For 21 years, Hamas has endured imprisonment, assassinations, expulsion, boycott and siege, and has grown in strength through it all
HEBRON, WEST BANK — On Monday, as Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza, a group of 10 Egyptian surgeons made their way across the frontier into the embattled Palestinian strip. They came through the infamous tunnels that have served as a supply route to Gaza from Egypt, even as Israel began shelling the passageways.
“We came to help our brothers in Gaza,” said Abu Abdullah, a doctor from Cairo who declined to give his full, proper name. The 10, followers of the Muslim Brotherhood that dominates Egypt’s medical and other professions, say their political views are not what’s important. “We came as professionals,” Abu Abdullah said, “to assist people who are part of the larger Arab nation.”
“Since we came,” he said, “we have not stopped working. It’s non-stop surgery.”
The commitment of people such as these is just one of the reasons why the bloody and battered Hamas movement will live to fight another day.
After one week and more than 500 Israeli Air Force sorties against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, more than 400 Palestinians have been killed, 2,000 injured, and nearly every instrument of the Hamas administration obliterated. But, as Israel’s own leadership acknowledges, even with a powerful ground invasion that could come at any time, the movement that was born of the resistance to Israeli occupation and rose to infamy through suicide bombings and other terrorist tactics, just won’t die.
The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas is an acronym from the Arabic) was founded in late 1987, at the start of the first modern Palestinian uprising, or intifada. The group grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood that took root when Egypt dominated the area. Even Israel supported the Brotherhood in the 1970s and 80s, viewing the social movement as a benign alternative to the violent Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat. In the intifada, Hamas’s dedicated young activists attracted many followers and it began to rival the PLO for political influence.
For 21 years, Hamas has endured imprisonment, assassinations, expulsion, boycott and siege, and it has grown in strength through it all. It has practised rock-throwing, drive-by shooting, kidnapping, suicide bombing and, most recently, rocket attacks. It won the only multiparty election in Palestinian history in 2006 and, when it failed to work out a power-sharing arrangement with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, it defeated Mr. Abbas’s forces in a brutal campaign for control of the Gaza Strip.
While Hamas began in the Gaza Strip, it also flourished, to a lesser degree, in the West Bank, particularly in the more religious, southern city of Hebron.
At the Al-Haras mosque in Hebron, a dozen men sat around an electric heater just before midafternoon prayers on Thursday. They were keen to talk about the heroics and the future of the Hamas movement they support.
Five years ago, in one of the most gruesome attacks in the 2000-2005 intifada, the imam of the mosque, Raed Abdul-Hamid Misq, blew himself up on a bus in Jerusalem, killing 23 Israelis, including seven children, as they returned from praying at the Western Wall in the Old City. The father of two young children, Mr. Misq was reported to be a close friend of a leader of another movement, Islamic Jihad, who had been killed by Israeli forces a few days before.
“It’s not important how many people are killed,” said Arif Dweik, 51. “The people of Gaza are strong believers in God, and you can’t erase their belief with tanks or planes.”
Mr. Dweik is a cousin of Aziz Dweik, also a member of this mosque and the political leader of Hamas in the West Bank. He was elected Speaker of the Palestinian legislature following the 2006 election, but was jailed by Israel for being a member of a subversive movement.
“Hamas will survive this battle,” Mr. Dweik said.
As the men spoke, news emerged that Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader had been killed by a bomb in Gaza. Could the movement survive the loss of all its leaders?
“It doesn’t matter who dies,” said Adnan al-Qawasmeh, 29, the nephew of the late leader of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who was killed by Israeli forces four years ago. “There will be others to take their places, just as others took the place of Prophet Mohammed when he died, and Islam became even stronger.”
“This is the strength of Hamas,” said Mohammed Asa’d Ewaiwi, speaking in a nearby coffee house. “What distinguishes it from other movements is that it has leadership across the generations.”
“Compare that to Fatah,” said Mr. Ewaiwi, a political science professor at Al-Quds Open University. “Look what happened when Arafat died. There was chaos, and very weak leadership.”
The other great strength of Hamas, say Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela, two Israeli academics who authored the book The Palestinian Hamas, is that it is more than just a militant or terrorist movement. “Contrary to this description, it is essentially a social movement,” they write. “As such, Hamas has directed its energies and resources primarily toward providing services to the community, especially responding to its immediate hardships and concerns.”
“The common people constitute its main stronghold,” they say.
Indeed, Islamic movements in the mould of the Muslim Brotherhood have proliferated across the Middle East in recent years, largely answering the call from people who are unrepresented in less than democratic situations.
In Egypt, where the movement was founded 80 years ago, the Brotherhood is the main opposition to the Mubarak administration, despite being banned from running for office. It governs many of the country’s labour and professional syndicates and runs many health services. In Algeria, only a military coup kept the Islamic Salvation Front from winning parliamentary election, and in Turkey a moderate Islamic movement now forms the government. Islamic movements have been part of government in both Lebanon and Jordan, and are represented in Israel’s Knesset.
Only in Syria has the Muslim Brotherhood been stamped out, literally. In 1982, when the Brotherhood began to challenge the regime of Hafez Assad, Syrian troops were ordered to shell the group’s stronghold in the city of Hama. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed and buried when a large portion of the city was bulldozed and flattened.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman referred to brutal actions such as this as “playing by Hama rules.”
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has been extraordinarily harsh, but it’s still nothing like Hama rules.
Israel can’t play by such rules, says Mark Heller, principal research associate of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University – which is why it’s so difficult to deal with a non-state actor such as Hamas.
And that is why Israeli leaders have concluded they can’t wipe out Hamas even if they wanted to.
“We just want them to change their behaviour,” said a close associate of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Can they change?
“Yes,” Prof. Ewaiwi says. “Hamas is the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood, and one of the reasons for its great endurance is its realistic, pragmatic approach.”
“Hamas will adapt to circumstances,” he said.
They have in the past. About 2005-06, for example, it dawned on Hamas leaders that the group’s suicide bombing campaign was not winning them international support and they largely dropped it as a tactic, replacing it with other tactics, such as rocket attacks.
Interestingly, when Israel launched its overpowering assault on Hamas last Saturday, many thought the group would revert to its old tactic. As of this writing it hasn’t, and Abduljaber Fuqahaa, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, thinks it won’t.
“They don’t want to do this because they want the world to help Hamas and the Palestinian people. And they know that if they send suicide bombers, the world would turn against them.”
Prof. Ewaiwi thinks Hamas will be willing to agree to a new ceasefire with Israel in the short term and, more than that, would be willing to agree to a very long-term truce.
“If Israel pulls back to the 1967 borders and addresses the refugee issue, yes, I believe Hamas would agree to such a truce.”
Indeed, that’s what Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said in an interview in Gaza three weeks ago, with one caveat.
“Hamas accepts having the ’67 borders for a [Palestinian] state, but without recognition of Israel,” Dr. Zahar said. “We can reach with them a state of quiet, but we will never recognize Israel – never.”
To recognize Israel, he explained, would be to “accept the Israeli crimes, its aggression and occupation.”
At the Al-Haras mosque in Hebron, Mr. al-Qawasmeh fingered his amber prayer beads and noted that “since 1924, when the [Islamic] caliphate was ended, the West has enjoyed the comfort” of the absence of Islam’s influence.
“Only in the last few years has Islam posed a threat to the West and others,” he said, “and only now have they begun to realize they will have to learn to live with us again.”