Hamas: Political pragmatists or Islamic dogmatics?

Time and again, Hamas’ willingness to abide by ceasefires with Israel has been driven by political considerations, mostly vis-a-vis its participation in the Palestinian Authority and PLO.

By Moriel Rothman

There are few skills more crucial for understanding the Palestinian-Israeli landscape than the ability to differentiate between rhetoric and reality. For example: The Netanyahu government is committed to reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians: rhetoric or reality? Or another example, made increasingly relevant over the last few days with the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation-deal: Hamas is Islamically committed to destroying Israel and thus unable to make political compromise. Rhetoric or reality?

Rhetorically, this is certainly the case: Hamas’ charter is rife with anti-Semitic language and unambiguous in its embrace of constant violence until an Islamic state is established in all of Palestine. Likewise, “peace initiatives” are “Islamically” shunned, “for renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion.” However, a study of politics inevitably teaches the careful student that words and actions do not necessarily align. Therefore, only through an analysis of Hamas’ actions and corresponding statements together, can the relevance of Hamas’ charter – and other Hamas documents and rhetoric – be determined.

If Hamas’ charter was an action plan, in principle Hamas and Israel ought to have been in a state of non-stop war for the past quarter century. This hasn’t been the case. In fact, history has shown that Hamas, rather than being a religious group whose politics are driven by its Islam, is in fact a political group whose Islamic declarations are tailored and tweaked to align with to its political aspirations. In other words, Hamas’ rhetoric tells us little about Hamas’ true nature: a political movement with political goals, namely: power and political inclusion.

Let us look to history in an effort to understand the present and work for a better future. Starting with Hamas’ beginnings, through the peace talks of the 1990s and the first Palestinian elections in 1996, onwards into the Second Intifada and a series of lulls and ceasefires, and through Hamas’ victory in the election of 2006 and the subsequent clashes, Hamas’ strategy and political posturing has been quite different than is often portrayed or understood in the amnesiac, echo-chamber culture of mainstream media analysis.

Israel Supported the proto-Hamas Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to the PLO.

Hamas, the Arabic acronym for al-Haraka al-Mukawima al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Resistance Movement), was officially founded from the ranks of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood on December 14, 1987, days after the beginning of the First Intifada. Before its transformation into Hamas, Israel tacitly supported the expansion of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to the militant, secularist Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). And accordingly, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood pursued a policy so “non-activist” that it was accused by some hardline Palestinian nationalists of being actively “in line with Israel.”[1]

Hamas opposed the Madrid Conference – because it was a peace conference, or because it excluded Hamas?

Following the First Intifada, Hamas publically broke with the PLO in 1991, when PLO chairman Yasser Arafat agreed to participate in the Madrid peace conference with Israel. Hamas leaders argued, “the premises of the Madrid formula made it impossible to achieve any positive result.”[2] The question is whether the “premise” that Hamas most opposed was, in fact, that which excluded Hamas from the conference. Hamas was never offered any meaningful participation in the process in exchange for its support and thus had no political incentive to renounce violence.

Oslo I was to recognize the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian People.” Did Hamas oppose this? Of course they did.

In 1993, information emerged that the PLO was poised to sign the secret Oslo I agreement with Israel, in which Israel was to recognize the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Hamas reacted furiously, issuing a statement in absolute opposition to the accords. Part of the statement elaborates on Hamas’ traditional refusal to give up one inch of Palestine. However, there is a more interesting line, in which Hamas’ language sounds almost like a wounded sibling: “we ask why the occupying powers… don’t allow the opposition, and particularly Hamas, to express their views.”[3]

Hamas’ violence against Israelis increased after the beginning of Oslo.

In 1994, claiming retaliation for the Goldstein Massacre, Hamas began launching suicide bombings against Israeli civilians inside of Israel; these horrific attacks were to continue intermittently – but not consistently – until 2005.

Hamas first agreed to cease violence when it appeared it might be allowed to share power with the PLO in 1995.

The first practical instance of a Hamas cessation from violence resulted from a deal between Hamas and the PLO in September-October of 1995, in which Hamas agreed to refrain from violent attacks against Israel to allow the January 1996 Palestinian municipal elections to proceed smoothly. In exchange, the PLO would agree to recognize Hamas as a “legitimate opposition group.”[4]

In the end, Hamas boycotted the elections. But was this Islamist hard-lining, or political calculation?

