In light of Hamas' seizure of the Gaza Strip,
it is worthwhile to understand how this radical Islamist organization came to
play such a major role in Palestinian political life and how Israel and the
United States contributed to making that possible.
Ironically, it was Israel that encouraged the rise of the Palestinian Islamist
movement as a counter to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the secular
coalition composed of Fatah and various leftist and other nationalist movements.
Beginning in the early 1980s, with generous funding from the U.S.-backed family
dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the antecedents of Hamas began to emerge through
the establishment of schools, health care clinics, social service organizations,
and other entities that stressed an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam,
which up to that point had not been very common among the Palestinian population.
The hope was that if people spent more time praying in mosques, they would be
less prone to enlist in left-wing nationalist movements challenging the Israeli
While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or right to
hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities allowed radical
Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored newspapers and even have
their own radio station. For example, in the occupied Palestinian city of Gaza
in 1981, Israeli soldiers – who had shown no hesitation in brutally suppressing
peaceful pro-PLO demonstrations – stood by when a group of Islamic extremists
attacked and burned a PLO-affiliated health clinic in Gaza for offering family
planning services for women.
Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance
Movement), was founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who had been freed from
prison when Israel conquered the Gaza Strip 20 years earlier. Israel's priorities
in suppressing Palestinian dissent during this period were revealing: In 1988,
Israel forcibly exiled Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad, a Christian pacifist
who advocated the use of Gandhian-style resistance to the Israeli occupation
and Israeli-Palestinian peace while allowing Sheik Yassin to circulate anti-Jewish
hate literature and publicly call for the destruction of Israel by force of
American policy was not much different: Up until 1993, U.S. officials in the
consular office in Jerusalem met periodically with Hamas leaders while they
were barred from meeting with anyone from the PLO. This policy continued despite
the fact that the PLO had renounced terrorism and unilaterally recognized Israel
as far back as 1988.
One of the early major boosts for Hamas came when
the Israeli government expelled more than 400 Palestinian Muslims in late 1992.
While most of the exiles were associated with Hamas-affiliated social service
agencies, very few had been accused of any violent crimes. Since such expulsions
are a direct contravention to international law, the UN Security Council unanimously
condemned the action and called for their immediate return. The incoming Clinton
administration, however, blocked the United Nations from enforcing its resolution
and falsely claimed that an Israeli offer to eventually allow some of exiles
back constituted a fulfillment of the UN mandate. The result of the Israeli
and American actions was that the exiles became heroes and martyrs; the credibility
of Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinians grew enormously – and so did their
Still, at the time of the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993,
polls showed that Hamas had the support of only 15 percent of the Palestinian
community. Support for Hamas grew, however, as promises of a viable Palestinian
state faded as Israel continued to expand its colonization drive on the West
Bank, doubling the amount of settlers over the next dozen years. The rule of
Fatah leader and Palestine Authority president Yasser Arafat and his cronies
proved to be corrupt and inept, while Hamas leaders were seen to be more honest
and in keeping with the needs of ordinary Palestinians. In early 2001, Israel
cut off all substantive negotiations with the Palestinians and a devastating
U.S.-backed Israeli offensive the following destroyed much of the Palestine
Authority's infrastructure, making prospects for peace and statehood even more
remote. Israeli closures and blockades sank the Palestinian economy into a serious
depression and Hamas-run social services became all the more important for ordinary
Seeing how Fatah's 1993 decision to end the armed struggle and rely on a U.S.-led
peace process had resulted in increased suffering, Hamas' popularity grew well
beyond its hard-line fundamentalist base, and its use of terrorism against Israel
– despite being immoral, illegal, and counterproductive – seemed to express
the sense of anger and impotence of wide segments of the Palestinian population.
Meanwhile – in a policy defended by both the Bush administration and Democratic
leaders in Congress – Israel's use of death squads resulted in the deaths of
Sheik Yassin and scores of other Hamas leaders, turning them into martyrs in
the eyes of many Palestinians and increasing Hamas' support still further.
The Election of a Hamas Government
With the Bush administration insisting that the
Palestinians stage free and fair elections after the death of Arafat in 2004,
Fatah leaders hoped that coaxing Hamas into the electoral process would help
weaken its more radical elements. However, the response from Washington was
overwhelmingly negative. In December 2005, a month prior to the Palestinian
election, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution by an overwhelming
397-17 majority criticizing Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, for "his willingness
to see Hamas participate in the elections without first calling for it to …
renounce its goal of destroying the State of Israel."
However, neither Pelosi nor other House leaders have ever criticized Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his willingness to see parties such as the National
Union – which seeks to destroy any Palestinian national entity and expel its
Arab population – participate in Israeli elections, an apparent acknowledgment
that while Congress sees Israel's survival as axiomatic, Palestine's survival
is an open-ended question. (In any case, under the Palestinian Authority, as
with the state of Israel, the head of state simply does not have the authority
to ban a political party simply because of its ideology, however repugnant.)
