Who is the real Hamas?

Now that it's in power, will the militant Palestinian group accept Israel's legitimacy in exchange for land? Or is it hiding a dedication to the Jewish state's destruction behind media-savvy spin?

By Helena Cobban
March 2, 2006 5:50PM (UTC)
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The decisive victory of the militant Islamic group Hamas in the Palestinians' Jan. 25 elections stunned just about everyone involved in Palestinian affairs and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Hamas' victory raises a host of questions, but it is clearly one of the most significant developments in decades in this debilitating and frequently lethal conflict, which even more than the war in Iraq remains the greatest source of anger and misunderstanding between the U.S. and the Arab/Muslim world. As a long-standing observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with many close contacts among players on both sides, I wanted to see for myself how Hamas' triumph was playing out. To find out, I embarked on a 20-day reporting trip to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

For Palestinians and Israelis alike, Hamas' victory has been likened to an earthquake. Some Palestinians are apprehensive about the rise of the hard-line group, but many more applaud the fact that they will now be represented by negotiators who are as tough as the Israelis. For Israelis, the Hamas victory has created fear and uncertainty. Most Israelis see Hamas as a murderous group of religious zealots who refuse to recognize the Israeli state, want to see it destroyed and are willing to be very patient in seeking its doom. For them, the triumph of Hamas confirms their worst fears about Palestinian attitudes and intentions. And nothing that any of the Hamas leaders can say -- short of immediately recognizing Israel and unconditionally renouncing violence -- would reassure them.


The U.S. pressed for the elections that brought Hamas to power, but now it largely shares the Israeli position. The Bush administration has worked furiously hard to try to isolate the Palestinian Authority's emerging Hamas-led government -- even before that government has been formed. (The U.S. apparently differs with Israel on whether it is still worth working with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or not.) But though Washington has had some success with the Europeans in its campaign to isolate Hamas, it has had far less success to date with its Arab allies.

Some have proposed -- and I am among them -- that the advent of Hamas need not necessarily be viewed as a threat, but that the organization's long reputation for internal discipline and its solid nationalist credentials could potentially be viewed as an asset in the crafting of a stable peace in the region. An interview I conducted on Feb. 25 with a senior Hamas official provided further evidence for this assessment. Mahmoud Ramahi, the chief whip of the new 74-seat Hamas bloc in the Palestinian Legislative Council, strongly indicated that Hamas was prepared to cease hostilities with Israel if it returned to its 1967 borders. Ramahi, an Italian-trained anesthesiologist, also said that Hamas is pursuing a plan to allow the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization to conduct the Palestinians' foreign affairs, including its ever-sensitive negotiations with Israel, while the new Hamas "government" of the Palestinian Authority would concentrate on internal economic and social affairs. Such a position would avoid an immediate collision between Israel and Hamas, by using Abbas, who is president of both the PLO and the P.A., as a crucial intermediary.

For Israelis like Dore Gold, who was Benjamin Netanyahu's ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s, Ramahi's moderate-sounding words are meaningless. Speaking to me in the lovely stone mansion on West Jerusalem's Tel Hai Street that houses the think tank he now heads, Gold scoffed at the idea that Hamas might be persuaded to undergo any meaningful political transformation. "The Brits love to lecture on this point. They talk to us endlessly about how they transformed the IRA through the Good Friday Agreement. But even that didn't work!" he said. "Hamas' goal is to replace the whole of Israel with an Islamic state."


The Qalandiya crossing point between Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem and the Ramallah District, which is administered by the P.A., is just six miles north of downtown Jerusalem , but it feels like a completely different universe. At Qalandiya, Israeli soldiers perched atop ugly enclosed watchtowers peer down over a bizarre, lunar landscape where two looping segments of the shockingly high, still-under-construction concrete wall come close together without touching -- and Palestinians wishing to cross between Jerusalem and Ramallah have to shuffle through a series of Israeli-controlled cattle pens, one-way gates, and waiting sheds in the desolate, dust-clogged space between them. The anger of people forced to bear this treatment for, now, 10 years is pervasive, deep and often only barely suppressed. The Israeli army units stationed here and in the other heavily defended forts that ring Ramallah continue to undertake some missions inside that city, but their main job is to exercise tight control over all movements of Palestinian people and goods between Ramallah and Israeli-controlled Jerusalem.

