Engaging the World: The ‘fascinating story’ of Hamas’s political evolution

Romana Rubeo and Ramzy Baroud

On 4 February 2021, representatives from the Palestinian movement Hamas visited Moscow to inform the Russian government of the latest developments in unity talks between the Islamic resistance movement and its Palestinian counterparts, especially Fatah.

This was not the first time that Hamas’s officials had travelled to Moscow on similar missions. In fact, Moscow continues to represent an important political breathing space for Hamas, which has been isolated by Israel’s western benefactors. Involved in imposing this isolation are also several Arab governments that, undoubtedly, have done little to break the Israeli siege on Gaza.

The Russia-Hamas closeness is already paying dividends. On 17 February, shipments of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, made their way into Gaza via Israel, a testament to that growing rapport, and how it is being leveraged for the Palestinian benefit. While Russia alone cannot effect a complete paradigm shift in the case of Palestine, Hamas feels that a Russian alternative to the blind and conditional American support for Israel is possible, if not urgent. 

Recently, we interviewed Dr Daud Abdullah, author of Engaging the World: The Making of Hamas’s Foreign Policy, and Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, which published Abdullah’s book.

Abdullah’s volume on Hamas is a must-read, offering a unique take on the Islamist movement, and liberating discussion on the group from the confines of the reductionist western media perception of it as a terrorist organisation, and from the counterclaims as well. In this book, Hamas is viewed, and portrayed, as a realist political actor whose armed resistance is only one component in a complex and far-reaching strategy.

Why Russia? 

As Moscow continues to cement its presence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by offering itself as a political partner, and, compared with the US, a more balanced mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, Hamas sees the developing Russian role as a rare opportunity to break away from the USA-Israel imposed isolation.

‘Russia was a member of the Quartet that was set up in 2003 but, of course, as a member of the [UN] Security Council, it has always had an ability to inform the discourse on Palestine,’ Abdullah said, adding that in light of ‘the gradual demise of American influence, Russia realised that there was an emerging vacuum in the region, particularly after the [Arab] uprisings. The relationship [between Hamas and Russia] took off after the [Palestinian] elections in 2006, but it was not Hamas’s initiative; it was [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who, in a press conference in Madrid after the election, said that he would be willing to host Hamas’s leadership in Moscow. Because Russia is looking for a place in the region.’

Hamas’s willingness to engage with the Russians is based on more than one reason, chief among them is the fact that Moscow, unlike Washington, refused to abide by Israel’s portrayal of the movement. ‘The fundamental difference between Russia and America and China,’ argued Abdullah, ‘is that the Russians and the Chinese do not recognise Hamas as a “terrorist organization”. They have never done so, unlike the Americans, and so it made it easy for them to engage openly with Hamas.’

On Hamas’s ‘strategic balance’

Abdullah writes in the book about the 1993 Oslo Accords, which represented a watershed moment not only for Hamas but for the entire Palestinian liberation struggle. The shift towards a USA-led ‘peace process’ compelled Hamas to maintain a delicate balance ‘between strategic objectives and tactical flexibility’, he says. ‘Hamas sees foreign relations as an integral and important part of its political ideology and liberation strategy. Soon after the movement emerged, foreign policies were developed to help its leaders and members navigate this tension between idealism and realism. This pragmatism is evident in the fact that Hamas was able to establish relations with the regimes of Muammar Gaddhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, both of whom were fiercely opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.’

‘From the very beginning,’ Abdullah elaborated in our interview, ‘Hamas adopted certain principles in respect to its international relations, and, later on, in the formation of a foreign policy. Among these, there is a question of maintaining its independence of decision-making; non-alignment in conflicting blocks; avoidance of interference in the affairs of other states.’

Jeenah, an accomplished writer himself, also spoke of the ‘delicate balance’. ‘It is a delicate balance, and a difficult one to maintain because, at this stage, when movements are regarded and regard themselves as liberation movements, they need to have higher moral and ethical standards than, for example, governments,’ Jeenah said. ‘For some reason, we expect that governments have to make difficult choices but, with liberation movements, we don’t, because they are all about idealism and creating an ideal society, etc.’

