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Can Hamas Moderate?

The US and European Union have labeled Palestinian Islamist group Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Whilst the international community unilaterally seems to agree with this label, Hamas’ internal formation brings forth several questions. Born as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, the organization’s charter ideologically aligns itself with a fundamentalist creed furthered hugely by the group’s military arm. However, the same charter equally points to a social arm, which aims to use grassroots pragmatism to empower Palestinians who have been somewhat disenchanted by their rival Fatah, formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement and now a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Whilst the ballot box has pointed to a shift in Hamas’ fundamentalist streak as the 2006 national elections saw a roaring victory for the organisation, in the aftermath of the 2007 Gaza war many still remain unsure of the organisation’s turn to pragmatism.  Hamas may be an eternal threat to Israel and a terrorist in the eyes of the West; however, it represents a captivating movement whose trajectory merits further exploration. It would be far too simple to adhere to a yes or no binary analysis of Hamas, especially as questions arise daily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deepening.

The emergence of Hamas into mainstream politics happened around the time of the Oslo agreement in 1993 when the organisation turned from a mere quasi-clandestine movement to a strongly-supported social enigma and more importantly, a legitimate rival to the secular Fatah. At the time of the first intifada (uprising) in 1987, Hamas remained undoubtedly fundamentalist. The group saw a rapprochement with Israel as futile and therefore fostered the non-recognition of the state of Israel – stated clearly in the Hamas charter. Actions of violent retaliation came to embody the intifada years, both from Israel and Palestine where Hamas had been involved. The intifada also came to symbolize a unity amongst Palestinians over the question of Palestine, to which the Palestinian Authority (PA) had no legitimate answer. Unsurprisingly, the growing dissatisfaction and disappointment with the then status quo aided in affirming Hamas as a clear alternative and gave the group a validated raison d’etre. During the negotiations and after the signing of Oslo, a large part of Hamas’ activity relied on violent retaliation, for example, large-scale suicide bombings. Hamas truly took advantage of the political paralysis invoked by the aftermath of Oslo, continuing to act violently. This has been specially marked by the Hebron massacre of 1994, which catalyzed a series of attacks launched by the group as acts of revenge.

Has Hamas moved towards moderation?

From the first intifada in 1987 to the Oslo signing in 1993, much of Hamas’ activity remained fundamentalist. Yet, despite the outwardly fundamentalist persona of the organisation in the intifada and Oslo era, there had been signs of ideological shifts towards pragmatism. Two proposed hudna (cease-fires), one in 1995 and one in 1997 would lead us to believe that the group had wanted to occasion peace, and demonstrated a willingness to compromise. However, this is an easily refuted statement due to the very formation of Hamas – consisting of both hardliners and pragmatists that make up the leadership. The need for moderation simply sprouted from internal pressures, especially as the more pragmatic leaders began to champion the cessation of the group’s military wing and talks of potential participation in the elections (then to be held in 1996) took precedence. The 1996 elections, however, never happened. Hamas boycotted the elections for fear of losing the legitimacy that the group had acquired in light of the weakening PA after Oslo.

Due to its growing popularity, it would have been an error for Hamas to compromise on its ideology. For Hamas, eschewing the elections and honoring the charter’s principles proved to be a tactical move, allowing the organisation to uphold its reason for existence and highlight the importance of resistance to Palestinians over the question of Palestine. So what led to a change in behavior, which then resulted in a participatory agenda from the group?

Electoral participation in 2006 and thereof the accession into the PA’s structural system marked a move towards moderation for the Islamist group. This accomodationist trend has been the core of several ‘bullets to ballot box’ discussions, whereby many have tried to decipher the change in Hamas’ motives. Certainly the international community deeply questioned this transition, completely baffled by the notion of Hamas’ victory and its status as a legitimate partner in peace talks. Despite the disillusionment, the organisation swept to victory claiming 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats. Seemingly uncharacteristic at the time, the electoral participation of Hamas can be put down to the group’s awareness of the shift in the balance of power. This shift indicated that Hamas could turn its growing public support into tangible seats and witness an unanticipated victory.

Was moderation to last?

Whatever the premise behind Hamas’ decision to participate electorally, the Gaza War of 2007-2009 revealed that Hamas found it difficult to completely give up its fundamentalist agenda. Once the party entered the reality of the political arena, it faced several major challenges. In the context of the Gaza conflict, we therefore witness Hamas’ relapse to militia, its armed wing that the party refused to disband. Hamas’ hardliners in June 2007 used military force to defeat Fatah and took control of the Gaza Strip, leading to two distinct political entities operating in the name of ‘free Palestine’. The switch from ideological moderation to full blown violent attacks is not inexplicable in the advent of the Gaza conflict in 2007. The political realities on the grounds can explain why Hamas resorted once again to violent tactics.

After the electoral victory in 2006, Hamas was met with hostility from not only Israel but also the US and the EU. The threat that Hamas presented to Israel, its rival Fatah and the international community unsurprisingly led to a rejection of Hamas from all three actors as a legitimate elective. The ballot box for Hamas may have represented a path to integration, however met with animosity, the group had to consolidate its power in other ways. Unfortunately, the sad truth remains that Hamas, whilst fighting for the Palestinians, is still dictated by a harsh ‘ideologue vs. pragmatic’ dichotomy. The overarching notion remains that, for as long as Hamas suffers from a divided internal structure, the group will continuously find it difficult to be accepted as a key player in the political realm whereby the fate of Palestine is to be decided.

It is important to note the relevance of Hamas to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite the group’s refusal to adhere or relinquish arms. Whether Hamas moderates or not, it remains a pivotal player. Hamas and Fatah continue to remain bitterly divided and thus the ballot box, since 2006, has remained untouched. Furthered by the ideology of resistance, Hamas continues to seek support from Palestinians and a recent victory in student elections near Ramallah has proven that Hamas is still able to gather significant support, defeating rivals aligned with Fatah. We must not forget the realities of the Palestinian conflict, the growth and evolution of Hamas since its first emergence. As Hamas exists and operates in stateless boundaries, it is extremely difficult to fully comprehend the complex nuances attached to its plight as a resistance movement. Its ideology will continue to be the subject of frequent oscillation between moderation and fundamentalism serving to many a debate on the strategy of the organisation.

About the Author

Ayooshee Dookhee is a Politics and International Relations graduate from Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently working for a public policy, public affairs and campaigns consultancy in London. In September 2015, she will be starting a Masters in International Relations with a focus on Middle East politics at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. She has a growing interest for issues and conflicts in the Middle East having completed her dissertation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Her further interests are in international human rights, women’s rights, gender and minority equality and the politics of the European Union.

Cover image ‘Israeli West Bank barrier’ by Montecruz Photo


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