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It is not possible to wipe out Hamas

HAMAS / Leila Seurat provides a good basis for understanding what went wrong on 7 October, when Hamas made a drastic change of course. The purpose of it all was to put the Palestinian cause back on the global agenda, and it has largely succeeded.

The Foreign Policy of Hamas: Ideology, Decision Making and Political Supremacy
Author: Leila Seurat
Publisher: I.B. Tauris, UK

Since 7 October, the Islamic Hamas has been on everyone’s lips. That morning, around 2,000 men from the movement penetrated the Israeli fence around the Gaza Strip, attacking 22 kibbutzim and villages and killing 1,200 Israelis, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

There have been many interpretations. Both the EU and the US have long since classified Hamas as a terrorist group, and from that perspective, the events of 7 October were described as cold terror. In the Arab world, in particular, the whole thing was typically interpreted as a result of years of confinement in the Gaza Strip. In that light, Hamas comes to stand as a legitimate freedom movement that was only doing what could be expected.

These opposites represent highly simplistic explanations. When it comes to Hamas, the picture is far more complex and no clarity is gained by listening to the many opinions and judgements in the immediate shadow of war. It pays to seek out experts who are able to see things from a distance and with an academic approach, and that’s where Leila Seurat comes in. In 2022, the Lebanese-French researcher published a well-written and insightful book that provides an in-depth description of how Hamas as a movement interacts with its surroundings. It’s a good read and provides a good basis for understanding what went wrong on 7 October.

In that light, Hamas comes to stand as a legitimate freedom movement that was only doing what could be expected.

Stalemate and military offensive

Ever since Hamas won the last Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and took power in the Gaza Strip the following year, its goal has been twofold. On the one hand, it has sought to maintain a certain stalemate or truce – hudna, as Hamas prefers to call it – with Israel, while on the other hand, it has been in constant competition with nationalist and Islamic rivals.

Right after taking power, Hamas actually started out seeking a hudna. It was brokered by Egypt, but in December 2008, Israel broke the agreement with a large-scale military offensive that ended with a unilateral Israeli ceasefire. A new series of confrontations began in 2011, which only ended when Hamas released the soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held hostage for five years. In return, the Israelis released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, which Hamas could consider a significant victory. However, this was short-lived, as another armed clash occurred in the summer of 2014. This was a paradigm shift, and the following period was characterised by regular confrontations, culminating in the big bang in the autumn of 2023.

A long development

The process is part of a long evolution that Hamas has undergone. It is usually said that Hamas was formed in December 1987, when the first Palestinian intifada started in the Gaza Strip. But in reality, the movement can be traced back to 1973, when it emerged under the name Mujama al Islamiya – the Islamic Centre. One of the main forces was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a teacher in the Shati refugee camp, working with direct inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This had emerged in 1928, with one of the central figures being Hassan al Banna. He was a schoolteacher in the town of Ismaliya, where the British administration of the Suez Canal was headquartered. Al Banna saw how the British exploited the local workers, so he set up the Brotherhood as a humanitarian organisation with a clear Islamic message.

Ahmed Yassin did something very similar in the aftermath of the October 1973 war. It ended up being another serious blow to the Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, so he set up his Islamic Centre as a relief organisation, believing that Islamic content could give the refugees a measure of self-respect. With this apparatus at hand, Ahmed Yassin was in a strong position when the intifada broke out in 1987, as he already had a strong network of activists who could take to the streets and demonstrate, and he renamed the organisation Hamas.

Sinai Peninsula

Over the years, Hamas remained fairly pragmatic. The organisation’s ideology does not recognise the existence of Israel, but it has repeatedly shown itself willing to engage in dialogue. {This remains in the organisation’s charter, even if factions say otherwise. Certain parts of Hamas can accept a two-state solution as an interim model, but this is not the same as recognising Israel}. But again, developments brought change. In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas actually won a modest majority. It refused to be recognised by the international community and allowed Fatah to take power in the West Bank while Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. The following year, Israel imposed a blockade on the narrow strip of sandy land that is home to just over two million people.

Soon after, Egypt did the same. The regime in Cairo closed the border between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, and herein lies some of the key to understanding the current situation. Egypt has a problematic relationship with Sinai, where a large part of the local population does not even have citizenship. For a long time, the desert has been home to Islamist groups, not least clear offshoots of Islamic State (IS).

This ideological current has gradually spread into the Gaza Strip. The Islamic Jihad movement has been present for a long time and is known for its opposition to the relatively ‘soft’ course that Hamas has taken in relation to Israel over the years. In addition, there are a number of smaller and even more radical groups that are often collectively referred to as Salafists.

While ISIS can thus be considered a transnational movement, Hamas is deeply rooted in the Palestinian national soul.

Declining popularity

It is, therefore, interesting to note that in the aftermath of 7 October, many observers began comparing Hamas to Islamic State. Although both movements are Sunni Muslim, this doesn’t really make sense ideologically either. The obvious explanation is that the nihilistic ISIS operated on the idea of global jihad. The goal was to establish a new caliphate, which should have as large a geographical reach as possible. While ISIS can thus be considered a transnational movement, Hamas is deeply rooted in the Palestinian national soul. This distinction also contributed to IS viewing Hamas with great scepticism.

The fact that Hamas, through its foreign policy activities, has sought to turn the conflict with Israel into a regional issue is, therefore, first and foremost a local endeavour. It is in this context that we should see #7 October. The movement’s leadership seems to have realised that the regular confrontations with the Israelis, which have been the agenda since 2006, have not really moved anything. The situation in the Gaza Strip has only worsened, and this has clearly led to a loss of popular support.

It can, therefore, be attributed great truth value that several Hamas leaders announced that this was a new beginning in the early days of the war. Hamas has made a drastic change, of course. Against this background, it rang hollow when former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said on 7 October that the attack was an expression of popular anger against the Israeli blockade. On the contrary, it looked like a carefully planned operation, and the popular spontaneity evident in previous confrontations was hard to spot. The Hamas leadership was fully aware of the consequences of the attack on Israel and knew that the Israeli response would be violent and bloody.

The Hamas leadership was fully aware of the consequences of the attack on Israel

Deviating from the political line of recent years

The purpose of all this was to put the Palestinian cause back on the global agenda, and it has largely succeeded. A key figure in all of this is Yahya Sinwar, who today leads Hamas. He was released from Israeli prison in connection with the prisoner exchange in 2011, and he immediately became involved in the movement’s organisational work, aiming to bring unity to a then deeply divided Hamas. He succeeded beyond measure and then turned his attention to the Arab world, bringing us to the real strategy behind the attack on 7 October. It happened while Saudi Arabia was well on its way to entering into dialogue with Israel, which is a direct extension of the so-called normalisation agreements that Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed with Israel in 2020.

In other words, Hamas can be said to have deviated from the political line of recent years, which Leila Seurat describes so well in her book. Sinwar wanted to re-establish the broad Arab rejection of any kind of dialogue or rapprochement with Israel, which had already begun to crumble with the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1978.

Hamas has made several course corrections over the years. Among the most important arguably came with the beginning of the first intifada in 1987, when Ahmed Yassin turned the humanitarian organisation Mujama al Islamiya into the political movement Hamas, with the addition in 1991 of the armed brigade Izz ad-Din al-Qassam.

Where the current change, with Sinwar leading Hamas away from its hitherto pragmatic course, will lead is anyone’s guess. But whatever the outcome of the war, it has brought Hamas back into the centre of events, and, as we often hear from representatives of the movement, it is not possible to wipe Hamas out. For Hamas, it may be a movement, but for thousands of Palestinians, it is, first and foremost, a state of inactivity.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.

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