Hamas (acronym of Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Resistance Movement) is standing at a historic crossroads, particularly in view of the ongoing upheaval in the Arab World and the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) turn to the UN to recognize a Palestinian state alongside Israel’s pre-1967 borders: the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem. On the one hand, Hamas achieved more than other Arab-Islamist movements. It won democratic elections in 2006 and, more importantly, it has enjoyed absolute control over a specific territory, the Gaza Strip since 2007, enabling it to implement its Islamic agenda. Conversely, these gains as well as regional developments confront Hamas with challenges that may force it to undergo a significant, maybe even historical, change in its conduct if not ideology.
This situation stems from Hamas’s unique position. It is the Palestinian off-shoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement, which seeks to Islamize Palestinian society through religious propagation (da’wa) and social activity, and at the same time, it is a nationalist and military movement waging a jihad against a foreign enemy, Israel.
In addition, Hamas is a political movement that seeks not only to preserve its rule over Gaza, but to takeover the PA and the entire Palestinian national movement. It is also a government that has to manage the Gaza Strip’s difficult socioeconomic problems. These traits explain Hamas’s strength, but also some of the limitations to its behavioral and ideological flexibility.
Hamas as an Ideological Movement
According to Hamas, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not merely a territorial dispute over land. Rather, it is first and foremost a “war of religion and faith” between Islam and Judaism. As such, it is portrayed as an unbridgeable dichotomy between two opposing absolutes—as a historical, religious, and cultural conflict between faith and unbelief, between the true religion that supersedes all previous religions, i.e. Islam, and the abrogated superseded religion, Judaism. It is a war between good, personified by the Muslims representing the party of God (Hizballah), and evil, or “the party of Satan” (hizb al-shaytan) represented by the Jews. Consequently, the conflict is considered an “existential battle, rather than a dispute over borders” (ma’rakat wujud wa-la hudud). This depiction has led Hamas to adopt strong anti-Jewish rhetoric borrowing themes from European anti-Semitism such as the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and from early Islamic tradition.
As a nationalist movement engaged in a national conflict with the Jews, Hamas sought to reconcile the universal message of Islam with the particularist foundation of nationalism by “Islamizing” Palestinian nationalism and by “nationalizing” Islam. In practical terms that meant sanctifying Palestine as a holy territory for all Muslims based on two elements. The first is Jerusalem’s holy status in Islam following Mecca and Medina, because it was in Jerusalem that the Prophet Muhammad made his miraculous nightly journey on his mare from Medina and later ascension to heaven where he met previous prophets, before descending back to earth. In addition, Palestine—meaning the entire Land of Israel from the Jordan River to the Sea—is viewed as a religious endowment (waqf) that does not belong to the Palestinians alone, but to the Muslim nation as a whole for eternity. Hence, no Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to permanently cede even one inch of its territory to the usurping Jews.
The fusion of the two elements—a religious conflict and a sacred land—led Hamas to the ideological conclusion that peace with Israel is unacceptable. True peace is only possible under the flag of Islam, which would require the dismantling of Israel and the return of the Jews to live as a protected minority under the benevolent rule of Islam. Since Jews refuse to accept this generous offer and insist on having a state of their own, the Palestinians have no other option but to wage jihad against them.
Like all other Islamic movements, Hamas regards the jihad against Israel as defensive in nature for two reasons. The first is what it sees as the usurpation of Palestine and the dispossession of its true inhabitants, the Muslim Palestinians, by the Zionists. In this perspective, Zionism is viewed as the latest and most fateful phase of the relentless onslaught waged by Western imperialism and culture against Islam since the Eleventh Century Crusades. The second reason is the war which, Hamas claims, the Jews have waged against Islam since its inception in order to eliminate or, at the least, denigrate it. In the eyes of Hamas, the 1967 Israeli capture of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, combines both these elements. As a defensive war, jihad becomes an individual duty (wajib ‘ayn) incumbent upon every able-bodied Muslim. Hamas also adopted the position of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, the radical Palestinian thinker and ideological mentor of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who asserts that any land that was once under Muslim rule but was subsequently lost to the infidels should be restored to Islam through jihad as the individual duty of every Muslim. The epitome of jihad is martyrdom, which is depicted as a transaction between the warrior and God, and in which the price is paradise. The end-goal of jihad is not only the elimination of Israel as a state, but the eventual extermination of the Jews as a people, often described as a precondition to the coming of the Messiah at the end of history.
Hamas as Governing Body
While the political fortunes of Hamas have changed significantly, its basic ideology has remained consistent. Equally important, while differences over tactics have emerged among Hamas leaders particularly after seizing control of the Gaza Strip, the consensus around its ideology appears to have remained unchanged. Many ideological movements are forced to compromise once they attain power but the extent to which they can is influenced and often constrained by their basic worldview. Hamas is no exception, as it has continued to promote the jihadi discourse and has refused to cross certain ideological red-lines even when it was forced to follow a more pragmatic path in its daily conduct.
