israeli leaders that would allow them to gain an unencumbered claim to some territory and gain some support from Western leaders. There has been some attempt to do this. In 2008, former President Jimmy Carter worked with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to reach an agreement that Hamas would agree to a truce with Israel if and when the Palestinian people agreed to a Palestinian state in the territory that had been taken by Israel during the 1967 war.
Israel has refused such overtures on the ground that Hamas is not likely to keep to the terms of any truce. “Since the Prophet Muhammad made a temporary hudna, or truce, with the Jews about 1,400 years ago, Hamas allows the idea. But no one in Hamas says he would make a peace treaty with Israel or permanently give up any part of Palestine.”
Article Fifteen of Hamas’s covenant underscores this idea:
The day that enemies usurp part of Muslim land, Jihad becomes the individual duty of every Muslim. In face of the Jews’ usurpation of Palestine, it is compulsory that the banner of Jihad be raised. To do this requires the diffusion of Islamic consciousness among the masses, both on the regional, Arab and Islamic levels. It is necessary to instill the spirit of Jihad in the heart of the nation so that they would confront the enemies and join the ranks of the fighters (http://www.mideastweb.org/hamas.htm
Of course, the covenant of Hamas is its past: The leaders could choose to alter the covenant, or to set it aside, or to substitute a new covenant entirely. But this seems unlikely. Hamas’s passion and its legitimacy both arise from its embodiment of a certain version of Islam. It can set this aside to achieve greater legitimacy in the larger world, but only at the expense of its feelings of self-legitimacy and the support of those who believe in it in the group’s current ideology.
Praise be to Allah, the Most Generous
If Hamas continues to fight against the existence of Israel as a state it will never itself rise to the level of a state. As much support as it might have from within and from neighboring Arab states, there will simply be too much powerful (both military and cultural) opposition from Israel and its allies, including the United States). There is, however, another path that Hamas may take that will give it legitimacy both in and out of the Arab world. It may choose to take on a more purely social role.
Charity is enjoined on Muslims, and this idea is embedded in the Hamas covenant in Articles 20 and 21:
Muslim society is a mutually responsible society. The Prophet, prayers and greetings be unto him, said: “Blessed are the generous, whether they were in town or on a journey, who have collected all that they had and shared it equally among themselves.” ..
Mutual social responsibility means extending assistance, financial or moral, to all those who are in need and joining in the execution of some of the work. Members of the Islamic Resistance Movement should consider the interests of the masses as their own personal interests. They must spare no effort in achieving and preserving them. They must prevent any foul play with the future of the upcoming generations and anything that could cause loss to society. The masses are part of them and they are part of the masses. Their strength is theirs, and their future is theirs. Members of the Islamic Resistance Movement should share the people’s joy and grief, adopt the demands of the public and whatever means by which they could be realised. The day that such a spirit prevails, brotherliness would deepen, cooperation, sympathy and unity will be enhanced and the ranks will be solidified to confront the enemies. (http://www.mideastweb.org/hamas.htm)
It is hard to envision Hamas setting aside its militancy. And yet it is also hard to see any other way forward for it over the long run. Charity is something that all stakeholders in the future of the Middle East will recognize as legitimate. (Ayyash, 2010, p. 104). And it is the quality of governance that is most needed by the Palestinian people.
Ayyash, M. (2010). Hamas and the Israeli state: A ‘violent dialogue’. European journal of international relations 16 (1): 103-123.
Carter Says Hamas and Syria Are Open for Peace. (22 April 2008). New York times.
Hamas covenant. Retrieved 15 March 2010 from http://www.mideastweb.org/hamas.htm
Hamas is not a terrorist organization. Retrieved 16 March 2010 from http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3213707,00.html
Toameh, K. (April 2, 2006). “I dream of a map without Israel’.” Jerusalem post.
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