What you need to know about Hamas
Eddie Ford looks at the history and politics of what is a deeply reactionary organisation and how we could win the battle of ideas
All eyes are fixed on Gaza since the surprise Hamas attack into Israel on October 7, which saw its fighters take out Israeli border posts and police stations and, despite claimed instructions to the contrary, kill hundreds of civilians at a music festival and a kibbutz near the border - taking hostages as well.
There are some who find it hard not to be suspicious about the nature of the ‘intelligence failure’ which allowed it to happen, given that it was a large-scale operation that must have been planned over a relatively long period of time. We are now reliably told a whole year! Then on October 18 many hundreds more died in Gaza’s Al-Ahli Baptist hospital in what was either an Islamic Jihad misfiring rocket attack on Israel or an atrocious Israeli airstrike. Either way, angry protests swept across the Middle East, but especially in the West Bank. Palestinian Authority security forces in Ramallah fired teargas and stun grenades to disperse protestors throwing rocks and chanting slogans against the PA’s president, Mahmoud Abbas. He was forced to cancel a planned meeting in Jordan with Joe Biden the following day.
Rearranging his schedule somewhat, the US president held a joint news conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, embracing him at Tel Aviv airport and later meeting the Israeli war cabinet - symbolism that is bound to further inflame the Arab/Muslim world.
Of course, ever since the initial Hamas attack, the world has been anticipating an Israeli ground offensive on Gaza. And now there are stories that Israel might be planning “something different” to a ground offensive, or considering “other options”, as it prepares for “the next stages of the war” against Hamas.
Readers will well know who and what Hamas is. We should certainly dismiss any notion that Hamas is just a small or isolated terrorist group - it is certainly not the Palestinian equivalent of Islamic State or al Qa’eda, whatever some sections of the western media might stupidly suggest. Whether you like it or not, it is deeply rooted in Palestinian society and, though now headquartered in Gaza City, it has a significant presence too in the West Bank. That is where its secular rival, Fatah, exercises political control, thanks to Israeli largesse - though that is now in danger of disintegrating following the Gaza war that has highlighted long-simmering Palestinian anger against Abbas for coordinating with Israel on ‘security’ in the territory. The broad masses undoubtedly regard him as a quisling.
Historically, however, Hamas has not been some bottom-up organisation surviving on ‘the pennies of the poor’. On the contrary, it had rich backers, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘grants’ from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states such as Qatar. In the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections - the last to be held - Hamas, contesting under the list name of Change and Reform, did convincingly well, winning 44.5% of the vote and 74 of the 132 seats, as against Fatah’s 41.4% and 45 seats. Testifying to the considerably weakened position of the left, the ‘official communist’ Alternative list - which included the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian Peoples Party - managed to secure only 3% of the vote and two seats.
In February 2006 the newly elected Palestinian Legislative Council met for the first time and the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, was nominated to form a new government - leading to months of intermittent talks between the big players - Fatah and Hamas. Eventually there was an agreement to form a national unity government. But that did not last very long. The Battle of Gaza erupted the following year. This resulted in the dissolution of the unity government and the de facto division of the Palestinian territories into two entities: the West Bank, governed by the Palestinian National Authority, and the Gaza Strip under Hamas.
What are the origins of Hamas? Shortly after the outbreak of the first intifada against Israel in 1987, Hamas was formally founded by Palestinian imam and activist Ahmed Yassin, with the objective of destroying “the Zionist entity”. Hamas emerged out of his Mujama al-Islamiya that had been established in Gaza in 1973 as a religious charity closely involved with the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood.
The organisation started to offer clinics, blood banks, day care, medical treatment, meals, youth clubs, and so on - providing a welfare system, given the near complete absence of anything else on offer. Mujama played an especially important role in providing social care to those living in refugee camps.
Hamas became increasingly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the late 1990s - it opposed the Israel-PLO ‘Letters of Mutual Recognition’, as well as the Oslo Accords, which saw Fatah renounce “the use of terrorism and other acts of violence” and recognise Israel in pursuit of a so-called two-state solution. Hamas continued to advocate Palestinian armed resistance, envisioning a single Palestinian state on all of the territory that belonged to the British Mandate for Palestine (that is, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea in which Israel Jews would have religious but not national rights).
In 2005, Hamas signed the Palestinian Cairo Declaration, which reaffirmed the status of the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” through the participation in it of all forces and factions according to “democratic principles” - including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Some argued that by agreeing to let the PLO handle talks with Israel, Hamas was tacitly accepting a truce with Israel and the 1967 borders - ditto with the 2006 Palestinian Prisoners’ Document, which Hamas also signed. But that was before the Battle of Gaza, of course, so could be a mistaken assessment. Similarly, many believed that the Cairo and Doha Agreements in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and the 2017 updated/revised Hamas charter implicitly accepted the 1967 borders, but others strongly disputed this. It may be the case that some in the Hamas leadership regard Israel as a fait accompli - an unfortunate reality - but will never recognise its right to exist as a state morally or politically.
What is vitally important to emphasis is the profoundly reactionary nature of Hamas, as quickly revealed by any examination of its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and, more specifically, in its main institutional embodiment since the late 1970s - the Islamic Centre (al-Mujamma al-islami), located in the Gaza Strip. Its anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, insofar as you can call it that, is programmatically counterrevolutionary. Or, to put it another way, Hamas represents a reactionary ideology of the oppressed - opposed to any genuine idea of universal human liberation.
