Mishal and Sela: The Palestinian Hamas and Schoch: The Islamic Movement

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VOL. 30

2000/01

No. 4
P. 100
Recent Books
Mishal and Sela: The Palestinian Hamas and Schoch: The Islamic Movement
FULL TEXT

    The Palestinian Hamas is a "revisionist" Israeli analysis of Hamas that generally runs against stereotypical and distorted Israeli and Western perceptions of the movement, while The Islamic Movement by Bernd Schoch falls prey to Israeli positions and reasoning. The sensitive approach of Mishal and Sela in the former volume breaks with much "conventional wisdom," even to the extent of avoiding the subjective terminology associated with "terrorism" that is found in other studies dealing with Palestinian Islamists, including the one by Schoch under review. Thus, Mishal and Sela deconstruct the image of Hamas as a group of desperate terrorists who are detached from reality. Rather, they see Hamas as a movement that has displayed rationality and sophistication, where the decision-making process is based on cost-benefit considerations and the complicated, intertwined dilemmas that have surrounded Hamas prompted its leaders to adopt a policy that "enabled the movement to maneuver within the prose of political reality while never ceasing to recite the poetry of ideology" (p. 12).
    By having a close eye on reality, argue the authors of The Palestinian Hamas, the organization was able to compromise on all issues, implementing tactics of "controlled violence." Jihad, the prime goal of Hamas, "was subordinated to political calculations," and hence the policy of "controlled violence" became "a key component in Hamas's political strategy and daily conduct" (p. 50). Mishal and Sela analyze Hamas's military strategy within the context of retaliation for Israeli attacks against Palestinians, noting that Hamas's presentation of its "violent actions" as "a response in kind" was meant to "mitigate criticism of Hamas following Israel's collective punitive measures against the Palestinian people" (p. 69).
    The authors give generous space to a discussion of Hamas's social work and its central role in amassing legitimacy and popularity for the movement. They conclude that Hamas's social work, as well as that of other Islamic movements, is "filling a governmental void, which in some respects resembles the Western notion of civil society" (p. 7). Mishal and Sela also carefully tackle the issue of Hamas's "calculated participation" in elections and democratic processes, noting the marriage made by Hamas between the specificities of the Palestinian case and the generalities of Islamist thinking on democracy and pluralism. However, they leave open the question of whether "seizing the moment" and taking part in elections by Hamas and other Islamist movements represents "a normative change in the attitude toward liberal democracy or a drive for power by exploiting opportunities afforded by the non-Islamic regime and under its terms" (p. 115).
    Despite the balanced analysis of their book, there are many unsubstantiated claims and factual errors in The Palestinian Hamas that could have been avoided. For example, with respect to Hamas's position on representative elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the authors say that the first declaration of such a position was in April 1992 (pp. 120-21). In fact, Hamas's documents and publicly pronounced positions on this issue go back to 1988. With respect to U.S.-Hamas contacts, the authors claim that "the State Department [initiated talks] with Musa Abu Marzuq [the former head of Hamas's Political Bureau] in the United States and Amman in the early fall of 1991, aimed at obtaining Hamas's support for participation" (p. 119). Those "contacts," however, did not take place until early 1992 and were only in Amman.
    Other unfounded arguments include claims such as "in 1992/93, Hamas's military command was located in London" (p. 58); Hamas carried out the military training of members in Jordan (p. 65); the late King Hussein delivered a message from Hamas to Israel two days before the foiled assassination attempt against Hamas's political bureau head Khalid Mishal by Mossad agents in Amman in September (p. 72); and Hamas's budget in the years 1993-94 was $30 million to $50 million, half of which "was donated by the governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and by private Middle Eastern donors" (p. 88). The supporting evidence for those claims are drawn on noncredible journalistic sources such as al-Watan al-Arabi and al-Wasat, which in some cases were used as channels of deliberate "misinformation" campaigns against Hamas.
    The above misgivings, however, do not fundamentally affect the authors' main contribution, which is a lucid analysis of how Hamas's "cost-benefit politics and adjustment" brought the movement "tangible advantages at a minimal organizational price and at a tolerable normative sacrifice" (p. 148). In sharp contrast to The Palestinian Hamas is Schoch's disappointing The Islamic Movement, a book that lacks objectivity or in-depth knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Schoch's goal, to show how the Islamists among the Palestinians pose a serious challenge to state building in Palestine, is never really tackled. Instead, the author traps himself in a misconceptualization of the entire Palestinian struggle as an "ethnic conflict" within the State of Israel, rather than as a national struggle against occupation and for liberation and independence. He claims that applying theoretical texts on ethnic conflict to the Palestinian case "allows for a better assessment of the issue of Palestinian Israelis and the emerging conflict between the PLO-led Palestinian Authority [PA] and Hamas" (p. 12). He doesn't explain how these two cases--Palestinian-Israelis versus Israel and Hamas versus the PA--are similar or even state the relevance of invoking the Palestinian Israelis in his study. Related to this problematic approach is his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of "minorities," naively posing the question, "Why do minorities rebel in Palestine?" (pp. 78-80). The reader is not sure which minorities the author means: all Palestinians against Israel or Palestinians in Hamas against the PA?
    Within Palestinian society itself, the author describes an intra-Palestinian conflict between secular and religious models. Thus, "the conflict of legitimacy reflects the rivalry between the PLO as the natural representative of the Palestinians and the Hamas" (p. 62). This simplified and distorted view of complex political developments may have resulted from the paucity of research. For example, the author never uses a single Arabic source or an original document produced by any of the Islamic movements (except an unauthorized translation of Hamas's charter). Even though this work is described as a field research study, there are no interviews with any Palestinian Islamists, the subject of the book. Space does not permit me to point out all the contradictions, repetitions, unnecessary digressions, and unsubstantiated statements that permeate the text. Two examples that provide a flavor of these problems are the author's assertions that King Abdallah II of Jordan changed his father's lenient policy toward the Islamists because Hamas poses a serious threat to Jordanian national security, a statement that is rephrased at least ten times throughout the book, and that "The Islamic movement's prospects of undermining Arafat's authority depend to a large extent on the attitude Arab-Israelis display toward Islamic movements and their aspirations" (p. 141).
    Although the author digresses far from his (unfulfilled) aim of showing why and how the Palestinian Islamic movement poses a threat to state building, he does have recommendations for how to contain such a challenge. He praises the "skills" of Egyptian and Algerian presidents in fighting "Islamic terror" (pp. 23 and 142) and urges Yasir Arafat to follow suit: "The [Hamas] movement has already voiced its opposition to Arafat, and the Palestinian President must act now if he does not want to lose the American support" (p. 129). Overall, The Islamic Movement is a failed exercise that only can confuse, rather than enlighten, readers.

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Khaled Hroub is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge.