The Hamas Dilemma

“The motto of the Islamic Resistance Movement: Allah is its goal. The Prophet is its leader. The Koran is its constitution. Jihad is its methodology. And death for the sake of Allah is its most coveted desire.” 
— The Hamas Charter (1988), Chapter 1, Article

As we sit in the main cafeteria at Birzeit University, Ayman Jarrar slouches in his chair and rubs his hand across his lightly bearded face. Jarrar is a straight-A, fourth-year electrical engineering student in his early twenties, and he hopes one day to complete his Ph.D. He appears a bit reluctant to speak about himself or his studies, but when I point the conversation toward his extracurricular activities, he leans forward, teeters on the edge of his chair, and, initially at least, says nothing.

Jarrar is the finance minister of the Birzeit student government, and he’s an active member of Hamas. In our ensuing conversation, Jarrar dismisses talk of Hamas’s uncompromising ideological beliefs. With an eye to his role as a young leader in Palestinian society, he equivocates on the issues that the West finds so newsworthy and troubling—suicide bombing, the infamous Hamas charter, and the group-cum-political party’s refusal to reject terrorism and recognize Israel.

Instead, his tone now more determined, he lists the generous programs the Hamas-led government oversees on campus: providing free transport for students to their hometowns for the Id al-Fitr feast concluding Ramadan; hosting a feast of their own, and setting up video teleconferencing for those students unable to return home because of Israeli restrictions; subsidizing the cost of books, school supplies, and groceries; collecting the zakat (alms for the poor and one of the five pillars of Islam) for needy Palestinians elsewhere; organizing demonstrations on campus and in nearby Ramallah; and, of course, planning the annual graduation party.

“Hamas is strong because we work with the students, we don’t divide them,” he affirms. The student government’s annual budget of 30,000 shekels (about $8,400) is supplied by the university, he says. “But it has no problem raising extra funds from outside the university, mainly from individuals,” Jarrar says, “because people trust us; they trust Hamas.” This is the difference, Jarrar is quick to note, between Hamas and Fatah. On campus as in society at large, Hamas is seen as the party that works, while Fatah is the party that talks.

Lurking behind the scenes for nearly two decades, the Islamic Resistance Movement of Palestine, as Hamas is officially known, built up an enormous reservoir of goodwill to be used when Fatah failed, and for Jarrar that moment has come to pass. “Hamas was just a little ant crawling on the earth while Fatah was sleeping,” he says with growing confidence and a fixed stare. And I wonder, is this young man an innovative idealist or have I just been served a slick, partisan one-liner from a college kid who’s late for class?

At Birzeit, high in the hills north of Ramallah in the West Bank, student political life is more than just a testing ground for tomorrow’s leaders. The students here have their fingers on the pulse of the national polity, right down to political factions that mirror the national parties. The university has a certain political pedigree. During the first intifada (1987–1993), it earned a reputation for left-wing, secular rhetoric. Among students and professors alike there was widespread support for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian Communist Party, and for Yasser Arafat’s nationalist Fatah bloc. Many prominent Palestinian figures—including Hanan Ashrawi, a left-wing activist and current member of parliament, and Marwan Barghouthi, a former leader of the pro-Fatah militant group Tanzim (currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison)—sharpened their political skills here. The university was such a centre of anti-occupation resistance that the Israeli military shut it down for four years and imprisoned many student leaders.

The optimism brought about by the Oslo Accords eased tensions between Israel and the university, but when the peace process began to unravel, and when Palestinians began to lose faith in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA), Birzeit became a focal point of support for an alternative leadership: Hamas. Since 1999, Hamas has controlled the Birzeit student council in all but one academic year. Long before last year’s legislative elections, the students of Birzeit had decided that Hamas represented a better future for Palestinians in this divided land.

Palestine remains more an idea than a state, and the battle to control its destiny is waged in coffee shops and classrooms, hospitals and mosques, and, through the waning months of 2006 and into early 2007, in bloody street battles between Hamas and Fatah supporters. Memories die hard in this troubled terrain, and the relative calm initiated in February by a fragile agreement to pursue a unity government is unlikely to erase the chaos and the killing that immediately preceded the new détente. Many believe that attempts to forge a unity government and institute democratic rule are premature when the occupation remains a stubborn fact and Palestinians are experiencing a collective identity crisis.