Following the 2007 violent takeover of Gaza, Hamas faced severe contradictions among its conflicting goals. Continued armed struggle against Israel precluded the possibility of international recognition of Hamas as a legitimate government and deprived Hamas of much needed economic aid. Persecuting activists of the rival Fatah movement in Gaza pushed the PA to tighten its security cooperation with Israel against Hamas’s infrastructure in the West Bank. Economic hardships in Gaza made it more difficult to advance its religious agenda in Islamizing Palestinian society.
Hamas sought to cope with these conflicting desires by adopting tactical flexibility while adhering to its strategic goals. It had consistently refused to abide by the demand of the Quartet (the U.S., Russia, UN, and EU) that it recognize Israel and cease armed struggle against it in return for generous economic aid to the impoverished Gaza Strip under its control. Moreover, it rejected a more mild Saudi formula in which it would recognize past agreements signed by the PA i.e. the 1993 Oslo Accords, without it having to negotiate or face Israel directly. While willing to endure economic pressures and the suffering of the people of Gaza, Hamas waged a war of attrition against Israel by launching approximately 8,000 missiles at Israel from 2005 to 2009.
Concurrently, Hamas developed creative solutions designed to bridge between its ideological commitment and practical necessities. One has been the idea of temporary armistice (hudna), which is legally lawful for Muslims if the enemy is powerful while the Muslims are weak and need time to recover their strength. Such an armistice should not exceed ten years, the period that the Prophet accepted in his agreement with the people of Mecca at Hudaybiyya in 628CE. The hudna can be extended for similar periods as long as the enemy remains powerful and would end once the Palestinians could renew the struggle. As preconditions for accepting a hudna, Hamas leaders demanded that Israel withdraw back to the 1967 borders and allow all Palestinian refugees to return to their lost homes. Yet they insisted that such a truce would not mean giving up Palestinian claim and their “rights” for all of “Palestine.” For Hamas, a Palestinian state on part of Palestine was acceptable provided that it advanced the strategic goal of liberating all of Palestine.
A complementary solution was the development of the doctrine of Muqawama (Resistance) or a long term war of attrition, which may include short periods of ceasefire necessary for rebuilding Palestinian fighting capabilities. Accordingly, the Palestinians should not wait for the balance of power between them and Israel to change. Rather they should perform the imperative of continual warfare, if only on a small scale, by employing innovative tactics in order to bleed the enemy and change the balance of power in their favor. In this war of attrition, the decisive factors that will bring about victory in the long run are the will power and perseverance of each society. Consequently, taking casualties is not a defeat or loss but a manifestation of victory as long as the movement survives. There is no need to defend territory against Israeli occupation or to try to conquer land, as the goal of the muqawama is the methodical erosion of the enemy’s resolve. The motto is blood, not land, and the effort is directed at denying the enemy of victory, not at achieving a quick result. Jihad is not a national struggle, and fighting is undertaken for the sake of God. In other words, it is not confined to Palestinians but designed to bring along other Arab and Muslim peoples. The essence of this doctrine is that the Palestinians and Hamas can suffer heavy almost unlimited casualties or tactical defeats, since as long as the struggle continues the enemy’s attrition is achieved. Moreover, the mere survival of the movement is in fact a victory over the enemy, since its actions are designed to bleed the enemy until the attainment of victory.
Since the 2008-09 Israeli Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has largely refrained from continuing its missile attacks against Israel, giving preference to its state building efforts. Concurrently, it continues to accumulate hundreds of mid-range missiles in preparation for the future confrontation with Israel.
Choosing the Course
The current upheaval in the Arab World has brought both new prospects and challenges to Hamas. The removal of President Mubarak in Egypt presented Hamas with a friendlier regime on its southern border, offering the chance to circumvent whatever is left of Israel’s siege and enabling it to bring in larger amounts of weapons. At the same time, the continuous upheaval in Syria, a major sponsor, confronts Hamas with a dilemma. How can Hamas openly support Bashar al-Asad’s regime, which massacres hundreds of Sunni Syrians and is opposed by the Syrian Muslim Brothers? Concurrently, Hamas is afraid of abandoning its Damascus shelter and giving up Syrian support. As a way out, the movement apparently decided to draw closer to Egypt and sign the reconciliation agreement with the PA, enabling the Palestinians to demonstrate a modicum of unity while appealing to the UN for recognition of a Palestinian state.
One can surmise, however, that this is not a true reconciliation, that Hamas will not allow free elections in Gaza in which it may lose, or allow Fatah personnel to resume their activities in Gaza. Rather, it is more plausible that Hamas will seek to use this agreement in order break its international isolation and take the PA from within. Nor is it likely to abandon its ideology of eliminating Israel and openly adopt the two-state solution. Rather, Hamas will more likely postpone its hope of implementing its maximalist goals to the more distant future.
Meir Litvak is an associate professor at the Department of Middle Eastern History and a senior research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.