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Spotlight: Hamas

by Michael Donovan, Ph.D.

Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state in mandatory Palestine. The group is unlikely to moderate its platform or meaningfully participate in the peace process in the foreseeable future. Consequently, Hamas will continue to be a well-positioned obstacle to a lasting settlement in Palestine, and by extension, a danger to American interests in the region and beyond. The Israeli assassinations of senior leaders has both enraged and handicapped Hamas. Nevertheless, as two recent suicide bombings in Beersheba suggest, Hamas remains operationally resilient and determined to make its presence felt as Israel contemplates its “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza and areas of the West Bank. The popularity of Hamas among Palestinians continues to grow, and it is unclear how Israel ’s planned withdrawal will impact its base of support.

Hamas coalesced as an organization in 1987 during the first Intifada. Its birth posed a challenge to Israeli security as well as to the primacy of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the Palestinian national movement. Hamas established itself as a militant and Islamic alternative to the PLO, expanding into the void left by the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, its relative weakness in the occupied territories, and its subsequent participation in the peace process.

Hamas is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. The Islamic context of its platform has two important implications. First, it provides Hamas with an organic connection to Palestinian society that is not necessarily available to its secular counterparts. Second, it casts the struggle against Israel as jihad (holy struggle), insinuating a connection between the destruction of the Israeli state and religious devotion. This has locked Hamas into a doctrinal position that is difficult to modify for other than tactical reasons.

If Hamas was born of the Intifada, it came of age following the 1993 Oslo agreement and the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994. These events presented Hamas with a potential crisis of legitimacy. The group rejected the peace process, which it continues to view as a betrayal of Palestinian national aspirations. But this stance put Hamas in conflict with the PA and a significant segment of the population of the occupied territories who initially supported the Oslo process. The prospect of internecine violence loomed.

To resolve this challenge, Hamas balanced violent opposition to the peace process with coexistence with the Palestinian Authority.1 It is a strategy that continues to satisfy both tactical and strategic aims. A modus vivendi with the PA delays a decisive showdown between the two organizations that neither would profit from. It also leaves the PA to shoulder the blame for a failure of governance and an inability to influence Israeli behavior in the occupied territories. In the meantime, Hamas continues to penetrate Palestinian society through an array of social welfare and political functions, mixing militancy with a strong social agenda. Through a sustained campaign of attacks against Israeli targets, Hamas can retard or even derail political progress with Israel.

Hamas’ uncompromising official worldview, therefore, camouflages a degree of pragmatism. In anticipation of Israeli disengagement, Hamas is reportedly also studying the possibility of joining with the PA to administer Gaza . This would be a departure indeed for Hamas. But there is, as yet, no indication that cooperation with the PA signals a meaningful modification of its obdurate long-term vision. The organization has proven adept at tactical adjustment, acquiescing to ceasefires and even informal contacts with Israel as necessity dictates. In Gaza, the move is probably designed to capitalize on Hamas’ rising popularity and promote the image that the group is responsible for the Israeli withdrawal.

Israel , in turn, is determined to destabilize Hamas before it leaves Gaza. Israeli counterterrorist operations targeting Hamas have been robust and produced short-term dividends. As part of a broader campaign of “targeted killings,” Israel assassinated two senior leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his immediate successor, Abd ak Aziz Rantisi in the Spring of 2004. The killing of Yassin, the group’s spiritual leader, elicited considerable international condemnation.

The assassinations appeared to handicap Hamas, at least temporarily. Six months of quiet, however, were shattered by the bombing of two buses in Beersheba on August 31, 2004. According to Hamas declarations, the simultaneous attacks were reprisals for the assassinations of Rantisi and Yassin. It is unlikely that the attacks in Beersheba foreshadow a return to the high operational tempo of 2002-2003. Israeli countermeasures, including a formidable military footprint in the occupied territories, are probably sufficient to prevent this. But the attacks do demonstrate that Hamas is operationally resilient, patient, and determined to exact a price in lives as Israel contemplates its disengagement.

The “targeted killings” may have had other repercussions. Though no moderate, Sheikh Yassin was more pragmatic than some of his Damascus-based colleagues. He was responsible for raising the organization’s profile as a political and social organization and rehabilitating ties with the PA after the two groups clashed in 1996. He probably also helped to reign in Hamas’ military wing, Izzadin el-Qassam. His death may have driven the more flexible Gaza-based leadership underground and strengthened the hand of the harder-line leadership based in Syria . Hamas’ key man in Damascus, Khalid Mishal, has close ties with Syria and Iran, and little interest in cooperating with the PA anywhere.2

Perhaps more worrying, the assassinations will perpetuate the cycle of martyrdom and revenge that has driven much Hamas violence (including the Aug. 31 bombings) and galvanized its support. In 2003, the U.S. Department of State estimated that the rank and file numbered in the tens of thousand. The number and size of its clandestine militant cells are unknown. Both have likely been supplemented with fresh devotees - according to polls taken in the occupied territories, support for Hamas has grown steadily in the wake of the assassinations. While its power base is principally in the Gaza Strip, the group has made inroads in the West Bank and is establishing itself as a more viable alternative to the Palestinian Authority. The division and corruption within existing Palestinian institutions will reinforce this. Though the degree to which most Palestinians share Hamas’ vision of an Islamic state is uncertain, continued gains will come at the expense of secular factions like Fatah.

In short, while Hamas appears to be handicapped militarily, politically, the picture looks rosier. The PA is not capable of containing Hamas, and suggestions of a partnership between the two in Gaza have more to do with Hamas’ strength and the Paletsinian Authority’s weakness. If the balance of power has indeed shifted to the leadership in Damascus, then there is every reason to believe that the group’s rejectionist vigor has been reinforced. From the perspective of the “outside” leadership, there are few downsides to continued violence, even if they precipitate Israeli reprisals. And if Hamas succeeds in portraying the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as a retreat, much as Hezbollah did in south Lebanon, then its base of support will expand further. Under these circumstances, a meaningful return to the peace process seems unlikely.