Similarly, the resolution – co-sponsored by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders
– insisted that groups such as Hamas "should not be permitted to participate
in Palestinian elections until such organizations recognize Israel's right to
exist as a Jewish state." Ironically, however, the United States allows a number
of political organizations, such as the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers
World Party – which also refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish
state – to participate in U.S. elections, indicating the apparent belief by
Pelosi and her colleagues that Arab nations should not be able to experience
the same degree of democracy we enjoy in this country, which allows even those
with extreme views to seek political office.
The Senate also weighed in. A letter signed by 73 of 100 senators – including
2008 Democratic presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, and
Barack Obama – also questioned the decision to allow Hamas to participate in
the election on the grounds that "no democracy in the world allows a political
party to bear its own arms." Ironically, just weeks earlier the Senate had voted
unanimously to praise the recently completed Iraqi parliamentary elections in
which a number of political parties with their own militias openly participated
and formed the new Iraqi government. In addition, the United Kingdom – America's
closest ally – allowed Sinn Fein to operate a legal political party and participate
in elections even during the decades in which its armed wing, the Provisional
wing of the Irish Republican Army, engaged in terrorist attacks against British
citizens with no criticism of Westminster emanating from Capitol Hill.
Despite U.S. objections, the Palestinian parliamentary elections went ahead
in January 2006 with Hamas' participation. They were monitored closely by international
observers and were universally recognized as free and fair. With reformist and
leftist parties divided into a half dozen competing slates, Hamas was seen by
many Palestinians disgusted with the status quo as the only viable alternative
to the corrupt Fatah incumbents, and with Israel refusing to engage in substantive
peace negotiations with Abbas' Fatah-led government, they figured there was
little to lose in electing Hamas. In addition, factionalism within the ruling
party led a number of districts to have competing Fatah candidates. As a result,
even though Hamas only received 44 percent of the vote, they captured a majority
of parliament and the right to select the prime minister and form a new government.
Ironically, the position of prime minister did not exist under the original
constitution of the Palestine Authority but was added in March 2003 at the insistence
of the United States, which desired a counterweight to the President Arafat.
As a result, while the elections allowed Abbas to remain as president, he was
forced to share power with Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister.
Efforts to Undermine the Elected Government
Despite claiming support for free elections, the
United States tried from the outset to undermine the Hamas government. It was
largely due to U.S. pressure that Abbas refused Hamas' initial invitation to
form a national unity government that would include Fatah and from which some
of the more hard-line Hamas leaders would have presumably been marginalized.
The Bush administration pressured the Canadians, Europeans, and others in the
international community to impose stiff sanctions on the Palestine Authority,
though a limited amount of aid continued to flow to government offices controlled
by President Abbas.
Palestine was once one of the more prosperous regions in the Arab world, but
decades of Israeli occupation had resulted in the destruction of much of the
indigenous Palestinian economy, making the Palestine Authority dependent on
foreign aid to provide basic functions for its people. The impact of these sanctions,
therefore, was devastating. The Iranian regime rushed in to partially fill the
void, providing millions of dollars to run basic services and giving the Islamic
Republic – which until then had not been allied with Hamas and had not been
a major player in Palestinian politics – unprecedented leverage.
Meanwhile, record unemployment led angry and hungry young men to become easy
recruits for Hamas militants. One leading Fatah official noted, "For many people,
this was the only way to make money." Some Palestinian police, unpaid by their
bankrupt government, clandestinely joined the Hamas militia as a second job,
creating a dual loyalty.
The demands imposed at the insistence of the Bush administration and Congress
on the Palestine Authority (PA) in order to lift the sanctions appeared to be
designed to be rejected and were widely interpreted as a pretext for punishing
the Palestinian population for voting the wrong way. For example, the United
States demanded that the Hamas-led government unilaterally recognize the right
of the state of Israel to exist, even though Israel has never recognized the
right of the Palestinians to have a state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip or
anywhere else. Other demands included an end of attacks on civilians in Israel
while not demanding that Israel likewise end its attacks on civilian areas in
the Gaza Strip. They also demanded that the Hamas-led PA accept all previously
negotiated agreements even as Israel continued to violate key components of
the Wye River Agreement and other negotiated deals with the Palestinians.
While Hamas honored a unilateral cease-fire regarding suicide bombings in Israel,
border clashes and rocket attacks into Israel continued. Israel, meanwhile,
with the support of the Bush administration, engaged in devastating air strikes
against crowded urban neighborhoods, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties.
Congress also went on record defending the Israeli assaults – which were widely
condemned in the international community as excessive and in violation of international
humanitarian law – as legitimate acts of self-defense.
A House resolution last summer, passed by an overwhelming 410-8 majority, went
so far as to praise Israel's "long-standing commitment to minimizing civilian
loss and welcomes Israel's continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties"
despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Only seven Democrats voted against
the resolution, which put them on record commending President Bush "for fully
supporting Israel as it responds to these armed attacks by terrorist organizations
and their state sponsors."
It was out of this environment that Hamas grew from a radical minority to an
electoral majority and is now patrolling the streets of the Gaza Strip in full
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.