On its 26th anniversary: What next for Hamas?

The movement has been functioning within the grey areas of politics.

Hamas' greatest worry is its popularity on the Palestinian street [Al Jazeera]

If Hamas’ jubilee last year was truly silvery, this year’s 26th anniversary seems to find the movement in a bad shape. A year ago, Hamas was breathing fresh air with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s driver’s seat. The long years of blockade in the Gaza Strip and sour relationship with Mubarak’s government were over. The movement’s gamble of betting on the “will of the people” in the Arab Spring was winning – albeit temporarily. The riskiest part of that gamble was to sever the relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and leave Damascus, and in doing so provoking its historical ally in Tehran and alienating itself from Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Turkey, under the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP Party, stepped in to fill the vacuum created in Hamas’ backers’ list. In the middle of this, and we are still in Hamas’ jubilant year, Israel was worried. Not only was its strategic “treasure” in Cairo, Hosni Mubarak’s regime, deposed, but also an emerging axis seemed to be forming connecting Cairo, Istanbul and Doha and ending up with Hamas in Gaza.

In Ramallah, Hamas’s internal rival, Fatah, under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, were also taken aback by the Islamist movement’s sharp gains. Beyond Egypt, the ascendance of other Brothers to power in Tunisia and Libya confirmed a general victorious trend of Islamist movements in the region – luring some of Hamas’ figures to furnish outlandish statements about the coming victory of Islam and the liberation of Palestine. Hamas’ honeymoon Arab-Spring was, however, shorter than expected.

From Brotherhood to Hamas

None of these dramatic changes were on the mind of the seven leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, led by the late Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, who met on December 9, 26 years ago and decided to transform the Brotherhood into “The Islamic Resistance Movement – Hamas”. Just a day after the outbreak of a widespread uprising, the intifada, the Brothers felt that the time had come for them to ditch their un-confrontational ways toward the Israeli occupation and pursue a more resistant one.

The notion of “resistance” will become, in later years, Hamas’ main marker. At first, Hamas’ claim to be the new bearer of Palestinian resistance was dismissed harshly, if not disparagingly, by other Palestinian factions, especially Fatah, who had led the resistance against Israeli occupation since the early1960s.

Yet, with the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, where the PLO denounced “terrorism” and pledged to adhere to the peace strategy to achieve Palestinian national aspirations, Hamas’ resistance stood out in stark contrast. Over the years, however, the balance sheet of Hamas’ resistance and other strategies is mixed.

The resistance strategy was effective and kept some cards for the Palestinians to use, but the controversial chapter of suicide attacks that Hamas opened in 1994 cost the Palestinians dearly, and enhanced the security paradigm in Israel’s arguments. However, Hamas’ military skills were impressive. The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and keeping him for years away from the sharp eyes of Israeli intelligence and eventually exchanging him in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners was applauded by the Palestinians. In the bigger picture, its military performance during the Israeli wars against Gaza, particularly in 2008 and 2009, were disappointing to many Hamas supporters.

Religious nationalists?

Over the years, Hamas morphed into an organisation that combines two major philosophies: religious/conservative and nationalist/liberationist. The former is the continuation of its Muslim Brotherhood tradition and hard-core teachings with the focus on preaching led by a universal “umma”, and the latter is the resistance to Israeli occupation with its Palestinian nationalist focus.

These two drives would function in harmony, or tension, depending on the situation. Hamas’ social agenda, for example, which was manifested in attempts to impose certain religious codes of conduct in Gaza belongs to its religious/conservative approach. Hamas’ ideology strives to link these two strategies together arguing that building a religious community solidifies society against Israeli attempts to control. Also, maintaining a trans-national dimension means that Palestine is not only a Palestinian issue but an Arab and Muslim one as well. This duality, however, exposed Hamas to criticism by its political rivals at home regarding its national agenda and priorities against its universal outlook and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and their goals.

Oslo and its legacy

Hamas’ position on the Oslo Accords has been a mix of vehement rejection, denial and de facto adoption. Hamas’ rejection stems, unsurprisingly, from the contradictions between the contents of the agreement and the declared canonical principles that Hamas has continued to advocate (such as liberating Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, or the perceived religious impermissibility of compromise over the Islamically-endowed land of Palestine).

Its confusion emanates from the difficult question of what practical action Hamas should/could undertake against Oslo, so that its clear position is reflected faithfully on the ground. Hamas’ de facto adoption reflects not only how it has eventually dealt with the Oslo outcomes, but also how it has grounded major shifts in its strategies on political conditions that were an integral part of the institutionalisation process dictated by Oslo.

Hamas’ participation in the 2006 Palestinian elections represented the culmination of the movement’s mixed and confused approaches and dealings with Oslo. After seizing and controlling power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas leaders and its government ministers started touring abroad using Palestinian passports produced by the Palestinian Authority but effectively subjugated to a higher Israeli sovereignty.

Ironically, the Oslo Agreement could be seen as Hamas’ biggest enemy as well as its biggest ally. Over the past 20 years of Oslo, Hamas has been growing and maturing under the political realities that were created by the agreements – with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority at the heart of these realities. Rejecting Oslo gave Hamas its resistance and in fact its raison d’etre; and dealing with Oslo realities gave Hamas power and government in the Gaza Strip. Hamas has been functioning within the grey triangle of rejection, confusion and adoption of Oslo.

Future worries

In fact, the grey areas of politics that Hamas managed to create were responsible for much of its success. The movement stayed intact without any serious split or defection against all odds, unlike all other Palestinian or even Jewish groups since the British mandate. Despite its defused centres of power, inside and outside Palestine, it continued to have a unified leadership.

Years of blockade of the Gaza Strip in the wake of its bloody takeover in 2007 were also endured through a sophisticated strategy of a strong security grip, managed “tunnel” economy and broadening alliances. Any success, however, won’t pacify Hamas’s greatest worry: its popularity on the Palestinian street.

The years in power have exhausted Hamas and eroded much of its support. Its image as a resistance movement has been tainted by tacit and gentleman agreements with Israel to keep the borders calm. Its regional relationships in the whirling changes of the Arab Spring – losing Egypt to another regime that is harsher on them than Mubarak – are unstable. If there is much for Hamas to celebrate on its 26th anniversary, there is also more to worry about.

Khaled Hroub is Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Arab Media Studies at Northwestern University/Qatar, and a senior research fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies of the University of Cambridge. He is also the author of Hamas: A Beginners Guide (2006/2010), Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (2000), and editor of Political Islam: Context versus Ideology (2011) and Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East (2012). In Arabic he published Fragility of Ideology and Might of Politics (2010) and In Praise of Revolution (2012).