Friday, February 15, 2013

The Strategy of Hamas

The Strategy of Hamas

By Michael Kravshik

Hamas is not a serious negotiating partner in the pursuit of a two-state solution, regardless of how many might think so. In both word and deed Hamas has remained impressively consistent on the denial of a two-state solution, something either ignored or forgotten by those who disagree. A cursory glance at the evidence is really all that's needed to come to this conclusion. However, Hamas has always gone to great lengths to ensure that a different answer is just barely conceivable enough for others to retain hope. Such a feat is only possible by mastering a strategy of open deception, Hamas' most impressive accomplishment. Since its inception, the organization has never abandoned its use of 'flexible rigidity', a strategy specifically designed to secure its existence and its relevance while impeding any chance for peace.

In word, their strategy remains rigid, starting with the name "Hamas." Few realize Hamas is actually an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah, which in Arabic means 'Islamic Resistance Movement.' Not a particularly surprising name, but one that candidly illustrates a set of priorities that does not include negotiation. Fatah (its many faults aside) is at least an acronym that is illustrative of what one would expect to see as the priorities of a Palestinian political organization, translating to 'Palestinian National Liberation Movement.'

Granted, for years Fatah was quite intent on avoiding negotiations and destroying the State of Israel, but in the 1980s changed its tune quite a bit. Having been relegated to Tunisia after being pushed out of the Palestinian territories, then Jordan, then Lebanon; Fatah made a notable shift towards a political, rather than military solution. Fatah's shift may be nothing but talk, but the very mention of peace was enough to catapult a group that had no such feelings of complacency to popularity; that group was Hamas. The history is all too clear on this matter. It was Fatah's willingness to compromise on its ultimate objective -- destroying Israel and creating Palestine on its ashes -- that provided the opportunity for Hamas to become a mainstream movement. Hamas' founding document, its charter, spells out quite explicitly their reaction to Fatah's betrayal of the cause, as article 11 plainly states, "The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [endowment] to all Muslim generations until the day of resurrection. It is not right to give up it or any part of it. Neither a single Arab state nor all the Arab states, neither a king nor a president, not all the kings or presidents, not any organization or all of them -- be they Palestinian or Arab -- have such authority."

For those who consider that a tad ambiguous (aka, the delusional), just skip ahead to article 13,"[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem all contradict the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement." But the writers of the charter must have foreseen the international community's willingness to overlook these extraordinarily straightforward proclamations. So, in addition to frequently repeating them, the charter's authors included, "There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad" and must have figured this would be enough to convince.

One would imagine that the international community's deaf ears should be just as frustrating for Hamas as it is for its enemies. To say what you mean and mean what you say repetitively and in such a blatant manner, yet still not be taken at your word, must really get under their skin. The opposite is true however. This wilful blindness does wonders for their cause. While those who disagree with such rhetoric remain doubtful of its veracity, those who celebrate it are reassured by its message. Inevitably some argue that the 1988 charter is old and outdated, that it no longer represents the feelings of the organization. This past December, Hamas' leader Khaled Meshaal's candid speech should have put these feelings to bed by uttering the following, "Palestine is our land and nation from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, from north to south, and we cannot cede an inch or any part of it" and "Statehood will be the fruit of resistance, not negotiations." Sound familiar? Yet for some reason, many still choose to believe that all of this is just rhetoric, meant to fire up the Palestinian population or remain popular with the masses. The old mantra 'actions speak louder than words' is commonly cited. So the question is, do Hamas' deeds tell the same story?

In its 25 years of existence, Hamas has never veered from their ultimate objective, the destruction of the Jewish State. People often contrast Hamas' actions with those of 'more hardline organizations' like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and use this 'relative moderation' as proof of Hamas' willingness to come to the table. But this is a simplistic view, and one that is sorely mistaken. That people actually believe this, is the strongest evidence of the effectiveness of Hamas' strategy of flexible rigidity. Unsurprisingly, it is this very concept that led to the birth of the organization itself.

In 1973, an Islamist named Ahmad Yassin, then the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, founded the 'Islamic Center' (al-Mujamma' al-Islami) in Gaza. A pious and patient man, Yassin believed that open confrontation with Israel was futile. To defeat Israel, Palestinian society must be slowly Islamized from the bottom up to increase the power of the Islamist movement. Eventually this would give the Palestinians the ability (both worldly and spiritual) to throw off their Israeli rulers. However, in 1987 the first Intifada (uprising) began and the Islamic Center was put in a dilemma. By shifting their strategy to open confrontation, they would risk their current operations and expose them to Israeli reprisals. However, if they did not take part in the uprising, they risked losing relevancy, giving the upper hand to other Islamist movements, and disappointing their younger, more confrontational members. Yassin's decision was a brilliant compromise, the creation of a new autonomous organization, Hamas. In this way, Hamas could take part in the uprising, but at the same time the Islamic Center could be protected from Israeli retribution. By the end of the Intifada, Hamas had been so successful that it engulfed its mother organization and became the dominant Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories.

Yassin's strategic direction, influenced heavily by the Muslim Brotherhood from which he emerged, is evident in the charter and in the actions of Hamas. Article 15 of the charter reads, "We must instil in the minds of the generations of Muslims that the Palestinian cause is a religious one and should be dealt with on this basis." To Hamas, this is a contest of faith, one that requires patience and will meet setbacks, but one that will ultimately prove Islam's dominance. And indeed the Hamas charter isn't all that different from that of its secular counterpart, the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Its substantial differences are only in its religious overtones. Only through its commitment to religion does Hamas believe it can win, as article 5 reads, "Allah is its goal, the Prophet is its model, and the Qur'an is its constitution." There can be no compromise for Islam's ultimate victory.

The 'flexible rigidity' strategy that birthed Hamas has continued to be its most important guiding principle. This strategy means that the organization can show pragmatic flexibility, including taking part in democratic elections, or making temporary truces with Israel. At the same time, Hamas maintains its legitimacy, both as a resistance and as an Islamic organization, by maintaining rigidity on the ultimate goal: never accepting a two-state solution or a permanent peace.

And indeed Hamas has utilized this strategy with cunning, purposefully undermining every reasonable chance at peace. Yes, they conduct terrorism to kill Israelis, but in so many cases with more intelligent purpose than merely increasing the number of body bags. In the world of terrorism studies, this tactic is known as "spoiling." In the mid-1990s, suicide terrorism was used first to undermine the Oslo accords, then to shift Israeli public opinion towards electing right-wing governments. In 2002 during the second Intifada, the Beirut Summit was intended to reduce tensions, but was spoiled by the Passover suicide bombing, the deadliest in Israeli history. It has even been suggested that Hamas entered democratic politics in the mid-2000s to interfere with Arafat's ability to make peace, a brilliant move if the suggestion is accurate.

Hamas has proven itself an extremely capable resistance organization in many ways that are not covered in this discussion. But its most spectacular achievement has been convincing a great many people, people who are fully aware of its proclamations and its actions, that they are in fact a serious negotiating partner in the pursuit of a two-state solution. The irony here is that their very existence is predicated on the concept of resisting such a solution. It is not right to give up Palestine (from the river to the sea) or any part of it; if they did, they wouldn't be the Islamic Resistance Movement, they wouldn't be Hamas.

Michael Kravshik is a Chartered Accountant who is obtaining his masters in conflict analysis focusing on the Middle East. Visit his blog at