Israel assassinated Hamas’ head bomb maker Yayha Ayyash on January 5, 1996. Hamas did not retaliate immediately, holding up its end of the bargain vis-à-vis the PLO. In the end, though, Hamas did not field candidates for the 1996 elections and called on the Palestinian population to boycott the elections. On its face, this rejection seems to be in line with Hamas’ hardline opposition to Israel and compromise, but the period’s political realities paint a more complex picture.

According to Frode Lovlie, by election-time, support for Hamas had “declined from 16 percent in 1994 to only 6 percent in 1996.” There were thus limited incentives for Hamas to run in these elections or to realistically hope for any power-sharing arrangement with the hegemonic PLO. While certain leaders, including Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, advocated participation, the decision to boycott ultimately won out.[5] Hamas resumed its strategy of opposition and violence in February 1996, launching a series of particularly gruesome suicide bombings within Israel during the months of February and March of the same year, leaving 59 people dead and over 200 wounded.

In March 2002, following the endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative by Arab states, Hamas carried out a gruesome bombing to demonstrate its opposition to the initiative. With that, the next month, Hamas leadership spoke in favor of the initiative, and within three months, agreed to a ceasefire with Israel. 

Arab leaders convened a summit in Beirut, wherein they produced what is known as the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which proposes peace with and recognition of Israel in exchange for a return to the pre-1967 borders. The API was unanimously endorsed and announced on March 27, 2002. On the same day, Hamas carried out one of the more horrific attacks perpetrated up until that point in the Second Intifada: a Hamas suicide bomber named Abdel Aziz Basset Odeh blew himself up at a communal Passover seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, mostly attended by elderly Israelis, including many Holocaust survivors, killing 30 and wounding more than 150 others. Following the attack, Sheikh Yassin issued a statement saying that the attack was, “[a] message rejecting the Arab League proposal,” and concluding that “the Palestinians will not surrender.”[6] However, on April 28, 2002 Hamas leader Ismail Shanab, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, claimed – in addition to calling Hamas’ charter merely “theoretical” – that Hamas would accept the Arab Peace Initiative. The conditions proposed by the API, Shanab said, “would be satisfactory for all Palestinian military groups to stop and build our state, to be busy in our own affairs, and have good neighborhood with Israelis.”

While this claim – which reflected a possible division in Hamas’ leadership over the issue of the Initiative – was not corroborated or immediately reiterated, its implications were not wholly disregarded. Apparently believing, at least on some level, that Hamas would be willing to agree to some sort of compromise, Egypt brokered, over the course of 2002-2003, a series of agreements between Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas that led to the 2003 Hudna, or ceasefire. On June 30, 2003, Hamas joined with Fatah and Islamic Jihad in agreeing to the unilateral “cessation of all military activity” and calling on world governments to push Israel to meet a number of political demands: to stop violence – and specifically assassinations – against Palestinians, to lift “the closure” imposed on Palestinians elected officials, to release all prisoners and detainees, not to harm Muslim and Christian holy sites, and to stop building and expanding settlements (NY Times, June 30, 2003). It is worth noting that only Fatah officially explicitly called the unilateral ceasefire a Hudna. Nonetheless, Hamas signed onto the same basic program of ceasefire.

What changed? Abbas’ appointment, increased political popularity and support for the cessation of violence. 

According to Jeroen Gunning’s Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence (2008), there were two major changes in this period: increased political opportunity generated by the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister of the PA in April of 2003, and “a shift in public opinion,” (pp. 222-223). The former development was important because, according to Gunning, while Arafat held complete control of the PA, Hamas had little faith that they would be included in the peace process in any meaningful way. However, Abbas’ appointment, although Arafat still called most of the shots, marked a potential change in the Hamas-PA relationship, as Abbas initially pledged not to use PA force against Hamas and refused Israeli and Western pressure to dismantle Hamas.

In what may well have been viewed as a gesture of seriousness, Abbas visited Hamas leadership in Gaza on June 16 to try to convince them to participate in the Hudna. At the same time, Hamas’ political popularity had increased, but so had support for a cessation of hostilities (80 percent of the Palestinian population by 2003, according to some studies) (pp. 227). Hamas leaders, according to the Gunning-ian perspective, reasoned that participation in the PA’s ceasefire would be wise, as “without a political system in which to participate, it had little to show for its strength,” (pp. 223-26).