The 220,000 Palestinians who live in and around Ramallah are deeply concerned about how Hamas' victory will affect the relationship with Israel that dominates their every daily transaction. I heard a few expressions of fear that relations with Israel might worsen, but more expressions of satisfaction that at last a Palestinian political force had emerged that had shown it was ready to stand up straightforwardly for the Palestinians' basic demands. This is in strong contrast to P.A. President Abbas, whom many Palestinians view as far too compliant with Israel's ever-escalating demands and also quite unsuccessful in winning any Israeli reward for his continuing flexibility.

But Palestinians in Ramallah and elsewhere are also very concerned with how the transition of their own administration from one dominated by Abbas' Fatah movement to one dominated by Hamas will proceed. After all, the peaceful hand-over of power from one party to another is a key test for any emerging democracy. Most Palestinians are keenly aware, in addition, that their very vulnerable society cannot afford to be wracked by more internal fighting. Most such fighting to date has been between the different factions of Fatah, or has involved splinter groups of Fatah taking various lawless actions against foreigners, especially in Gaza. Very, very little of it has involved Hamas. But there has been some fear of how the ill-organized Fatah factions might respond to the imminent displacement of their ill-organized party from power. A few incidents right after Jan. 25 further stoked that fear.


When I went to the PLC's seat in Ramallah on Feb. 25 I found it much more peaceful than I had expected. At the suggestion of an old friend who knows the Hamas luminaries well, I simply walked into the nicely appointed, stone-faced office building where the parliamentarians have their offices and asked to see the new PLC speaker, Aziz Dweik, and the Hamas chief whip, Mahmoud Ramahi.

(Hamas' designee for the premiership, Ismail Haniyeh, lives in Gaza. Like all other Gazans, he is forbidden to travel to Ramallah. Indeed, nowadays "Palestine" is oddly bicephalous, with one head in Ramallah and one in Gaza. When the new PLC held its first session on Feb. 18, roughly half of the parliamentarians convened in Ramallah, and the other half took part via a video link from a public hall in Gaza. And then, there were the dozen-plus elected members who are still held in Israeli jails; they could not participate at all.)


Security in the PLC office building was almost nonexistent, and parliamentarians from Fatah and Hamas were visiting each other's offices in apparent amity. Dweik's people said he was busy, but Ramahi agreed to see me. He was polite and welcoming. As a female I was ready -- after many experiences with Islamists in Lebanon, Iran, etc., over the years -- not to shake a male hand but to do the old hand-over-the-heart thing on greeting Ramahi. But he walked out from behind his desk with his hand extended for a handshake. (And for what it's worth, he has no beard.) But he, too, turned out to be busy, so we made an appointment to meet later in the afternoon.

When we finally did sit down together, we spoke for about half an hour. He answered all my questions in nearly impeccable English.

My first question was whether Hamas had been surprised by the extent of its victory. Ramahi said that Hamas had expected its "Change and Reform" list to get around 50 percent of the new PLC's seats, but "getting 60 percent was a surprise!"


I asked how Hamas now planned to proceed with its mandate to run the Palestinians' affairs. He told me Hamas had started a dialogue with all other factions represented in the PLC with a view to establishing a government of national unity. He said that Islamic Jihad was the only faction that had refused point-blank to join such a government, "though they said they wouldn't be an obstacle to our forming it. All the others are still in dialogue with us." He said that in Hamas' view, the first thing to establish was the common program on which the national unity government would be based -- and only after that would come discussion of division of the various portfolios.

In fact, under the Palestinian Basic Law that was adopted in 2002, Hamas has no need whatsoever for a coalition government, since the confirmation of a prime minister and government and the passage of most daily legislation can be achieved with a simple majority. Only amendments to the Basic Law require a two-thirds majority -- and by attracting just 15 allies from non-Hamas parties, which is quite possible, Hamas could even do this. But evidently Hamas prefers to bring allies from other parties, especially Fatah, into the government -- whether to share the political risk, or to split the badly wounded Fatah down the middle, is not clear. Ramahi told me the coalition talks were "going positively. We're hopeful that reaching a compromise is possible."

I had earlier heard an intriguing report that Hamas might be prepared to let President Abbas handle the P.A.'s foreign affairs, and I asked Ramahi if that was correct. He clarified for me that it was not Mahmoud Abbas in his capacity as president of the P.A. to whom the Hamas leaders were considering handing the foreign affairs portfolio, but rather Mahmoud Abbas as president of the PLO.


