On 4 February, representatives from the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, visited Moscow to inform the Russian government of the latest development in the unity talks with the other Palestinian factions, especially Fatah. This was not the first time that Hamas officials had travelled to Moscow on similar missions.
In fact, Moscow continues to represent an important political breathing space for Hamas, which has been isolated by Israel's Western benefactors. Involved in this isolation are several Arab governments which, undoubtedly, have done very little to break the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip.
Russia-Hamas closeness is already paying dividends. On 17 February, shipments of the Russian Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, made it into Gaza via Israel, a testament to that growing rapport with Moscow. While Russia alone cannot affect a complete paradigm shift in the case of Palestine, Hamas feels that a Russian alternative to the blind and unconditional American support for Israel is possible.
Recently, we interviewed Dr Daud Abdullah, the author of Engaging the World: The Making of Hamas's Foreign Policy, and Na'eem Jeenah, the Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, which has just published Dr Abdullah's latest book.
Abdullah's volume on Hamas is a must-read, as it offers a unique take on the movement, liberating the discussion from the confines of the reductionist Western media perception of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and of the counterclaims as well. In this book, Hamas is viewed as a political actor, whose armed resistance is only one component in a complex and far-reaching strategy.
As Moscow continues to cement its presence in the region by offering itself as a political partner and, compared with the US, a more balanced mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, Hamas sees the developing Russian role as a rare opportunity to break away from the isolation imposed on it by Washington and Tel Aviv.
"Russia was a member of the [Middle East] Quartet that was set up in 2003 but, of course, as a member of the [UN] Security Council, it has always had the ability to inform the discourse on Palestine," explained Abdullah. "In light of the gradual demise of American influence, Russia realised that there was an emerging vacuum in the region, particularly after the [Arab Spring] uprisings."
The relationship between Hamas and Russia took off after the [Palestinian] elections in 2006, he added. "But it was not Hamas's initiative, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who, in a press conference in Madrid after the election, said that he would be willing to host Hamas's leadership in Moscow. It is clear that Russia is looking for a place in the region."
Hamas's willingness to engage with the Russians is down to more than one reason, chief among them is the fact that Moscow, unlike the US, refused to accept Israel's portrayal of the movement. "The fundamental difference between Russia and America and China," Abdullah told us, "is that the Russians and the Chinese do not recognise Hamas as a 'terrorist organisation'; they have never done so, unlike the Americans, and so it made it easy for them to engage openly with the movement."
On Hamas's "strategic balance"
In his book, Abdullah writes about the 1993 Oslo Accords, which represented a watershed moment, not only for Hamas, but also for the entire Palestinian liberation struggle. The shift towards a US-led "peace process" compelled Hamas to maintain a delicate balance "between strategic objectives and tactical flexibility."
In his book, Abdullah writes: "Hamas sees foreign relations as an integral and important part of its political ideology and liberation strategy. Soon after the movement emerged, foreign policies were developed to help its leaders and members navigate this tension between idealism and realism. This pragmatism is evident in the fact that Hamas was able to establish relations with the regimes of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, both of whom were fiercely opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood." Hamas, of course, is a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood.
Abdullah elaborated on this point in our interview: "From the very beginning, Hamas adopted certain principles in respect to its international relations and, later on, in the formation of a foreign policy. Among these, there is a question of maintaining its independence of decision-making; non-alignment in conflicting blocs, and avoidance of interference in the affairs of other states."
An accomplished writer himself, Jeenah also spoke of this "delicate balance, which is a difficult one to maintain because, at this stage, when movements are regarded and regard themselves as liberation movements, they need to have higher moral and ethical standards than, for example, governments." He pointed out that, "For some reason, we expect that governments have to make difficult choices but, with liberation movements, we don't, because they are all about idealism and creating an ideal society, etc."
