Hamas Moves but Not Enough
By Nayyer Ali MD
Two weeks ago, the leadership of Hamas came out with a new Charter that replaced a document dating from the founding of Hamas in 1987. The organization grew out offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and the West Bank that became organized in the late 1980’s, to some extent with the encouragement of the occupying Israelis, who saw the religious organization as a useful counterweight to the secular PLO. This was part of a classic strategy of divide and rule that imperialist powers have used against those they subjugate.
Hamas in the 1990’s held forth a platform of no compromise with Israel. They rejected any chance of accepting the ground realities and negotiating a two-state solution. Instead, they proclaimed that Israel was wholly illegitimate, and the only acceptable outcome was the complete liberation of all of Palestine, from the Jordan River to the sea. In support of this policy they opposed the Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority and allowed Yasser Arafat to return to the West Bank and set up an administration in Ramallah. But more importantly, they undertook a campaign of violence and terror against Israel in order to achieve their goal of liberation.
Prior to Hamas, the concept of suicide bombing had no place in Sunni Islam. It didn’t have a place in Shia Islam either, the revolutionaries in Iran in the late 1970’s never used it. Its first use was by Lebanese Shia in the 1980’s, against the Israelis who were occupying southern Lebanon ever since the 1982 invasion (they wouldn’t leave until 2000), and also against French and US forces that were ostensibly peacekeepers but were using their power to help the pro-Israeli Christian political forces in Lebanon. This manifested in the suicide car bombing of the Marine Barracks outside Beirut that killed over 250 US Marines and prompted Reagan to withdraw from Lebanon.
While the Lebanese Shia began to engage in suicide bombing, Sunni Muslims did not, until the late 1980’s when Hamas began to use the tactic against Israel. Unfortunately, too many Sunni Muslim leaders around the world, while stating that suicide was forbidden in Islam, gave their blessing to this tactic under the logic of the end justifies the means. They simply relabeled suicide as a “martyrdom operation”.
This hardline and violent approach was immensely damaging to the Palestinian people and their desire to end the occupation. Twice suicide bombings by Hamas had catastrophic outcomes. The first was in 1995 after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who negotiated the Oslo Accords with Arafat) was assassinated. An election was held and the expectation that the liberal successor of Rabin, Shimon Peres would win easily. But just days before the vote, Hamas carried out suicide bombings of Israeli buses, and this frightened enough Israeli voters to give a narrow win to the hard-right Benjamin Netanyahu, who was totally opposed to a Palestinian state.
The peace process then meandered for a few years, and failed at Camp David as the Israeli side was still not willing to leave the West Bank, with the Second Intifada beginning a few months later. Unlike the first one, where the Palestinians used sticks and stones to demonstrate against Israeli soldiers, in this round Hamas began a massive campaign of suicide bombings in Israeli towns and cities. Hamas bombers would walk into Israel and reach their targets easily. It was this campaign that led the Israelis to build the wall that has penned in the Palestinians, and brought even worse hardship to their lives.
In the last 15 years, internal Palestinian politics also fissured deeply. While the PLO maintained control of the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinian controlled portions of the West Bank, Hamas seized power in Gaza after the Israelis unilaterally withdrew their military and settlers. Hamas then began to use Gaza as a base to launch raids and rocket attacks, of extremely minimal effectiveness, against Israel. This led to massive Israeli responses, from outright invasions that killed thousands, to severe blockades that punished the million Gazans collectively.
Which brings us to the latest developments. Ever since the last Israeli invasion in 2014, Hamas has kept the cease-fire. It no longer attacks Israel or launches home-made rockets. It has abandoned its core identity, that of active resistance to the occupation of all of Palestine. Where do they want to go?
The new Charter gives a surprising answer. They now state that they will accept a Palestinian state made up of Gaza and the West Bank, a position the PLO took back in 1988. They also clarified that they hold no animus to Jews or Judaism, which was not the case in their original Charter. They now state their conflict is only with Zionism, which is the belief that all of Palestine rightfully belongs to the Jews from around the world, and not to the Palestinian people. They still reject the legitimacy of Israel, but this is a huge shift for Hamas.
What is so sad about it is that it is 30 years too late. If the Hamas leadership had been thinking clearly from the start they would have realized that their maximalist position was completely unrealistic. It made Palestinians feel good, and in a perfectly just moral universe, Israel would not have been created as it did not have the consent of the Palestinians themselves. But that is not where we live. It was quite clear by the 1980’s that Israel could not be militarily defeated, they even had nuclear weapons. It was also clear that the occupation was inflicting tremendous hardship on the Palestinians, not just those under Israeli rule, but also those in the refugee camps of the Middle East. The PLO recognized this and accepted a two-state solution. If Hamas had joined in, and presented a united front while refraining from terror attacks that needlessly provoked the Israeli voters to embrace the right-wing, the Palestinians would have likely achieved the end of the occupation and their own state in the 1990’s. At this point the Palestinians face an Israel that has no interest in ending its subjugation of them, and in the White House there is a President with no knowledge or interest in the issue. For Hamas, their shift was too little, and way too late.