He explained, "When the Oslo Accords were concluded, it was originally agreed there that the Palestinian Authority would not handle foreign affairs. Remember that the Oslo Accords were concluded between Israel and the PLO. So the arrangement at that point was that the PLO would continue to handle negotiation affairs and the P.A. would handle only domestic affairs. But then Fatah reversed that. We're suggesting a return to the original idea. And that fits in with an initiative from [the PLO's foreign-affairs chief] Farouq Qaddoumi."

Ramahi said that as far as he knew there were differences inside Fatah, which dominates the PLO, over how to respond. He said his information was that Qaddoumi, Abbas, and Fatah's chief whip in the PLC, Azzam Ahmed, were all inclined to accept the Hamas proposal, while previous P.A. chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and security bosses Mohamed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub all favored rejecting it.

(Shortly after I talked with Ramahi, Abbas left Ramallah on a trip to Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. This trip would allow him to confer further with Qaddoumi and other figures in the PLO's exile wing -- many of whom have been strongly opposed to his negotiating stance with Israel in the past.)

I asked Ramahi about the very important portfolio of security affairs. How would these be handled under the new government?


"The Palestinian law says there are two parts of our security apparatus," he replied. "Some bodies report to the president, like the intelligence agency and the Presidential Security. Others, like the police and the Preventive Security (amn wiqa'i), should be under the Ministry of the Interior.

"For our internal security problems, we certainly need to reach a strong agreement. Right now there are so many separate little bodies, some of which I'm sorry to say seem to act more like mafias."

How about the proposal to fold Hamas' own militia, the Izzeddine Qassam Brigades, into the government's security forces?

Here, he was adamant. "No. The Qassam Brigades should not be part of the authority's police forces, because the Qassam Brigades need to continue fighting the occupation. The demand to dismantle the Qassam Brigades is not acceptable. International law gives us the right to fight occupation."


I asked about the tahdi'eh (truce) with Israel that Hamas has stuck to -- with one exception -- since March of last year. The tahdi'eh was the result of an agreement that all the major Palestinian organizations, though notably not some of the smaller component factions of Fatah, had agreed to among themselves during intensive meetings in Cairo. Israel never reciprocated the initiative, in either word or deed.

Ramahi said, "Until now, we have respected the tahdi'eh. Abu Mazen has asked for internal dialogue on continuing it. So we expect there would be a joint decision on this after we have formed the government."

As we spoke, the Palestinian areas were coming to the end of a five-day period in which the Israeli forces had killed some eight to 10 Palestinians, some of them armed, some not armed. Ramahi warned, "If the Israelis continue their present aggressions we'll find it hard to restrain some of our youngsters. We are certainly worried that the Israelis might launch a further escalation as their election campaign progresses."

I asked how he would characterize Hamas' vision of the long-term relationship between Israel and Palestine. He replied, "We have said clearly that Israel is a state that exists and is recognized by many countries in the world. But the side that needs recognition is Palestine! And the Israelis should recognize our right to have our state in all the land occupied in 1967. After that it should be easy to reach agreement.


"They ask us to recognize Israel without telling us what borders they're talking about! First, let us discuss borders, and then we will discuss recognition."

What did Hamas plan to do about the fact that it is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the E.U.?

He almost shrugged. "The U.S. and E.U. need to resolve their own problem there. It's not our problem. We have said we're against terrorism. The Israelis didn't accept to stop killing civilians. For one year we haven't done any suicide bombings -- but the Israelis have continued to kill our civilians.

"You remember when they assassinated Saleh Shehadeh? They said afterwards that they had known there were 40 civilians in that house -- but they went ahead with dropping that big bomb, anyway.

"Yes, we'd like to have a reciprocal agreement to save the lives of all civilians.

"You know that of the 3,500 Palestinians killed in the last intifada, more than 2,000 were civilians? Yet the Israelis lost only 1,000 people in all -- between soldiers and civilians.

"Right now, regarding our relations with the U.S. and Europe, Hamas and the other Islamic groups here say they are ready to sit down with them to agree on the future. But they refuse to sit with us. But they should know: If they make us fail, they won't find anyone else at all to talk with. We are the moderates in the Islamic movement. We condemned the al-Qaida actions in the U.S. and London and Madrid. We could have acted outside the area of Palestine, but we never did. We're the only group here that never did kidnappings or other undisciplined attacks like that."

