by Mohammed Dajani
A key question raised in the aftermath of the Islamic Resistance Movement’s (Hamas) victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections of January 20061 is how to interpret such a victory in free and democratic elections? Could it be interpreted as a shift towards fundamentalism on the part of the Palestinians? Have the Palestinians turned their back on a Fateh-style secularism and religious moderation to embrace instead religious radicalism? Or could it be that the Palestinian people, in their search for identity, have decided to opt for religious, rather than national, identity?
Palestinian Religious Journey
Since their early history, the Palestinians have been adhering to a moderate brand of Islam called al-Wasatieh (the “middle-way”), which is neither radically fanatic nor totally secular. Under the British Mandate, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in a tri-religious society. The communal conflict at the time was not religious — Muslims against Jews — but rather political: Arab nationalism clashing with Zionist aspirations to create a Jewish state in Palestine.
The Islamic movement in Palestine began in the 1950s as a religious organization. Its original aim was the reform of society, but in the 1990s, it grew into an Islamic resistance movement against the Israeli occupation. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Arab world witnessed an upsurge of religious fervor unleashed by the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand,2 and Communist Party activities on the other. The Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-Musilmeen) was founded in Egypt by Hassan al-Bana. It was imported into Palestine in 1947 by Palestinians studying in Egyptian universities. They went home enthusiastic to spread their dream to create an Islamic society based on Islamic principles and Islamic shari’a. However, this call did not receive the expected mass support among the Palestinian people. A clash erupted within the Arab world at large between the national Arab movement, viewed as progressive, and the religious Islamic movement, viewed as reactionary. Nationalism assumed predominance, particularly with the rise in popularity of Egyptian President Jamal Abdel Nasser in the Arab world in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis.
A group seceded from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953 to form the Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami), a political entity whose aim was to establish an Islamic caliphate through the political indoctrination of their members. Its ideological focus, which lacked any practical measures to affect the daily life of the faithful, resulted in few adherents and limited popular support. According to its views, the establishment of the Islamic state took priority over jihad to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation. It called for the revival of the Islamic way of life by fostering the education of the individual Muslim, the Islamic family, and the Muslim society to eventually bring about a Muslim state. According to their teachings, only after the Islamic state is established will its main mission be to liberate Palestine.
In contrast, the Islamic Jihad (al-Jihad al-Islami), advocates armed struggle for the liberation of Palestine, and considers the struggle against occupation as an official duty for all Muslims. However, it provided no social, medical, or educational services to assist the Palestinians in their daily hardships, and so has failed to muster much mass support.
Thus, it can be said that in Palestine, religious currents run the spectrum from extreme left to extreme right. On the left, there are the extreme secular groups represented by such movements as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Communist Party. On the right, there are the orthodox religious groups represented by Islamic movements, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Islamic Jihad Palestine. And in the center, there are the moderate secular groups, represented by the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fateh). Using middle-ground slogans, Fateh captured and dominated the Palestinian political scene from the mid-1960s until January 2006, when Hamas acceded to power.
The Hamas Movement
The question that arises then is: How has Hamas succeeded in making its historic breakthrough when the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic currents have remained peripheral in Palestinian society? One reason could be that, unlike the others, the agenda of Hamas includes not only religious but earthly matters as well, such as the provision of food, education, health care, and social services to the people.
The Palestinian Islamic awakening began in the early 1980s — climaxing with the beginning of the first Intifada in November 1987, which resulted in the creation by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) as an Islamic jihadist organization. Its military wing is known as the Legions of Izz Eddin al-Qassam (Kataeb Izz el-Din al-Qassam).3 In its first communiqué issued on November 15, 1987, Hamas took upon itself to vehemently resist the Israeli occupation through armed struggle. It called for the liberation of Palestine through jihad. Slowly, this religious movement started to make inroads in community councils and union elections, so much so that in 1992, its leaders and supporters were deported by Israel to the Lebanese borders at Marj al-Zuhur.
The main ideological tenets of Hamas are the following:
* Hamas is a resistance movement whose aim is the liberation of Palestine; it is not a political party focused on taking over the government.4
* Hamas considers the struggle for the sake of God (al-jihad fi sabeel ellah) the fight for liberation, as the major element in resisting the Zionist occupation of Palestine. It casts doubt on efforts to achieve Palestinian rights through peaceful means.
* Mandatory Palestine in its totality is an Islamic waqf that is not negotiable or divisible, or for surrender in part or in toto. Any concessions related to this land are forbidden by religion, and its liberation is a duty for all Muslims — male and female.