Jeenah used the South Africa anti-apartheid struggle which, in many ways, is comparable to the Palestinian quest for freedom, to illustrate his point: "When the liberation movement in South Africa was exiled, it took a similar kind of position. While some members might have had a particular allegiance to the Soviet Union or to China, some of them also had strong operations in European countries, which they regarded as part of the bigger empire. Nevertheless, they had the freedom to operate there. Some of them operated in other African countries where there were dictatorships and they got protection from those states."
Hamas and the question of national unity
In his book, which promises to be an essential read on the subject, Abdullah lists six principles that guide Hamas's political agenda. One of these is the "search for common ground".
In addressing the question of Palestinian factionalism, we contended that, while Fatah has failed at creating a common, nominally democratic platform for Palestinians to interact politically, Hamas cannot be entirely blameless. If that is, indeed, the case, can one then make the assertion that Hamas has succeeded in its search for the elusive common ground?
"Let me begin with what happened after the elections in 2006," replied Abdullah. "Although Hamas won convincingly and could have formed a government, the movement decided to opt for a government of national unity. It made an offer for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement to join it in a government of national unity. Hamas didn't want to govern on its own. And that, to me, is emblematic of the vision of its leaders and their commitment to national unity."
However, the question of national unity, no matter how much coveted and urgently required, is not just controlled by Palestinians. "The PLO is the one that signed the Oslo Accords," said Abdullah, "and I think this is one of Hamas's weaknesses: as much as it wants national unity and a reform of the PLO, the fact of the matter is that Israel and the West will not allow Hamas to enter the PLO easily, because this would be the end of Oslo."
What about elections under military occupation?
On 15 January, Abbas announced that Palestinian elections will be held this year, first presidential, then legislative, then elections within the PLO's Palestine National Council (PNC), which has historically served as a Palestinian parliament in exile. The first of these elections is scheduled for 22 May.
Will this solve the endemic problem of Palestinian political representation? Moreover, is this the proper historical evolution of national liberation movements; democracy under military occupation, followed by liberation, instead of the other way around?
Jeenah spoke about this dichotomy: "On the one hand, elections are an opportunity for Palestinians to express their choices. On the other, what is the election really? We are not talking about a democratic election for a state, but for a Bantustan authority, with greater restraints than those which existed under the South African apartheid authority."
Moreover, he believes, the Israeli occupying power will not make the same mistake as it did in 2006 by allowing Hamas to contest the elections. "It will not allow such freedom in case Hamas wins again. I don't think Israel is going to allow it now."
According to Jeenah, though, there is a silver lining to this unpromising scenario. "I think the only difference that this election could make is allowing some kind of reconciliation between Gaza and the West Bank."
Hamas, the ICC and war crimes
There is also the urgent question of the anticipated war crime investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The chances are that not only alleged Israeli war criminals will be investigated, but the probe could also consider questioning Palestinian suspects. Should this concern Hamas?
In Israel's military offensives against Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014, Hamas, along with other armed Palestinian groups, had no other option but to "defend the civilian population," insisted Abdullah. He pointed out that the "overriding concept" is that the movement believes in the principle of international law. "If Hamas can restore the rights of the Palestinian people through legal channels, then it will be much easier for the movement, rather than having to opt for the armed struggle."
There is no doubt that it is crucial to understand Hamas, not only as part of the Palestine-related academic discourse, but in the everyday political discourse concerning the occupied territory; in fact, the entire region. Abdullah's book is itself critical to this understanding.
Jeenah argued that the book is not necessarily an introductory text to the Hamas movement. "It has a particular focus, which is the development of Hamas's foreign policy. The importance of that, in general, is firstly that there isn't a text that deals specifically with Hamas's foreign policy. What this book does is present Hamas as a real political actor."
The evolution of Hamas's political discourse and behaviour since its inception is, according to Jeenah, "fascinating".
Many agree. Commenting on the book, leading Israeli historian Professor Ilan Pappé wrote: "This book challenges successfully the common misrepresentation of Hamas in the West. It is a must-read for anyone engaged with the Palestine issue and interested in an honest introduction to this important Palestinian Movement."
You can order a copy of The Making of Hamas's Foreign Policy here