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By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh

As Hamas celebrates the twenty-fourth foundation anniversary, the movement, which has become part of the Palestinian equation, faces many entitlements as it stands at the crossroads having to adapt to the developments of the current stage.

Over years, Hamas has become more experienced and better organized. Further, it has succeeded in enforcing its position in the Palestinian society while at the same time it established political relations on the Arab, Islamic and international levels. However, it is today burdened with more responsibilities, has more enemies and is also faced with more criticism. Besides, people might expect it to present what is beyond its capacity or pose questions which it cannot easily answer.

Eight Features of Hamas

Hamas is characterized by eight features which hardly meet in a Palestinian organization or movement. The first feature is its moderate Islamic discourse which is in harmony with people’s convictions and their cultural affiliations. The second is its high dynamism which has enabled it to work even under difficult circumstances and regain its strength and vitality after harsh strikes. The third characteristic is its Shura-based [democratic] institutional construction which has allowed it to maintain its cohesion and strength and to renew its leadership and elect its Shura institutions every four years regardless of the circumstances. The fourth feature is its comprehensive nature which encompasses political, social, charitable, jihadi and educational aspects of life. In this respect, Hamas has succeeded in maintaining continuous communication with the Palestinians on different levels. Fifth, Hamas is characterized in the eyes of Palestinians and Arabs by its outstanding military struggle as it has spearheaded resistance work, especially since 1993. The sixth feature is its wide popularity at home and abroad, which it was able to uphold under different conditions. Seventh, Hamas is generally and comparatively characterized by cleanliness from corruption; thus, its leaders enjoy wide popularity and respect. The last characteristic is Hamas’ presence in Arab and Islamic countries where it enjoys popularity among the masses, which provide Hamas with significant moral and financial support, especially as it is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood which, in its turn, enjoys wide support in the Arab world.

Entitlements and Challenges Facing Hamas

On the 24th anniversary of its foundation, Hamas seems to face a number of entitlements which need more critical reading to promote Hamas’ vision and plans to meet the current challenges. This article will shed light on four of these entitlements.

Reform and Change

The first entitlement is related to the problematic implementation of Hamas’ programme of change and reform especially under occupation in the West Bank. Hamas has so far succeeded in imposing its conditions in the conciliation agreement which was signed in Egypt on 3/5/2011. This would ultimately lead to the formation of a national unity government which paves the way for general elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But what is Hamas’ perception of change and reform?

The slogan in itself is quite attractive; however, the reform process has been proved to be almost impossible under the Israeli occupation, particularly through a resistance movement like Hamas. As long as the occupation exists, it will be able to close borders, prevent import and export, restrict the movement of persons and goods and confiscate funds in addition to destroying economic, agricultural and educational infrastructure. Consequently, if the side administering the West Bank would not make concessions, it would be easy for the occupation authorities to thwart its efforts, close down the institutions it runs and imprison its figures. This is what happened during 2006 and 2007.

Hamas will thus be competing with Fatah to pursue an authority, which is likely to collapse at any time, while assuming power might herald its political decline. Additionally, Hamas’ participation in the next elections might have negative implications for the movement, regardless of the outcome. Thus, in case it won, the movement will be besieged and its efforts would be foiled; if it lost the elections it would not be able to maintain the popular support and “legitimacy” it achieved in 2006. Consequently, Hamas would be targeted by the new authority which enjoys popular and constitutional legitimacy. Apparently, Israel and the U.S are not likely, this time, to agree that Hamas participate in the elections unless they are almost sure it would lose. Besides, many Palestinians —even those who are sympathetic with Hamas— might be reluctant about voting in favor of its candidates as they know it would not be able to implement its programme.

The Resistance Programme

The second challenge has to do with the problematic combination between resistance and authority. Assuming power, running the daily life of people and implementing development projects need pacification in addition to an uninterrupted flow of money and free movement of transportation. Practically, this requires a kind of coexistence with the occupation and delaying any plans for confrontation.

Thus, having declared the end of Hudna (truce) at the end of 2005, Hamas extended the truce again after it won the legislative elections in 2006 although this did not spare it the Israeli siege and attacks. Moreover, when Hamas decided to avenge the Shati’ massacre and the killing of Huda Ghalia’s family, it carried out Operation “Dispelled Illusion” and abducted the Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit. Consequently, Israel arrested a number of Hamas deputies thus disrupting the work of the Legislative Council. It also arrested a number of the ministers in Hamas government and launched Operations Summer Rains and Autumn Clouds against Gaza, leading to the killing of 505 Palestinians and the wounding of 2,205 others.

When Hamas government insisted on its position not to recognize Israel, to abandon the resistance track and commit to the Oslo Accord, it had to face Israeli, Arab and international siege. Further, Israel cut all forms of financial support and prevented any financial transfer into the Gaza Strip, including the tax proceeds it collects for the PA.

Notwithstanding Hamas’ steadfastness in the Gaza Strip under the siege and the Israeli attacks, the movement was gradually losing the ability to initiate attacks against Israelis in the vicinity surrounding Gaza and had instead to defend itself against the Israeli aggression. Before Operation Cast Lead (27/12/2008–18/1/2009), Hamas used to reject any truce and launch tens of missiles on daily basis requiring Israel to lift the Gaza siege. This is what happened upon the end of the truce on 19/12/2008 and the seven following days. However, despite its persistence and defiance of the Israeli aggression, Hamas had to undergo an undeclared shift in its policy and show readiness for a truce if the Israeli side stops the attacks. Thus, even when Gaza remained the stronghold of the resistance, self-preservation was an urgent need regardless of the justifications.

Accordingly, should Hamas insist on the commitment to the resistance track, it would have to seek changing the basis upon which the PA was founded and urge the Israelis to respect the choices of the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, this alternative does not seem realistic in the time being. The other alternative is for Hamas to change the role of the PA thus transform it from an authority which provides services to Israeli occupation to an authority which adopts the resistance choice. This, consequently, means the collapse of the current government and leaving it for the Israelis to manage people’s daily life. In the meantime, the Palestinian factions will be occupied with political work, resisting the occupation and supporting the steadfastness of the Palestinian people. This is an alternative worth of attention but it is difficult to implement without Palestinian national consensus and without the belief in the futility of proceeding with the current course of peace settlement.

The Palestinian Conciliation

The third entitlement is related to the Palestinian conciliation. Despite the signing of the agreement, the relation between Hamas and Fatah is still based on shaky grounds and there is much fear and mistrust between the two sides. In addition, there are genuine differences on the ideological level and a competition between an Islamic vision refusing to recognize Israel and another secular pragmatic vision which would accept to establish a Palestinian State on 23% of the Palestinian land and to recognize Israel. Besides, there is a side which considers resistance a priority and still rejects the conditions of the Quartet to lift the siege and another side which does not mind the Quartet conditions and seeks the solution in the peace settlement and negotiations track.

Accordingly, there is still disagreement regarding the national project and determining its priorities. Moreover, Abu Mazen still controls the pace of the conciliation process where he could freeze it for more than 7 months (from May 2011) through his insistence on nominating Salam Fayyad for premiership. Further, he could politically employ the conciliation to proceed with the state bid before the United Nations. Ultimately, ‘Abbas did not show seriousness concerning the conciliation, except after the failure of the Palestinian request to declare the Palestinian State.

Still, Abu Mazen stresses the commitment to the peace settlement process and he knows that the American-Israeli conditions would hinder the formation of a national unity government, oppose expanding the scope of freedoms in the West Bank, prevent the restructuring of the security apparatuses on national basis accepted by Hamas and the other resistance factions and finally reject any cooperation with a government which Hamas heads or participates in.

The Palestinian conciliation is in its essence a national priority. However, its tactical employment and the lack of momentum and a mechanism for its implementation, besides Abu Mazen’s monopoly of controlling the procedure of the conciliation, make Abu Mazen abler to maneuver and present initiatives. Presiding over the PA and the PLO and enjoying Arab and international support would give Abu Mazen the upper hand while putting Hamas under the pressure of the changing conditions. Unless Hamas figures out an effective mechanism for implementing the agreement, it will be facing an empty conciliation, while the other side selects what it finds suitable for implementation.

The Arab Uprisings

The fourth entitlement has to do with the Arab uprisings and their implications on the Palestinian issue and on Hamas. This entitlement has several repercussions and it requires Hamas to give more attention to popular will demanding overcoming the division and accommodating other trends while finding common ground for Palestinian national work.

On another level, this entitlement provides Hamas with new strategic spaces, which are closer to its ideology and more supportive of its resistance programme. Thus, the development of the Arab uprisings (especially in Egypt) may curb the peace settlement track, whereas normalization with Israel will almost decline. In addition, the Gaza siege will be lifted and Hamas will gain strategic Arab allies that would support the conciliation and the reorganization of the Palestinian internal house on new basis, where Hamas and the resistance factions will be effectively involved in the PLO and in determining national priorities. Nonetheless, the possibility that the Arab regimes get busy with internal concerns might have negative implications on the Palestinian issue. Hence, Hamas is required to stress the importance of the Arab and Islamic dimension of the change movements, especially those led by the Islamic trend which enjoys popularity in the Arab street and a strong relationship with Hamas.

Further, the Arab uprisings will cast their shadow on the relation between Hamas and Syria and the so-called axis of opposition. In fact, Hamas has lost some of its effectiveness abroad due to the events taking place in Syria. Hamas does not deny the importance of the relationship with Syria and the services the ruling regime has provided for Hamas and other resistance forces.

In fact, this relation has benefitted both sides on the strategic and political levels. However, Hamas is a popular movement and enjoys prominent position among the Syrian people which has embraced Hamas and supported it. Besides, its ideology is inherently based on achieving freedom and dignity and respecting the will of the people. Therefore, Hamas has stressed that it would not forget the regime’s support, emphasizing that it is against any conspiracy targeting Syria and its stances which support the resistance. Yet, Hamas is also in favor of the just demands of the Syrian people. Thus, it has wished from the outset that the regime would walk the walk of serious reformist and allow the Syrians to express their true will and the peaceful transfer of power, without bloodshed and without creating conditions that might lead to foreign intervention. Nonetheless, Hamas now is under the pressure to determine its position in a decisive manner. This entitlement could be the basis for other entitlements such as the relation with Iran and Hezbollah should they proceed with their current stance towards Syria.

In any case, Hamas is but expected to support the free will of the people and a transparent democratic regime far from foreign intervention, supportive of the resistance and eventually reflecting the authenticity of the Syrian people.

The original Arabic article appeared on Al on 23/12/2011

Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 26/12/2011