Philip Weiss’ symptomatic misreading of Hamas

On his frequently interesting blog, Philip Weiss asks today, “wouldn’t the biggest power move/gamechanger be for Hamas to accept Israel’s right to exist, and then fully initiate a civil-rights struggle?” I have a lot of respect for Weiss, but he is right when he notes further on in the same posting that, “I am surely confused here.” There are two problems with his formulation and one good insight, all mashed together. Let me try to unpack this a little, as Weiss is making an error that is all-too-common regarding the role and the nature of Hamas.

First, there is the issue of what the end-game of Palestinian national strategy is, should and can only be. Obviously, Weiss’ formulation is somewhat contradictory in this regard, since the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist presupposes that the endgame is a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel. This doesn’t square with the notion of a civil rights struggle which implies the pursuit of equal rights in a single state (a view that Weiss has increasingly drifted towards in recent months). There is no question that Hamas, and all Palestinian organizations, should recognize Israel’s right to exist, just as all Israeli political parties should recognize Palestine’s right to exist, since the only way to end the conflict is for two states to live side by side in peace and security. However, given Hamas’ attitudes towards Israel and its imperative and paramount goal of replacing the PLO as the main Palestinian national organization, there is almost no chance of it doing so in the foreseeable future. It is rather odd, unfortunate and unhelpful that Weiss would focus on Hamas as if it were the standard-bearer of Palestinian national anything, but more about that a little later.

A civil rights movement against the occupation, highlighting the way in which the occupation impinges on Palestinian human rights has always been an excellent option for Palestinians in the absence of diplomatic progress. At the moment, the diplomatic push by the Obama administration suggests that there are much more fruitful avenues to pursue at the present time in the realm of international relations. However, should this process stall, or sputter out altogether, attention towards a nonviolent civil campaign designed to call international attention to the outrageous conditions imposed by the occupation would be a very serious option for the Palestinian national movement. The first intifada was something approaching this, and was extraordinarily successful in numerous ways, especially in contrast to the catastrophic, militarized second intifada. However, for a human rights movement in the occupied territories to be successful, armed struggle, terrorism, rocket attacks and other militarized strategies would have to be suspended if not renounced. Just as it has never seriously contemplated recognizing Israel’s right to exist, Hamas remains committed to armed struggle and "martyrdom" as the path to achieving their goals.

This brings us to the heart of the confusion in Weiss’ idea: like a lot of Western and Jewish sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, he does not seem to understand what Hamas is, what it wants and how it intends to get it. Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood party of Palestine, and that ideology and affiliation defines much of what it thinks and does. First, it is a theocratic organization that seeks to “Islamize” Palestinian society along ultra-conservative lines and to establish an Islamic state theoretically from the river to the sea and as a practical matter in any areas that fall under its control. However, Hamas is not simply the religious far-right of Palestine, it is also a part of a regional alliance which has both domestic goals within each Arab state in which it is organized, and a broader regional agenda. I think that the Gaza war was a painful and distressing demonstration of how that regional agenda can trump the most elementary aspects of Palestinian interests. Moreover, due to the aid it receives from Iran and the basing of much of its political leadership in Damascus, Hamas is also a part of a pro-Iranian alliance, which also complicates and sometimes compromises its role as a Palestinian national organization. In other words, Hamas is not only ideologically disinclined to recognize Israel, and politically unable to do so given its overriding aim of replacing the PLO and need to draw a stark contrast with and outbid it, it also has patrons and allies that play a significant role in its calculations that have no interest in any recognition of Israel or peace agreement of any kind.

While the prospect of Hamas recognizing Israel’s right to exist is extremely unlikely, especially as long as its main aim remains its replacing of the PLO as the main Palestinian national organization, the idea of it leading a “civil rights struggle” anywhere and under any circumstances is positively weird. Hamas does not believe in civil rights as Weiss and I am using the term, a concept that is meaningless outside of enlightenment-derived traditions embodied in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other similar statements of principle. Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood ideology is rooted in a very different understanding of the nature of individual rights and the relationship between the individual and both the state and society. Some well-meaning Western observers seem to think that Hamas and other Islamist groups are some sort of Islamic version of leftist revolutionaries of earlier eras, but they are not. Hamas’ agenda could be described as anti-colonial, but not as consistent with civil or human rights as they are commonly understood in most of the world. Hamas might be able to serve as the vehicle of an anti-colonial movement, but not a civil rights movement, and there is a vast gap between the two.

People have a right to be supportive of Hamas’ agenda if they want to, but they must be honest with themselves and others about what is it, in fact, that they are supporting and what this would mean for minorities, individuals, women and governance in general in Palestinian society. I understand that he has visited them in Gaza, but if Weiss can imagine a scenario in which Hamas serves as the vehicle of a “civil rights struggle” then he has simply failed to understand the nature, ideology and agenda of the organization. Palestinians, like all peoples, will have a reactionary religious right in its political life, and for the foreseeable future this will remain Hamas. However, Hamas is not, and must not be allowed to become, the main Palestinian national organization, if the Palestinian national cause is to survive as a viable, independent political movement that is pursuing a just and achievable goal.