Division on Unity Street: two books on Hamas reviewed

Hamas — a noun meaning “zeal,” and an acronym for the “Islamic Resistance Movement” — is a word that inspires a tremor of anxiety in most westerners. Since Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections of January 2006, Israel has transformed that tremor into an earthquake, ably abetted by the US State Department and the European Union which have steadfastly refused to recognize the organization’s democratic mandate. Objective information, therefore, is urgently required in order to further a more nuanced awareness of what Hamas is all about. The two books discussed here approach this challenge in drastically different ways.

Hamas by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell (Polity Press) provides an overview of the organization’s history and prospects based on a large number of interviews conducted over several decades. One of the virtues of the book is the detail and clarity with which it outlines Hamas’ prehistory and early development.

The organization’s roots lie in the 1920s, in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (6-7) and the rebellion against European colonialism by Izz al-Din al-Qassam (chapter 2), a Syrian who lent his name to both Hamas’ military wing and a primitive rocket.

We read of Ahmed Yassin (39) who as a child in 1948 fled with his widowed mother from Ashkelon (now in Israel) to Gaza. In 1973 he founded The Islamic Center (al-Mujamma al-Islami), a charitable and educational organization that steadily laid the social foundations for Hamas. Israel encouraged al-Mujamma (41), seeing it as a counterweight to pan-Arab secular nationalism inspired by the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, similarly countenancing the establishment of Hamas in 1987 as a means of splitting the Palestinian resistance (42, 210-212).

Interestingly, the roles of Hamas and Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party — which dominated the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — switched over the years, the latter initially deriding the former as collaborators (58, 211), and Hamas ultimately throwing Fatah out of Gaza in 2007 (286) for the same reason. Much of this fratricidal fighting took place along Gaza City’s Unity Street (272), just one of many dark ironies bedeviling Palestinian history.

The book’s authors are the academic Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, who manages The New York Times’ “At War” blog. Perhaps that newspaper’s notoriously unbalanced editorial policies have influenced some of the more propagandistic terminology that mars the book, counteracting its professed aim to “present first-hand accounts” (vii) of its subject.

Thus Hamas “gunmen” are “cold-eyed” (3 — what kind of eyes have Israeli killers?), Hamas has “never made any secret of its bloody methods” (7 — has the Israeli army?), Hamas are “rejectionists” (8 — the standard code-word for those who refuse to bow to Western diktats), the right-wing Israeli political party Likud is “pro-settler” (53 — are its Labor rivals any less so?), a spurious distinction is made between “Israeli Arabs” and “Palestinians” (87) and so on.

Throughout, Hamas “murders” and “kidnaps” Israeli soldiers, whereas the latter “kill” and “capture” Palestinians. The irrefutable Palestinian perception that “the world” (i.e. the West) has “an infinite capacity to tolerate Arab suffering” is dismissed as “jaundiced” (145).

More pernicious is the claim that Israel’s most recent onslaught on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, winter 2008-09) was “provoked” by Hamas (101) and was a “response” to its ending its ceasefire on 19 December 2008 (298). In fact Israel had already broken the ceasefire the previous month. Similarly, we are told that the 2006 Lebanon war was provoked by a Hizballah raid on Israel followed by Hizballah “firing scores of Katyushas into the Galilee” (274), whereas these events were separated by a colossal Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.

These regrettable anomalies often induce a contradiction between the authors’ implicit perspective and the conclusions they draw from their materials. Thus while they claim that the “peace process that has gone on for two decades” aims at “resolving a century-long conflict over land and statehood” (4), five pages later they accurately epitomize the true situation: “where the world saw a vote for Hamas as a setback for the peace process, many Palestinians saw no evidence of a peace process, so voted for Hamas.”

Despite the proliferation of detail, much of it undeniably fascinating, this book leaves us unclear as to what Hamas is essentially about. Such clarification is the objective of Jeroen Gunning’s Hamas in Politics - Democracy, Religion, Violence (Columbia University Press).

Gunning relates Hamas’ “dual contract” (to God and to the people) to both Islamic and European models. The names John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Pierre Bourdieu are not often mentioned in the same breath as the Islamist thinkers Sayyed Qutb or Hassan al-Banna; Gunning tells us that such convergences are “aided by the fact that Islamic and Western thought have common roots in ancient Greek philosophy and in the exchange of ideas at the time of the Renaissance” (73), a useful corrective to Samuel Huntington’s pernicious “clash of civilizations” thesis (13).

Hamas’ conception of freedom is defined as essentially Hegelian: “the Islamic state is the fulfillment of God’s will on earth … and … only by partaking in such a state will individuals be truly free” (71-2). Westerners will tend to assume that such conceptions necessarily lead to authoritarianism, but Gunning constructively complicates the issue. He analyzes in relatively jargon-free detail the tension between the “mystery of ministry” (Bourdieu) that confers religious authority on Hamas leaders (who, however, are almost never clerics) and the secular concept of political representation which Hamas accepts in principle, and warns against the casual assumption that the former will outweigh the latter (130).

Contrary to a standard Western propaganda trope, Hamas “breaks … with the Iranian Islamic state model” (82), being anti-hierarchical in accordance with Sunni Muslim tradition and opposed to the concept of theocracy. Arab states such as Saudi Arabia that have prematurely introduced Islamic law “without eliminating economic inequality and preparing society” are condemned — as un-Islamic! (90).

Gunning concludes that “Hamas’ internal electoral practice and movement-wide consultations are potentially of great significance for the future of democracy in Palestine” (141).

Unfortunately, neither of these books gives us a detailed analysis of Hamas’ infamous 1988 Charter, an undoubtedly repellent document that has provided much ammunition for Hamas’ enemies, nor of its precise relationship to Hamas’ subsequent actions. This is more surprising in the case of Gunning.

The non-recognition of Hamas’s democratic mandate in 2006 has made it impossible to assess accurately the practical application of the organization’s “neither inherently anti-democratic, nor anti-modern nor wholly anti-Western” ideology (265). Meanwhile, the propaganda clichés of “islamofascism” and “terrorism” have created more fog than light. Read in conjunction, these two books may help dispel much of that fog. They share a common message, summed up in the words of Nasser al-Shaer, a Hamas leader in Nablus, cited by Milton-Edwards and Farrell (309): “There is no solution if it doesn’t include Hamas.”

Raymond Deane (www.raymonddeane.com) is a composer and political activist.

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