Shlomi Eldar, Lehakir et Hamas [“To Know Hamas"]. Jerusalem: Keter, 2012.
The latest book by veteran Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar, Lehakir et Hamas [“To Know Hamas], is a must-read for anyone interested in Hamas and the trajectory of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000. Eldar has researched his subject thoroughly, and provides an original and revealing account of the movement. He has had extraordinary access to the movement while also providing a uniquely Israeli perspective.
Eldar’s purpose, however, is not simply to present the movement in a new light. One can see this in the double entendre in the name of the book. Indeed, by the end of the text, a Hebrew reader would probably realize that replacing two letters in the title—that is, swapping the preposition “et” for “be,” changing the meaning of the verb “lehakir” from “to know” to “to recognize,” and thus turning the title to “to recognize Hamas”—would better describe the book’s content. This is because the text makes a compelling case for the argument that the transformation of the organization from an armed militia to a political movement created a number of opportunities for policymakers to engage with it. And Israeli decision-makers seemed to miss every opportunity to encourage Hamas to practice politics and abandon violence.
The author knows his subject well. Eldar has covered the Gaza Strip for more than a decade, collecting material on Hamas all along the way that he uses to piece together the recent history of the movement. However, despite Eldar’s strong and often accurate criticisms of the way Israel has misunderstood the movement, he is also guilty of some misunderstandings of his own. This fact ought to be kept in mind while reading the book. Indeed, Lehakir et Hamas is very much a book written by an Israeli for Israelis—revealing to us a particular and somewhat shortsighted vision of both the movement and Palestinians in general.
One of Eldar’s main arguments is that successive Israeli governments have resorted to manu militari with excessive ease. In so doing, they have missed one opportunity after another to stop the cycle of violence, thereby opting instead to prolong the confrontation:
Whether you believe in talking to our worst enemy or you believe in an all-out war against it, the discoveries in this book are testimony to the fact that every time that we tried to solve the problem of Hamas we made it bigger, more complex and more dangerous.
According to Eldar, Israel’s use of violence is not only excessive, but also erratic. It has no clear political goal other than to satisfy the Israeli public’s thirst for revenge. One of the developments on which the author lingers is the systematic destruction of the Palestinian Authority (PA) installations, which started after two Israeli soldiers were lynched in Ramallah in October 2000. Though a final decision to completely destroy the PA was apparently never taken, the damage created a void that Israel either did not foresee or about which it simply did not care.
The consequences were multiple and severe. The vacuum of power left the field open for militants to overrun the territories. This forced the PA to release Palestinian activists, including Hamas members, who were detained in prisons that were about to be bombarded. Hamas members themselves did not immediately join the intifada. But when they saw the degree to which the PA had been hammered, they realized that this was their opportunity to rebuild the movement and to join the struggle. Furthermore, the systematic destruction of the Palestinian security installations, far from preventing the Palestinian police from participating in attacks, actually mobilized those who previously had not been involved. With every attack, Israel created more clients for its social services network. Fueling the flames, Israel played into Hamas’ hands. The Palestinian public interpreted Israel’s liberal use of violence as a justification of the movement’s violent ways.
According to Eldar, this was not war as politics, but the reflection of the lack of a political strategy. It is war born out of a desire to punish for its own sake. The absence of a rational plan to exit the cycle of violence is something to which members of the Israeli army admitted—although from their point of view, this was mostly the result of the absence of an alternative. For example, the commander of the IDF in the Gaza Strip, Shmuel Zakai, explains that “the terror infrastructure” in the West Bank had received such a severe blow that there was little more the army could do there. So they turned to Gaza instead: “The Israeli public could not stand the buses that continued to blow up and the army would say to them ‘sorry there is nothing to do.’ Somewhere we must hit back. So Gaza is an excellent punching bag.”
Such destructive urges were also evident later on, in the contempt of then-Israeli premier Ariel Sharon towards his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), after he had become prime minister in 2003, further ruling out political solutions to the conflict. Abu Mazen had been one of the few Palestinian voices who had condemned the militarization of the intifada by Palestinians. Sharon, by choosing not to engage with him, was thus discarding the option of strengthening an alternative to Hamas. Another example of this disregard for political solutions was Sharon’s refusal to coordinate the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 with the PA. This move weakened it and handed Hamas an easy victory. In fact, this maneuver actually consolidated the position of the hardliners in Hamas. In particular, it strengthened Ahmed Jaabari, leader of the military wing of Hamas, who proceeded to plan the violent takeover of the Palestinian security forces that was launched in June 2007. The latter provoked infighting between Hamas and Fatah and a division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which endures to this day and constitutes one of the most detrimental developments in the recent history of the Palestinian nationalist struggle.
Beyond the excessive use of violence, Eldar regrets Israel’s abject refusal to engage Hamas. In particular, after the movement came under the leadership of Ismail Haniya—later elected prime minister of the PA—he argues that such engagement could have prevented Gaza from turning into, as he puts it, “Hamastan.” The author places the political birth of Haniya amidst the celebrations of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that Hamas organized on 16 September 2005, in the abandoned Jewish settlement of Neve Dekelim. Eldar defines Haniya as a moderate within the movement, as well as “pleasant” and “calm,” among other attributes. Such qualities, Eldar suggests, would have made him capable of leading Hamas from an ascetic and radical Islamic movement to a popular and pragmatic organization. This was also a chance to open a new page in relations with Hamas, as the movement was in flux, particularly after Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006.
