Tamimi: Hamas: A History from Within; Chehab: Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement; and Lybarger: Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories
Hamas: A History from Within, by Azzam Tamimi. Massachusetts: Olive Branch Press, 2007. xii+264. Appendices to p. 316. Notes to p. 357. Index to p. 372. $20.00 paper.
Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement, by Zaki Chehab. New York: Nation Books, 2007. xi + 227. Notes to p. 236. Index to p. 244. $15.95 paper.
Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories, by Loren D. Lybarger. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007. xxi + 246 pages. References to p. 255. Index to p. 256. $39.50 cloth.
Whether based on interviews with Hamas leaders or on participant observation among the movement’s “rank and file,” the three books reviewed here provide important insights into the origins, workings, and internal tensions of Palestinian Islamist politics. Hamas: A History from Within is the work of Azzam Tamimi, an Islamist and scholar close enough to Hamas to have been able to choose such a title for his book confidently. Tamimi’s book benefits from unparalleled access to original sources, including Hamas’s Arabic documents, in-depth interviews with Hamas’s external leadership operating in Beirut and Damascus, and the works of writers closely related to the movement.
Tamimi uses the first three chapters of his book to reframe the history of Hamas, tracing the movement’s roots back to the 1930s, when branches of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (PMB) first formed in Jerusalem and other cities. Prior to the establishment of Hamas in 1987, the PMB had kept a low profile, deliberately postponing any confrontation with Israel on the grounds that itwas first necessary to “prepare generations for [the] battle.” At the time of Hamas’s emergence, the banner of confrontation and resistance against Israeli occupation was firmly in the hands of the secular and leftist Palestinian factions under the umbrella of the PLO.With the eruption of the first intifada in December 1987, branches of the PMB could no longer adhere to a nonconfrontational approach, and opted instead to take a much more openly militant stance.
Tamimi’s primary contribution is in the book’s middle chapters, which focus on Hamas’s presence in and relations with Jordan and chart the development of Hamas’s current political stances. Tamimi documents Hamas’s uneasy relationship with the Jordanian government, including the “Mishal Affair,” which culminated in Hamas’s expulsion from Jordan in 1999. Initially, the ever-pragmatic King Hussein of Jordan—who had a long history of conflict with the PLO and questioned its legitimacy as the sole representative of the Palestinians—viewed Hamas as a potential ally. Although Hussein relinquished all claims to the West Bank in August 1988, Jordan had always aimed to “keep all options open” concerning representation of the Palestinians; thus, Hussein hoped that the animosity between Hamas and the PLO might boost his own standing in occupied Palestine. Hamas, for its part, was eager to forge friendly relations with Jordan, where approximately half the population is Palestinian. It was also keen to enhance its diplomatic stature by encouraging regional governments to treat it as a major player.
After King Hussein’s death in 1999, his successor, King Abdallah II, displayed far less interest in Hamas’s affairs. With mounting Western and Israeli pressure on Jordan and other Arab governments to sever relations with Hamas and other “terrorist groups” following an upsurge in suicide attacks in Israel, Abdallah was quick to expel the movement’s leadership from Jordan and to ban any official Hamas presence from Jordanian soil.
Beyond Jordan, Hamas established ties with other regional players, both “radical” and “moderate,” such as Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Yet as the movement gained importance in the Palestinian and the regional arena, its margin of room to maneuver decreased considerably. Hamas had to choose between the “axis of moderation” and the “axis of resistance.”
Tamimi’s book lacks an adequate discussion of the collapse of the Jordanian connection and its impact on Hamas’s regional strategies—in particular, whether that collapse has contributed to Hamas strengthening its relationship with Iran and Syria.
The final chapters of Tamimi’s book attempt to shed new light on the theological underpinnings of Hamas’s political stance on the liberation of Palestine. While adding little to existing scholarship, these chapters are illuminating in terms of the author’s rare and bracing criticism of Hamas’s Charter, which is replete with religious utopian thinking, far-fetched aspirations, and some anti-Semitic references. Tamimi asserts that Hamas’s current leaders are uncomfortable with the founding document of their movement. Indeed, the Charter is the document least quoted by Hamas’s spokesmen. Tamimi is close enough to Hamas to tell us that there is an ongoing debate surrounding whether or not to revise the Charter to reflect the movement’s two decades of political experience. Tamimi also sheds light on the ongoing debate within Hamas on “suicide attacks and martyrdom,” illustrating the extent of controversy surrounding these tactics, a controversy that goes beyond Hamas and is fiercely debated across the Muslim world. Tamimi also delves into the implications of hudna, or cease-fire, explaining how Hamas views and practices this concept. He notes that although Hamas seems ready to declare a long-term hudna with Israel—up to 30 years in some declarations—it will not acknowledge Israel’s “right to exist.”
