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Hamas: Democracy, Religion, Violence

Richard Burden on a challenge to Melanie Phillips

As a member of the House of Commons International Development Committee I recently signed the Report of our Inquiry into The Humanitarian and Development Situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories. One of the conclusions was that the refusal of countries like the UK and USA to even speak to Hamas had been counterproductive both to achieving a sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine and ending the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.

The report did not go down too well in some quarters. According to Melanie Phillips Spectator blog of 24th July, it was based on egregiously false premises including: ‘That Hamas has something we want to talk to them about. Such as? Their aims are as implacable as they are unconscionable. They want to destroy Israel and kill every Jew. Even the more pragmatic among them subscribe to these aims set out in their charter. They do not want to negotiate anything apart from the terms of the surrender of the Jews and the west. It is therefore as obscene and counter-productive to talk to them as it was to talk to Hitler.'

That Ms Phillips has a different interpretation will not lose me too much sleep. But the ill-informed venom of her article suggests to me that she could do worse than pick up a copy of Jerome Gunning's Hamas in Politics*. Historically well researched and drawing on interviews with Hamas figures themselves, Gunning underlines the folly of the simplistic caricatures of Hamas either in Melanie Phillips extreme diatribes or in the more measured but still confused international ban on dialogue which followed Hamas' victory in the 2006 Palestinian Parliamentary elections.

This is not a book that romanticises Hamas. It does not attempt to justify the violence against civilians which the organisation has used, or to ignore the reactionary nature of Hamas ideology over, for example, the position of women in society.

However it does paint a picture of a movement whose character is the product of specific historical circumstances – from the way it grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, through its espousal of violent resistance to Israel, to its decision to stand for election in internationally supervised Parliamentary elections.

Gunning acknowledges Hamas' ideological attachment to the concept of an Islamic state in all of the historical land of Palestine – including those parts on which Israel stands as well as the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. But Hamas is no Al Qaeda intent on an apocalyptic struggle against the presence of infidels. Neither do the blood-curdling and frankly anti-semitic passages in its founding charter represent the complex reality of what makes Hamas tick.

Hamas is a religious movement but also a nationalist one. Gunning argue that, for Hamas, the commitment to follow what they regard as God's will also carries with it the notion of a social contract. They believe that an Islamic state can only come about if it is willed by the people. So the creation and maintenance of institutions through which popular will can be expressed is central to Hamas's project, along with the principle of accountability of leaders. And, according to Gunning, this is not quasi-soviet one party-statism. The Islamic tradition of consensus building and the imperative for national unity under occupation run deep inside Hamas. Compromise in the national interest is not alien to Hamas thinking. This runs through their suggestions of ceasefires with Israel lasting for generations, to the acceptance by Hamas pragmatists of long-term, peaceful coexistence between an independent Palestine and Israel, even if formal mutual recognition is withheld.

Gunning emphasises that Hamas is not monolithic. Its policies and programmes are susceptible to shifts in Palestinian public opinion. Those shifts could reflect support for a Palestine alongside Israel rather than instead of it, a rejection of suicide bombing or, conversely, support for terrorism as a means of hitting back against the occupation. All of these opinions are there amongst Palestinians living under occupation or as refugees abroad. Sometimes the same Palestinian will hold all these opinions at different times. Hamas is influenced by these things, not because of its religion but because of its political engagement. Hamas has pragmatists and its absolutists. It has a leadership living under occupation and one living in exile. It has political thinkers and military commanders. It is capable of flexibility in making deals that can stick more reliably than those reached by some Palestinian parties favoured by the West. Hamas is also capable of murderous attacks on civilians or – as we saw in Gaza last summer – the ruthless seizure of power by force of arms where it believes it faces an existential threat.

This is all difficult to get your head around from a Western perspective, but it is the reality of Hamas. Gunning's book might help even Melanie Phillips to understand that.

*Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence Jerome Gunning (Hurst £25)