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Ends and Means

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Hamas: pragmatism and jihadism

By Jonathan D. Halevi

The Hamas military wing will not be assimilated into the Palestinian security forces

The establishment of the first Palestinian Islamic government constitutes the culmination of the "Green Revolution" that Hamas has led in recent years in the Palestinian Authority. After the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq under the tutelage of the United States, which seeks to spread democracy to the Muslim world, the Hamas movement succeeded by democratic means to become a legitimate political force and take power in the Palestinian Authority. The parliamentary majority that Hamas obtained in the January 2006 elections (74 of 132 parliamentary seats) meant it had a majority to form a government without the necessity of a coalition with other parliamentary blocs.

This was the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood has used the electoral process successfully to take virtually exclusive control of an Arab regime in the very heart of the Arab world. (Previously, Hassan Turabi rose to power through the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan.) In recent decades, the Muslim Brotherhood had sought to replace secular regimes in Egypt and Syria, but failed. Despite the surprise expressed in intelligence circles in Israel, the Middle East, and the West, there were clear indications that Hamas would take power by democratic means. Over the past year, the heads of Israeli intelligence pointed to clear and imminent signs that Hamas was gaining strength and becoming the dominant force in the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli intelligence circles view Hamas’ rise as extremely significant, given that it is part of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood movement, which works similarly in other countries (such as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Syria) to establish Islamic rule as the basis for reviving the caliphate. Indeed, Article Two of the 1988 Hamas Charter describes the organisation as "one of the way of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine." The current leader of the international Muslim Brotherhood, Mahdi ‘Akef, admitted openly in an interview to Asharq al-Awsat (Dec. 11, 2005) that the Brotherhood is a global movement whose members everywhere share a basic, similar religious worldview (spreading Islam until it takes over the whole world).

In previous interviews, ‘Akef has been fiercely anti-American, calling the US "a Satan that abuses the religion." He spoke about his belief that the US would be eliminated: "I expect America to collapse soon," asserting: "I have complete faith that Islam will invade Europe and America." While sometimes US observers view the Muslim Brotherhood (and even Hamas) as a more moderate alternative to al-Qaeda for Islamists, the Brotherhood has a history of actively supporting global jihadi efforts. Prior to the US-led attack on the Taliban regime, the Muslim Brotherhood actually had training camps in Afghanistan where it worked with Kashmiri militants and sought to expand its influence in Central Asian states, especially Tajikistan.

This commitment to militant activism continues and is being reinforced. In his December 2005 interview, ‘Akef added: "The entire Muslim Brotherhood in the global arena acts according to a written platform (in which jihad is the way to attain our ends)....We have the largest organisation in the world. A (Muslim) person who is in the global arena and believes in the Muslim Brotherhood’s path is considered part of us and we are part of him." Not surprisingly, then, the Muslim Brotherhood did not portray Hamas’ triumph as a local victory but rather as "a victory of the Islamic nation in its entirety." In a recent weekly missive ‘Akef declared a new strategy adopted by the Brotherhood to confront Western imperialism and the satanic alliance between the US and Israel based on supporting the "resistance" in any Muslim country under foreign occupation, including Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. For the first time, ‘Akef called upon the Brotherhood to grant not only financial and material support but to join the resistance to achieve freedom for the Muslim nation.

The Hamas leadership as well shares this view of the overall struggle between the Islamist movement and the West. In August 2005, Mahmoud al-Zahar, today the new Hamas foreign minister, expressed the hope that Hamas’ victory against Israel, as expressed by the Gaza disengagement, would empower the mujahideen in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, Khaled Mashal, who heads the Hamas political bureau abroad, declared in a Damascus mosque in early February 2006: "We say to this West, which does not act reasonable, and does not learn its lessons: by Allah, you will be defeated." Mashal added: "Tomorrow, our nation will sit on the throne of the world."