Hamas’ rhetoric continued to be incendiary during this time: “By God, we will not keep a single Jew in Palestine. We will fight them with all the strength we have.” (Senior Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, Al-Jazeera, June 10, 2003, following an Israeli assassination attempt on his life, condemned by Abbas as a “terrorist attack” by Israel). But the gap between Hamas’ rhetoric and reality is emphasized by the fact that Hamas agreed to stop fighting Israel just 20 days after Rantisi promised to fight the Jews with all the strength Hamas had.

Hudna crumbles, violence resumes, Hamas tries again in January 2004?

The Hudna/ceasefire of 2003 only lasted for slightly over a month. Israel, having given its aforementioned reasons, never agreed to the Palestinians’ terms for the Hudna– and thus it is impossible to say whether or not Hamas would truly have respected the Hudna had it been mutual. On August 8 Israeli forces killed two Hamas militants in Nablus. Hamas responded with a number of suicide bombings, although they did not immediately call off the Hudna. Israel then assassinated Ismail Shanab and threatened to kill Yassin, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem, and things were largely back to where they’d been in June. Despite the Hudna’s abysmal failure, Hamas again proposed a ceasefire in January of 2004, by way of Abdel al-Aziz Rantisi himself. Israel immediately rejected this offer as “insincere” and a “smokescreen” for Hamas rearmament. As there was no immediate Palestinian follow-up action, it is impossible to gauge how much seriousness was behind the statement. Nonetheless, it is an interesting development to keep in mind in light of what transpired later the same year.

Israel assassinates Yassin and Rantisi. Hamas is weak, but does not seek a ceasefire. Only when political opportunity again arose did Hamas reopen the subject. 

Continuing its policy of targeted assassinations of Hamas’ political leaders, Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmad Yassin on March 23, 2004, and Rantisi a few weeks later. These two assassinations temporarily hampered Hamas’ operational capacity; according to Jensen, Hamas was “no doubt in a state of shock… [and] initially – out of fear – did not publicly appoint a successor [to Rantisi].” Indeed, Hamas was arguably the weakest it had been in years following these two assassinations, and yet its attacks continued (with a suicide bombing taking place on April 17, the same day Rantisi was killed) and it made no moves toward searching for another ceasefire.

Indeed, it was not until another significant political opportunity arose – Yasser Arafat’s death in November of 2004, which opened up space in the Palestinian political arena and allowed for Hamas’ increased participation (and success) in the Palestinian local elections in December of 2004 – that Hamas began again indicating willingness for ceasefire (Jensen, 42-43).

In Sharm el-Sheikh, 2005 Hamas again agreed to cease hostilities and maintained the ceasefire/lull longer than any other Palestinian faction.  

Concomitant with the aforementioned political opportunity, Hamas’ openness to compromise increased, and in March of 2005, Mahmoud Abbas convened another summit on Hudna with the other Palestinian factions in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and again succeeded in convincing Hamas to agree to a ceasefire that would last until the end of 2005 (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), March 12, 2005). This time, Hamas made it clear that it was agreeing not to a Hudna, but instead only to a Tahdiah, which means, simply, a period of calm.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (Photo by Trango/CC)
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (Photo by Trango/CC)

In a March 30 interview following the announcement of the Tahdiah, the leader of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, said, “for Hamas, tahdiah is a ploy in the resistance plan, whereas for the PA it is a way to get out of the resistance plan… Nevertheless, we are giving [tahdiah] a chance.” (Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 30, 2005). Nonetheless, according to Jensen, Hamas “henceforth kept a new unilateral Palestinian cease-fire for more than a year,” (pp. 43). Jensen’s statement is mostly accurate, although Hamas did take responsibility for an August 28, 2005 suicide attack in Be’er Sheva. This attack took place during Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and it could thus be argued that Hamas’ attack was an indicator that an Israeli withdrawal from all of the Occupied Territories would not suffice. However, the term “unilateral” is of great significance here, as nothing unilateral would suffice for any party searching for political participation, and it could thus be argued that Hamas was violently and symbolically expressing its discontent at “being left out,” as the attack was not directly succeeded by others.

