Experts on terrorism tend to claim that Hamas has shown high sophistication in unleashing waves of terrorism and perpetrating attacks against Israeli citizens. Some have been inclined to argue that Hamas is involved in intricate attempts to hinder the peace process, to change the government of Israel, and to act effectively and in calculated dosages to instill panic and cripple morale among Israeli citizens. The truth, however, is that we lack full and adequate data concerning decision making processes within Hamas, and concerning the ensuing mutual relationships between what is called the “political infrastructure” and the “military organization”. We may even lack sufficient information about the coordination between various cells of the purported military organization, or between the two areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Some scholars even speak of several sub-organizations within Hamas, linked by different centers and interests, and grouped under one social-ideological- religious umbrella serving as the main binding factor.
Since the forced release of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin due to the “Mash’al affair” and his return to Gaza, outside observers have sensed a certain restraint in the activism of the movement, not only in the implementation of terrorism. This might be a delusive calm, prior to their redeployment toward intensified action, or an attempt to ease Arafat’s plight on the way to the second pullback. It may also reflect merely logistic difficulties. But could we perhaps view this as a period of Hudnah (a temporary cease-fire with the enemy in Islamic terms), and thus a deliberate policy imposed by the “political establishment” on the “military ranks”? Additional hypotheses could be raised, all suggesting that the movement has undergone a change over the last few months, yet all could rest on inadequate information and the next wave of attacks may now be in advanced stages of preparation.
Hudnah, or “cease-fire,” and certainly if initiated by Hamas, would indeed constitute real change, and not only at the tactical level. It would entail a significant shift in the social and political message of the movement to Palestinians in the Territories in general, let alone to its supporters. Any toning down of Hamas’ inflexible attitudes toward Israel – accepting Israel’s very existence as well as the readiness of national factions to compromise on an independent state on “half of Palestine” – is actually a step toward the inclusion of Hamas in the process of reconciliation as it has evolved over the last few years, despite all the halts and difficulties. This inclusion is crucial for Israel as well as for the Palestinian Authority. To some extent, it may sharpen the conflict within Palestinian society by deepening the “kulturkampf” between Hamas and the national leadership, which leans toward Western culture. Hamas would thus deflect its copious energy inward rather than focusing on violent struggle against Israel, and certainly when Palestinian society reaches the post-Arafat stage.
Above all, changes in the radical attitudes and the political violence of Hamas against Israel and its citizens will attest that the movement is joining a process that is not only political, but also includes elements of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians in the social, cultural, and economic realms. This is a process that could be called “reconciliation through association rather than separation”. The architects of the “Oslo process”, or at least some of them, began by seeking complete separation between the two peoples dwelling in the land of Israel. Nevertheless, it would appear that the process actually supports the working assumption adopted in this paper: Israelis and their leadership on the one hand, and Palestinians and their leadership on the other, have been affecting each other since the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in a process that has consistently strengthened the links between them rather than their separation. Resting on this assumption, we have attempted to consider whether Hamas is capable of a fundamental change of policy, showing willingness to “sleep with the enemy” while it is still and in the long range, the enemy. The extent, to which this process of reconciliation and mutual influence might include Hamas, is part of the struggle against terrorism and political violence. From a certain perspective, this paper will also attempt to examine what could be called the “reverse side” [Sitra Akhra] of the war against Islamist-Palestinian terrorism.
The Social and Political Messages of Hamas v. the PLO
Sheikh Yassin, who had led the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip since the Seventies, was the one who changed its attitude toward Israel from passivity to belligerent activism. Eventually, relying on the grass-roots Palestinian uprising, he remained the only real force carrying the banner of the Palestinian “armed struggle” in the era of compromise with Israel. Nevertheless, Yassin has remained in Hamas the most faithful representative of the ideas and socio-political doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he views as his first priority. Jihad is indeed the supreme value for the Brothers too, and members must prepare themselves throughout their lives for the time when the movement decides to implement it. Yet, on the way to Jihad there is room for pragmatism and flexibility, on which Islamic ritual sanction can easily be bestowed. Furthermore, the movement’s extensive activity in all social, economic, and cultural realms is the key to the success of Jihad and of the movement’s political course. This activity is accompanied by the principle of “endurance” [Sabr], as well as by the need to pause, occasionally, for organizational soul searching [Taqdir].