Yet, from Hamas’ standpoint, the paramount strategic goal in the short term is to establish its new rule and attain Arab and international legitimacy for its existence based on the Islamic principles of the Hamas platform. Despite its overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections, Hamas seeks to win international recognition by creating an image of political pragmatism and of readiness to join the international community as a constructive force.

The Limits of Hamas’ Tactical Flexibility

As a first step in the direction of pragmatism, Hamas proclaimed after the January elections its great interest in setting up as broad a coalition as possible that would include the rival Fatah movement as a senior partner. In the coalition negotiations, which ultimately failed, Hamas showed readiness to make considerable concessions toward Fatah’s position, but without deviating from its own basic principles. During the course of the coalition negotiations, the guidelines of the Hamas government headed by Ismail Haniyeh were changed three times, to the limits of Hamas’ political flexibility, in an attempt to answer the demands of the international community. Hamas made use of certain themes in the political terminology of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah to present guidelines characterised by constructive ambiguity and vagueness.

This seemingly pragmatic line meshes with the diplomatic and media offensive (aimed also at the American media) that Hamas has waged since the elections. Hamas leader Khaled Mashal speaks of a readiness to achieve "real peace" and of implicit recognition of the Arab peace initiative that was approved at the Beirut summit in March 2002.

The new Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has presented toned-down messages regarding the resolution of the conflict. In his words, Hamas "is not hostile to the Jews," adding that Hamas "is not interested in throwing them into the sea." Hamas did not want "blood(shed)," and "has no interest in a vicious cycle of violence." In an article for the British Guardian entitled "A Just Peace or No Peace," Haniyeh stated: "We in Hamas are for peace and want to put an end to bloodshed...and offer our hands in peace" based on complete withdrawal from the territories and Israeli absorption of millions of Palestinians into Israel.

Hamas’ Uncompromising Strategic Goals

Clearly, neither the formulation of the Hamas government’s guidelines nor its diplomatic charm offensive indicates any breakthrough or strategic shift in Hamas policy. The changes are solely semantic, aimed primarily at legitimising Hamas politically. Hamas remains committed to its basic principles, from which it has not deviated. These include:

Fidelity to the Hamas Charter, which calls for jihad as the only means of liberating the entire territory of Palestine. Hamas has made clear that the movement’s policy at the present historical stage, until Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank is attained, does not contravene the ultimate, long-term goals of the Hamas Charter.

Refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist under any circumstances. The Hamas government’s guidelines do not mention Israel’s name and do not discuss the possibility of a settlement with it in the future.

Rejection of any possibility of negotiations with Israel. At most, Hamas is prepared to discuss the question of negotiations only after a full Israeli withdrawal to the borders of June 4, 1967, and after Israeli agreement on a mechanism for the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel. Clause 2 of the new government’s guidelines states: "Adherence to the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their homes and property is a private and collective right that cannot be conceded."

Adherence to "resistance," which means all forms of struggle including suicide bombings, as the only way to achieve political goals. Clause 4 of the government’s guidelines states that "resistance in its different forms is a legitimate right of the Palestinian people for the purpose of putting an end to the occupation and restoring national rights."

The uncompromising aim of the "liberation of all of Palestine from the (Mediterranean) Sea to the (Jordan) River."

Establishment of an Islamic government in Palestine that will apply Sharia (Islamic law) and will eliminate democracy. The Islamic ruling that legitimised Hamas’ participation in the elections stated explicitly that Hamas strives to acquire political power to attain the goals of the Islamic nation. It views Sharia as superior to the PA laws and constitution.

Hamas’ rise to power has not moderated its uncompromising attitude regarding a final resolution of the conflict. Hamas views itself as occupying a position of power that enables it to impose its demands on Israel that actually entail Israel’s destruction - first and foremost, the absorption of millions of Palestinian refugees. In Hamas’ perception, history is playing into the hands of an Islamic movement that is constantly gaining strength vis-à-vis Israel, which, despite its greater military power, is weak in spirit and unable to cope in the long term with the determination of Hamas and the Palestinian people to regain their "full historical rights."

