Understanding Hamas at 25: Beyond the Tired Language

“In a moment of high theatre he dropped to his knees, placed his lips on the ground and kissed the land he has commanded by proxy”. This is how Robert Tait of the British Telegraph worded the moment Khaled Meshaal arrived in Gaza on December 7. Tait’s report on what many in Gaza and elsewhere consider a watershed event in the history of the Islamic movement, was mostly consistent with mainstream reporting on any event concerning the impoverished and besieged Strip: often biased, selective and devoid of real understanding or empathy.

Media reporting on Hamas is doubly provocative, controversial and similar to political stances towards Hamas. However, in the eyes of Israel, through the prism of its media and among Israel’s western supporters, Hamas is an unequaled terrorist organization, sworn to destroy Israel and unlike the other ‘moderate’ Palestinians – for example, western-backed Palestinian Authority – it refuses to recognize Israel’s “right to exist”. The latter point was faithfully emphasized by Tait. He, like many others, unthinkingly or deliberately fails to question the incredulous condition placed on a relatively small movement as it faces a powerful and habitually brutal military.

Hamas’ supporters, on the other hand, see the 25-year-old movement as the pinnacle of Palestinian resistance; an iconic organization that unlike leading secular Palestinian factions, refuses to compromise. To make the point, they cite various battles and numerous assassinations of Hamas’ leaders, including that of quadriplegic Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who was pitilessly murdered by an Israeli missile in 2004. They argue that a movement which is willing to pay this kind of a price – life itself – for its political and moral stances must be above suspicion, if not criticism.

However, for many in the left that is barely enough. The notion that the movement was an outright creation of the Israeli internal intelligence Shin Bet, has been stable in leftist discourse for many years. The idea is often accepted without any serious attempts at qualification or discussion, like many leftist ideals on Palestine and Israel.

Each party does its utmost to defend their anti and pro Hamas arguments.

Pro-Israeli media is anchored in the suicide bombings line of reasoning, which, again, is selective, lacks context and conveniently overlooks the fact that thousands of Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military, even years after Hamas abandoned such tactics.

Hamas supporters reference battles, notwithstanding the November 14, 8-day war on Gaza, where Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other resistance groups, earned what they perceive as an unprecedented victory against Israel.

There are also those who, while sympathizing with Palestinian aspirations and resistance, have a difficult time accepting Hamas’ turnabout regarding Syria, its suspicious closeness to Qatar, and what they see as shifty and dubious political style.

Peculiarly, there is a common denominator between all of these perceptions of Hamas. They all brand the movement using single, uniform logic, devoid of any accommodating analysis that examines facts, overt and subtle discourses, and places such intricate phenomena in larger political contexts. Such a unitary view is, of course, not unique to Hamas, but it also applies to everything Palestinian. It is a natural outcome of media distortions and political bias. Anyone Israel perceives as an enemy, is instantly dehumanized and presented with crude and inane language. Social media helps correct the imbalance to a degree, although it also contributes to the polarization: a Palestinian thus becomes either a cold-blooded terrorist or a would-be martyr, bad or good, pro-US or pro-Iran, and so on.

However, an unpretentious analysis requires breaking away from all the fixed ideas and preemptive conclusions, where Hamas is neither a violence-driven menace nor a flawless organization with a perfect track record; neither a brainchild of Israeli intelligence, nor a political conduit of Qatar.

Some of those who reported on Meshaal’s visit to Gaza, emphasized the militant or religious symbols that awaited him upon arrival. He was “greeted by a throng of hundreds of chanting supporters – some armed to the teeth with Kalishnikovs and rocket propelled grenades,” wrote Tait right in the first paragraph. Others highlighted his ‘wish’ to one day die a ‘martyr’ in Gaza (AFP). Once again, such reporting confounds terms with deep cultural references – as in his willingness to pay the ultimate price for his beliefs. Interestingly, Meshaal was, in fact, all but dead in an Israeli assassination attempt at his life in Amman, Jordan in 1997, another fact conveniently omitted from many reports.

Since its inception, Hamas has grown in every pertinent way. Its very first statement was a true depiction of the inexperience of the movement at the time and the nature of the relationship that governed ill-fated Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world: “It’s our duty to address the word to the Arab rulers, and particularly to the rulers of Egypt, the Egyptian army and the Egyptian people, as follows: What has happened to you, O rulers of Egypt? Were you asleep in the period of the treaty of shame and surrender, the Camp David treaty?”

Since then, the political landscape has been repeatedly altered. While Hamas’ own evolution had itself impacted some of the change – for example, its decision to participate in the legislative elections in 2006, its conflict with Fatah, and its handling of the situation in Gaza since then – much of the transformation, especially in the last two years has not been of its own making.

As violence flared in Syria, Hamas attempted to develop a unique neutral position which failed. The political schisms in Syria proved impossible to navigate and the June 2012 assassination of Kamal Ghanaja, a Hamas mid-level leader in Damascus, was the bloody culmination of that failure.

Fearing that Hamas’ anxiety would lead to further closeness to Iran – especially as the political score in tumultuous Egypt is yet to be settled – a major campaign, led by Qatar was initiated to sway Hamas from Iran, which was a major source of support to Hamas and other Palestinian factions. The push to influence Hamas was topped by a late October visit to Gaza by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar. It was then that Hamas’ Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared that the siege was over, only to be reminded three weeks later by a massive Israeli war that it was not. However, deterring Hamas backfired and Israel soundly lost that battle. In the process there were new discoveries that the resistance in Gaza was much more resourceful than previously thought.

Days after Gazans celebrated the defeat of Israel’s war objectives, several billboards thanking Iran for its help of the resistance were erected in Gaza. It was perhaps Hamas’ (and the Islamic Jihad) way of sending a clear message that it will continue to play by its own rules, that it is a member of no camp, that its allegiance remains to principles and not to governments or funds. Interestingly, though, the billboards were not signed.

Now that Meshaal has visited Gaza and was greeted by a large number of Palestinians, the movement seems to operate with greater clarity and confidence than any other time in the last two years. “Politics without resistance has no meaning,” he said soon after arrival. The statement is rife with meanings and suggestions.

At 25, Hamas has morphed in its status and importance, and within that prominence lays its strengths and weaknesses. In order to maintain a level of power and to safeguard its political evolution, it has no other option but to become even more dependent on other parties, Egypt notwithstanding, whose prospects for stability are receding by the day.

The Israeli prescription of understanding everything Palestinian, including Hamas, no longer suffices. Western journalists need to take notice of that complex reality and quit stereotyping and cataloging Palestinians using the same old language. There is more to understanding such issues than a tired division between good guys and others “hell-bent on the destruction of Israel.” Hamas should be understood properly within its local context, and then in relations to all of its surroundings, including Israel.

25-years later, Hamas is still understood within limited confines of an ever-redundant discourse obsessed with Israel’s security, and later with an imagined Iranian threat. A new understanding is desperately required, one that is sensible enough to take into account the uniqueness of the Palestinian narrative itself, Palestinian history, the struggle and rights, as opposed to Israel’s security – the cornerstone of western media reporting on Palestine and the Middle East.

Ramzy Baroud is an author and a journalist. His latest volume is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London). He can be reached at ramzybaroud@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Ramzy.