This book provides an original angle on the politics and character of Hamas by its focus on the movement’s foreign policy from the early 1990s to the present through a time of extreme challenges for Hamas and the entire Palestinian movement. The study is based on numerous detailed interviews with Hamas leaders and wide sources beyond, including American and UN officials. It reveals many details of Hamas policy and actions which are not widely known. The history and the vision of Hamas are well spelled out, errors and setbacks are not obscured. And what emerges so clearly is the opportunities ignored by the West to engage with an organisation which could have altered the tragic trajectory of Palestinian history over the last 30 years.
Key challenges in Hamas’s history examined include the crisis of Iraq’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the territory; the Hamas rejection of the Madrid Process and the Oslo Accords the same year; the Israeli deportation of 415 Hamas members to remote Marj az Zuhur in Lebanon in 1992; branding of the organisation as terrorist by the US in 1993; Mossad’s attempted assassination of the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Jordan in 1997; the assassinations of the Hamas leaders Sheikh Yassin and Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi in Gaza in 2004; the deep US interference in Palestinian politics and security matters in response to Hamas’s surprise win in the 2006 parliamentary elections; the subsequent siege imposed by Israel on Gaza; the Hamas decision in 2012 to support Syrian civil society’s demands on the Assad regime, which resulted in the loss of the movement’s 10 years of its most important material and diplomatic support base in Damascus, and with it that of Iran and Hezbollah for three years to 2014.
In these decades, the fundamental Hamas policies of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and the search for common ground, were challenged by the military actions of the Iraqi and Syrian regimes as much as by the decisions and attitudes of the US and Israel, as well as the well-known mistakes of the PLO, among them Fatah’s refusal to participate in a unity government after the 2006 elections. The book details this phase well.
Similarly, the book spells out the response of the two Palestinian groups to the complexity of the Iraq crisis for them, revealing sharp differences of analysis and style. Unlike the PLO which supported Iraq uncritically in 1991, Hamas, while condemning the US invasion launching the Gulf war, was part of the attempted Arab negotiations to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. On principle, Hamas leaders objected to the Iraqi invasion violating the sovereignty of another state and going against international law, and also foresaw the disastrous effects on Kuwait itself and the 400,000 of resident Palestinians who suffered what many called the third Nakba. The decades of Kuwait being the PLO’s main financial backer were abruptly over.
The detailed chapter on the Israeli expulsion of 415 Hamas members to Lebanon in December 1992 explains how Hamas turned that extraordinary illegal move by Israel into an opportunity for making the movement known to the many media and the international community which was outraged by the expulsion. This account also reveals much about all key players including the US, Israel, the UN and the PLO and their negative attitudes to Hamas based less on knowledge than on prejudice.
The Hamas members had been taken abruptly by the Israeli army either from prison or from home on a 36 hour bus journey blindfolded and handcuffed before being dropped at the Lebanese border and told to head north. But the organisation’s calculation and discipline meant that men did not head north as individuals but immediately negotiated as a group with the first Lebanese soldiers they encountered. It was agreed the Lebanese army would not allow them to go north, and in fact put up a sand barrier across the road, and encouraged them to return to Palestine. But the Israeli army shot at the Palestinians as they approached the border and promptly mined the road on the Lebanese side between the deportees and the border. The deportees were stuck in no man’s land. They became a magnet for media and then a cause celebre in a freezing makeshift camp in the wilderness where the ICRC and various Lebanese organizations began to supply them with tents and basic necessities.
“Harrowing images of professionals – university lecturers, students, doctors and engineers blindfolded and handcuffed in the freezing mountains grabbed the world’s attention.” For three months Al Rantisi gave daily press conferences from Marj az Zuhur, translated into English. And for the first time Hamas was able to show the western media who its members were, most notably in a Christmas night interview of Aziz Dweik with CNN’s Larry King filmed live in freezing conditions in Marj az Zuhur after a snowfall. The myth of faceless, violent terrorists began to be stripped away.
UN Resolution 799 demanded the return of the deportees, backed by the US under George Bush who was trying hard to bring Hamas into the PLO. But the Israelis offered only a partial return of an initial 101 men. Predictably Hamas refused. Also predictably, the PLO strongly criticised them and claimed the sole right to negotiate for the return of the men.
In the transformed Middle East of today, with normalisation trends pushed so far by Washington in the policies of Kushner and Trump, the author remains optimistic that “Hamas has a pivotal role to play in the restoration of Palestinian rights.” His book deserves wide readership in the hope that this information and analysis prompt a more nuanced attitude by Western policymakers to substantive Palestinian actors.