Hamas: Political Thought and Practice by Khalid Hroub. Pub: Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC, USA, 2000, pp. 329, $16.95.
The status of Hamas as the leading Islamic movement in Palestine, and the leading edge of popular Palestinian opposition to the ‘peace process’ over the last decade, is widely recognised by Muslims all over the world. However, while western and zionist attempts dismiss the movement as a marginal ‘terrorist’ group, and portray it as having a fanatical and irrational commitment to violence for its own sake, are recognised as empty propaganda, more objective and reliable information and analysis of the movement are hard to come by, particularly for those unable to access literature in Arabic.
This book, Hamas: Political Thought and Practice, by Khalid Hroub, fills this gap at least partly, both for general readers and for those looking for more substantial and academic material on Hamas. Hroub, a Palestinian academic and commentator, primarily examines Hamas’s political thought using its own publications and documents, as well as interviews with key leaders including Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, Ibrahim Ghousheh and Muhammad Nazzal. He deliberately sets out to see Hamas as a broad political, ideological and social movement within the broader context of the Palestinian struggle, rather than as a purely militant movement.
Hroub points out in his introduction that Hamas emerged on to the Palestinian scene at a very particular juncture of the Palestinian struggle. In 1982, the PLO was forced by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to abandon its bases there and move to Tunis. This, Hroub says, moved the Palestinian political leadership further from Palestine itself, distancing it from the people of Palestine both geographically and symbolically, highlighting its failure to oppose zionist expansionism over many years, and the futility of its political struggle.
It was largely in response to the increasing alienation of the political leadership of the PLO from Palestinians in the occupied lands that, over subsequent years, the primarily political struggle came to be replaced by the sparks of an alternative, far more costly but also more fruitful, means of struggle: a popular uprising in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Ghazzah that burst into flame in 1987. A key part of this process was the shift of emphasis from the secular, leftist tone of the discourse of the PLO to an Islamic understanding of the situation, reflecting the instincts of Palestine’s Muslim people and the rise of the Islamic movement in the Muslim world generally in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The main militant Islamic groups that emerged in the 1980s were rooted in the organization and cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, which had been established there since before the establishment of the zionist state (Hroub’s first chapter is a useful summary of the history and development of the Brotherhood in Palestine). Hamas was not the first group of its kind. Islamic Jihad was established by some Brotherhood members in the 1980s, as a jihadi alternative to what they perceived as the reluctance of the leaders of the Brotherhood to take on armed resistance, while another group, ‘Usrat al-Jihad, had been formed under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish inside 1948 Palestine (Israel).
Although Hamas emerged with the outbreak of the intifada in 1987, the mainstream of the Brotherhood had also been moving toward militant action since the early 1980s. Hroub identifies the arrest of Shaikh Ahmad Yassin on arms charges in 1984 as the first clear sign that the debate within the Brotherhood on its future struggle had been won by those advocating armed action. At this early stage, the Brotherhood identified its role as threefold: “cadre formation and mobilization, passive resistance and military action,” and military actions by cadres linked to the Brotherhood are recorded from 1984 onwards. At this stage, Islamic Jihad operations were more prominent, but Hroub points out that despite some organizational rivalry — which has continued — both groups saw themselves as part of a wider Islamic movement and took pride in each others’ successes.
It was not a coincidence that the official formation of Hamas (which is the Arabic acronym of Harakat al-Muqawwamah al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Resistance Movement), announced in its first communique, coincided almost precisely with the outbreak of the intifada in December 1987. Although the intifada was not specifically planned by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, it was made possible by the change in mood within the movement, and the Palestinian population as a whole, during the previous years. The formation of Hamas is often presented as an opportunist move in response to the popular uprising; Hroub demonstrates that, while the timing of the announcement may have been influenced by events in the first days of December 1987, the groundwork had been done over several years and the announcement was the logical next step.
Events and developments in Palestine during the years since the outbreak of the intifada have been fast-moving and complex. Hroub does not seek to give either a potted history of Palestine during this period, or a blow-by-blow account of Hamas’s role. Instead, the larger part of the book consists of thematic sections examining the development of various aspects of Hamas’s political understanding and work, including its broad understanding of the conflict, its relations with other political groups in Palestine, its relations with other Arab and Muslim countries, its position on the struggles of Islamic movements in other parts of the world, its dealings with western and international organizations, its dealings with the zionist state, and its political and social activities in Palestine.
Only in eight pages in the book’s final section does Hroub address Hamas’s military activities, emphasising the fact that his object is to convey the reality that Hamas is much more than simply an armed group. Without becoming defensive in his tone, or allowing the thrust of his analysis to be distorted, Hroub also makes the point in several other areas that much of the popular perception of Hamas is based on misinformation deliberately promoted by its enemies and happily taken up by their allies. Such misinformation includes the suggestion that the Islamic Brotherhood was promoted before the intifada as a counterweight to secular Palestinian groups; that it is controlled by outside forces, particularly Iran; and that it has few roots and little support within Palestinian society.
The book’s main drawback, in view of the rapidly changing situation in Palestine, is that it focuses on the early years of the Hamas experience; having originally been published in Arabic in Beirut in 1996, it has been only slightly updated for the publication of this English edition four years later. One of the main issues confronting Hamas in recent years has been the problem of balancing its opposition to the ‘peace process’ and recognition of Israel with its desire to avoid the internecine warfare that would be involved in opposing the Palestinian Authority directly. Hroub does discuss this issue in the context of the Oslo Agreement of 1991 and subsequent events, but much of the more recent and detailed debate does not make the book, limiting its use for understanding more recent events.
Another point which may disappoint some readers is that Hroub does not discuss Hamas in the wider context of the global Islamic movement, either in terms of its political understanding and thought, or in terms of its methodology and objectives. Instead he restricts himself to highlighting the inspiration that Hamas (and Palestinian groups, such as Islamic Jihad) drew from Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and in its general support for the struggles of similar movements elsewhere, such as Kashmir, Chechnya and Bosnia.
Hroub is not particularly sympathetic to Hamas, but compared with most literature on the movement his detached, analytical and genuinely knowledgeable perspective is a welcome change indeed. For readers interested in developing a better understanding of Hamas, as well as the wider situation in Palestine, this book should be regarded as essential reading.