Mashal: Hamas "will impose terror"

Hamas leader Khaled Mashal repeatedly expresses this outlook, which was reinforced by Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria. In an interview with NEW TV in Lebanon, Mashal noted that "the Israeli disengagement plan was carried out because the leadership reached a crisis in its policy...since it cannot defeat the Palestinians and break their will." Hamas’ victory, according to Mashal, is a "message of the Palestinian people to Israel that the Palestinian people will not be broken and will not be defeated; on the contrary, it has chosen a leadership it believes in that will lead it to victory, liberation, and the regaining of rights." In Mashal’s view, "the Hamas movement, the leadership along with the Palestinian people, believe with full faith that they will not be broken and will not submit to the terms of Israel and the United States but rather will impose their own terms." Mashal emphasised that Israel "is not capable of withstanding a protracted struggle," whereas Hamas, the Palestinian people, and the Arab nation do possess the ability to wage such a struggle.

To this end, the Hamas movement continues to maintain its military wing, the Iz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, as an independent organisation that will not submit to the Palestinian establishment nor be assimilated into a national Palestinian army. A senior leader of the Hamas military wing, identified as Abu Huzaifa, said in an interview with Alwatanvoice.com from Gaza that since the disengagement, Hamas has set up training bases in all the Palestinian towns for training new cadres of jihad warriors.

At these bases, initial regular training lasts over a month and advanced training takes three months. It includes combat skills, physical fitness, rifle practice, firing rockets, warfare tactics, crawling under fences, and climbing and descending from buildings. The instructors are Hamas operatives who were trained abroad. According to Abu Huzaifa, Hamas units for military production are working diligently on developing new and advanced weapons including rockets and explosives. Hamas is also working hard to turn the al-Qassam Brigades into a standing army under Hamas command "until the total liberation of all Palestinian land."

Even though Hamas has refrained from carrying out terror attacks since mid-2005 (as Israeli intelligence sources attest), it continues to view "resistance," a Palestinian codeword for armed struggle in its various forms, as the only means to remove Israel from the entire territory of Palestine. Hamas Interior Minister Said Seyam, who is responsible for the Palestinian security forces, has outlined the Hamas government’s policy regarding terror. Seyam, who supports suicide bombings against civilians, announced on March 24, 2006, that he does not intend to maintain any security coordination or cooperation with Israel, and publicly committed himself not to order arrests of operatives who carry out terror attacks. Hamas, he suggests, will seek to coordinate the military activity against Israel.

Hamas and Al-Qaeda: Partners in Global Jihad

On March 2, 2006, PA Chairman Abbas told al-Hayat (UK) that he had received intelligence information indicating the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the West Bank and Gaza, just two days after Israel publicised the arrest of two al-Qaeda operatives in Nablus. Azzam Abu al-Ads and Bilal Hafnawy were indicted for recruiting operatives to carry out terror attacks for al-Qaeda and planning a combined terror attack in Jerusalem with a suicide bomber and a car bomb. Members of the gang who were recruited by al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Irbid, Jordan, were arrested by Israeli security forces at the Allenby Bridge on December 10, 2005, when returning from Jordan.

However, on March 15, 2006, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal called Abbas’ warning about an al-Qaeda infrastructure in the PA "unfortunate," adding that "we don’t understand the logic behind these statements." He emphasised that "al-Qaeda has no presence on Palestinian soil." Yet on April 4, 2006, Al-Hayat reported "a definite presence" of al-Qaeda operatives in the Gaza Strip who had just infiltrated from several Arab countries including Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen.

It has been known for some time that al-Qaeda operatives are present in the Palestinian Authority. In August 2000, Israel’s security service uncovered a terror network linked to al-Qaeda and headed by Nabil Okal, a Hamas operative from Gaza, who underwent military training in camps of terrorist chieftain Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Afghanistan during 1997-1998. In July 2005, al-Qaeda gangs fired Qassam rockets at the Israeli town of Neve Dekalim in Gush Katif and also disseminated a video documenting its activities. On October 7, 2005, the Palestinian news agency Ma’an published a declaration circulated in Khan Yunis in which al-Qaeda announced the establishment of a branch in Gaza.

