||Last Updated: May 3rd, 2007 - 09:18:39
The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) is a controversial organisation in the West. Better known for its suicide bombing operations against Israeli civilian targets than its impressive network of religious and socio-economic organisations, Hamas tends to be seen as a terrorist movement.
This perception of Hamas has been shaped – to a large extent – by Western analysts, writers and reporters who have been more eager to serve Israeli security interests than to report the truth about this large and powerful movement.
This backdrop lends a great amount of importance to Azzam Tamimi’s Hamas: Unwritten Chapters, which is the first authoritative account of Hamas’ roots, emergence and evolution in book form. While clearly not an impartial observer, Tamimi goes a long way to correct, or at least create a balance to the relentless propaganda and disinformation of Israel and its supporters in the West.
Tamimi’s book is particularly important in three respects; first it provides a detailed and authoritative account of Hamas’ roots in the Muslim Brotherhood; second it outlines and explains the movement’s intriguing and troubled relationship with both the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and the Jordanian regime in the 1990s; third it sets out – albeit implicitly at times - the threat that the Islamic movement poses to Israel’s long-term survival.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The controversy over Hamas is compounded by the organisation’s deep – indeed existential – relationship with the eponymous Muslim Brotherhood movement. The Muslim Brotherhood is itself a profoundly controversial movement. Founded in Egypt, but now with a solid presence in up to 80 countries worldwide, the Brotherhood is the oldest and largest Islamist movement in the world. While the Brotherhood has failed to take power in Egypt or elsewhere, the movement (and its offshoots) has gradually Islamised society and culture in a number of key Arab countries, in particular Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Algeria.
In the West, the discourse on the Muslim Brotherhood is mostly security-centred, with a sizeable number of analysts firmly adamant that the Brotherhood is the root source of virtually all forms of so-called Islamic extremism and terrorism. This discourse ignores the Brotherhood’s moderating influence on Islamist ideology and politics.
The author does well to describe the rising fortune of Palestinian Islamists after the 1967 Six-Day War, which had a calamitous effect on Arab nationalism. But the analysis of the political and ideological repercussions of that historical moment sets one of the major themes of the book. Indeed, Tamimi employs a dichotomisation strategy, often portraying nationalism and Islamism in antagonistic terms. There is rarely any acknowledgement that Hamas, as an outgrowth of the Egyptian Ikhwan, had been influenced by the nationalism of Fatah. This political bias reduces the complexity of Palestinian politics and the intense interplay between nationalist and Islamist narratives, not least because of the small geographical size of the Palestinian territories.
Despite its limitations, the section on the origins of Hamas also provides a penetrating insight into the workings of the Muslim Brotherhood and how the movement divides into national components, which through time, adapt to local conditions. The leaders of the Palestinian Ikhwan, led by the legendary Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (who was assassinated by Israel in March 2004) had devised a long-term plan to fight the Israeli occupation. But in order to be effective at fighting Israel, the Ikhwan needed to win widespread support amongst Palestinians. Yassin’s political strategy was similar to that of Ikhwan branches in other parts of the Arab world, insofar as it revolved around the setting up of educational and charitable institutions to impart Islamic education and develop broad-based grassroots support. Inevitably this would take a long time to mature, a point which the author is keen to make over and over again to explain why it took the Palestinian Ikhwan more than 40 years to start an armed struggle against the Israeli occupation.
Hamas and Jordan
A second important feature of Tamimi’s book is the detailed coverage of Hamas’ relationship with Jordan; in particular the Jordanian security establishment and the local Ikhwan branch. This is important because it contextualises Hamas’ growth in the 1990s and the role played by Hamas leaders outside the occupied territories. Indeed, the complex dynamic between the “insiders” (i.e. Hamas leaders and activists inside the occupied territories) and the “outsiders” led by the movement’s political bureau in Amman, has been a constant theme in the evolution of Hamas.
The so-called ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between Hamas and the Jordanian regime in early 1993 is still shrouded in mystery. This is not surprising, given that the deal was strongly security-centred and almost entirely overseen by Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID). While Tamimi demonstrates an impressive command of the facts, it is obvious that much of his information has been supplied by Hamas. Therefore, while the author fills an important informational vacuum on the origins of the deal between Hamas and Jordanian intelligence (and the subsequent evolution of the volatile relationship), this does not by any means constitute a comprehensive – let alone authoritative - account of the relationship.
While the author’s description of the relationship between Hamas and the Jordanian regime leaves a lot to be desired, the same cannot be said of his coverage of Hamas’ relationship with the local Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Tamimi does very well to outline and explain the relationship between four legal entities, namely Hamas, Jordanian intelligence, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front (the political wing of the Jordanian Ikhwan which holds seats in the Jordanian parliament).
