Hamas was in the news last week, accused by Egypt of having been behind the rocket attacks from the Sinai against the Israeli town of Eilat and the Jordanian town of Aqaba. This, once again, told us something about the paradoxes of the Islamist group.
From its inception, Hamas has been oriented toward both Palestinian nationalism and broader regional Islamist forces, especially since it is a core Muslim Brotherhood party. These two tendencies have usually worked at cross-purposes, since the Palestinian national interest is inconsistent with any version of a regional Islamist agenda. Such dynamics are further complicated by the fact that Hamas is the only Sunni Islamist party in the Arab world to be simultaneously part of the Muslim Brotherhood network and the largely Shia pro-Iranian alliance.
Hamas’ conduct needs to be viewed in the context of its primary strategic aim, which is to politically defeat the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, and replace them as the primary agent for the Palestinian national movement. While the PLO and PA also find themselves in a zero-sum contest for power with Hamas within Palestinian society, their aims are much broader, particularly creating the conditions for Palestinian independence.
Those who do not recognize the central importance of Hamas’ dual identity as both a Palestinian nationalist and a regional Islamist organization, or the fundamental incompatibility between the agendas being pursued by Hamas and the PLO, tend to stress the importance of Palestinian national reunification. The fact is, however, that such reunification is completely impossible as long as both of these organizations remain viable contenders for the leadership of the Palestinian national movement. Their most fundamental difference – whether Palestinians should seek a negotiated peace with Israel – is compounded by disagreements about the nature of Palestinian society and much more. One vision is eventually going to win out over the other as the unifying and dominant Palestinian national strategy.
Indeed, it is probable that Hamas’ future will be largely determined in the West Bank, rather than in Gaza. Its role as a spoiler cannot be underestimated, but Hamas’ long-term fortunes depend on an irrevocable failure of the national strategy of negotiations and of the PA state- and institution-building program. If either or both of these policies succeed, Hamas’ single-minded promotion of the strategy (though certainly not always the practice) of violent resistance and insistence on the non-recognition of Israel – even in the context of Palestinian independence – will become increasingly hollow and unappealing. If the PLO and PA strategies unequivocally fail, however, there is little to prevent Hamas from inheriting practically uncontested the leadership of the Palestinian movement and transforming it from a nationalist to an Islamist one.
It was in this context that Hamas condemned the recent Arab League decision to approve direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO and has been urging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to pursue talks with Israel. Indeed, many speculated that the recent rocket attacks launched from Gaza and Sinai were either Hamas or Hamas-inspired attempts to undermine prospects for such talks.
Hamas leaders have also urged Palestinians in the West Bank to kidnap Israeli settlers, and have generally encouraged anti-Israeli violence in the West Bank, while largely suppressing it in Gaza. In the past, various Palestinian extremist groups, above all Hamas, have exhibited a kind of de facto alliance with extreme right-wing forces in Israel to take actions that reinforce the violent conflict whenever diplomacy threatens to make progress toward a peace agreement.
Hamas’ opposition to a peace agreement serves both its own domestic interests and those of its regional allies and patrons. In the Palestinian context, while Hamas leaders are no doubt aware that independence in the occupied Palestinian territories is the most ambitious goal to which Palestinians can plausibly aspire, they cannot acknowledge this as long as they are in a contest for power with a secular, nationalist rival. If both Hamas and the PLO openly seek the same outcome of ending the occupation, the principal difference between them would be Hamas’ extreme social and religious conservatism, which is not a path to majority status in present Palestinian society.
Hamas’ policies are deeply advantageous to their fellow Muslim Brotherhood parties across the Arab world, as well as their patrons in the regional pro-Iranian alliance. Gaza, after all, is the only territory in the region in which Sunni Islamists have been able to seize and maintain power for any length of time. Muslim Brotherhood parties in opposition in countries like Egypt and Jordan would benefit enormously, maybe even decisively, in their quest for power, and at least would enjoy a surge of legitimation should the Palestinian cause become an Islamist one led by Hamas. Iran and its allies have a vaguer but also powerful stake in undermining the regional status quo and promoting the so-called “culture of resistance.”
For the Palestinian people and cause, however, Hamas’ policies are disastrous. They have split the Palestinian movement into two irreconcilable camps, led to international isolation and the blockade of Gaza, fueled extremism on the Israeli right and undermined international confidence that Palestinians really seek a negotiated peace with Israel. What Palestinians urgently need is an end to the occupation, which can only be achieved through a two-state solution. The last thing they need is for their cause to become the centerpiece of a regional Islamist campaign to topple governments or a plaything in the hands of a cynical Iranian hegemonic agenda.