- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2000


Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) was formed in late 1987 during the outbreak of the Intifada against continued Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in the June 1967 War. During the Intifada, Hamas gained prominence as the primary Islamic alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In pursuit of the goal of establishing a rigidly Islamic state throughout historical Palestine including present-day Israel Hamas' various elements have used both terrorism and political activism. Thus, unlike the Chairman Yasser Arafat-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in power in the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank since June 1994 Hamas is bitterly opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, using the strategy of terrorism to derail the achievements of the peace reached between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
In "The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence," noted Israeli academics Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela portray Hamas as an Islamic social and religious movement that provides a wide range of socioeconomic activities addressing the needs and difficulties of an anxious Palestinian community. To do this, Hamas obtains its funding from various sources, such as Palestinian expatriates, Iran and benefactors in other Arab states. Hamas operatives also engage in fundraising activities in Western Europe and North America. There is close coordination between Hamas' political and military bureaus.
One of the book's strengths is in providing detailed information about Hamas' broad social aspirations and its military apparatus, which is highly compartmentalized and extends from headquarters in the Gaza Strip to branches in Jordan and Lebanon, using advanced communications methods, including the Internet. The book also provides information on how Hamas' terrorist activities are carried out by the Izz al-Din al-Qassam squads, which are divided among several senior regional commanders, whose names are on Israel's most wanted list.
To evade surveillance, these commanders are constantly on the move from one Palestinian district to another, assisted by clergy and personnel of the many mosques that support Hamas. Hamas' strength, the authors write, is the ability to portray itself as the true guardian of Islam, unlike Mr. Arafat, who Hamas portrays as unable to translate peace negotiations into tangible territorial achievements.
But in its attempt to be balanced the book falters. Most significantly, the authors underplay Hamas' irresponsible and negative influences on the Palestinians. At a time when Iran is grappling with the issue of reforming a highly theocratic regime caught in a struggle between the hard-line clergy and reformist, democratic elements, Hamas is spearheading a drive to Khomeini-ize the nascent Palestinian nation. Moreover, the reader gains only a partial picture of the Israeli-Palestinian interplay from the book because it is the authority, not Hamas, that is the primary leader and driver of the emerging Palestinian state.
Now that the PLO is on the verge of finally achieving its aim of establishing nationhood, it is Hamas that is frustrating the struggle not advancing it. By conducting large-casualty terrorist operations against Israeli civilians, Hamas has risked bringing heavy retaliation from the Israeli security forces, thereby jeopardizing large segments of the Palestinian public's efforts to end to their social and economic hardships Hamas' natural base of support.
The book also pays little attention to weighing the caliber of leadership in the PLO and Hamas. This is not an insignificant matter. At issue is not just whether Hamas can accept a workable formula of coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians, but whether, in the short term, its leaders can negotiate without stridently articulating their stated goal of totally Islamizing all of Palestine.
Although the authors write that Hamas' lesser-evil alternative is for a political understanding with Israel to be achieved through a third party, such as the authority or Jordan to negotiate on its behalf who among the Hamas leadership can be trusted in the aftermath? And can the world be assured that Hamas will not resort to chemical or biological warfare at some juncture as part of the escalation of its war against Israel?
This book opens an important and needed window on Hamas' social roots, ideology, socioeconomic, political and military institutions, and political and terrorist activities. There is still plenty of work to be done, however, to achieve a full understanding of this problematic organization.

Joshua Sinai is a senior policy analyst at Analytic Services Inc. in Arlington, specializing in international security issues.

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