* Secularism does not constitute a meeting point with the Islamists.
* Palestinians are the spearhead for the resistance against the Zionist enemy. However, all Arabs and Muslims everywhere are required to join the jihad to achieve the goal of liberation.
The Legislative Elections of 2006
During the months preceding the Palestinian municipal and legislative elections, the political and economic situation of the Palestinians was growing worse by the day. The continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the separation wall, which cuts off about 10% of the West Bank, and, finally, the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, all helped to exacerbate the situation on the ground and paved the way for Hamas to assume political power.
In the party lists elections, Hamas won with only a slight majority. This would suggest that the majority is not so far-removed from Fateh in their political direction — two states alongside each other and peace with Israel. Many of the votes that went to Hamas had nothing to do with religion and fundamentalism, but were more a protest against the occupation, corruption, and a desire for change. The military operations carried out by Hamas against Israeli targets, the glorification of the martyrs, and Israel’s subsequent response in the form of collective punishment gave Hamas great popular support in the Palestinian street. The perception among Palestinians was that the Fateh leadership did not care much about them, and so Fateh was generally blamed for all the ills in Palestinian society. The efforts of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to suppress Hamas backfired, resulting in its isolation and a decline in its popularity.
Hamas reached the government through a democratic process. Now they have to prove themselves vis-à-vis their people by shouldering the responsibility for their welfare and well-being. The international community expected that the realities of governing and the need to provide security, jobs, and food to the people would eventually steer Hamas in the direction of meeting the requirements of the international community, namely, recognizing Israel’s right to exist, denouncing terrorism, and agreeing to a negotiated process.5
So far, Hamas has failed to think creatively, causing it to lose much of its popularity and popular support. What went wrong?
1. The PA is to blame for having allowed Hamas, an organization that did not adhere to the principles and agreements of the peace process, to participate in elections planned within the Oslo Accords framework.
2. Having won the elections, Hamas should have abided by its election platform, which called only for “reform” and “change” and did not include the slogan of “liberation.”
3. In forming the Palestinian government, Hamas should have opted for a “national” government with a national agenda, instead of forming a Hamas government with a Hamas agenda.
4. Hamas should have made a distinction between its political aspirations as a religious party and the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Upon assuming power, it should have stated that, as a Palestinian national government, it recognizes the State of Israel and accepts the agreements signed under the Oslo peace process. Additionally, it should have recognized all the agreements signed by its predecessors in accordance with international law. By failing to do so, Hamas put itself on a collision course with the international community.
The very fact that Hamas participated in elections that are based on the Oslo agreement proves that the Palestinian political system is moving towards the center. On the face of it, the Hamas victory appears detrimental to the peace efforts. However, the actual result may turn out to be more positive:
Hamas military wing - The road to take is negotiation, not confrontation.
Itmight work as a moderating influence on the other radical movements and ensure the stability and permanence of any agreement that is concluded.
The “two states for two peoples” formula remains the only option for achieving peace. A two-state solution to the conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, to recognize each other, and to respect the right of the other to live in peace. However, this cannot be achieved unless both parties resume negotiations and the Israelis accept the fact that Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian social and political fabric.
Failing this, what road should the Palestinians take to get out of the present crisis? It is time for a new party to emerge that would draw the best and the brightest from among the Palestinian people. The new party should adopt the Wasatieh Islamic tradition and the shura Islamic concept as its main pillars. Al-shura advocates collective and consultative decision-making.
Al-Wasatieh calls for Muslims to take a middle ground between those who sanctify tradition and those who opt for rational thinking in reading and explaining the Holy Qur’an in compliance with the Surah in the Holy Qur’an: “And so we have created you a halfway nation.” Or in the verse: “Be neither miserly nor prodigal, for then you should either earn / reproach or be reduced to penury.”
The goal will remain the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, as stipulated by the Oslo Accords. The road to take is negotiation, not confrontation.
Abu-Amr, Ziad. Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Dreyfuss, Robert. Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005.
Gordon, Haim, Rivka Gordon & Taher Shreteh. Beyond Intifada: Narrative of Freedom Fighters in the Gaza Strip. London: Praeger Publishers, 2003.
Human Rights Watch. Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks against Israeli Civilians, Human Rights Watch, 2002.
Mishal, Shaul and Avraham Sela. Hamas: A Behavioral Profile. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, The Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, 1997.
Shaked, Roni and Aviva Shabi. Hamas: Palestinian Islamic Fundamentalist Movement. Jerusalem: Keter, 1994.