The Hamas Dilemma

With all eyes focused on Palestine, will the Islamic Resistance Movement choose violence and ideology or pragmatic rule?
“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 VIII

Online OnlySee more photos from this story here.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.
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