The rivalry between secular national groups – within and outside the PLO – and the Muslim Brotherhood – in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – is not a result of the Uprising, or of the Oslo Accord, or of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993-1994. These events only shifted the struggle from the limited arena of student activists at universities to the public domain and, following the establishment of the Authority, to the conflict withHamas as the leading rejectionist element. The backdrop of this conflict, as emerges mainly in the writings of the Brotherhood but not in those of the PLO, are two contrasting worldviews relating to the character of the future Palestinian state and to daily life in Muslim society in general. Presenting these views as two conflicting worldviews, however, is too partial and simplistic.
In the background are two deeper processes affecting Palestinian society and, more specifically, their influence on the Territories: the first is the development of the PLO, and mainly its “Gaza base”, which actually succeeded the Muslim Brotherhood as the central political factor during the Sixties. The second is the growth of a social and political structure of PLO supporters, particularly of Fatah, over the last decade; the mobilization of all political constituencies behind the “state in the making,” and the place of Islamic factions within the power equation of this “state”.
In regard to the relationship between the inhabitants of “Palestine proper” (referring to the Territories and, to some extent, to Israeli Arabs) and the Palestinian Diaspora, the course of development followed by the Islamic Palestinian movemen, and particularly by the Muslim Brotherhood, was antithetical to that of the national movement. Except for a brief period in the early Sixties, the national movement developed outside the borders of Palestine, endorsing universal and Arab ideas in an attempt to adapt them to a unique form of Palestinian patriotism. Not only did the ideology of Palestinian nationalism develop outside the Territories but so did its organization, even before 1967.
Since 1948, the controlling influences in “Palestine” had been organizations perceived as hostile to the national movement and to the idea of democratic-secular Palestinian independence. Beside them were other influential forces, headed by Nasser’s Egypt and the Syrian Baath party, for whom the liberation of Palestine was part of an Arab liberation movement rather than a wish to attain separate Palestinian independence. A situation thus developed whereby refugee camps, which enjoyed some freedom in Syria and an autonomy in Lebanon, together with Palestinian graduates from Arab and foreign universities, shifted the task of developing a national leadership beyond the borders of Palestine. The rapid development of the PLO as a political factor that gained Arab and international legitimization during the Seventies strengthened the unquestioned status of the outside leadership. Aided by Israeli action in this direction, it blocked the option of a local leadership emerging within the Territories.
The perception of the PLO as the exclusive center of power within the Palestinian people was intensified during the mid-Seventies. The PLO invested strenuous efforts in mustering the support of a vast majority by creating a young and institutionalized infrastructure of middle ranks and “foot soldiers.” This infrastructure swore unconditional obedience to the PLO, and consistently refrained from perceiving itself as the breeding ground of a local leadership placed beyond the dictates of the PLO. Jordan aided the process of “shifting the centrality of Palestine outwards” first and then by Israel; it also came to the fore in two additional factors linked to the Palestinian Communists.
Palestinian nationalists within the Territories, drawing legitimacy from the PLO, rose mainly at the expense of the Communist party, which became a Palestinian party after splitting off from its Jordanian sources in 1982. At the April 1987 convention of the National Palestinian Council, the party became to some extent part of the PLO, albeit without endorsing its policy of armed struggle. The decline in the power of the Communist Party helped the PLO to eliminate an obstacle, in the shape of a Palestinian force located within the Territories that fails to heed the dictates of the national Palestinian leadership outside.
Until the Palestinian Intifada, then, we witnessed a steady process whereby the political center of gravity is shifted beyond the borders of Palestine, strengthening the external national leadership at the expense of local forces. The relatively large and well-developed national movement that emerged through it, however, was hardly affected by the local inhabitants until the Intifada began in December 1987.