More recently on March 26, 2006, a senior Hamas figure, Muhammad Sayyam, met in Peshawar, Pakistan, with Sayyid Salah al-Din, leader of the Kashmiri terror organisation Hezb ul-Mujahidin, which had training camps in Afghanistan until the Taliban’s rise to power and functioned as an al-Qaeda affiliate. Sayyam heads the Yemeni branch of the Palestine Scholars Association, which advocates uncompromising jihad against the infidels and legally sanctioned suicide bombings against civilians in Israel. He sees the role of Muslim religious sages as spiritual guides whose task is to motivate the masses to struggle against Islam’s enemies and attack them with suicide bombings.

In honour of a visit to Yemen by Khaled Mashal on March 20, 2006, the Hamas office in Yemen organised a conference to raise financial aid for the Hamas movement and the new Hamas government. Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani also took part in the conference, meeting with Mashal, calling on participants to assist the Hamas regime, and setting a personal example by contributing 200,000 rials.

On February 24, 2004, US authorities had designated al-Zindani as a terror supporter, "loyal to Osama bin Laden and a supporter of the al-Qaeda organisation." The US Treasury Department stated: "The US has credible evidence that al-Zindani…has a long history of working with bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders."

Relations between al-Qaeda and Hamas go back to the early 1990s. In April 1991, Sudanese leader Hasan Turabi hosted a "Popular Arab and Islamic Conference" in Khartoum that brought together for the first time Islamists from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In addition to Hamas, Osama bin Laden also attended and in subsequent years turned Sudan into his main base of operations. Turabi continued to host this jihadist gathering in 1993 and 1995; Hamas training camps in Sudan existed alongside those of al-Qaeda. Their solidarity could be inferred from bin Laden’s explicit reference to Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as one of the five ulema [Islamic religious authorities] on which bin Laden based his August 1996 Declaration of Jihad Against the US

As noted in the case of al-Zindani, al-Qaeda and Hamas have long shared global funding mechanisms. On October 22, 2003, Richard A. Clarke, the former National Counterterrorism Coordinator on the US National Security Council, acknowledged that Hamas and al-Qaeda had a common financial infrastructure: "the funding mechanisms for PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] and Hamas appear also to have been funding al-Qaeda."

Even though Hamas and al-Qaeda share a similar worldview that seeks to impose worldwide Islamic rule, recently disagreements have erupted between the two organisations over how to implement the Islamic revolution. In a taped missive on March 5, 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, called on Hamas to continue its armed struggle and reject agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Al-Zawahiri emphasised that "no Palestinian has the right to give up even a grain of Palestinian land," and warned Hamas against "the new American game that is called a political process," alluding to democratisation. Khaled Mashal responded by saying that Hamas did not need advice from al-Qaeda, and will continue to act in keeping with its worldview and the Palestinian interest.

Mashal’s reaction indicates a difference between Hamas’ agenda and al-Qaeda’s. Al-Qaeda totally rejects any element of Western influence and sees terror as the most effective means to overthrow the infidel regimes, spread Islam, and establish Islamic rule. Hamas, however, is prepared to make a pretence of going along with the Western democratic rules of the game and thereby exploit them to remove the infidel regimes, propagate Islam, and install Islamic rule that will eliminate democracy.