However, “in Israel they did not get the fact that the Hamas movement was in a state of confusion and itself still had not digested the unexpected achievement,” Eldar claims. He points to a series of conciliatory remarks that Haniya made after the announcement of the election results, which Israel chose to ignore. Furthermore, Israel was not ready to understand that “certain steps need to be taken at their own pace and in a nonpublic way.” In other words, Hamas could not immediately announce that it recognized Israel, or make any other major concession, but would need to be given time to gradually develop a new approach towards the Jewish state. Instead, the Israeli government responded with a series of sanctions. Their purpose, according to Eldar, was once again unstated and unclear, and they were more the result of a need to react in some way than of any particular or planned political strategy.
Similarly, Eldar accuses Israel of opting out of a political solution in the handling of the capture of soldier Gilad Shalit by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip on 25 June 2006. He considers the Israeli aggressions against the Gaza Strip since the seizure of the young man pointless and counterproductive, merely an exercise in muscle flexing by Ehud Olmert, at the time prime minister of Israel. He suggests that they not only further entrenched Palestinian intransigence and belief in the primacy of violence, but made the price tag of the hostages rise. An exchange of prisoners earlier on, he argues, would have cost both the Israelis and Palestinians far less. Later, he also berates Olmert for turning down in 2006 an overture from the leader of Hamas abroad, Khalid Mashal, which Eldar considers a particularly generous proposal and a major lost opportunity, as well as negotiations the year after with Ghazi Hamad, Hamas spokesman in Gaza. Indeed, both offers came with suitable mediators ready at hand.
Eldar’s criticism of the Israeli leadership reaches its apex with his account of the 2008-2009 “Cast Lead” Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip. The author dismisses the aggression as primarily the result of Olmert’s desire to purge himself of the failure of the 2006 Lebanon campaign and leave some sort of security legacy. According to what Eldar describes as the “typical Israeli narrative,” Olmert thought that it would be easy to overturn the rule of Hamas and put in place something better for Israel. Eldar also explores the division within the Israeli leadership, with the proximity of the Israeli general elections in the foreground. Ehud Barak, then the Defense Minister, opposed a ground invasion, since he did not want to be mired in the mud of the Gaza Strip instead of working on his election campaign. In the end, Barak succeeded in imposing his vision of the military operation: an aerial attack, but no reoccupation of the Strip.
Eldar is particularly disparaging of the Israeli public’s unconditional support of the attack on the Gaza Strip. He deplores the warmongering, which was unusually broad, covering the whole spectrum of Zionist parties, including Meretz, and more generally criticizes the thirst for revenge. He is also critical of the supine media coverage in Israel: the misrepresentation of declarations by Hamas leaders, for example, as well as the self-censorship—choosing not to show images of dead Palestinians. Eldar has a particular axe to grind about this, because he attracted significant attention through his endeavors to cover the conflict and to break through the wall of silence, making the Israeli public listen live on television to a Palestinian doctor, and a friend of the author, who lost three sons and a grandchild when two Israeli rockets hit his house. When Israeli media claimed that Palestinian, not Israeli, rockets had hit the doctor’s house, he pursued the story to eventually prove them wrong, and forced the military to apologize.
His analysis of Hamas’s perspective during the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive is also quite insightful. Just as the Islamic movement had drawn inspiration during the second intifada from Hizbullah’s capacity to drive Israel out of south Lebanon in 2000, so did it from the Lebanese group’s performance during the war against Israel in 2006. In both cases, however, Hamas failed to see that their military capabilities were nowhere near comparable—neither to Hizbullah’s nor, of course, to Israel’s. Having said this, Hamas did manage in 2009 to meet some basic objectives, which allowed the movement to survive and claim a pyrrhic victory. Hamas was able to prevent its leadership from being wiped out. So even if the Gaza Strip was destroyed, the figureheads and symbols of the organization would still survive to rebuild the movement. On the military front, aware from an early stage that Israel was not going to physically reoccupy the Strip, their capacity to fire rockets till the very end was considered as a triumph of sorts that would provide them with bargaining power when they reached a ceasefire. Nevertheless, Eldar concludes that ultimately, Hamas failed to take Israel seriously enough, and forced upon the population of Gaza indescribable destruction.