When Hamas won 56 percent of the parliamentary seats and the greatest share of the popular vote in January 2006, Fatah, it was supposed, would be forced to lick its wounds and reinvent itself after twelve years of unopposed, sybaritic rule. Instead, the defeated party, which staffed most of the bureaucracy and controlled the security apparatus under President Mahmoud Abbas, refused to concede control. Combined with the community of wealthy nations cutting off aid to the Palestinian government, this undermined the will of Palestinian voters, a situation exacerbated by the strikes and protests that followed over unpaid salaries. Celebrations gave way to fractured social relations and an overarching dilemma: international sanctions by the West (including the European Union) aimed at a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas threatened to further cripple the economy.

Hard on the heels of Abbas’s trip to Saudi Arabia to shore up his support, in a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood thriller, last December the Palestinian prime minister, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh, was stopped at the Egypt-Gaza border. Haniyeh had just returned from Iran, which he said had promised almost $300 million in direct aid to the “Palestinian government” for 2007—a promise widely perceived as a gift to Hamas for its uncompromising anti-Israel agenda. Haniyeh had $35 million (US) in cash stashed in a briefcase, it was reported, and Hamas supporters attempted to invade the border station to spring him. They were repulsed by PA security police loyal to Abbas, and after seven tense hours the prime minister turned the cash over to Egyptian officials. After he gained clearance, Fatah militants fired on Haniyeh’s convoy as he drove north to Gaza City. Fighting escalated across the Gaza Strip over the next few days, with Fatah gunmen staking out the cars and homes of Hamas leaders and Hamas gunmen attacking a training facility for PA security forces.

Coming at the end of a year of internal hostilities, and with a new shadow of uneasiness settling over the entire Palestinian landscape, the incident provoked Abbas to speak to the nation. The time had come, he said, for new elections. Hamas refused to go along, and the fighting continued. In January, another interfactional killing spree left dozens more dead. Abbas’s Presidential Guard stormed the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University of Gaza, claiming its labs and classrooms were being used to store weapons and that from its tall buildings Hamas militants had fired rockets at the nearby al-Azhar University, a pro-Fatah institution. Hamas leaders claimed that Fatah gunmen were firing at the Islamic University from Azhar. Spilling both ways, violence and kidnapping became the order of the day.

In a surprise initiative, Saudi Arabia invited the two warring factions to the holy city of Mecca to hammer out a deal. According to reports, the Saudi offer included a promise to bankroll the Palestinian government to the tune of about $1.2 billion should the West not resume aid to the PA, a thinly veiled attempt to counter the influence of Iran. Neither side could afford to retreat from such an offer, and they agreed to pursue a unity government.

Cautiously heralded as a blueprint for Palestinian reconciliation, the Mecca agreement could also be analyzed as Hamas’s first step in distancing itself from national leadership. In many respects, the next election will be a referendum on Hamas’s willingness and ability to deliver what most Palestinians want: an independent state free from occupation. Should Hamas win again, it would be forced to accept being a governing body responsible to an electorate which, this time, would demand that promises made be kept. Faced with this proposition, and with having to disavow ideological positions seen as unworkable, is Hamas reconsidering its options? And if Hamas retrenches, if it returns to being an oppositional force gaining street credibility by providing services but opts out of Palestinian national politics, will Palestinians accept a return to a corrupt Fatah-run PA as their formal representative?


In the 1970s, Yasser Arafat’s embryonic Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), far away in Amman and later in Beirut and Tunis, brought international recognition to the Palestinian struggle but did little to manage the continuing poverty and despair brought about by the Israeli occupation. Filling the vacuum on the ground was the Islamic Center, a network of institutions under the leadership of a refugee cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamic nationalist group, the Islamic Center’s agenda was redemption through Islamic societal reform. Where few others would help them, Palestinians found that the Islamic Center provided education, health care, agricultural land, food, donations, and, most importantly, hope. More concerned with battling the insurgency and terrorist threats from the PLO, Israel tacitly approved of these activities. However, between 1967 and 1987, the number of mosques in the West Bank grew from 400 to 750, and in the Gaza Strip from 200 to 600. Both regions became more radicalized, and there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of dynamic leaders and activists to advance the cause. Beneath Israel’s preoccupation with the PLO, a new phenomenon was emerging.