Hamas’ Short-Term Policy

Khaled Mashal said in Yemen on March 20, 2006, that "Hamas is capable of making a distinction between the [current] stage [of Hamas’ strategy] and political tactics." In this context, Mashal outlined the Hamas government’s goals in the coming period by order of priority:

  • Reorganising the Palestinian house (parliament, government)
  • Appealing to the Arab, regional, and international arenas in order to dispel fears about the Islamic stream’s accession to power
  • Seeking to obtain material assistance and support for the Palestinian people
  • Connecting the Palestinians to the Palestinian diaspora, and linking the latter to the Palestinians in Palestine so that they will be included in the (Islamic) reforms
  • Being open to the regional and international arenas, and conducting a dialogue with them on the basic issue of the rights of the Palestinian people and the honouring of its wishes

An interim assessment of Hamas points to initial achievements in this plan of action. They are as follows:

Hamas controls the Palestinian Authority parliament and has set up a stable Islamic government (sworn in on March 29, 2006) that also includes a Christian minister. At the same time, Hamas has not succeeded in including any other coalition partners. In the first meeting of parliament, Hamas was able to mobilise the required 88 members of parliament, and canceled a set of decisions taken by the outgoing parliament in its final session. These included decisions that were supposed to enhance the powers of Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, the head of the PA, vis-à-vis the parliament.

Hamas is working carefully to gradually accustom the public to the change in the nature of the government. The new Hamas chairman of the parliament, Abd al-Aziz Dweik, claimed in an interview with the foreign media that "no one in the Hamas movement has any intention to implement Sharia by force...but rather by persuasion and preaching in a good spirit."

The greatest Hamas political achievement was the invitation to its leadership for talks in Moscow at the beginning of March. The Hamas delegation, led by Khaled Mashal, met with the Russian foreign minister and senior ministry staff. For Hamas, the visit was an important breakthrough as it seeks to persuade the international community to recognise the legitimacy of the Hamas government.

The Hamas delegation also visited Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Hamas received generous promises of assistance to the new Islamic government in light of the reduction and stoppage of aid from Western countries. Al-Hayat reported on February 28, 2006, that Teheran promised Hamas aid totalling $250 million as compensation for the Western boycott.

In the Arab arena, the Arab Summit that convened in Sudan at the end of March committed itself to assist the Hamas government politically and economically.

Implications for the Future

Hamas has reaped the fruits of the "Green Revolution" that it led in recent years to win many local authority elections, obtain a stable majority in the Palestinian parliament, and take decisive control of executive authority. Hamas’ tactical agreement to play by the democratic rules was a Trojan horse that enabled the movement to participate in the elections as a legitimate political force. It exploited the fragmentation of Fatah and the weakness of the Palestinian Authority to achieve political dominance as a first stage toward establishing Islamic rule that will implement Sharia law and lead, in fact, to the eradication of democracy.

Hamas views its political mission from a broad Islamic perspective as the vanguard of the worldwide Islamic revolution led by its parent-movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’ rise to power has inspired Islamic movements all over the world and motivated them to emulate Hamas’ approach (tactical participation in a democratic process) in order to win similar successes in their own countries.

Hamas’ attempt to create an impression of political pragmatism is primarily aimed at helping it gain international legitimacy for Islamic government according to Muslim Brotherhood doctrine. Hamas has no intention of reaching a settlement with Israel based on mutual recognition; instead it seeks to mobilise the international community to support Palestinian positions based on the principle of "historical justice" including the "restoration" of Palestinian rights, which mainly means the absorption of millions of Palestinian refugees into the State of Israel, which will then inevitably cease to be a Jewish state. In Hamas’ view, this is not the time for concessions. An unconditional Israeli withdrawal to the ‘67 borders as Hamas demands is seen as serving the Palestinian interest and putting Israel in a position of strategic inferiority.

The Palestinian Authority under Hamas rule is becoming a safe haven for Islamic terror organisations, first and foremost al-Qaeda. Hamas’ declared policy of granting immunity to all Palestinian and Islamic terror organisations actually constitutes an open invitation to terrorists of all stripes to acquire a refuge and convenient base for activity. Hamas’ temporary restraint is only a truce that helps it improve its equipment and deployment for the next round of military confrontation. Meanwhile, Hamas is giving other Palestinian terror organisations a free hand to perpetrate attacks against Israel.

Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi, a former IDF intelligence officer, is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. © Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.