Since then, Hamas has shown signs of political maturity. The conflict in 2008-2009 is no doubt a landmark—though not necessarily a turning point. Violence has subsided, but still the pattern has been lulls punctuated by short bursts of intense violence. This dynamic has placed Hamas under enormous pressure. Continued Israeli attacks taunt the movement from without, and attempts to retaliate by militant factions in the Gaza Strip do so from within. Still, the movement has shown significant restraint and responsibility. According to Eldar, this constitutes something of a transformation. What follows is just one example of a sequence that has been repeated numerous times since Hamas’s election victory. Just three months after Mashal announced that Hamas had changed its strategy from armed to popular resistance in November 2011, Israel decided to kill the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) Zuhair al-Qaisi. In that way, it put an end to a ceasefire that had started some seven months before, after another round of violence that had itself succeeded the assassination of the previous commander of the PRC. The situation became more complicated for Hamas when Islamic Jihad started trying to compete with the PRC over the leadership of the struggle against Israel, which they accused Hamas of having abandoned. However, instead of taking the bait, Hamas resorted to Egyptian mediators, proving that it could take criticism and exercise self-control. According to Eldar, Hamas could do this because it had come a long way, learning patience and abstaining from violence, while winning the respect of the Palestinian public in the process.
This process of transformation—from a resistance movement to a political organization—is one that Eldar traces back to the death of Yassin and to three questions that Mashal posed himself after the death of the founder: How to maintain the strength of the movement when its hands are tied? How to lead from abroad? How to lead the movement after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza? In answering these questions, Mashal decided to turn Hamas into an active political movement, to participate in elections for the first time, and take over the elected institutions.
Reflecting on this turning point, he argues: “The list of priorities of Hamas changed again: Jihad fell down a place and politics took over the top priority. And the dawah? The traditional flagship of the movement was pushed slightly aside.” That a leader of Hamas living abroad would place less importance on the needs of the population is inevitable, he claims. This, he argues, also explains how the influence of Iran and Syria over the movement increased. This claim is, however, difficult to substantiate. Mashal was based in Syria due to the presence of its offices there until 2011. This was clearly a result of having close relations with the regime—though in 2011 the movement decided to take sides against Syrian president Bashar al-Asad and was forced to leave the country. Also Mashal, unlike the leadership in the Gaza Strip, which could not travel, visited Iran regularly. However, information to further corroborate this argument is unavailable.
Boots on the Ground
Eldar is no casual observer of Hamas. This is evident in his description of the events leading up to Hamas’ countercoup against Fatah in the summer of 2007. When Fatah decided to maintain the Palestinian security forces under its control despite having lost the elections, they “did not understand what every junior policeman in the Palestinian Authority knew: that any confrontation with the [Hamas] Executive Forces was likely to end in a crushing defeat.” This was so, among other reasons, because of their absolute lack of motivation in comparison to Hamas members. In the meantime, Israel refused to allow the PA to receive new weapons—each policeman was only given four bullets—while Hamas appeared to be getting more affluent and their forces better equipped daily. Yet thanks to funding from their constituency abroad, they managed to circumvent the sanctions imposed on them after their electoral victory. Further, mismanagement undermined the efforts to improve the forces loyal to Abu Mazen. According to the internal report that Abu Mazen commissioned investigating the circumstances surrounding the defeat of the PA forces in Gaza in June 2007, most of the responsibility fell on Fatah’s Muhammad Dahlan. The report accused him of misspending twenty-five million dollars that he had been allocated for that purpose. Oddly, Eldar fails to mention the very important role of American General Keith Dayton, whose job was precisely to support Dahlan in training and equipping the forces loyal to Abu Mazen. Indeed, that maneuver utterly backfired, as Hamas exploited it to great effect by branding the PA forces as stooges of the Americans.
Additionally, Eldar displays a multilayered understanding of Palestinian society and its social undercurrents. He emphasizes the social capital the movement’s heads derived from their humble lifestyle, and how much of the popularity of the movement hinged on the contrast with the corrupt Fatah leadership. Hamas chiefs led lives with which ordinary people could identify, and they were careful to emphasize the common narratives: “Yassin used to say that his memories of being uprooted and the daily hardship in a refugee camp were the formative experiences of his life.” Providing a broader historical perspective, Eldar summons some of the key features of the years of the Oslo process, contrasting the popular and grassroots spirit of the first intifada against the Fatah-led and jealously guarded creation: the Palestinian Authority. Elsewhere, he describes how Hamas members saw their Fatah cellmates being released from prison while they remained captive: “Deep hatred developed towards liberated Fatah members, who abandoned the struggle against their common enemy and preferred their personal wellness and that of the organization instead of the higher goal—Palestine.” And he conjures the image of Hamas leaders watching the Oslo ceremony that took place in Washington in September 1993 from their makeshift encampment in Marj al-Zuhur, in south Lebanon, to which they had been expelled by Israel the previous year. Eldar goes on to emphasize the ostentation of Fatah members in the Gaza Strip and the resultant rancor. All these memories scarred the movement, and had real consequences. For example, Eldar describes the mood after their electoral victory in this way:
Beyond all the incentives to become a political movement and stop Israelis from hunting its leaders without respite as it turned from a terrorist organizations to an established movement, there was also a more important incentive spurring them to become established: a feeling of discrimination that dogged Hamas since their creation, but particularly after the signing of Oslo. There was a constant desire by Hamas men to return again into the fold of the population, which was [at that moment] principally made up of Fatah. All positions, senior or junior, in the security forces of the PA were closed to them, and now, after they won the vote of the people, to give up on the control of the security forces was seen in their eyes and the eyes of the people as a weakness and a relinquishment.
[Part two of this review can be found here.]