The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has just celebrated its 24th anniversary in an unusually turbulent political climate in Palestine and the Arab world. Changes in the international arena include the rise of new powers accompanied by the decline of others; and Western Europe is mired in a financial and economic crisis.
Hamas has survived over 24 years despite the period being fraught with its own crises and with a vitality which summarises the essence and complexities of the conflict in which the Palestinians continue to face the expansion of the Zionist state and its colonisation of the land of Palestine.
Coincidentally, the anniversary of the foundation of Hamas is close to the date on which rival faction Fatah commemorates its own founding action, when it carried out its first guerrilla operation against the Israelis in 1965. That could be said to be the beginning of the modern Palestinian revolution.
Although Hamas is said to have been founded on 15 December 1987 in the Gaza Strip, it has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood which came into being in the 1940s. The Brotherhood's branches in Gaza and the West Bank had close links with the main bodies in Egypt and Jordan respectively, due to the political links with those countries from 1948 to 1967. The Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine came into being in the wake of the First Intifada of late 1987.
The rise of Hamas introduced Islamic political work in Palestine operating at a grass-roots level alongside other bodies, both nationalist and leftist. It soon became a major influence in Palestinian politics across the community at a time when the traditional powers were in decline, particularly some of nationalist and leftist influence, including factions within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). In-fighting between some PLO member groups meant that they were unable to deliver on their promises to the people of Palestine. This created a vacuum into which Hamas was able to step, adopting a strategy of guerrilla, political and intellectual action to drive forward the Palestinian national programme.
So where is Hamas now, after two decades of profound change and bitter experience?
It has not been plain-sailing for the movement. Almost since its foundation, Israel and its supporters have conducted campaigns against Hamas, accusing it of propagating a deviant version of political Islam and even of being the "Taliban" of Palestine. It has lost a lot of leaders to the cause, including founding members such as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Salah Shehadeh and Ibrahim Makadmeh; all were killed for their opposition to Israel's illegal occupation and colonisation of Palestine.
In the early stages of its development, Hamas suffered from a lack of political experience in Palestinian, Arab, regional and international affairs. This was manifested in the absence of a coherent political agenda beyond resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Nevertheless, Hamas has been able to make progress in many fields – governance, military, social and political – to cement its place in the minds of the people of Palestine. It was so effective that in 2006 it was able to score a spectacular victory in the Palestinian elections. Once in government, the movement had to strike the balance between active resistance and rule, requiring a high degree of political maturity. This hasn't been easy, especially when the enemy at the gates has the full political, economic and military backing of the United States and Europe.
It is within this context that Hamas has shown its ability to get the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip to live with the isolation and siege imposed on them since the 2006 elections. In addition, Hamas has managed to gain a great deal on the ground because of its policies, despite criticism about its administration which cast doubt on its ability to mix power and resistance.
Hamas seeks to play a central role in the Palestinian leadership within a coalition framework after national reconciliation. It is faced with the predicament of obtaining official recognition from the actors on the international scene, especially the United States and the European Union, which have boycotted the results of the 2006 elections and worked to isolate the first unity government of Palestine. Nevertheless, there have been some changes on the ground which have led several European and even US parties to open a dialogue with Hamas; in Russia, the Kremlin has opened its doors to Hamas through formal invitations to Moscow for the movement's political officials which carry a lot of weight.
Meanwhile, efforts to bring about Palestinian reconciliation and dialogue between the various factions are ongoing. Hamas's status requires it to accelerate the reconciliation process, especially with Fatah, not least because the Islamic movement's contribution to the national authority framework representing all Palestinians (including those in the diaspora), namely the PLO, is of huge importance.
PLO membership is imperative so that Hamas can take its community role to the highest level of responsibility and work alongside the rest of the Palestinian Authority to formulate a consensual coalition programme. This is a matter of concern for all, and discussion is expected in the upcoming Cairo meetings on this matter, hopefully with a positive outcome. It is no secret that the PLO dossier is one of the five-core principles of reconciliation signed in Cairo in May 2011.
With the political rise of Islamic movements and their success in elections in the "Arab Spring" countries, advice from Arab and Western groups is for Hamas to reconstitute a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. This will help to benefit from the growing international recognition of the Brotherhood's political parties in the Arab world. It may also help to cast aside US and European doubts about the nature of the movement in Palestine, which have created difficulties in formal recognition and acceptance. In any case, Hamas has clarified to the international community its broad political outlines repeatedly. Moreover, regardless of whether the West and Israel show understanding or not, it does not negate a fortiori that the Palestinian factions must share the responsibility for bringing an end to national division through bringing about reconciliation, and thus be in a stronger position to confront the challenges of the Israeli occupation.
The author is a Palestinian writer based in Damascus. He is a member of the Arab Writers Union. This article was first published in Arabic in Al Watan newspaper, Qatar, 21/12/11
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.