Saturday, July 21, 2007

[wvns] How Hamas Got Where It Is Today

How Hamas Got Where It Is Today
by Stephen Zunes
Foreign Policy in Focus

In light of Hamas' seizure of the Gaza Strip, it is worthwhile to
understand how this radical Islamist organization came to play such a
major role in Palestinian political life and how Israel and the United
States contributed to making that possible.

Ironically, it was Israel that encouraged the rise of the Palestinian
Islamist movement as a counter to the Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO), the secular coalition composed of Fatah and
various leftist and other nationalist movements. Beginning in the
early 1980s, with generous funding from the U.S.-backed family
dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the antecedents of Hamas began to emerge
through the establishment of schools, health care clinics, social
service organizations, and other entities that stressed an
ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, which up to that point had
not been very common among the Palestinian population. The hope was
that if people spent more time praying in mosques, they would be less
prone to enlist in left-wing nationalist movements challenging the
Israeli occupation.

While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or
right to hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities
allowed radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored
newspapers and even have their own radio station. For example, in the
occupied Palestinian city of Gaza in 1981, Israeli soldiers – who had
shown no hesitation in brutally suppressing peaceful pro-PLO
demonstrations – stood by when a group of Islamic extremists attacked
and burned a PLO-affiliated health clinic in Gaza for offering family
planning services for women.

Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic
Resistance Movement), was founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who
had been freed from prison when Israel conquered the Gaza Strip 20
years earlier. Israel's priorities in suppressing Palestinian dissent
during this period were revealing: In 1988, Israel forcibly exiled
Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad, a Christian pacifist who advocated
the use of Gandhian-style resistance to the Israeli occupation and
Israeli-Palestinian peace while allowing Sheik Yassin to circulate
anti-Jewish hate literature and publicly call for the destruction of
Israel by force of arms.

American policy was not much different: Up until 1993, U.S. officials
in the consular office in Jerusalem met periodically with Hamas
leaders while they were barred from meeting with anyone from the PLO.
This policy continued despite the fact that the PLO had renounced
terrorism and unilaterally recognized Israel as far back as 1988.

Early Boost

One of the early major boosts for Hamas came when the Israeli
government expelled more than 400 Palestinian Muslims in late 1992.
While most of the exiles were associated with Hamas-affiliated social
service agencies, very few had been accused of any violent crimes.
Since such expulsions are a direct contravention to international law,
the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the action and called
for their immediate return. The incoming Clinton administration,
however, blocked the United Nations from enforcing its resolution and
falsely claimed that an Israeli offer to eventually allow some of
exiles back constituted a fulfillment of the UN mandate. The result of
the Israeli and American actions was that the exiles became heroes and
martyrs; the credibility of Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinians grew
enormously – and so did their political strength.

Still, at the time of the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the PLO in
1993, polls showed that Hamas had the support of only 15 percent of
the Palestinian community. Support for Hamas grew, however, as
promises of a viable Palestinian state faded as Israel continued to
expand its colonization drive on the West Bank, doubling the amount of
settlers over the next dozen years. The rule of Fatah leader and
Palestine Authority president Yasser Arafat and his cronies proved to
be corrupt and inept, while Hamas leaders were seen to be more honest
and in keeping with the needs of ordinary Palestinians. In early 2001,
Israel cut off all substantive negotiations with the Palestinians and
a devastating U.S.-backed Israeli offensive the following destroyed
much of the Palestine Authority's infrastructure, making prospects for
peace and statehood even more remote. Israeli closures and blockades
sank the Palestinian economy into a serious depression and Hamas-run
social services became all the more important for ordinary Palestinians.

Seeing how Fatah's 1993 decision to end the armed struggle and rely on
a U.S.-led peace process had resulted in increased suffering, Hamas'
popularity grew well beyond its hard-line fundamentalist base, and its
use of terrorism against Israel – despite being immoral, illegal, and
counterproductive – seemed to express the sense of anger and impotence
of wide segments of the Palestinian population. Meanwhile – in a
policy defended by both the Bush administration and Democratic leaders
in Congress – Israel's use of death squads resulted in the deaths of
Sheik Yassin and scores of other Hamas leaders, turning them into
martyrs in the eyes of many Palestinians and increasing Hamas' support
still further.

The Election of a Hamas Government

With the Bush administration insisting that the Palestinians stage
free and fair elections after the death of Arafat in 2004, Fatah
leaders hoped that coaxing Hamas into the electoral process would help
weaken its more radical elements. However, the response from
Washington was overwhelmingly negative. In December 2005, a month
prior to the Palestinian election, the U.S. House of Representatives
passed a resolution by an overwhelming 397-17 majority criticizing
Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, for "his willingness to see Hamas
participate in the elections without first calling for it to …
renounce its goal of destroying the State of Israel."

