Among Israeli politicians and the media there has been a tendency to project a one-sided image of Hamas as being merely a terrorist cell, driven by religious fundamentalism and ready to pursue its stated aim of destroying Israel at any cost. “Islamic and national zeal, bitter opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and strategies of terror and violence against Israel have become the movements hallmark” write Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela in The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence.
It is precisely this widespread but misleading image of Hamas being an inherently irrational, irresponsible and destructive actor that two Israeli experts seek to challenge. Published in 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada, the two liberal and left-leaning scholars offer a revisionist account of the movements historic origins, ideology, aims and strategic outlook while not camouflaging the group‘s more gruesome acts – such as the 1998 attack on Jewish school children.
The book is well structured, convincingly argued and, although at times repetitive, provides a first-rate assessment of Hamas‘ decision-making process. Drawing on primary sources, including the group‘s internal position papers, the authors demonstrate that: “Hamas is far from being fixated on unrealistic ‘all-or-nothing’ objectives. Despite the perception that Hamas caters only to fantasies, it has demonstrated an awareness of the shifting political circumstances and a willingness to base its policies on a cost-benefit calculation” (p. 170).
This is because Hamas is characterized as both an Islamic-nationalist organization committed to the liberation of Palestine, and a social movement that competes for popular legitimacy. It is thus aware of society’s anxieties, “sharing its concerns, expressing its aspirations and tending to its needs and difficulties” (p. 7). What the authors tacitly assume is that, firstly, the Israeli occupation policy helped to create economic and social misery that Hamas was able to exploit; and secondly, Hamas originated as a social movement, and it was due to the repressive nature of Israeli occupation that finally it turned into a vanguard of armed resistance.
On these grounds the group‘s aims are far more ambiguous than they appear at first sight. On the one hand, the group‘s ideology is based on the notion that only Islamization and the total destruction of Zionist Israel as an ideological and physical entity can liberate Palestinians from their struggle. By emphasizing the Islamic duty of holy war, the group seeks to underpin its legitimacy as an Islamic resistance group commited to the combat of Israeli colonialism. Therefore, it appeals to those Palestinians who have become dissatisfied with what they perceive as half-hearted commitment to liberation by moderate Palestinian forces.
Yet, on the other hand, competing with the secular PLO/PA for the hearts and minds of Palestinians obliges the group to provide social and political security for the population. By pointing to the group’s central contradiction, its inability to launch a total war against Israel without risking the security of its social base, the authors show that “it has been in Hamas’ interest to become politically active and not exclude the possibility of a settlement – albeit temporarily – through non-violent means.” (p. 170) This demonstrates that the decision-making process of Hamas is shaped by profoundly realist considerations, and accordingly, the group operates within a framework of ’opportunities and constraints’. (p. 9) “Hamas, then, does not live up to its global image of a one-track organization with a monolithic, fanatic vision, unshakable fundamentalist interests, rigidly binary perceptions, and intransigent preferences. In fact, if Hamas were to adopt such an unbending approach, it would be counterproductive, increasing its isolation in the local Palestinian, inter-Arab and international arenas.” (p. 170)
Earlier, when most observers were still upholding the image of Hamas being an inherently irrational and destructive actor, Mishal and Sela predicted that the movement would undergo a process of moderation. Although they acknowledged it is unlikely Hamas “will revise its ultimate goal against and its public attitude towards Israel” (p. 9) for the simple reason its leaders draw their legitimacy from the resistance, the scholars expressed the belief that “it can accept a workable formula of coexistence with Israel in place of armed struggle.” (p. 9)
Now, 15 years after the publication of Mishal and Sela’s book, is it accurate to claim that Hamas has undergone a process of moderation? The fact of the matter is that Hamas violence against Israelis reached its peak during the second intifada. However, since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and Hamas‘ election victory in 2005, the nature of the group‘s attacks have changed, with the number of suicide bombings against Israelis decreasing. Part of the reasons for Hamas‘ more appeasing approach is that its status as the governing party of Gaza obliges the group to pay greater attention to the security of its social base and so carefully evaluate the costs and benefits its actions. This shows that Hamas has undergone a process of transformation: from a revolutionary Islamist liberation movement into an Islamic-nationalist political party that claims to represent Gazan society, and which is involved in political, social and insurgent activities. While Hamas is far from ending the armed struggle against Israel, it has indeed found an albeit fragile formula of coexistence, according to which it fluctuates between periods of appeasement and confrontation.