Björn Brenner has contributed invaluable research through his book “Gaza under Hamas: from Islamist democracy to Islamist governance” (2017). Apart from establishing the centrality of Hamas rule to a political solution for Palestine, the book also expounds upon the spectrum of misconceptions, strengths and flaws associated with the movement. This approach provides a detailed assessment of Hamas in relation to Gaza and its unique circumstances, while dispelling mainstream manipulation, to which, as Brenner points out, academia has also contributed.
The book’s focus revolves around three main themes: the political rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas’ reaction to Salafist groups and the process of establishing order and a judicial system in Gaza. Drawing upon interviews conducted between 2009 and 2012 with Hamas officials, Palestinians in Gaza, as well as including observations and media reports, Brenner analyses a complex reality from a local perspective, shedding light upon processes and contradictions which are easily overlooked. Most importantly, the book dispels the prevailing polar opposite references to Hamas, bringing about nuanced and informative insight.
Brenner notes that Hamas provides the first example of attempting to amalgamate Islam and democracy as a means of governance. Two academic trends are defined by the author: the compatibility between Islam and liberal democracy which, Brenner states, is dependent upon the Palestinian experience; and Hamas’ political objectives and core values, which reflect the policy shift from armed resistance to domestic governance.
By focusing upon the local perspective, the international restrictions with regard to diplomacy, as well as Fatah’s obstruction, Brenner outlined the challenges faced by Hamas in government, notably the lack of a transition period from resistance movement to government, the dissent and criticism from Palestinians in Gaza who opposed the movement’s decision to contest the elections and which led to the formation of Salafist groups, as well as the task of re-establishing social order through law.
These three issues are prevalent in the book and at times overlapping. While the book determines that electoral participation only happened after the establishment of Hamas’ political potential, this was not enough to garner complete consensus, mostly due to the differences between a government and a resistance movement. Balancing diplomacy and resistance became a delicate affair, with the potential to induce divergences due to international and local demands.
Primarily, Hamas had to prove its integrity away from Fatah which is described as “synonymous with corruption, godlessness and collaboration with the enemy.” International recognition was dependent upon clauses which ran contrary to Hamas’s principles such as recognition of Israel; although in later years contradictory statements would be issued as Hamas delved further into diplomacy. Security was also another issue upon which Hamas would accept no compromise, stating that the Al-Qassam Brigades should be understood within the context of Israel’s military occupation.
On other matters such as education, health care and international affairs, the author notes that Hamas retained some form of cooperation with Fatah, yet dismisses both factions’ claims of wanting political unity. Quoting Abed Sattar Qasem:
Hamas and Fatah only go to the negotiation table because that is what the Palestinian people want. No one wants to be blamed for creating disunity.
Gaza’s unique circumstances also contributed to Hamas’ political platform which sought to emphasise democratic principles and Islamic values. Brenner writes: “The Palestinian Islamist viewpoint of Hamas was that the concept of democracy was wholly compatible with, and could even exist within, the larger and more comprehensive framework of political Islam.” Yet, the decision to participate in elections triggered discord and the emergence of splinter groups reflecting political discontent and prompting Hamas to embark upon methods of surveillance and deradicalisation.
Brenner notes that these Salafist groups did not categorically denounce Hamas and political aims differed from other Salafist groups seeking to establish an Islamic state. However, the tactic of employing similar methods of resistance and social care created problems for Hamas with regard to the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with the international community.
Obstacles in combating radicalisation
The book also explains how Hamas identified obstacles in combating radicalisation, notably the absence of law, inefficient judiciary and the prevalence of informal judicial systems, seeking to preserve the prevalent framework in Gaza which emphasised collective responsibility while effecting changes to establish rule of law. Brenner notes: “In this kind of society, the concepts of justice and communal harmony draw close together and the differences between them blur, simply because formal justice becomes less important.”
To counter the absence of law, Hamas availed itself of arbitration, mediation and the interaction of formal and informal judicial systems. The author states: “In Hamas’s Gaza, justice for the individual was subordinated to peace within the collective.” From this concept, one understands Hamas’ approach towards radicalisation as encompassing educational rehabilitation in order to assimilate individuals or splinter groups to Hamas’ ideology. The approach reflected awareness of internal discord, thus making confrontation an initial step in the process in order to restrict violent radicalisation.
Adaptable to circumstances
Brenner concludes that Hamas was “subjected to extreme political pressure from both international and domestic forces,” which required Hamas to be adaptable in managing circumstances while reflecting the democratic manner in which they were elected. Despite the fact, according to the author’s conclusion, that Hamas failed to deliver concretely on both Islam and democracy, there are several observations which render Hamas adaptable to circumstances, contrary to the prevailing views.
On one hand, the author notes that Hamas prioritised the consolidation of power over electoral promises, while the initial trend towards Islamic democracy gradually shifted to authoritarian due to the political circumstances. Yet, in its confrontation with radicalism, Hamas exhibited a democratic attitude which allowed for a comprehensive approach towards rehabilitation, despite the absence of a liberal democratic system in Gaza. Brenner’s conclusion is a far cry from the clichéd statements about Hamas – while pointing out inconsistencies, the author notes that “the Palestinian Islamists studied here are close to becoming good procedural democrats” due to their acceptance of considering democratic frameworks.