(In a piece in the Feb. 27 New Yorker, David Remnick quotes Aziz Dweik, the new PLC speaker who was too busy to see me, as saying, "Bin Laden is a fighter for the cause of Islam, and this man has his way of serving his God. He has offered the West a truce many times, saying that he will put down his arms if the West stops interfering in our affairs. We have no right to hate bin Laden. We respect him. Hiding this fact does not serve the truth.")

Finally, I asked Ramahi about Hamas' social agenda. He tried to dispel any fears that Hamas was about to impose strict Islamic norms on Palestinian society: "We aren't planning to make an Islamic state. We aren't planning to impose anything like that on our people. We'll make our state first, and then see what people want. We want to convince people of the Islamic way, not impose it."

Ramallah is a historically Christian city and has numerous restaurants and stores that sell alcoholic beverages. There, as well as in its Muslim "parent-city," al-Bireh, around half of the women seen in public don't wear head coverings. Some of my friends there had made rueful jokes about the imminent arrival of new Islamic norms. (One veteran Palestinian politician told me that Hamas had suffered at the most recent polls in the northern town of Qalqiliya, where they had been running the municipality for some months but had raised some ire by canceling a much-loved cultural festival. "The Hamas vote there went down from 10,000 in the municipal elections to less than 8,000 in January," he said.)

Some people had expressed particular concern about what Hamas might do with the education system that the P.A. has set up, quite successfully, over the past decade. I asked Ramahi if Hamas had any particular plans for that.

"We don't want to change it, basically, but we do need to have more in it about Palestinian history. Under the Oslo Accords, they cut that part of the education system rather short. We need to have a full history that also includes the history of the Palestinians inside Israel."

Ramahi, like all the dozen or so Hamas people whom I've interviewed in the past, seemed like a serious, sober and determined individual. I noted that he used the terms "Israel" and "suicide bombings" quite openly and easily. (As opposed to, for example, "Zionist entity" and "martyrdom operations," respectively.) And he left open the distinct possibility that once Israel has withdrawn to the pre-1967 borders Hamas might consider the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be finished. He notably did not refer to the post-withdrawal phase as being merely one of prolonged hudna, or cease-fire, as many other Hamas leaders do.

For his part, Dore Gold remained adamant that it would be useless to hope for any moderation either of Hamas' actions or of its views. According to him, Hamas in 2006 is in a stronger strategic position than the PLO was in 1993, when it accepted the Oslo Accords. "Hamas has two external patrons: the Sunni extremist networks in Egypt and elsewhere, and Iran operating as a minority Shii power. This external environment is not supportive of political transformation." He argued that, by comparison, the PLO of 1993 was very weak. "Back then, the PLO had lost its superpower patron [the USSR] and it had lost Iraq as a useful regional support. So it was very vulnerable to pressure for political transformation from the West. Not Hamas."

Gold bases his distrust of Hamas on its belief system. "I take Hamas' ideology very seriously, even if most Israelis view it as not so different from Fatah. They are an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has produced so many different kinds of offshoots including Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, Ayman al-Zuwahiri and the worst one of all, Abdullah al-Azzam, who was Osama bin Laden's mentor. There's a supermarket of Islamism out there, but I'm most concerned with the extremist ones." He told me that in 2003, the Israel Defense Forces raided a Hamas training school in Gaza and found training materials that included texts from Wahhabist clerics. For Gold, Hamas' electoral victory means it could become a bridgehead for al-Qaida right on Israel's borders.

He did not even seem to see any value in securing a prolongation of the tahdi'eh, or truce, that Hamas and most other Palestinian factions have stuck to since March 2005. Such a seeming period of calm, in his view, would simply allow Hamas to rearm and bide its time while waiting for Iran to acquire nuclear arms. "All these groups that have their origins in the Muslim Brotherhood have a strategy that includes two phases: first daawa [long-term education and preparation] and then jihad. You know that prior to 1987 Israel actually helped the Muslim Brotherhood people because we saw them as not politically active. But they were doing daawa, and then in 1987 they transformed themselves into Hamas. Those transformations can happen at any time. So perhaps you'd have a tahdi'eh for five years -- but then they would bring in weapons and be acting under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. Yes, a Hamas with a long-term cease-fire could certainly continue with daawa and with bringing in weapons."

As for the effect on Israeli's political scene, with crucial elections looming on March 28, Gold said, "The Hamas victory has thrown everything off-kilter." He said that both the parties of the Israeli left and the new centrist bloc, Kadima, had had their plans thrown completely off-kilter by Hamas' victory. "The idea of a negotiated solution becomes just a pretty theory. The idea of further unilateral disengagements, as espoused by Kadima, has become complicated. Before, disengagement was conceivable because you would have an ineffectual P.A. left in charge on the other side. But now, we would have an active enemy there, and one which moreover would be further empowered by any further disengagement. So it's very complicated! So only the Likud position stays more or less the same: simply to emphasize the things that we need to retain in terms of land and topography, and to maximize Israel's strength."