In contrast, Islamic Palestinian movements developed their ideological approach inspired by outside sources, but their organizational underpinnings were within “Palestine proper”. Furthermore, two of these Islamic movements grew within the Territories themselves, attempting to develop and spread an ideology meant to serve the entire Islamic world. These were the “Islamic Liberation Party,” which evolved as a Palestinian movement although it expanded to the Arab world, and the revolutionary arm of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which espoused the view that Palestine and its struggle for liberation provided a model for the liberation of the whole Islamic world.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the prototype of an Islamic movement following a course of development contrary to that of the PLO. The Palestinian branch of the movement was established in 1945-1946, in answer to two features characterizing Palestinian society at the time. One was the split between the political Islamic element and the national leadership, even if the latter was headed by a religious figure, Haj Amin al-Husseini. The second was a perception of the Palestinian struggle as inseparable from the struggle for the liberation of the entire Muslim world. The growth of the movement after 1948 was marked by ideological and organizational subordination to the parent movement outside Palestine. Until 1967, the Palestinian branch in the Gaza Strip had been part of the Egyptian movement, or fully controlled by the Jordanian movement in the case of the West Bank. The two branches were completely detached territorially, while in the third area, where the state of Israel was established, no trace remained either of the movement or of the Islamic establishment as a whole.
Relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Jordan had a vast impact on the Palestinian branches. The fierce struggle between the Egyptian Brothers and the government of Nasser led to a significant decline in the status of their members in the Gaza Strip and in their levels of involvement, although most of them did remain active and were not subject to imprisonment, exile or executions, as their fellows in Egypt. In the West Bank they were part of the Jordanian movement, and thus enjoyed relative freedom of action. But, at the same time they also became involved in internal Jordanian issues or in its relationships with its rivals in the Arab world, and lost much of their Palestinian character.
Before 1967, Fatah had represented the main threat to the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in the Gaza Strip. The path to the liberation of Palestine and the character of the state after liberation were key questions in the Brothers’ relationship with the PLO. The central problem, however, was that the PLO and other elements, such as the “Arab nationalists” [Al-Qawmiyyun al-Arab] came to be perceived as a tool for introducing into Palestinian society “heretic ideas from the West and its Arab lackeys”. Youths from the Gaza Strip pouring into the PLO ranks symbolized a social and cultural change in Palestinian society. National strivings were not only a source of hope and expectations, but also encouraged social processes that were more appealing than the Brotherhood’s Islamic call. The competition with the PLO thus took on a social rather than a political dimension.
During the Sixties, relationships between the Egyptian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood also deteriorated considerably, affecting the Brothers’ organizational options. Competition with Fatah and the PLO was no longer balanced, and many youngsters abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood and joined the new movement. PLO members, whether because of their previous membership in the Brotherhood or because of the religiousand traditional values characterizing their upbringing, preserved a certain Islamic demeanor in the movement. Yet for the Muslim Brothers, this demeanor was not Islamic, and represented a threat even more dangerous. Contrary to Palestinian groups that upheld Marxist ideas, from which the Muslim Brothers could easily set themselves off, Fatah, was for them a secular movement in Islamic garbs. In practice, it encouraged secularization processes typical of Western culture, even if some of their members preserved Islamic ritual practices.
The struggle between the Brotherhood and the national factions of the PLO thus assumed social and cultural dimensions. In light of the Brothers’ organizational difficulties, their response was to emphasize their message [Da`wah] as a social welfare mission, at the expense of their political ideas. When the Brothers were no longer the main organization in the Gaza Strip, they desisted from their struggle against the Egyptian administration or against their secular rivals within society, choosing to focus on the crux of their doctrine: the amendment of society through the Islamic power bases remaining within their control. In fact, from the mid-Sixties, the Muslim Brotherhood became anideological movement that concentrated on religious preaching at mosques and on the running of secret charity associations. The creation of the PLO in May-June 1964, and the subsequent generation changes in its leadership, also symbolized the process of “away from the center”, from “Palestine”, toward the Arab capitals. Israel’s entry into the Territories in June 1967 accelerated a process that had actually begun several years before.
The “changing of the guard” brought to the leadership of Palestinian nationalists a new generation of university graduates who had studied in Arab countries aided by broad Arab support, and had therefore lived for long periods outside the Territories. Some were residents of refugee camps in Arab countries, and even when they had preserved a close attachment to their birthplaces in “Palestine”, these were often Arab villages now within the borders of Israel rather than in the Territories. Most of the new generations of Palestinian national leaders were refugees from Arab villages now controlled by Israel rather than permanent residents of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. The 1967 war concluded a process that forced the entire Palestinian leadership to concentrate outside the Territories. After 1967, the national leadership – both that of Fatah, which gradually became the leadership of the PLO, and that of the Marxist organizations – built new bases in the Territories relatively quickly, by means of the armed struggle and the military and terrorist deployment. During the Seventies they also engaged in the building of a social and political infrastructure, which turned Fatah into the dominant force within the Territories.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, 1967 seemed to mark no real change. Ideologically, they continued to adhere to the Islamic solution of liberation through Jihad, including the liberation of the Islamic State after its establishment. These changes in the national Palestinian leadership symbolized for them the continuation, and even the intensification, of a cultural process they perceived as bordering on heresy. Hence, they persisted in their efforts to expand their power through persuasion and social action. In the West Bank, and for many years, they continued their activities as they had under Jordanian rule, particularly since their economic base – the Waqf establishment – remained under Jordanian control and did not suffer from Israeli interference. Conflicts with the Israeli government on Islamic issues were handled by the Supreme Muslim Council in Jerusalem, without their intervention.
