While the group was removed this week from the European Union’s “terrorist” list, there has always been an inherent contradiction at the heart of Hamas, Palestine’s Islamic Resistance Movement. It’s the one between its project of armed resistance against Israel on one hand and its desire to achieve government on the other. While the history of national liberation movements in the global south shows these two goals are not mutually exclusive, it also shows that the two can conflict in important ways.
The contradiction has been at its most profound since 2005, when the movement’s political leadership, with the sceptical acceptance of the armed wing, made the decision to embrace fully the arena of the Palestinian Authority’s electoral politics.
Prior to this, Hamas-linked slates had run in local and student elections, but the landslide election victory of 2006 meant that the movement was thrust immediately into a position of power that came as a surprise to most; even, perhaps, to a man in Hamas itself. In a similar fashion to Hezbollah in Lebanon (though the comparison is flawed in some important ways), Hamas may not even have intended to win the election outright. It may well have preferred to make a strong electoral showing that would have given it an oppositional voice from within the halls of the PA’s power. This would have given the movement a certain amount of veto power, while not being under the burden of government (in the PA’s non-state, still occupied by Israel). This would have allowed it to focus on its resistance project.
Nonetheless, once the scale of the Hamas electoral victory became clear, there was no going back and it embraced government. After a short-lived attempt to form a “national unity” government in 2006 was rejected by Fatah (bitter at having being punished at the ballot box for years of failed “negotiations” with Israel), Hamas formed a government led by its own ministers, along with a few independents (including one Christian). Later negotiations led to a short-lived “unity” government whose terms were negotiated in Saudi Arabia.
The inherent contradictions of a resistance movement standing in elections for a body like the Palestinian Authority soon became stark. The Palestinian Authority is not a government like any other, despite current misguided attempts in Europe to recognise it as the “state of Palestine”. There is no Palestinian state of any substance: the entirety of historical Palestine between the river and the sea is ultimately ruled and dominated by Israel. PA forces have no choice but to obey Israeli orders. Indeed, that is their entire reason for being.
The PA was formed as a result of 1993’s Oslo accords, signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The intention behind this agreement was summed up well by the late Palestinian intellectual icon Edward Said, who, almost immediately, described it as a “Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles”. Oslo was a victory for Israel: its goal, under US auspices, was to liquidate the PLO as a resistance project. Today, the PLO does not exist in any substantive manner.
Since its inception, the PA’s primarily rationale was to enforce Israel’s occupation as a proxy force. This reduces, or even eliminates, much of the financial burden on Israel for the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The PA’s budget for all its many different armed militias and secret police services has long outstripped any social spending on the general Palestinian population. The existence of the PA also gives Israel a convenient buffer between it and the rage of the Palestinian masses against Israeli oppression and injustice. It is a safety valve for the occupation.
So, when Hamas looked poised to take over the PA’s security apparatuses after the election, the PA’s US, Israeli and European backers were having none of it. They resolved immediately to overthrow the results of one of the Middle East’s most democratic elections results ever seen.
Despite trying, for several years before his death in 2004, to undermine PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s presidency of the PA by pressuring him to hand over powers to an unelected prime minister (Mahmoud Abbas: who else), Western powers soon had a mysterious change of mind over the distribution of power in the PA after the elections. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was duly elected at the head of Hamas’s “Change and Reform” list, and thus took power as prime minister. All of a sudden, all the talk was of how important it was for the PA presidency (Abbas) to maintain control of certain key features of the levers of power; crucially, the security apparatuses. Thus were extra powers shifted to the presidency. This exposed the whole episode in the George W. Bush era of twisting Arafat’s arm to appoint a prime minister as the cynical sham that it was, as clear as it was even at the time. Arafat was deemed not compliant enough to Israeli diktats; even more so Hamas.
The full story is recounted in detail elsewhere, but it suffices for our purposes to note that, encouraged by its Western backers, Fatah forces in Gaza led by brutal warlord Mohammed Dahlan, essentially initiated a civil war on the streets of Gaza, claiming many civilian lives in the crossfire. Egged on by the Americans and their various regional puppets and allies, Dahlan plotted a coup to overthrow the elected government. However, Hamas saw the coup coming and acted quickly to expel Dahlan’s forces from the Gaza Strip. The coup was killed in its crib. Mahmoud Abbas replied by launching a coup in the West Bank, where Hamas was weaker, ejecting and arresting Hamas figures. Two parallel PA governments were run in Gaza and Ramallah, essentially until “reconciliation” in the spring of this year.
April’s deal between Fatah and Hamas essentially means that Hamas has handed back the reins of power to the unelected “president”, Mahmoud Abbas. An Abbas loyalist is now prime minister of both the West Bank and Gaza.
Unlike Fatah, and the defunct PLO, Hamas never agreed to put down the weapons of resistance, as this summer proved. Hamas waged a just and defensive war of liberation, of liberation, repelling Israeli aggression from the Strip, utilising increasingly sophisticated guerrilla warfare methods and technology.
Now, though, the contradictions between the two projects are showing yet again, as rumours swirl about Hamas reconciliation with one of the movement’s most deadly enemies: Mohammed Dahlan himself.
In the next part of this article, I will examine the rumoured detente with Dahlan in more detail.
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.