I began reading this fascinating book in Heathrow airport very, very early in the morning – the sort of time when people fear speaking in case their internal organs drift upwards and irreversibly out of their body (just me?).
However, despite the obvious dangers of starting a conversation with a stranger at such a time, two Israeli women were so disgusted/intrigued that I was reading a book entitled HAMAS – in big green lettering – that they were compelled to ask me why. This is indicative of the passions often stirred when one mentions one of the most dangerous, and yet popular, terrorist organisations in the world. Even after explaining that I work for Labour Friends of Israel, they were not entirely convinced that I should be reading a book about an organisation they regard as blood-thirsty and murderous.
The authors of this work, Beverly Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, open with the assertion that: “to study is not to support”, and I couldn’t agree more. Labour Friends of Israel recently ran a policy project exploring the options available to those wishing to both undermine Hamas and improve the humanitarian situation of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. If we had simply listened and not studied, we would have concluded that there were only two options – the status quo, or inviting Hamas to join negotiations to shape the borders of the Middle East for generations to come. We concluded neither.
Despite spending the last six months immersed in material concerning Hamas, Milton-Edwards and Farrell’s exploration of Palestinian political history and the role of Islamism provided new and thoroughly researched perspectives. To take one: contemporary discussions around the potential for ‘Palestinian reconciliation’ between the Islamist Hamas and the secular Fatah tend to ignore the deep divisions that exist and, to an extent, define the two movements. The authors’ narrative neatly implies that, in becoming accustomed to dealing with Fatah and the PLO over the last 20 years, the West has ignored the dangerously deep roots of those Palestinian activists that have always seen Islam, rather than the nation-state, as the vehicle for establishing political consciousness. It is these roots that the authors of Hamas so elegantly trace – from Izz ad-Din al-Qassam’s violent campaigns against the British in the ‘30s, through Ahmed Yassin’s attempts to Islamise Palestinian society under the radar of both Fatah and Israel in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to Hamas’ remarkably successful efforts to build upon Yassin’s work in the ‘90s and ‘00s, establishing a feared army of rocket launchers, suicide bombers and media manipulators.
Entirely avoiding cliché, the authors expose the reader to fascinating realities not usually provided by the media, be it European, Palestinian, Israeli or American. For me, one of the most important themes of the book is that religion is genuinely central to what Hamas is all about. Whilst we can argue over how likely it is that Hamas may, one day, recognise Israel or accept certain ceasefire arrangements, we should never underestimate Hamas’ unwavering determination to see the whole territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan eventually become an entirely Islamist entity. In fact, if one does not accept this as truth, one will never understand how Hamas believes resistance through adherence to Islamic principles is sometimes more important than resistance through political achievement. Whilst Fatah has spent its entire existence, whether fighting or negotiating with Israel, seeking to establish some kind of Palestinian state, Hamas and its predecessors have been equally busy equating Palestine with Islam and Islam with themselves. Herein lies the source of our difficulties when dealing with the militant organisation – it is, by its nature, not rational and not modern. How can we ask Israel to make a deal with an organisation that will always put its own ‘truth’ above the truth and commitments contained within political treaties?
The authors contend that Hamas cannot be ignored or wished away and, on the basis of their highly detailed and honest work tracing the roots of political Islamism in Palestine to long before the creation of Israel, it seems that they are correct. We shouldn’t ignore Hamas’ popularity and strength, however objectionable the movement’s adherence to illiberal, authoritarian principles is. Equally, we shouldn’t assume that Hamas can be bombed away. So, how do we move forward? By detailing how Hamas gained a grip on sections of Palestinian society, benefitting from and also contributing to the failure of the peace process, Beverly Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell successfully focus our gaze on the people of the Palestinian territories and Israel that have become ensnared in this deadly game. The answer must therefore be to provide Gaza’s people with a new focal point for their lives, other than the charitable and indoctrinating foundations of Hamas, and to provide the people of Israel with security from Hamas’ suicide bombings and rocket attacks emanating from the economically impoverished but politically central Gaza Strip.
With Hamas, Milton-Edwards and Farrell have provided an instantly engaging exploration of the key historical moments and players that have shaped the development of Palestinian political Islamism. Through numerous interviews with Hamas and Fatah activists, as well as those Israelis central to their country’s counter-terrorist strategy, the authors have brought Hamas’ agenda to life – and it is all the more disturbing for it.
Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement, by Beverly Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, is available from Polity Press
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