It was particularly in the Gaza Strip that they demonstrated their powers of survival. In 1969-1971, there were waves of severe disturbances and active opposition to Israeli rule in the Gaza Strip, including acts of terrorism and internal violence aimed at imposing the dominance of the national organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood as an organization, as opposed to religious individuals implementing the Brotherhood’s policy, systematically refrained from any involvement. Preachers in the mosques were anti-Israeli and even anti-Jewish, but this was not a sweeping phenomenon, and they did not engage in any other activity. The movement in the Gaza Strip persisted on the line it had already adopted in the early Sixties. It emphasized the Islamic Da`wah, charity, cultural and social activities, and the distribution of imported Islamic literature, with the aim of expanding its influence.
During the Seventies, the influence of Arab Islamic groups first and foremost the Egyptians, came to the fore in the tendency to view Arab regimes as part of a Western cultural plot against Islam. There were no differences on this score between the various Islamic movements, and the conflict focused on the ways of removing these regimes and building the Islamic State that would replace them. This became the dominant approach and spurred the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties in the Arab world to engage in a struggle against most Arab regimes.
In the Territories, there was no parallel Arab regime against which to struggle. The Muslim Brotherhood did not endorse the approach of the Islamic Jihad, which viewed the struggle against Israel as spearheading a solution appropriate to the whole Islamic world. During the Seventies, therefore, the struggle of the Brotherhood proceeded in the social-cultural realm, while nationalists provided a justification for it even without the Palestinian, Arab, or Israeli political context.
An additional element developed in the Territories from the late Seventies onward. The national Palestinian infrastructure led by the PLO, and particularly by Fatah, gradually came to be perceived as the national leadership of a “quasi-state”. This was mainly due to social changes linked to the development of education, and to demographic processes expanding the leadership ranks to include younger cadres as well as members of families that did not belong to the traditional aristocracy. The claims raised by comparable Islamic parties against the regimes in their own countries could also be raised, presumably, against the “Palestinian regime” in the Territories led by Fatah/PLO. There was, however, one significant difference. The PLO could not be presented as a regime that oppressed its inhabitants or acts in the despotic fashion attacked by Islamic groups in Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries. A further difficulty was the doctrine expounded by Sayyid Qutb in the Sixties, claiming that social and political oppression were the primary criterion in the Islamic struggle. Islamic groups took exception to the corruption, to the comforts enjoyed by PLO activists, to the waste at the expense of the “Palestinian people choking under the yoke of Israeli occupation”, to involvement in inter-Arab conflicts rather than in the Palestinian problem, etc. Yet these claims were raised mainly against the leadership of the organization abroad, as the ranks of Fatah and other PLO groups within the Territories were not a justified target of such allegations. Even when these accusations were raised against PLO activists in the Territories, they tended to focus on issues of personal corruption, loose morals, and aiding the “Jewish enemy” by corrupting the young generation. Hence, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic factions reacted as they had for several decades, by pursuing their attempts to amend society. From the late Seventies, then, the conflict with the PLO/Fatah remained at the cultural/social level, although for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties this level was not only no less important but rather closely linked to the political one.
The reason for the growing confrontation between the nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood during the Eighties, besides the cultural conflict, was a growing sense of power developing within both parties. A new dynamic had been set in motion, cnew power bases within the Territories that began to emerge as a political institutional infrastructure. The universities were the leading bodies, but other institutions also developed. Beyond their political mission, these institutions were also an instrument for developing a Palestinian cultural-social consciousness in the Territories. From the start, this consciousness evolved in a national-secular direction, mainly influenced by the new generation that had brought it about.