Gold is on the right side of the political spectrum in Israel. Like Hamas, Gold and his former boss, Netanyahu, have nearly always been vociferously opposed to Oslo. When Netanyahu was Israel's prime minister from 1996 to 1999, he cooperated with Israel 's obligations under Oslo only very reluctantly and minimally. Then, after he was voted out of office in 1999, he reverted to a strident opposition to the Accords -- a position that he retains as head of the Likud Party today.

Gold's dark views of Hamas are shared by many Israelis, even some on the left. But not all of them. Moshe Ma'oz, a retired Hebrew University professor and specialist on regional affairs, told me that if, after an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the Palestinian side wanted to call the resulting arrangement a hudna, and the Israelis wanted to call it a "peace," that would be fine by him.

So which is the "real" Hamas? Is it a party of apparent pragmatists like Ramahi, who seem prepared to accept Israel's de facto presence and perhaps also its de jure legitimacy -- provided that Israel gives up the territories it occupied in 1967? Or is it a party of true believers, still dedicated to the furtherance of regionwide Islamist goals and concealing a dedication to Israel's destruction behind media-savvy spin?

For now, it is far too early to answer this question. Hamas has always had a strong "civilian" agenda and a strong internal discipline. But it only set aside its 17-year recourse to suicide bombings in March 2003, and the fact that the size of its victory at the polls came as such a surprise means that even some weeks after the January election its exile-based leadership is still scrambling to figure out how to use the mandate that it won.

But the "real" intentions of Hamas can most certainly be tested -- and I agree with former President Jimmy Carter that this testing should occur by looking at the Hamas leaders' deeds rather than, in the first instance, at the content of some of their worrying earlier public declarations. Remember that from 1990 on, the De Klerk government in South Africa conducted peace negotiations not only with the cuddly Nelson Mandela but also with another party -- the Pan-Africanist Congress -- whose slogan was still, "One settler, one bullet!" Decolonizing governments throughout the modern era have acted similarly -- to the benefit of the whole of humankind. The basic lesson there is that for parties that are weaker in the elements of hard power, words and declarations are often the only form of power they feel they can cling to, so they become the very last "weapons" to be laid down.

But at the level of deeds, the fact that for nearly all of the past year the Hamas leaders have stuck to their sometimes unpopular commitments under the tahdi'eh should be recognized, and the contribution they thereby made to the general peaceableness of Israel over the past year should be publicly acknowledged. The fact that these leaders seem prepared (for now) to give up responsibility for the conduct of Palestinian foreign affairs and many aspects of Palestinian security affairs should likewise be recognized and welcomed. Beyond that, outsiders sincerely committed to the establishment of a sustainable final peace agreement between Israel and Palestine should surely seek to open sincere channels of communication with this significant force in the Palestinian body politic, rather than engaging in a doomed attempt to try to isolate and marginalize it. At the end of the day the Israelis, like all other peoples (including the Palestinians), need to understand that peace needs to be made with your enemies.

So far, though, a U.S. government that is attuned to the needs of only one party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken the darker view of Hamas. There is no domestic opposition to Bush's policies in this regard (indeed, Congress and the Democrats have shamefully staked out positions to Bush's right on Israel and Palestine), but the international balance has turned significantly against the neoconservative hard-liners -- and nowhere more so than within the extremely volatile Middle East. The downward spiral in Iraq and the rise of Iran have weakened the Bush administration's strategic position, and made Washington more dependent than ever on the goodwill of Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states. With the Israelis mired in their election campaign, these broader regional realities probably give the Palestinians a small breathing space in which they can, at least, hope to effect a smooth transition from the Fatah-dominated P.A. government to the Hamas-led body that will follow it. If the Palestinians can achieve that, that will be no small victory for the democratic process. And it will allow the P.A. and the PLO and whatever other Palestinian bodies are involved to plan for whatever follows Israel's elections.

More on the post-Sharon political upheavals in Israel in my next piece.

Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is the owner of Just World Books. She has reported on and analyzed Middle East affairs since 1975. From 1990-2007 she wrote a regular column on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. She blogs at Just World News.

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