More recent political developments are covered in the book’s final chapters, “Hamas in Government” and “Toward the Next Intifada.” Drawing upon extensive interviews with Hamas leaders, and supplemented by key documents, these chapters reveal much about Hamas’s political thinking. The book’s appendices are helpful and contain original material, most notably the full English translation of Hamas’s “Election Manifesto for the Legislative Elections Held on 25 January 2006.” The appendices would have benefited from the inclusion of other significant documents, however, such as the political program of the Hamas-led government (of March 2006) which is equally, if not more, important. The main drawback of Hamas: A History from Within is its apologetic tone.
Zaki Chehab’s Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement fills in some of the gaps left by Tamimi’s study. Whereas Tamimi focused on Hamas’s external leadership, Chehab focuses on Hamas inside Palestine. What distinguishes—and yet ultimately diminishes—Chehab’s account is its sensationalist style and tendency to dramatize events. The chapters that suffer most fromthis tendency are the first (“Choreographed Victory”) and the eighth (“Fiction Precedes Fact: The Al-Qaeda Connection”).
The majority of this book’s chapters simply repackage information already available about Hamas. Chehab was permitted to view secret documents on Palestinian security services, probably in order to discredit some Hamas elements in one way or another. These documents reveal some Israeli penetration into Hamas, with Israel recruiting collaborators within the movement. The conclusions of the “revealed” documents were left unexamined by other sources or by views from Hamas members. The chapter entitled “Hamas Is Born” is based on Israeli documents and features a breathless account of Shaykh Ahmad Yasin collapsing under Israeli interrogation and confessing to his role in the establishment of Hamas.
The chapter entitled “Choreographed Victory” documents Hamas’s win in the 26 January 2006 legislative elections. As a veteran journalist working for the London-based Arab media, Chehab has built an impressive network of contacts, as evidenced by his account of that day. Chehab was roaming around the Gaza Strip as the polling got underway, interviewing voters and noting the rising anxiety among supporters of Muhammad Dahlan, then Fatah’s strongman in the Gaza Strip. Chehab witnessed their premature joy over an expected win give way to disbelief and shock as Hamas emerged victorious. Chehab toured Khan Younis, Gaza’s largest city, that day at Dahlan’s side. The next day found Chehab lunching with Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s rising leader and prime-minister-to-be. Answering Condoleezza Rice’s query—“Why did nobody see it coming?”—Chehab relates that Mahmud Zahhar, Hamas’s leader and foreign minister, revealed that Hamas voters had been instructed months before the elections to hide their voting preferences if asked. This resulted in Fatah being given a false lead in the polls. More importantly, Dahlan’s own advisors revealed that, during the final hours of voting, “large numbers of the Palestinian police and security services had voted for Hamas . . . and that at least 40 percent of PA civil servants voted for Hamas” (p. 7).
Turning to the alleged “Al-Qaeda Connection” in the Gaza Strip, chapter eight debunks Israeli and American warmongering hyperbole. Chehab notes that Israeli leaders wanted America’s post-9/11 “war on terror” to extend to Hamas and other Palestinian resistance factions. Israeli spokespersons and officials thus exaggerated rumors about the possible presence of al-Qa‘ida elements in the Palestinian territories, even going so far as to invent rumors and then present them as facts. Chehab cites Israeli statements to this effect, especially the claims Ariel Sharon first made in December about al-Qa‘ida’s presence in Gaza, Chehab relates that “The U.S., the U.K. and France were given concrete evidence by the Head of the Palestinian Preventive Security, Rachid Abu Shibak, that the Shabak [Israeli intelligence service], together with other Israeli intelligence agencies, had been involved in recruiting ‘dummy’ Al-Qaeda cells in the Palestinian territories for over a year (in 2002).” Quoting Abu Shibak, Chehab writes that “[t]he recruitment of phoney Al-Qaeda cells to operate within Gaza was an attempt to ‘Afghanize’ the Palestinian territories as a pretext [for launching] a large-scale war against the Palestinian people after stigmatizing them with ‘terrorism’ ” (p. 186).
