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Gaza under Hamas: From Islamic Democracy to Islamist Governance

One of this year winner of the Palestine Book Awards, Bjorn Brenner talks about his book 'Gaza Under Hamas'

November 26, 2017 at 11:01 am

  • Book Author(s): Björn Brenner
  • Published Date: December 2016
  • Publisher: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd
  • Hardback: 256 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1784537777

It is inevitable that attempts to establish democracy in the Muslim world will be judged according to Western standards. That this is also applied to the democratically-elected government of Hamas in the Gaza Strip is regrettable, given that it has had to operate — or try to operate — not only under a brutal military occupation but also an international blockade almost since inception. It is hard to grasp this simple fact from the book under review, at least until page 117, because that is when the author mentions the O-word for the first time. Indeed, aside from a mention in the Foreword by Magnus Ranstorp, “Israeli occupation” only makes an appearance half-way through the book.

This is an odd state of affairs. It is almost as if Björn Brenner is afraid of mentioning the unmentionable; that the conditions in which Hamas has been expected to govern have been imposed by the occupying power, Israel and, it must be said (and this does get a mention), the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which has collaborated with the occupation authorities to make the Gaza Strip ungovernable.

In his own first paragraph in the Preface and Acknowledgements, the author claims that “Hamas’s behaviour towards Israel has been one of rejection and violence”; this is an astonishing statement made with little or no context about the occupation and colonisation of Palestine, and one about which Brenner states baldly, “I do not seek to challenge that.” Why?

I have another beef about books such as this, in that the underlying assumption is that liberal democracy is the be-all-and-end-all of governance; something to be aimed for and achieved above all else. Western hegemony in the Middle East and elsewhere means that many people in the region have internalised this mantra, in part, perhaps, in reaction to the despotic regimes under which they live. Ironically, of course, such regimes are more often than not propped up and backed by the self-same Western governments which demonise “Islamists” and their attempts at governance, no matter how democratic they are in practice. Groups like Hamas, therefore, are in a lose-lose situation; damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

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To be fair to Brenner, he has set out to try to be reasonable in judging the government of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement in Gaza; he certainly doesn’t try to whitewash its shortcomings and faults, which is to be commended, and there are many. This should not be a surprise to anyone; if the government in Westminster, for example, still hasn’t got it “right” despite living in peace with its neighbours for 70+ years, what can be expected of a government under siege and occupation? Some empathy due to the context of the occupation and sabotage attempts by Fatah would have been welcome, but those which are mentioned by the author mean that objective readers should be able to judge for themselves.

It is of the essence of democracy to accept election results, especially when they are adjudged by impartial observers to be “free and fair”, as the 2006 Palestinian election won by Hamas certainly was. Nevertheless, Brenner points out that Hamas would need “to deal with Fatah according to the rules and principles of a democracy” and “respect the civil and political rights of all political figures” even though, a few lines later he mentions that “Fatah, with the support of much of the international community, refused to recognise that it had been defeated” by the Islamic movement in the elections. (p30)

This illustrates a fundamental weakness of this book, as the premise is both unreasonable and thus inevitably inaccurate in the conclusions it is likely to draw. I would be interested to see a scholar of Brenner’s undoubted calibre taking a look at the other side of the democratic coin in Palestine; at why Fatah and the Palestinian Authority that it controls rejected the democratic will of the Palestinian people. And why the PA under Mahmoud Abbas continues to reject any reform of the PLO and Palestinian National Council so that they are representative of all Palestinians, including those in the refugee camps in neighbouring countries as well as the wider diaspora.

Nevertheless, it is interesting on another level that someone like Brenner had what appears to be almost a free run in Gaza, and was able to speak to whoever he wanted in order to gather his research. If Hamas is even half as demonic as its critics in Israel and beyond would have us believe, then surely he would have been stopped from meeting those in opposition to its government. That it did not happen should be acknowledged as evidence of the movement’s claim that it has nothing to hide and it is not a secretive organisation.

The lack of a credible opposition — in this case Fatah — should also be seen on two levels. First, that an element within Fatah sought to overthrow the newly-elected Hamas government in 2007 (the attempted coup was apparently funded by the US and Israel), while the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in Ramallah (Western backed all the way) rounded up and detained members of the Palestinian legislature allied to Hamas. It is no surprise, therefore, that Hamas in Gaza did what it felt it had to do in order to protect the democratic will of the people by expelling Fatah from the territory.