However, neither Pelosi nor other House leaders have ever criticized
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his willingness to see parties
such as the National Union – which seeks to destroy any Palestinian
national entity and expel its Arab population – participate in Israeli
elections, an apparent acknowledgment that while Congress sees
Israel's survival as axiomatic, Palestine's survival is an open-ended
question. (In any case, under the Palestinian Authority, as with the
state of Israel, the head of state simply does not have the authority
to ban a political party simply because of its ideology, however

Similarly, the resolution – co-sponsored by Pelosi and other
Democratic leaders – insisted that groups such as Hamas "should not be
permitted to participate in Palestinian elections until such
organizations recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state."
Ironically, however, the United States allows a number of political
organizations, such as the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers
World Party – which also refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist
as a Jewish state – to participate in U.S. elections, indicating the
apparent belief by Pelosi and her colleagues that Arab nations should
not be able to experience the same degree of democracy we enjoy in
this country, which allows even those with extreme views to seek
political office.

The Senate also weighed in. A letter signed by 73 of 100 senators –
including 2008 Democratic presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton,
Christopher Dodd, and Barack Obama – also questioned the decision to
allow Hamas to participate in the election on the grounds that "no
democracy in the world allows a political party to bear its own arms."
Ironically, just weeks earlier the Senate had voted unanimously to
praise the recently completed Iraqi parliamentary elections in which a
number of political parties with their own militias openly
participated and formed the new Iraqi government. In addition, the
United Kingdom – America's closest ally – allowed Sinn Fein to operate
a legal political party and participate in elections even during the
decades in which its armed wing, the Provisional wing of the Irish
Republican Army, engaged in terrorist attacks against British citizens
with no criticism of Westminster emanating from Capitol Hill.

Despite U.S. objections, the Palestinian parliamentary elections went
ahead in January 2006 with Hamas' participation. They were monitored
closely by international observers and were universally recognized as
free and fair. With reformist and leftist parties divided into a half
dozen competing slates, Hamas was seen by many Palestinians disgusted
with the status quo as the only viable alternative to the corrupt
Fatah incumbents, and with Israel refusing to engage in substantive
peace negotiations with Abbas' Fatah-led government, they figured
there was little to lose in electing Hamas. In addition, factionalism
within the ruling party led a number of districts to have competing
Fatah candidates. As a result, even though Hamas only received 44
percent of the vote, they captured a majority of parliament and the
right to select the prime minister and form a new government.

Ironically, the position of prime minister did not exist under the
original constitution of the Palestine Authority but was added in
March 2003 at the insistence of the United States, which desired a
counterweight to the President Arafat. As a result, while the
elections allowed Abbas to remain as president, he was forced to share
power with Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister.

Efforts to Undermine the Elected Government

Despite claiming support for free elections, the United States tried
from the outset to undermine the Hamas government. It was largely due
to U.S. pressure that Abbas refused Hamas' initial invitation to form
a national unity government that would include Fatah and from which
some of the more hard-line Hamas leaders would have presumably been
marginalized. The Bush administration pressured the Canadians,
Europeans, and others in the international community to impose stiff
sanctions on the Palestine Authority, though a limited amount of aid
continued to flow to government offices controlled by President Abbas.

Palestine was once one of the more prosperous regions in the Arab
world, but decades of Israeli occupation had resulted in the
destruction of much of the indigenous Palestinian economy, making the
Palestine Authority dependent on foreign aid to provide basic
functions for its people. The impact of these sanctions, therefore,
was devastating. The Iranian regime rushed in to partially fill the
void, providing millions of dollars to run basic services and giving
the Islamic Republic – which until then had not been allied with Hamas
and had not been a major player in Palestinian politics –
unprecedented leverage.

Meanwhile, record unemployment led angry and hungry young men to
become easy recruits for Hamas militants. One leading Fatah official
noted, "For many people, this was the only way to make money." Some
Palestinian police, unpaid by their bankrupt government, clandestinely
joined the Hamas militia as a second job, creating a dual loyalty.

The demands imposed at the insistence of the Bush administration and
Congress on the Palestine Authority (PA) in order to lift the
sanctions appeared to be designed to be rejected and were widely
interpreted as a pretext for punishing the Palestinian population for
voting the wrong way. For example, the United States demanded that the
Hamas-led government unilaterally recognize the right of the state of
Israel to exist, even though Israel has never recognized the right of
the Palestinians to have a state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip or
anywhere else. Other demands included an end of attacks on civilians
in Israel while not demanding that Israel likewise end its attacks on
civilian areas in the Gaza Strip. They also demanded that the
Hamas-led PA accept all previously negotiated agreements even as
Israel continued to violate key components of the Wye River Agreement
and other negotiated deals with the Palestinians.

While Hamas honored a unilateral cease-fire regarding suicide bombings
in Israel, border clashes and rocket attacks into Israel continued.
Israel, meanwhile, with the support of the Bush administration,
engaged in devastating air strikes against crowded urban
neighborhoods, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties. Congress
also went on record defending the Israeli assaults – which were widely
condemned in the international community as excessive and in violation
of international humanitarian law – as legitimate acts of self-defense.

A House resolution last summer, passed by an overwhelming 410-8
majority, went so far as to praise Israel's "long-standing commitment
to minimizing civilian loss and welcomes Israel's continued efforts to
prevent civilian casualties" despite overwhelming evidence to the
contrary. Only seven Democrats voted against the resolution, which put
them on record commending President Bush "for fully supporting Israel
as it responds to these armed attacks by terrorist organizations and
their state sponsors."

It was out of this environment that Hamas grew from a radical minority
to an electoral majority and is now patrolling the streets of the Gaza
Strip in full control.



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