But the new political infrastructure and the power centers it created introduced new “rules of the game” in the West Bank and later in the Gaza Strip. The political culture created in the Territories was the one set up by the national factions. To contend with them, Islamic elements led by the Muslim Brotherhood had to play by the same rules. The organizational development of the national factions brought along a similar development in the Brotherhood, although characterized by Islamic features. The foundations of this organizational development were not new, and were grounded in their doctrine in Egypt. Islamic activity at institutions of higher learning was also similar to that current in Egypt and in other Arab countries. The Muslim Brotherhood, in a limited fashion, had also been politically active in Jordan from the Fifties. What made Islamic factions in the Territories unique was their ability to contend with the national factions. Nationalists were portrayed as secular and as bringing apostate Western culture (some deliberately, like the left, and others innocently and involuntarily, like some of the PLO supporters), into the quasi-national domain. At the same time, the fight for Palestinian independence proceeding in the Territories gave Islamic groups a chance to participate, if not at the military level, then at the political cultural one.
The struggle in the Territories, then, assumed the typical features of a struggle for political independence although, contrary to the past, it was the local population rather than other sections of the Palestinian Diaspora that were leading it. This process was sustained by the national infrastructure that had been building up since the mid-Seventies, which was also instrumental in preserving the PLO’s most vital asset. Since this infrastructure was directed and financed by the PLO/Fatah, the PLO retained control of it even after its headquarters had left Lebanon in 1982-1983, and Jordan in the summer of 1986. These frameworks remained committed to the various ideological factions within the PLO, and did not develop independent approaches. The only element that appeared to be autonomous were the independent groupings, put together for terrorist purposes, which had proliferated since the mid-Eighties. Ultimately, however, they fitted the PLO’s strategic conception, proving that the struggle against Israel was not only conducted from the outside but was also the natural response to a “cruel and abusive occupation” from a people with a developed national consciousness. Some members in these groupings also identified with one or another of the movements within the PLO and, generally, all identified with its notion of liberation and with Arafat as the ruler.
One consequence of the buildup of national power in the Territories was to hasten the establishment of an independent entity in the Territories, namely, in part of Palestine only, while conceding the need for a process that would necessarily require the recognition of Israel. This step was completely opposed to the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic elements. In their view, this would imply establishing yet another Arab Muslim State in the context of the national fragmentation characterizing the Islamic Arab world today, to be led by people bearing the banner of secular nationalism. Worse still, this state would join the existing Arab states serving renegade Western culture in its war against Islam, and preventing the Islamic word from establishing the great Islamic Caliphate.
From the beginning of the occupation, the Brotherhood was prominent as a body that acted separately from, and for twenty years even against, the national factions. The development of the national infrastructure in the Territories as a “state in the making” gave the Brotherhood the appropriate domain for highlighting its uniqueness against the national elements. In their traditional strongholds – mosques, religious events, Islamic bookshops, charity organizations, and the Waqf system – there had been little friction between its members and the national elements. But when Islamists entered the main nationalist stronghold in the universities during the Eighties, they were forced to stress their singularity and create the rivalry.
The struggle at the universities largely determined the essence of the contest that was to develop later, including during the uprising. The Islamic arguments against the Palestinian national leadership abroad which, as noted, were inappropriate in the local context, began to focus increasingly on political aspects. Given that national factions in the Territories were in full agreement with the PLO’s political line, the Muslim Brotherhood shifted their rivalry with the PLO to the Territories. The social network where they had begun their activity, which had grown at the initiative of the national bodies, and the focusing of the Palestinian cause on the Territories and their inhabitants, gradually turned the local Muslim Brotherhood into a movement that was first Palestinian, and only then part of the international Islamic movement. The solidarity of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had strongly emphasized Islamic pan-Arabism before 1967, was gradually limited to the area of the Territories from the late Seventies. As a PLO inspired national consciousness developed in Palestinian society as a whole, the Brotherhood became more Palestinian, and this was openly and concretely demonstrated in their involvement in the Intifada and in the Islamic Charter they published in its course.
The insistence of the Muslim Brotherhood on following its own direction and preserving its character and uniqueness were wholly its own initiative. Nationalists, certainly those in Fatah but also in Marxist groups, did not seek conflict with the Brotherhood, and most of the friction between the two sides, at the universities as well as in the public arena, resulted from Islamic initiatives. When a “state in the making” started to emerge in the Territor