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Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza

June 15, 2014 at 2:25 pm

  • Book Author(s): Sara Roy
  • Published Date: 2013-11-10 00:00:00
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Hardback: 336 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691159676

Meticulously researched, Hamas and Civil Society: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector (Princeton University Press, 2011) is a significant study of Hamas and Gaza’s social institutions. The evolution of Hamas brought about radical change in Gaza’s society – bolstered and hindered by Israel’s illegal occupation. Established in 1987, Hamas was largely regarded as a terrorist organisation during Bill Clinton’s presidency – a perception which heightened in post September 11 rhetoric when President George W Bush included the organisation on the US terror list. Contrary to the propagated conventional perception, Sara Roy’s study portrays Hamas as a legitimate organisation operating within several, separate structures.

Focusing on Hamas from the viewpoint of society, Roy elicits the social, political, military and economic circles of Hamas. By constructing its legitimacy using the social sphere as its base, Hamas created a cultural framework which promoted the involvement of the recipient community. The provision of free social services was instrumental in providing Hamas with popular support. However, contrary to prevalent assumptions, Hamas’ recognition and subsequent electoral victory as a political party was not based on the Islamisation of Gaza but rather by applying an understanding of Palestinian Islamism ‘from within its own framework’. As a rival to PLO and Fatah, Hamas provided resistance to the Israeli occupation and was an expression of a dominant ideology in the Middle East. Hence, resistance was amalgamated with the prospects of social change.

Roy explains how Hamas evolved from an organisation concerned with militancy during the First Intifada, when Sheikh Ahmed Yassin exhorted the occupier’s defeat through nationalism. Sheikh Yassin’s argument of fighting for self-determination evoked an Israeli campaign of targeted assassinations, deportation, arrests and torture against Hamas leaders. By 1989, Hamas radicalised its strategy to incorporate the social sphere and became renowned for its distribution of social services and also for its transparency. During the Oslo period, the PLO’s acceptance of ‘Israel’s right to exist’ elicited an opposite reaction from Hamas, who drew attention to the contradictions between the Oslo Accord and UN Resolution 242 which called for territorial inviolability, political independence and demilitarisation.

With Palestinian political parties on opposite ends of the spectrum, Hamas embraced armed resistance and promoted suicide bombing in 1994 following the massacre of 29 Palestinians by a Jewish settler. The militarisation of Hamas continued until the Second Intifada and the seizure of Gaza, which was particularly marked by Israeli retaliation and further targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, among them Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Sheikh Salah Shehada and Ismail Abu Shanab.

The ensuing international political and economic boycott against the Hamas government in the aftermath of its electoral victory rendered Palestinians dependent on international aid, fuelling further isolation. Hamas proved themselves willing to work with other factions, inviting Abbas to form a coalition. However, Abbas succumbed to US pressure within a matter of weeks, demonstrating a lack of political independence. Fatah, together with the CIA, planned an attempted coup on Hamas which resulted in further violence amongst Palestinians. Quoting a US envoy, Roy demonstrates that the US was relishing the violence. “I like the violence, because it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”

Skilfully portraying the demonization of Hamas, Roy contrasts the infrastructure of the organisation with global misrepresentation. The US and Israel projected an image of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, which the global media was willing to promulgate. Hamas’ social institutions were seen as integral to the promotion of armed resistance and charities supporting Hamas were blacklisted, on the presumption that these supported and financed terrorist activities.

However, Roy’s research indicates a very different scenario. Hamas represented an alternative to colonial rule. Basing its foundations upon Islamic conceptions of civil society and civil life, Hamas sought to alleviate colonial oppression of Palestinians by providing the foundations for grassroots movements to participate in the construction of civil society, which had been ‘vandalised’ by decades of repression. Hamas’ social institutions have had a long tradition in the history of Gaza, which was further enhanced by society’s unwillingness to conform to an Islamist vision of Palestine. With Hamas prioritising in favour of social structure and community development, the popular alienation from political Islam increased, leading Hamas to emphasise social activism and building a support base from which their electoral success would be guaranteed.

Focusing on education, health and economics, Hamas was supported by two distinct frameworks – the ideological, which attracted a lesser percentage of the population, and the more popular community activism, which garnered widespread support. Hamas emerged as a viable option to the PNA and the militants, equated with corruption and violence respectively. The philosophy behind such popularity was the application of ‘Islamic ethics to create moral relevance’. However, the financing of Hamas’ social institutions was fraught with restrictions. In 2008, the US Muslim charity Holy Land Foundation was convicted of ‘terrorism financing’, on account of sending $124 million in humanitarian aid to schools and charities run by Hamas in Gaza.

In reality, Hamas’ humanitarian work encompasses a wide range of aid, from immediate relief in the form of charity to service institutions which promote welfare, education and health. The distinction between the traditional and developmental forms of humanitarian aid may be viewed as non-activist versus activist, in which the latter is contributing towards civic empowerment through participation. The author claims Hamas has sought funding from a variety of organisations, including Islamic foundations, USAID and the EU and operates with legal transparency, as established in the law concerning ‘Charitable Societies and Civic Associations’. Roy also asserts that Hamas’ Islamist social institutions (ISIs) work independently from the political structure of Hamas, thus creating a distinction between community development to enhance the wellbeing of Palestinians and the ramifications of politics.

Islamist social institutions have remained localised, focusing on the needs of the community rather than amalgamating themselves with religious organisations. Applying Islamic law to social needs has induced cooperation and civic construction, enabling the institutions to derive their legitimacy from popular support. This concept was a practical realisation, given that a comprehensive system with regard to social life was critical for Hamas’ development and political legitimacy. Through the work of ISIs, Hamas’ means of resistance was transformed from militancy to intellectual empowerment – fighting ‘new colonization of ideas and values’ and ‘defeating the occupier became a matter of cultural preservation, building a moral consensus and Islamic value system, as well as political and military power.’

Thus, whilst the focus on civic life aided Hamas’ political legitimacy, the book asserts no evidence was found to support Israeli and Western allegations of Islamic activism equated to terrorism. The separation of Hamas’ military, social and political structures have been crucial in preserving Palestinians’ empowerment within society. Roy also deems the occupation as having provided the greatest obstacle with regard to Hamas’ failures in mobilising popular support for armed resistance and the improvement of social services. The damage caused by the occupation to infrastructure cannot be adequately addressed due to the illegal blockade on Gaza. The results achieved in the social sector were not translated into political mobilisation in favour of armed resistance. Further damage to civic life materialised with the closing down of charities. Following Arafat’s death, the power vacuum in Palestinian leadership led Hamas to resume attacks and suicide bombings, as Israel increased its attacks on Palestinian civilians and focused on a military triumph as opposed to a political settlement. The Oslo Accords were detrimental to Palestinians – Israel was conceded impunity for its actions whilst still retaining control over every aspect of Palestinian life.

Sara Roy’s detailed study is ingrained within history, culture and the ubiquitous illegality of the Israeli occupation. An absence of territorial compromise has created a culture of resistance with a leadership that attained its legitimacy as a political organisation through its attention to Gaza’s social and cultural empowerment. The constant evolution of Hamas and civil society according to political circumstances has been narrated in scrupulous detail, comprehensively. By not resorting to the prejudice of external observers involved in promoting an imperialist agenda, Roy empowers Palestinians in their role of protagonists in her treatise, participants in a framework which continues to strengthen a constantly evolving identity.