Chehab frequently throws caution to the wind, however, and makes unsubstantiated claims. He boldly states that “Factionalism has always plagued Hamas” (p. 111), which is contradicted by Hamas’s record as the only Palestinian movement in half a century that has remained unified during its 20 years of existence. Among the sweeping generalizations Chehab makes is his observation that, since Hamas has a shared ideology with its sister branches in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and since Washington and London have enjoyed a warm relationship with the Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and even in Syria, “it is only . . . a matter of time before Hamas comes on board”—in other words, before it establishes a relationship with the United States and Great Britain (p. 167).
While Tamimi’s account is an informative political history, and Chehab’s book provides a florid account of events on Gaza’s streets, Loren D. Lybarger’s Identity and Religion in Palestine is a deep engagement with the socio-cultural and political transformations of competing political milieux—secular and religious—that have shaped identities in Palestine for decades. Blending theoretical frameworks with long periods of field research (Lybarger lived intermittently in refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for several years between 1986 and 2000), the book offers a fascinating portrait of Palestinian politics. The author’s main arguments are substantiated by close observation and long acquaintance with Palestinians, many of whom became his friends, not simply the subjects of his research.
Lybarger’s aim is to break away from the standard dichotomy of “Islamist” versus “secular/nationalist.” He employs an ethnographic perspective to reveal “a far more complex picture, one in which individuals adapt and creatively recombine overlapping orientations into novel expressions of collective belonging” (p. 7). Dispensing with simple binaries, Lybarger constructs a model to account for four types of political identification: “sheer secularism (liberalism); Islamic secularism (a secular-religious hybrid that originated in the leftist milieux); liberal Islam (a transposition of certain Fathawi (i.e., Fatah) orientations onto an Islamist frame); and sheer Islamism (Hamas-oriented Islamic nationalism)” (pp. 158–59).
Lybarger’s research illuminates a dynamic and continually overlapping configuration of political and cultural identities in Palestine from the late 1980s onward. In fact, this process may have already begun before the first intifada at the margins of the distinctive blocs (“Islamist” and “secular”), but without affecting the hard-core beliefs and orientations that formerly defined these “blocs.” At the individual level, these transformative and dynamic processes probably shaped symbols of identity, whereby elements of the “other,” counterposed political identity would have been incorporated, consciously or otherwise, yet without changing individuals’ political loyalties. Lybarger’s research suggests that the overlapping of identity and loyalty, and the reorientation of beliefs in the post-intifada years, have now reshaped the hard-core beliefs at both the group and the individual levels. This model helps to explain how and why shifts of loyalty and factional membership have become more common. Against the backdrop of sheer political disillusionment (especially among those in the secular/nationalist camp), persistent doubts about one’s own political identity have become pronounced. What used to be the shifting sands of loyalties and self-identification at the outer, overlapping circles between different identities has now begun to affect the inner, core circles of identity. According to Lybarger, this results in a two-way process: the “Islamization of the secular-nationalist identity and milieu” and the “secularization/nationalization of the Islamist identity and milieu.” It would seem that more people have departed the secular/nationalist camp and joined the Islamist one, rather than the reverse.
Lybarger argues that “culture and structure are interrelated.” If structure affects the emergence of certain cultures, cultural factors can equally shape “network formations, constituency mobilization, and large historical transitions” (p. 15). Examining the dialectical relationship between “political culture and structure” in such volatile times (before and after Oslo, 1993–94), may well elucidate the “waxing and waning” of collective political agency and orientations. Lybarger’s case studies suggest (as in the Thawra Camp, for example), that structure influences culture, however revolutionary this culture might be. For example, Khadija, a courageous left-wing activist, would “implicitly accommodate . . . the inherited structures of familial and gender authority” (p. 139). Gender mixing, feminist activism, and other dimensions of the secular milieu had a dramatic impact on traditional social structures. In the case of the Islamists and their milieu, however, the challenge of structure was easier to overcome, requiring a slight adjustment, rather than a revolutionary change, of existing social norms. Traditional structures have, in fact, played a key role in supporting the Islamist culture.
That said, Lybarger’s case studies are drawn exclusively from refugee camps, which may render his conclusions inapplicable to urban settings in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or in the various social matrices of the Palestinian diaspora. Would processes of identity negotiation and shifting loyalties occur in cities and among more privileged Palestinians in the same way that these processes have unfolded in the refugee camps? One weakness of Lybarger’s argument is that he does not focus enough on the “hard-core” loyalists of either secular or Islamist milieu who have held fast to their political identities (and factions) despite changing circumstances and years of frustration. These are minor criticisms, however; the book itself remains an original and discerning study.
Khaled Hroub is the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000) and Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press, 2006).