Tamimi – despite his pro-Hamas bias – provides a reasonably objective account of one of the most important events in the relationship between Hamas, the GID and the Jordanian Ikhwan. The plot centres on Isam Al-Najjar (Hamas’ main point of contact with the GID) and his alleged torture by GID agents in August-September 1996. Tamimi is anxious to describe the event as a plot by the GID to create a rift between Hamas and the Jordanian Ikhwan. The author’s description of the events (and the wider international, political and security dimensions) is highly convincing.
More broadly, Tamimi succeeds in explaining the complexity of the relationship between Hamas and the Jordanian Ikhwan. While the two were (for reasons of history, ideology and geographic proximity) almost inseparable, rifts did occur and the Jordanian regime (with ample encouragement from Israel and the U.S.—as Tamimi is anxious to point out) exploited these with zeal and skill in equal measure. Tamimi’s comprehensive and authoritative account of the relationship makes his book as much a study into the Muslim Brotherhood as a treatment on Hamas and its conflict with the Israeli occupation. Hamas is now an independent entity (with much of its ties to the Jordanian and Egyptian Ikhwan either severed or significantly downgraded) but Tamimi succeeds in presenting the Islamic Resistance Movement as the most authentic local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – not least because of its intense relationship with the Egyptian and Jordanian Ikhwan.
Hamas and Israel
Tamimi’s account of the emergence and evolution of the Islamic Resistance Movement demolishes the myth that Israel had in any way been intentionally complicit in the rise of Hamas. This myth has long been propagated by Fatah leaders and loyalists who have watched Hamas grow in power and prominence at the expense of the secular nationalist Palestinian movement. Israel and its supporters in the West have also been keen to propagate this myth, anxious as they are to exploit any medium or rumour to damage Hamas.
But while Israel clearly had no interest to facilitate an Islamist alternative to the secular nationalist Palestinian resistance, its actions against Hamas have unwittingly boosted the power and prestige of the Islamic Resistance Movement.
Tamimi identifies two incidents in particular which helped Hamas to grow and gradually displace Fatah and the PLO as the main bastion of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation. The first was the deportation by Israel of hundreds of Palestinians, including 415 members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to southern Lebanon in December 1992. The whole exercise was a huge blunder on the part of Israel as it gave worldwide publicity to Hamas and marked its emergence as a power to be reckoned with, not only in the Palestinian-Israeli arena but in the wider politics of the region as well. The second was the botched assassination of Khaled Mish’al, the head of Hamas’ political bureau in Amman, in September 1997. This clumsy operation not only shattered the myth of MOSSAD prowess, which Israel and its supporters had carefully cultivated over the course of decades; but more importantly it resulted in tangible gains for Hamas, including the release of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin from Israeli custody and a temporary improvement of Hamas-Jordanian relations. The author is correct to describe the whole affair as a “blessing in disguise” for the Islamic Resistance movement.
More broadly, the author describes with convincing clarity Israel’s failure to cope with the challenge of Hamas. While the Israeli occupation has dealt blow after blow on Hamas, eliminating many of its leaders and hundreds of hardcore members in so-called “targeted assassinations” and military operations, it has utterly failed to stem the growth and power of the Islamic Resistance Movement. The main factor behind this failure is Hamas’ configuration as a network of educational and charitable organisations which build grassroots support and underpin much of the movement’s political and military activities. The American military intelligence establishment has even coined a term for movements like Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, referring to them as “Zakat-Jihad” organisations. The upshot is that no matter how hard Israel strikes at Hamas, the movement continues its natural growth, rooted as it is in the fabric of Palestinian society.
The section on Hamas’ remarkable electoral victory in January 2006 is one of the weaker parts of the book, with the author being too eager to defend Hamas’ position vis-à-vis the internal and external pressures, most notably the financial embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority by Israel, the EU and the United States. One other major shortcoming is the author’s failure to discuss the possible repercussions of Hamas’ growing “respectability”, as evidenced by its full absorption into the processes and culture of Palestinian politics. One obvious repercussion is the emergence of extremist groups in the occupied Palestinian territories. There is increasing speculation of the emergence of “Al-Qaeda in Palestine” on websites connected to the so-called “Salafi-Jihadis”. Indeed, there is evidence that extremists may be gaining ground, with the kidnap of BBC reporter Alan Johnston being an alarming case in point.
Despite flaws in terms of objectivity and a dispassionate analysis of events and issues, there can be little doubt that Hamas: Unwritten Chapters is the most authoritative account to date of the emergence and development of the Islamic Resistance Movement.
Tamimi’s book is a must-read, not only for students and observers of Palestinian issues, but for anyone interested in the politics and history of the Islamic movement in the region. The author commands a near-encyclopaedic knowledge on the history and key personalities of the Muslim Brotherhood and uses this to good effect in outlining and explaining Hamas’ emergence and the choices made by its leaders at critical points in the movement’s history.
While the book can be considered as part of the gradual “Islamisation” of the Palestinian narrative, its effect is broader inasmuch as it describes the wider triumph of Islam revivalism in the Arab world.
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