A review of Hamas: A Beginner's Guide by Khaled Hroub (Pluto Press, 2006)
Despite the constant presence of Hamas in the news of the western world, most people reading that news know very little about the group. This is true no matter what those readers' politics happen to be. Thanks to Pluto Press, there is now a book to fill this breach between the news and knowledge. Leaving aside the prejudices of all sides -- pro-Hamas and anti-Hamas; pro-Palestinian and anti-Palestinian, journalist Khaled Hroub has written a clear, concise and informative guide to Hamas. Simply titled Hamas: A Beginner's Guide, Hroub utilizes a question and answer format to explain the politics and tactics of Hamas, their relationship to and with other Palestinian organizations, Israel and the rest of the world Hroub, a Palestinian supporter of a secular and independent Palestinian state, also examines the role of religion in Hamas' internal and external politics, as well as the group's opinion of democracy and theocracy.
The picture presented in these pages is certain to hold some surprises for its English readers. Having been fed anti-Palestinian propaganda for years, the Hamas described here is of a group that understands its religious desires are not what garnered it enough support to win the aforementioned elections. Although Hroub never denies that there are those in Hamas that would like to impose an Islamic state in a free Palestine, his text proves that this is but one element of the Hams organization. Indeed, the organization described in these pages is an organization that listens to its members and, even more importantly, listens to those it wants to represent -- the Palestinian people. Given this, Hamas proves to be a surprisingly democratic organization with a degree of political understanding rarely attributed to an Arab or Muslim organization. It is Hroub's contention that the results of the January 2005 election that gave Hamas a solid majority not only substantiates Hamas' claim that their positions on the essentially dead Oslo Agreements and the Israeli occupation of Palestine are the predominant positions of the Palestinian people, the aftermath of their victory has also shown that Hamas understands that it is its role as an agent of national liberation (and not its religious agenda) that has the support of the Palestinian majority. Consequently, writes Hroub, it is the national liberation aspect of Hamas that the organization is emphasizing as it struggles to maintain power despite Tel Aviv, Washington, and internal struggles with the other large Palestinian organization, Fatah.
Speaking of Palestine's internal struggles, Hamas: A Beginner's Guide tackles the issue from a historical and current perspective. Exploring Hamas’ origins outside of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its rise to its current status as the only alternative to Fatah that is large enough to oppose it from strength, Hroub explains the politics behind this historical shift. He also addresses the various alliances Hamas and smaller leftist organizations in the Palestinian freedom movement have made over the years and why such alliances exist. On a broader level, and in a section certain to interest western readers, the author explains the meaning of the hudna that Hamas has offered to Israel. This hudna is a Muslim war practice that is essentially a truce which features an extended period where two warring parties must live in peace. Hamas has offered this to Israel, but has yet to have any takers.
What about suicide bombings? Hamas: A Beginner's Guide takes this issue head-on, tracing their beginnings to the 1994 massacre of Muslim worshipers by Baruch Goldstein in a Hebron mosque. While acknowledging that the attacks have cost the Palestinian movement dearly in some quarters of the world, Hroub explains (without endorsing) the Hamas position on these attacks as tactically necessary. At the same time, he notes that Hamas targets only Israeli citizens and soldiers in the Territories and Israel itself. Although this may not be much solace to the western reader, the fact is, as Hroub tries to make clear throughout the book, Hamas considers the Israelis and Palestinians to be in a state of war. Consequently, the tactics of war are what rules Hamas' military actions.
The intention of Hamas: A Beginner's Guide is not to gloss over the harsh realities of the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Nor is it the book's intention to portray Hamas -- an important part of that struggle -- as a group without imperfections which sometimes engages in reprehensible tactics. This book will certainly not satisfy those whose notion of Hamas is framed solely by the US and Israeli characterization of the group as terrorists. However, for the average reader interested in trying to understand the group's motivations, philosophy, and plans, Hamas: A Beginner's Guide is an essential starting point. Bare of propaganda either for or against the group, this text is the most fair-minded and balanced piece of literature on Hamas in the English language. On top of that, it is an approachable and very readable tract. More than a mere introduction, yet less than an academic treatise, it should be in every library in the United States -- and that's just for starters.
lives in Asheville, NC. He is the author of
The Way the Wind Blew: A Hstory of the Weather Underground
(Verso Books, 1997).
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