Between 1948 and 1967, Jordan and Egypt ruled the West Bank and the Gaza Strip respectively - shaping the development of the MB. During the 1950s, the MB maintained a policy of essentially ‘loyal opposition’ to the Hashemite regime in Jordan - participating in all the elections and official political life in general. Both the Hashemite monarchy and the MB shared an ideology of social traditionalism, which in practice meant they rejected the modernistic Arab nationalism of the revolutionary-talking Gamal Abdul Nasser and his co-thinkers - desperate to pull the Arab world into the 20th century by any means necessary.
What then of Egyptian-ruled Gaza? Under its administration, the MB’s activities in the Gaza Strip were either tolerated or repressed - fluctuating in line with Egypt’s policy towards the MB’s mother movement in Egypt itself. There was a short-lived honeymoon from 1952 to 1954 that saw the MB flourish in the Gaza Strip. But then a new ban inaugurated a long period of brutal repression, forcing it to go underground in Gaza. Nasser’s repressive policy reached its peak in the aftermath of the alleged coup attempt in 1965, which led to the arrest of thousands of MB’s activists in Egypt and the execution of leading figures.
One of the most important of its martyrs was Sayyid Qutb, widely regarded as the father of Salafi jihadism - the religio-political doctrine that underpins modern jihadist organisations such as al Qa’eda and Islamic State. His writings are still studied by militant Islamist groups across the world.
It is impossible, however, to understand Qutb without recognising the massive intellectual debt he owed to the Islamist ideologue, Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi (1903-79). Qutb synthesised, developed and turned into popular-accessible form the teachings of Mawdudi - particularly inspired by Mawdudi’s virulent aversion to secularism and democracy, not to mention his fanatical misogyny.
By all accounts, Qutb ‘saw the light’ after visiting the United States in 1948 - appalled by what he saw as the ‘outrageous’ freedoms enjoyed by American women. Even more so by the fact, as he saw it, that American men allowed their women to be so free. For Qutb any display of female sexuality was anathema. Qutb was also virulently anti-Semitic, genuinely believing in the existence of global Jewish conspiracies - which he outlined in his 1950 book, Our struggle against the Jews.
On this basis Hamas can only deliver oppression, tyranny and suffering - first and foremost against Palestinians themselves. Historically, the first manifestations of Hamas violence were directed not against Israeli occupation forces, but rather leftist rivals in the Gaza Strip and women for not wearing the veil.
But then, of course, the Israeli authorities were quite happy to give Hamas space and toleration. They considered it a far lesser evil to the PLO, and believed that dividing the Palestinians would serve the interests of the Jewish state. Indeed, Mujama al-Islamiya was recognised by Israel as a charity in 1979, allowing the organisation to expand its influence throughout Gaza. Eventually, however, Israel came to realise that it had created a Frankenstein’s monster.
In the Battle of Gaza and the subsequent division of territory in 2007, Israel took out various Hamas activists, because it was now regarded as a non-collaborative force, unlike Fatah, which had done a deal. But it was too late, as Hamas had gone from strength to strength.
So what is the situation now? Possibly the Israeli war cabinet has been thinking about enacting a final solution to the Palestinian problem and driving the entire population out of Gaza (to be followed by the West Bank sooner or later). Though Biden does not seem to be keen on that at the moment, he already has enough on his plate with Ukraine, the South China Sea and a gruelling election campaign pending, it is a real and present danger. Demonstrations throughout the world, especially in the immediate vicinity, expressions of solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians, boycotts of arms deliveries going to the IDF war machine, forcing rulers to break diplomatic links - all can help.
But obviously more is needed. Economistic calls for working class unity are bound to fall on stony ground. Israel is a colonial-settler state united around blood and soil Zionist ideology, it is closely allied to the US global hegemon and the Israeli-Jewish working class constitute a labour aristocracy.
Palestinian national oppression has to be overcome: democratic opinion cannot allow them to share the dreadful fate of other first nations subject to settler-colonialism. However, the Palestinians cannot save themselves from national extinction through their own efforts alone. The present crisis in Gaza graphically, horribly, illustrates the true balance of forces. It is David versus Goliath. Israel is, of course, not David armed with nothing more than a sling and shot … and in spite of the biblical myth Goliath usually wins in such conflicts.
The way forward lies neither in a ‘one-state’ nor ‘two-state’ bourgeois solution. Neither is realistically deliverable. The answer can only be regional and that relies not on petro-monarchies, corrupt family dictatorships, army-based regimes ... or Hamas and other would-be theocrats. No, it relies on working class leadership of the Arab revolution: to begin with, perhaps, a socialist federation of the Mashiq, which would sweep away all existing regimes, along with all the post-World War I Anglo-French borders, and guarantee all national minorities, crucially the Israeli-Jewish Hebrew nation, the right to self-determination.
This aim is itself a powerful weapon in the battle of ideas. It can certainly help overcome the fear that the poles of oppression would simply be reversed, even the fear of being driven into the sea. True, that would mean renouncing Zionism, dismantling Israeli apartheid and breaking free from the US orbit.
However, such a perspective, such a strategy, could conceivably, win over the majority of Israeli-Jewish workers, who would, after all, have the prospect of becoming not second-class citizens in a capitalist Palestinian state, but part of the ruling class.