Then came Hamas itself, born of the first intifada, when popular revolt demanded a more active resistance to Israel. On December 9, 1987, a wheelchair-bound and quadriplegic Sheikh Yassin invited a small group of senior Islamic Center officials to his Gaza City home. The previous day, a traffic accident involving an Israeli military jeep had killed four Palestinians and touched off riots across the occupied territories. Many Palestinians believed that the killing was intentional—army payback for the earlier stabbing death of an Israeli settler while he was shopping in Gaza City’s market. The uprising spread quickly, fanned by collective frustration at Israel’s occupation, and the revered and religious public figures in Sheikh Yassin’s home sought to capitalize on the public’s rage by vying for leadership of the intifada. By the end of the day, the humanitarian ideologues (educators and doctors, in fact) had sketched the blueprint for the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Although constituting itself as part of a global jihad, the movement was careful to maintain strong ties to the local struggle. It appropriated the name of Izz al-Din al-Qassam—a Galilean peasant who led a revolt against the British in the mid-1930s—for its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, and called its homemade mortars and rockets, used ever since to kill scores of Israeli civilians, Qassam rockets. And yet, despite its leadership role in the first intifada, by 1993 Hamas had reaped no real political reward. The Oslo Accords, signed that year, had delivered a rival movement to Palestinian soil—Arafat’s Fatah-led PLO. “We have always believed that for people to become convinced to join Hamas, the PLO should fail by virtue of its own policies,” said Haniyeh’s foreign minister, Mahmoud al-Zahhar, then a Hamas spokesperson, in 1994. “Hamas is not in a hurry. We know that the PLO’s practice will inevitably lead to its downfall. There is no need therefore to bring this about through confrontation.”

At the time, Hamas was foundering beneath the optimism of Oslo, which it opposed, and Sheikh Yassin was in an Israeli prison. But in late 1997, a botched Mossad assassination attempt of Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashal forced Israel to release Sheikh Yassin to save face. The frail leader’s triumphant return to Gaza bolstered Hamas’s popularity.

Throughout the 1990s, Arafat’s PLO failed to deliver a state, and the rampant corruption of his government became common knowledge on the Palestinian street. While Arafat gained global headlines, he did little to improve local conditions, and Hamas set about the business of providing services. (The second intifada began as another collective expression of Palestinian frustration, this time spurred by the failure of peace talks, for which Arafat and his Fatah party were as responsible as the deepening Israeli occupation or then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative moves.) Between September 2000 and January 2006, Fatah became less and less effective and finally imploded, much as al-Zahhar predicted. And yet, despite the reserves of goodwill and public trust that it cashed into electoral success, and despite the generous political honeymoon afforded it last year by a public wary of Fatah, Hamas is now at the helm of the worst internal strife in Palestinian history. For this, the movement’s leadership cannot escape blame for long.


“Civil war is not the goal of Hamas and was not started by Hamas.” Ayman Daragmeh, forty-three, is a former chemistry professor, a lifelong political activist who spent thirteen years in an Israeli prison, and now a Hamas member of parliament. In his spartan office on the seventh floor of a Ramallah shopping centre, we drink cinnamon tea on a cool November day as the entire region awaits the results of unity government negotiations. Ramallah has seen its share of the recent violence, but it remains the distinctly cosmopolitan cultural and economic hub of the Palestinian territories. From here, one can grasp the striking smallness of this land still waiting to be carved into two states. The beaches of Tel Aviv are visible not thirty kilometres to the west; to the east, beyond the Israeli settlements of Psagot and Bet El, the arid Jordan Valley spreads out into a narrow, tan landscape. Squalid refugee camps are within view—vivid reminders of the occupation and of Palestinian destitution—but in Ramallah thousands of middle-class Palestinians go to work in government ministries, telecommunications firms, and the vast network of foreign and local NGOs. At night, restaurants pour pints of Taybeh, the local brew, and cinemas showcase slightly delayed Hollywood films. Ramallah’s mayor is a Roman Catholic woman, and church bells ring out alongside Islamic calls to prayer. To Daragmeh, the semblant harmony of the city is proof that Hamas is interested in unity, not civil war.