Suicide bombings did continue to be launched by the Islamic Jihad, and in December 2005, following a series of intensive Israeli air strikes in Gaza in response to the Islamic Jihad’s December 5 attack in Netanya, Israel, all Palestinian factions decided to break off the truce with Israel except for Hamas, which “said that it would observe the ceasefire until the Palestinian elections ended in January, and then reassess.” [7] Herein lies an extremely important illustration of Hamas’ desire to gauge whether political participation would best help it further its strategies at that time (which will be analyzed in the following section), and its decision not to use violence even in response to Israeli air strikes and in coordination with other Palestinian militant groups is quite significant.

The elections of 2006: Perceiving opportunity not present in 1996, Hamas did not boycott the elections. Once winning, Hamas leadership hinted toward willingness to compromise. Only once faced with violence from Israel and Fatah did Hamas officially break off the cease-fire.

On January 25, 2006, the Palestinian elections significantly changed the situation on the ground once again. Perceiving a political opening not present in 1996, Hamas did not boycott the Palestinian elections of 2006. Their analysis of the political climate vindicated, Hamas won 74 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian parliament. These elections’ results have been explained by many analysts as correlated primarily to the Palestinian public’s frustration with Fatah’s corruption, and Hamas’ ability to provide effective social services: in other words, Islamism as political protest.

In a January 31 interview with The Guardian, Khaled Meshaal, defending the legitimacy of Hamas’ elections, reiterated that Hamas would never recognize Israel, but discussed the possibility of truce, saying to Israel: “if you are willing to accept the principle of a long-term truce, we are prepared to negotiate the terms.”And then, on February 9, Hamas detailed its proposal further, offering a long-term ceasefire in exchange for Israel pulling out of the territories occupied in 1967, although Khaled Meshaal, in a statement to the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam on the same day, said that Hamas “is not considering a long-term Hudna.” This contradiction can be understood in the same way as Hamas’ rhetoric in general, and by Hamas’ need to appear uncompromising – a need that ultimately proved surface level in 1996, 2003 and 2005, and would again be modified later in 2006.

Israel’s official response to Hamas’ proposals remained basically unchanged, although it was now coupled with a complete refusal to recognize the Hamas government, which was sworn in with all of its senior members located in Gaza on March 29, 2006. Additionally, tensions between Fatah and Hamas began to morph into violence, and on June 25, Hamas, following both intra-Palestinian violence and increased Israeli-Palestinian violence, officially repudiated its 2005 ceasefire with Israel, capturing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, precipitating from Israel a heavy-handed military response and the imposition of a total blockade on the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip.

Back to cease-fire, and the Hamas-Fatah tensions as the turning point.

Despite increased Fatah-Hamas tensions, in November 2006 Mahmoud Abbas once again convinced Hamas to accept another ceasefire. A national unity government that included both Fatah and Hamas was announced on March 17, 2007. But in May, Fatah deployed 3,000 troops into Gaza in an effort – supported by Israel and the international community – to reassert its presence there. It was at this point that Hamas, perceiving its political opportunity to be extremely low, broke off this next truce with Israel through a resumption of rocket fire, and in June, Hamas forces violently seized control over the Gaza Strip, forcing Fatah out completely. The argument that Hamas had been using the ceasefire with Israel as an opportunity to rearm is also plausible, as Hamas did indeed say, in a January 2007 proposal offering Israel a 10-year truce in exchange for a withdrawal to the 1967 Green Line, that their ultimate goal was to “build a large army and defeat the Jewish state.”

However, the rearmament hypothesis, like its partner, the “Islamic justification” hypothesis, fails to explain the timing of Hamas’ actions in the same way the hypothesis involving a rise and fall in perception of political opportunity does. Indeed, the events of 2006-2007 serve to reinforce the following finding from earlier in this essay: when Hamas has perceived opportunity to gain political power as high (as was the case in early 2006) its willingness to agree to ceasefires was also high.

By June of 2006, Hamas’ perception that it would be able to gain political influence through negotiation and/or participation was severely damaged by Israel’s complete refusal of any form of non-violent engagement and by increased tensions and clashes with Fatah. However, Hamas did not give up entirely on the potential for political participation and agreed to Abbas’ request for another ceasefire in November of 2006, and then upheld the ceasefire throughout the beginning of 2007. Hamas repudiated this ceasefire entirely only once perceiving political cooperation and participation with Fatah to be impossible, a point driven home by the Fatah’s decision to deploy 3,000 troops into Gaza.

