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A Beginner's Guide

What is Hamas, Really?

by RON JACOBS

Since it became clear that the intention of Israel’s latest military assault on Gaza is to destroy Hamas, various newspapers in the US have printed opinion pieces echoing the Washington line that it is Hamas’ fault that Gaza is being pummeled by Israeli warplanes.  Now, there may be some things one can blame Hamas for, but firing missiles at people and buildings in Gaza from Israeli warplanes is not one of them.  It has been the desire of Tel Aviv and Washington to eradicate Hamas as a political force for a long time.  The military Israeli assault currently going on is but the latest installment in fulfilling that desire. 

Just prior to the assault there was a Israeli-enforced blockade on Gaza.  This blockade prevented necessary goods from reaching the people living there.  There was also an Israeli incursion in November that was the culmination of a series of border clashes between Israel and Palestinian gunmen.  These clashes resulted in the deaths of at least 16 Palestinians.  Of course, these occurrences were but a continuation of the low-intensity conflict between Hamas and Israel that in themselves are but a part of the conflict between Israel and Palestine that has continued since 1948.  Hamas is but the most recent organization to represent the militant wing of the Palestinian resistance and, therefore be at the receiving end of Israel’s most violent responses.  At this point in history if Hamas did not resist, there would be no resistance to Tel Aviv’s plans to render the Palestinians completely irrelevant in their own land.  Most Palestinians understand this and are understandably angry at the current campaign in Gaza, no matter which political faction has their allegiance.

Despite the constant presence of Hamas in the news of the western world, most people reading that news know very little about the group. Back in 2006 journalist Khaled Hroub wrote a clear, concise and informative guide to Hamas. Simply titled   Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide the author 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. In the same way that the Israeli failure to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon, the current assault will most likely only strengthen this support should Hamas merely  remain intact as an organization once the attacks are over. 

As the attack continues in Gaza one wonders if Hamas will respond with a campaign that includes suicide bombings.  These grisly news events are examined in Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide.  Hroub traces their beginnings to the 1994 massacre of Muslim worshipers by Baruch Goldstein in a Hebron mosque. While acknowledging that suicide 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 that 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. Furthermore, it might allow those an understanding as to why Israel’s expressed hope to eradicate Hamas and bargain with the Palestinian Authority for a Tel Aviv-Washington imposed peace will most likely fail.  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.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net