Jeenah used the South Africa anti-apartheid struggle that, in many ways, is comparable to the Palestinian quest for freedom, to illustrate his point: ‘When the liberation movements in South Africa were exiled, they took a similar kind of position. While some of them might have had a particular allegiance to the Soviet Union or to China, some of them also had strong operations in European countries, which they regarded as part of the bigger empire. Nevertheless, they had the freedom to operate there. Some of them operated in other African countries where there were dictatorships and they got protection from those states.’

Hamas and the question of national unity

In Engaging the World, which promises to be an essential read on the subject, Abdullah lists six principles that guide Hamas’s political agenda. One of these guiding principles is the ‘search for common ground’. In addressing the question of Palestinian factionalism, we contended that while Fatah had failed at creating a common, nominally democratic platform for Palestinians to interact politically, Hamas cannot be entirely blameless. If that is the case, can one then assert that Hamas has succeeded in its search for the elusive common ground?

Abdullah responded by referring to the 2006 elections. ‘Although Hamas won convincingly and they could have formed a government, they decided to opt for a government of national unity. They offered to [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and to Fatah to come into a government of national unity. They didn’t want to govern by themselves. And that, to me, is emblematic of their vision, their commitment to national unity.’ 

But the question of national unity, however coveted and urgently required, is not just controlled by Palestinians. ‘The PLO is the one that signed the Oslo Accords,’ Abdullah said, ‘and I think this is one of Hamas’s weaknesses: as much as it wants national unity and a reform of the PLO, the fact is that Israel and the West will not allow Hamas to enter into the PLO easily, because this would be the end of Oslo.’

On Elections under military occupation

On 15 January, Abbas announced an official decree to hold Palestinian elections, first presidential then legislative, then elections for the PLO’s Palestine National Council (PNC), which has historically served as a Palestinian parliament in exile. The first phase of these elections is scheduled for 22 May. But will this solve the endemic problem of Palestinian political representation? Moreover, is this the proper historical evolution of national liberation movements – democracy under military occupation, followed by liberation, instead of the other way around?  

Jeenah spoke of this dichotomy: ‘On the one hand, elections are an opportunity for Palestinians to express their choices. On the other hand, what is the election really? We are not talking about a democratic election for a state, but for a bantustan authority, with greater constraints on it than the South African bantustan authorit[ies] had.’ Moreover, he added, the Israeli ‘occupying power will not make the mistake it did the last time. It will not allow such freedom [because of which] Hamas [had] won the elections. I don’t think Israel is going to allow it now.’

Yet there is a silver lining in this unpromising scenario. According to Jeenah, ‘The only difference this election could make is allowing some kind of reconciliation between Gaza and the West Bank.’

Hamas, the ICC and war crimes 

An urgent question currently facing Hamas is that of the anticipated war crime investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into the 2008-2009 Israeli attack on Gaza. When the ICC agreed to consider allegations of war crimes in that conflict, it was clear that its investigations will probe not only alleged Israeli war criminals but Palestinians from Gaza as well.

Abdullah argued that in the Israeli wars on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014, Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups in Gaza had no other option but to ‘defend the civilian population’. He said that the ‘overriding concept’ is that Hamas ‘believes in the principle of international law’. If Hamas ‘can restore the rights of the Palestinian people through legal channels, then it will be much easier for the movement, rather than having to opt for the armed struggle,’ he asserted.

Understanding Hamas

Abdullah’s book is critical to an understanding of Hamas, not only as part of the Palestine-related discourse, but as part of understanding the region as a whole. Jeenah suggested that Abdullah’s book is not necessarily an ‘introductory text to the Hamas Movement’, but that it has ‘a particular focus, which is the development of Hamas’s foreign policy… There isn’t another text that deals specifically with Hamas’s foreign policy. What this book does is present Hamas as a realist political actor.’ The evolution of Hamas’s political discourse and behaviour since its inception, according to Jeenah, is ‘fascinating’.

Many commentators agree. Leading Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, for example, wrote: ‘This book challenges successfully the common misrepresentation of Hamas in the West. It is a must-read for anyone engaged with the Palestine issue and interested in an honest introduction to this important Palestinian Movement.’

* Romana Rubeo is an Italian writer and Managing Editor of The Palestine Chronicle.

* Dr Ramzy Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow with the Afro-Middle East Centre, a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He authored five books, the latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons.

Last modified on Friday, 05 March 2021 15:52

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