“Hamas never wanted to govern alone,” he says. “We always wanted a coalition and we said this after we won the election. An agreement with Fatah is good for the Palestinian people. We need to be united in order to stand against the occupation.” Indeed, Hamas campaigned on a platform of forming a government of national unity, but for a year it remained ambivalent about the matter. It took a billion-dollar inducement from the Saudi royals for Hamas and Fatah to agree to a deal. Daragmeh is quick to offer an excuse: Abbas and Fatah are complicit with Israel and the West in sabotaging Hamas’s ability to govern. “We’re the government,” he protests, “but 99 percent of the PA bureaucracy is still Fatah, and they want us to fail even though the people want us to succeed.”

Throughout 2006, the Western boycott effectively foreclosed on Palestinian society. Strikes and protests among educators, health workers, and civil servants caused deep cleavages. Israel stopped transferring tax monies ($700 million to $950 million per year) collected in the Palestinian territories for the PA, fearing that Hamas would fund violence rather than pay salaries. Dozens of Hamas lawmakers and cabinet ministers were arrested. But actions designed to cripple Hamas drove it toward alternative sources of aid, and Iran was only too anxious to assist. And when Haniyeh arrived home with the promise of just under $300 million from Iran, as if to demonstrate that Hamas would not repeat the mistakes of Fatah, he outlined where the money would be spent: $70 million to unpaid civil servants, $25 million to build homes, $6 million to farmers who cannot export their olive oil, etc. Nonetheless, Daragmeh is unsettled by his leader’s gesture, and by the prospect of becoming beholden to a new suitor. “We shouldn’t need Iran. Iran has nothing to do with us. The West should be supporting us because we are a democracy. We haven’t been given a chance to realize our goals. What else can we do? ”

I put that question to Professor Ali Jarbawi, a frequent commentator on Palestinian political affairs and the dean of the faculty of law and public administration at Birzeit. Though he is often critical of Hamas, the widely respected pragmatist was asked by Hamas to join a proposed unity government last November. He politely declined. Jarbawi believes that Hamas never really wanted to govern in a majority. “Heading into the elections, Hamas thought they could impose their agenda by being in the opposition. Winning made them change tactics. Of course, now they can tell people that things are out of their hands, [that] everybody put obstacles in their way.”


Many Palestinians have been willing to be patient with their new government, especially in the face of international opposition, but how long will Hamas’s political honeymoon last? According to Jarbawi, there won’t be another viable alternative to Hamas for some time. Fatah’s corruption and ineptitude cut too deep a wound, and Hamas’s campaign slogan—“Ten years of negotiations were futile. Five years of struggle liberated Gaza”—continues to resonate. “There is a basic difference between Hamas and Fatah,” says Jarbawi. “The glue of Fatah was personalized around Arafat. With Hamas, ideology is the glue. If there is a major compromise on ideology, there could be a split. But you won’t see this happening.”

But that “ideology” seems to be on shifting sands. During the 2006 election campaign, al-Zahhar insisted that Hamas would never co-operate with Israel and that the Qassam brigades would multiply. The next day, Hamas’s Jerusalem leader, Sheikh Abu Tayr, argued, “Hamas will negotiate with Israel better than others.” He then retracted his statement, cryptic as it was. Meanwhile, al-Zahhar said that negotiations with Israel were not forbidden. Another Hamas leader claimed no incongruity between Hamas’s electoral program and its charter, adding to the confusion; Haniyeh had previously said that Hamas would deliver a new platform after the election. “Even [Khaled] Mashal says he supports a Palestinian state [at] the 1967 borders,” notes Jarbawi. “This might seem extreme, but it’s really indicative of a very gradual process of change. Even if they change their charter, they’ll find a way to justify it with the people.”

Or is it that the ideology is clear, the political calibrations murky; that Hamas is having a much more difficult time as the government than it ever had as a violent protest movement? Is Hamas’s experiment in democracy doomed?

MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, is a Palestinian NGO dedicated to monitoring the government and educating the public on democratic citizenship. Founded by Hanan Ashrawi, MIFTAH produced a damning report on the 2006 elections that criticized the public and the Palestinian media for failing to hold the political parties accountable for their ambiguous platforms. With respect to Hamas, MIFTAH’s critique centred on the party’s lack of commitment to a two-state solution and a negotiated end to the occupation and its failure to answer a simple question: was the Islamic movement simply opportunistic in participating in a government it had boycotted for nearly two decades?

“When Hamas took office, Palestinian society became increasingly polarized. Now our work has become more sophisticated. In order to educate the public we have to get them to put ideology aside and really question their leaders,” says Rami Bathish, a former media director of MIFTAH. But like many Palestinian intellectuals, Bathish is worried that Hamas’s new political savoir faire will be too much to overcome. Hamas’s victory, followed by the boycott, shut down most Palestinian civil society initiatives. The movement then set about fixing the problems it had helped create, and again Hamas is focused on providing welfare and access to health clinics, and many of the pre-schools, even in Ramallah, are run by Hamas-friendly groups. People turn to them for shelter from the chaos, and Hamas receives political support for the services it provides.

“One hand builds and the other resists,” rang another of Hamas’s campaign slogans, but despite the movement’s best efforts, polls indicate that Fatah is gaining back some of the trust it clearly lacked a year ago. The Mecca agreement strengthened Abbas, allowing him to dictate the Palestinian position vis-à-vis Israel in peace talks. When Condoleezza Rice visited the region in February, she met with Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and not, pointedly, any member of Hamas. The loss of Western support is hitting home, and the promise of its return is more than just a campaign wedge issue.

In a new election, Palestinians may choose Fatah for its promise of negotiating with Israel and reopening the floodgates of Western aid. Insisting that it needed to see how the unity government would unfold, in late February the European Union refused to lift sanctions. For the West, the stumbling block remains Hamas and its refusal to officially recognize Israel and renounce terrorism. At the same time, Russia continues to assert itself on the world stage, and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that the unity government is responsible enough and that Russia would push for sanctions to be lifted. If a situation develops wherein Russia and Iran are seen by the West, and particularly the United States, to be meddling in negotiations, the Hamas-Fatah conflict could have ramifications across the Middle East. In such a case, Hamas’s leaders may retreat to being a local protest movement, an ideology not rendered amorphous and contradictory by having to govern.


At Birzeit, Ayman Jarrar takes me to a large auditorium where we observe a student-government-sponsored event titled “The Palestinian Woman is a Chronicle of Jihad.” Seated on stage, fully veiled and wearing green Hamas headbands, are four female students. They pass a microphone one to another, each tearfully narrating personal stories of trauma under Israeli occupation. A sombre audience of fellow students breaks into applause only once: when one woman describes the brief contents of a letter her four-year-old son wrote to his father in prison. The boy wrote: “Hamas is our only way.”

Later, I flip through the pages of al-Risala, Hamas’s twice-weekly official mouthpiece. Beyond the inflammatory headlines promoting resistance against Israel and the hard-hitting statements of Haniyeh, Mashal, and al-Zahhar, there is an in-depth article warning of the evils of drug abuse, a growing but hushed-up problem in Palestinian society. Another commentary cautions against child abuse. These are the kinds of crises the next generation will inherit, whether they have a contiguous state or not.

I finally get Jarrar to agree that he’s conflicted about using violence to free Palestine from occupation. I ask him about a particular Hamas slogan: “Our history is pure. Our hands are clean. Our way is straight.” He shrugs. “The West doesn’t understand us. Our commitment is to our people, like any country in the world. But my participation [in Hamas] will probably keep me from ever going abroad, like to Dalhousie University in Canada where I want to do my Ph.D. I have a cousin there. But the important work is here.”

Hamas’s political honeymoon may soon be over. Whether it retreats from the burden of governing or evolves into a democratic party with a pragmatic mandate, young devotees like Ayman Jarrar are not waiting for unity governments or campaign jargon to determine what Palestine will be. That said, in this divisive internal debate, the devoted will likely be disappointed and the matter finally decided, as is so often the case, by players outside of Palestine.

The Hamas Dilemma” was originally published in the May 2007 issue of The Walrus, Canada’s leading general interest and current affairs magazine. 

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