PLO delegation - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

PLO delegation – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Second, democracy in the Middle East is still in its nascent form, and strong opposition groups are rare, even when democratic elections have been held. There seems to be a lack of understanding across the region that a democracy needs a strong and effective opposition in order to keep the elected government in check. Winner-takes-all seems to be the general modus operandi, with the result that little really changes when elections are held; autocratic governments are still the end result. As British comedian and writer Alexei Sayle once said, “Democracy is great; you get to march up and down with banners and elect a new dictator every five years.” Except that in Arab states, those who “march up and down with banners” tend to face the might of the security forces; the murderous response of the coup authorities in Egypt after they had ousted the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi is a case in point. The current government in Cairo, remember, has been backed all the way by Western democracies desperate to ensure that Islamists do not get a chance to show their mettle in government over any reasonable length of time. Such support is an extension, if you like, of the West’s treatment of Hamas.

While dispelling some of the myths that surround Hamas — it is a Palestinian resistance movement, for example, and has “no global jihadi ambitions” (p76) — Brenner also makes some rather bizarre statements, one of which is to equate Ottoman, British and Egyptian rule over the Gaza Strip with the Israeli occupation (p117). What is more, he claims that “Many Gazans viewed Hamas as merely the latest in a continuous succession of occupiers which would eventually, just as all if predecessors had, fail in its mission to curb and control them.”

The “Gaza Strip”, of course, is a geopolitical construct of the mid-twentieth century, following the creation of the State of Israel on most of historic Palestine. The majority of “Gazans” today are, in fact, refugees from other parts of their homeland; referring to them as “Gazans” actually serves the purpose of the Israeli occupiers in trying to separate the West Bank and Gaza in people’s minds when, in reality, they are both part of occupied Palestine lived in by Palestinians.

Moreover, the “mission” of Hamas is not to “curb and control” the Palestinians, but to liberate their land from Israel’s brutal military occupation. In making such a statement, Brenner also seems to have overlooked the fact that the movement was elected by the majority of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to form the government of both territories. Hamas did not impose itself upon the Palestinians in Gaza or anywhere else. His claim, therefore, either reveals a lack of understanding of the context of the Hamas government in Gaza, or is deliberately meant to deceive the reader. I really do hope that it is the former.

Brenner makes a general criticism of the Hamas government that the movement has filled key posts with pro-Hamas people. Isn’t this the normal practice of all governments? Why should Hamas be any different to, say, the Trump administration, or Theresa May’s Cabinet, or any other democratically-elected leadership?

On page 195, the author implies that Fatah involvement in government is “moderation” but he points out that “Hamas’s relations with the opposition… could be described as a somewhat more moderate stance than before.” Earlier, he notes Fatah’s “treason and enmity”, something that is ignored by the Western backers of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in their rush to condemn any successful (relatively-speaking) governance by “Islamists” opposed to Israel’s colonial expansionism.

He goes on to say that “not all Islamists are the same” and that “Hamas can neither be equated with extreme movements like Al Qaeda or Daesh nor with very moderate groups like the Nahda party in Tunisia.” (p198) This leads Brenner into an interesting discussion about democratic procedures and liberal values, which are not, he suggests, always “fully compatible”. (pp198) The Western model of “liberal democracy” puts more emphasis on the “values of liberalism… than those of democratic procedure.” He believes that. “The existence of this underlying tension and contradiction constitutes an obstacle to further understanding groups like Islamists.” He concludes that while “Hamas’s actions on the ground have often clashed with liberal principles,” the movement “in some ways, is the Islamic democrat it claims to be.”

I am left in two minds about this book. On the one hand, it is good to see academics tackling subjects which are normally left to journalists, hardly the most objective of professionals at the best of times. The author is to be commended for taking on a complex situation and trying to make sense of it.

On the other hand, there are too many niggling doubts about the purpose and intention of this study; I am not even sure if he fully understands the context (does anyone?). How can any aspects of a democracy and democratically-elected government operate normally and efficiently whilst under a near total blockade and a military occupation? Is it reasonable, therefore, to subject any government attempting to govern in such circumstances to such rigorous scrutiny? The fact that Hamas continues to provide public services under such circumstances is surely something to commend, rather than question why it is not providing 100 per cent of such services at optimum efficiency.

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As I write this, the ink is drying on the latest of many Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreements brokered by Egypt. At first glance, Hamas appears to be throwing the towel in, presumably to protect the Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip from further humanitarian catastrophe, given that financial backers like Qatar and Iran are facing their own difficulties and funds have dried up.

Given also that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates now appear to be firmly in bed with Israel, and the situation facing the Palestinians looks even bleaker. In that context, Brenner’s book is perhaps out of date already, but he should be thanked for shedding light on what may well be a disappearing phenomenon, an attempt at government by “Islamists”. For that reason alone, my two minds are tempted to swing to the side of the author but, this is the Middle East; the whole scenario could change tomorrow.