Similarity and uncertainty: Has the pattern established and maintained since 2007 been broken?  

Since 2006, the triangular dynamic between Israel, Hamas and the PLO has wavered through truce, to stiff silence, to standoff, to heavy violence and then back to de facto truce. The violence that erupted in 2007 continued to rage and simmer at varying levels until June of 2008, when both Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-month ceasefire, brokered by Egypt. Although the truce was periodically strained and violated by both sides, including a continuation of Hamas rockets in June 2008 and an Israeli incursion into Gaza in November 2008, it was mostly upheld, and remained in effect until its slated expiration, in mid-December 2008, when things quickly devolved into what was known by Israelis as Operation Cast Lead and by the world as the Gaza War of 2009, which left over 1,400 Palestinians dead and much of the Gaza Strip in ruins. In mid-January, a truce was finally agreed to by both sides, and violence was limited until the resurge in violence in November 2012, follow which the situation again resumed relative quiet.

Over the years, Hamas suicide bombings and attacks have been consistently lower during periods in which Hamas perceived political opening (the elections of 1996, the elections of January 2006, etc.). With that, Hamas has been constantly excluded from any meaningful participation in the Palestinian democratic process since its inception, a factor that serves more convincingly than any other to explain why Hamas has returned time and again to a strategy of extreme violence.

And then came the news of the recent Fatah-Hamas pact. Looking back through the last two decades, if ever there was a chance that Hamas would consider compromise, it is when they perceive potential political gain, and if ever there was a way for Hamas to perceive political gain, it is through inclusion in the political process, and in the PA.

A change for the better

Time and again, Hamas’ willingness to abide by cease-fires with Israel has shown to be driven by political considerations, mostly concerning its relationship with the Palestinian Authority. The fact that Hamas has continued to strive for inclusion into the Palestinian political system, through compromise and acquiescing to Fatah requests to temporarily lay down arms and through participation in the Palestinian political system, coupled with its stated willingness to agree to long-term ceasefire if Israel were to withdraw to the 1967 borders, strongly indicates a high degree of political pragmatism within Hamas. As such, an important conclusion that can be extracted from this analysis is that Hamas’ Islamic roots, while offering important frameworks for mobilization, do not determine its policy. Just as votes for Hamas must be largely understood as protest votes, Hamas’ actions must be largely understood as political actions.

While Hamas’ rhetoric has been and continues to be radical and violent, its actions, as analyzed through the lens of its participation in ceasefires and lulls, have not lined up with its most radical declarations, and it can thus be concluded that Hamas would find a way to Islamically justify virtually any political position it desired to take. Hamas’ guiding framework can thus be described as pragmatism portrayed as dogmatism.

It must be recalled that Fatah, with whom Israel is currently nominally seeking negotiations (or with whom Israel is at least ostensibly willing to negotiate), was completely “committed to a political program of the elimination of Israel” prior to its inclusion in the peace process in the 1990s and its subsequent rhetorical about-face in the Arafat-Rabin letters of 1993, in which it recognized Israel’s right to exist. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since Annapolis have been premised Hamas’ exclusion. Negotiations since Annapolis have also failed to achieve any meaningful results, to put it lightly. So perhaps it is time to try something new.

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli activist. This piece was first written as an academic paper and later adapted and updated for publication on +972 Magazine.

[1] Jensen, Michael Irving. The Political Ideology of Hamas: A Grassroots Perspective. I.B Taurus (2010): New York.

[2] Michael Irving Jensen, The Political Ideology of Hamas: A Grassroots Perspective, 2010.

[3] Hamas Leaflet No. 102, cited in Jensen’s aforementioned book.

[4] Jeroen Gunning, Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence, 2008

[5] Frode Løvlie (2013). Explaining Hamas’s Changing Electoral Strategy, 1996–2006. Government and Opposition, 48, pp 570­593 doi:10.1017/gov.2013.3

[6] (Matthew Levitt, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, 2006).

[7] Gaza Chronology: A Timeline Analysis from 1948-2008. In The Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3 (Spring 2009)).