Hamas at 34: From anti-Fatah to Fatah 2.0

Hamas at 34: From anti-Fatah to Fatah 2.0
6 min read
13 Dec, 2021
34 years since its founding, Hamas' trajectory reflects that of its political rival, Fatah, in many ironic ways, writes Emad Moussa.
A Palestinian child is seen among the crowd of thousands of Hamas supporters during a rally marking the 34th founding anniversary of the resistance movement in the northern Gaza Strip on 10 December 2021. [Getty]

Established in December 1987, Hamas - the Islamic Resistance Movement - was the brainchild of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Gaza-based Palestinian refugee and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Over the past 34 years, the movement has grown stronger both militarily and politically, garnering remarkable popular support, yet, simultaneously, stirring even more controversies in regards to its internal politics and alliances, as well as methods of resistance.

The 1990s to the early 2000s were Hamas' formative years, in which the movement presented itself as the Islamist alternative to the nationalist - and ineffective - approach by the Fatah-dominated PLO. Hamas heightened its position through violent attacks against Israel, as well as anti-establishment activities against the Palestinian Authority in regards to the Oslo Accords.

"Over the past 34 years, the movement has grown stronger both militarily and politically, garnering remarkable popular support, yet, simultaneously, stirring even more controversies" 

As Oslo collapsed during the Second Intifada, it became a testimony to Hamas' credibility.

The rise of Israel's right - capitalising on the fear that Palestinian suicide bombings invoked among Israelis -  and the ensuing brutal crackdown on Palestinians, further substantiated Hamas' base. This translated to Hamas' sweeping victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentarian elections, much to the surprise of the PA and international community. The Islamic organization took 71 seats to Fatah's 45 in a 132-member parliament.

At that point, Hamas began to face tremendous challenges that put it at odds with itself, the PA, various Arab regimes, and the international community; each due to their own reasons.

Becoming part of the "establishment," against which it firmly built its religio-political identity, Hamas tried to reconcile its principles as a resistance movement with that of its fresh role as an official "government body."

Inexperienced in governance, the movement's officials and MPs initially became the subject of derision among Palestinians, risking the movement's integrity. Having to meet the needs of its constituents would later prove to be a valuable learning experience in improving Hamas' grasp of governance and political pragmatism. However, the pragmatist approach did not save the movement from the US and European boycott, which Palestinians viewed as another example of Western hypocrisy and double standards. 

To Israel, Hamas' victory has since become yet another trope in the narrative that "there is no Palestinian partner." "The Palestinians had transparent elections, but they chose Hamas," they say; as if Palestinians should have accommodated Israel's needs before their own.

The election results ultimately reflected a desire to change the situation in the Occupied Territories, more than it was a call for Islamist governance - even in dominantly Christian neighbourhoods, the vote largely went to Hamas.

Perceiving itself as a victim of international prejudice and the target of a PA's potential coup, Hamas resorted to what become its indelible sin, a pre-emptive coup that led to the bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. It was a moment of national shame to most Palestinians, ushering a disastrous political rupture and weakening the Palestine cause in its entirety.

What is worse, what began as a rejection of Hamas' victory developed into an international cover for a tighter Israeli blockade on Gaza and three destructive onslaughts that occurred between 2008 and 2021. It notably increased Hamas' tension with certain Arab countries that were traditionally supportive of Palestinians.

Hamas' supporters argue that none of that was by design, but circumstantial: Being under siege and lacking viable options prompted Hamas' adoption of sometimes unorthodox methods and controversial foreign relations. 

Not only did the relation with Iran, for instance, turn some Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, against Hamas (the shift was helped along by the already growing animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which Hamas is affiliated with), but also provided Israel with ammunition to frame the movement as a front to Iran, thus de-contextualising Hamas' struggle as driven by external agendas, and not one arising because of Israel's occupation.

The Hamas-Iran relations split the movement among the pragmatists who saw the alliance as necessary for Palestine in light of the retreat in Arab support following the 2011 Arab Spring, while traditionalists demanded that the movement's leadership be more forthcoming about Iran's meddling (and aggression) in the Arab World.

Hamas' controversial and seemingly contradictory choices may have not all been part of the movement's personality, rather but a product of the political intersectionality and overlapping international and regional interests characteristic of the Palestinian cause itself. In other words, Hamas's historical trajectory is a reenactment of the PLO and Fatah's history.

Well into the late 1980s, the PLO and Fatah were heavily demonised, much like Hamas today. They frequently found themselves in situations where they had to choose allies at the expense of others, occasionally leading the Palestinians into regrettable disarray. A prime example was Arafat's support of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, which eventually led to the cut-off of the Gulf states' funding to the PLO, rendering the organisation nearly bankrupt, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Kuwait. 

What is more, Hamas' evolution into becoming part of the establishment seems to have put it on a similar trajectory as the PA. It slowly reduced the movement's idealism and subjected it to bureaucratic constraints and administrative corruption.

After all, the Gaza-based Hamas government still works within the PA's institutional, financial, and legal framework. This indicates, although not admitted, that not only has Hamas accepted the PA's legitimacy, but also the legitimacy of the Oslo process that gave rise to it. 

"Yet, this is also the inevitable outcome of the situation in Gaza. As long as there is a blockade on the Gaza Strip, Hamas' behaviour and worldview are unlikely to change drastically"

What sets Hamas apart from the PA, however, is its double role in the conflict. The PA chose to tone down the struggle with Israel and use soft tools such as diplomacy, fulfilling the PLO's 1988 denouncement and abandonment of armed struggle. Hamas, while being the government responsible for the welfare of two million Gazans and a regional player, continues to embrace the role of a non-state actor geared toward fighting Israel's occupation through armed resistance.

The signs show that the double role - a government and an armed resistance movement - may be unsustainable. In addition to limiting Hamas' scope of manoeuvrability and its anti-occupation efforts, it made the movement politically accountable and, therefore, subject to financial and political blackmail, much like the PLO.

Yet, this is also the inevitable outcome of the situation in Gaza. As long as there is a blockade on the Gaza Strip, Hamas' behaviour and worldview are unlikely to change drastically. That is also prompted by the demonisation and exclusion of the movement and the diminishing prospect of an independent Palestinian state.

Political change requires incentives, and in today's Palestine, stagnation and hopelessness seem to be the norm. Expecting Hamas to compromise or change under such circumstances is perhaps overly optimistic.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.