Shlomi Eldar, Lehakir et Hamas [“To Know Hamas”]. Jerusalem: Keter, 2012.
[Part one of this review can be found here.]
The Military Complex
Eldar structures his narrative around character profiles of Palestinian activists, mainly Hamas leaders, their assassination by Israel, and the broader Israeli military operations. In order to recount the killing of Ahmed Yassin, the founder and leader of the movement, for example, Eldar has researched the decision-making process leading up to it and the real-time execution of the attack. Through this narrative, we learn that as the Israeli leadership was deciding to assassinate Yassin, it worried that it would set off a wave of revenge attacks, with possible adverse regional repercussion. So they opted for a gradualist approach: they would start killing prominent Hamas figures, but of lesser rank and popularity, in order to raise the level of public tolerance. In that way, when they eventually bumped off the leader of Hamas, a mythical figure among Palestinians even while alive, the shock factor was much diminished. Indeed, the assassinations of top leaders are one of the major features of the history of the movement and of the second intifada itself—a period in which almost the whole top-tier of the leadership of the movement was eradicated: Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, Ismail Abu Shanab, Ibrahim Maqadma, and Salah Shahadah. Mahmud al-Zahar, who was himself the target of an assassination attempt, was the only significant exception. Each figure had been essential to the creation and development of the movement. These losses had a massive influence on the history of the organization.
Eldar discusses in some detail the controversy within Israeli society and the army about the assassination campaign: “Also in Israel there was criticism of the trigger happy attitude in the IDF and that the assassinations became the only means of fighting within the system.” In any event, tacit acceptance was the general response. Eldar himself seldom refers to a connection between the victim and a specific attack against Israel. There is a reason for that. The killings were based purely on the need of Israel to weaken or incapacitate an enemy organization and to satisfy a desire for revenge, one not merely felt by the leadership, but by the public as a whole. The only potential constraints were the number of bystanders that would be killed and the potential international condemnation.
Targeted assassinations take up a good part of the book, but it is not the only intelligence-related material that Eldar shares with the reader. He also provides details of the discussions and disagreements among the different branches of the security establishment. There is a detailed account of the heated debate between experts from Military Intelligence (AMAN) and the General Security Services (SHABAK) over the interpretation of speeches and other statements of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. While AMAN accused him of incitement, the SHABAK argued in favor of looking at the declarations’ context. Arafat tended to use more fiery language than usual in front of organizations that rejected a compromise with Israel in order to co-opt them and bring them under his command. Eldar also describes how neither AMAN nor SHABAK foresaw the victory of Hamas in the elections in 2006. It was only the officers of the Coordination and Liaison Administration in Gaza, who had more spontaneous contact with Palestinians at the different checkpoints, who began to understand what was about to happen.
Equally detailed material on Israeli intelligence and the military establishment, such as the debates within these organizations on how to deal with Hamas as well as the actual execution of policy and military operations, determines much of the content of the volume and the way it is organized. These admittedly play a very important role in the history of Hamas, and through them Eldar provides informative insights into Israel-Hamas relations. In the process, the book reveals a specifically Israeli perspective on Hamas and Palestinians in general. For as is clear, the author is an Israeli journalist writing for an Israeli audience: “Lehakir et Hamas deals also with us,” he says. The reference to “us”—that is, implicitly, “Israelis”—is repeated. At times, he also draws parallels to events in Israeli history that he does not fully explain, assuming that his reader is Israeli and would therefore immediately understand. For example, he compares the failure to foresee the Hamas victory in the elections in 2006 to “the oversight of Yom Kippur,” a reference to the October 1973 war with Egypt. Famously, the Israeli intelligence agencies failed to predict that war.
The Israeli Media and Gaza
Another of the book’s narratives is the role of the Israeli media in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Eldar has had remarkable access to decision-makers in the Gaza Strip, and particularly within Hamas. Up until the siege imposed on the Strip since Hamas’ election victory in 2006, a number of Israeli journalists were able to move quite freely through the Palestinian territories and so cultivated excellent local sources. Indeed, other than at times of extreme tension, Palestinians have been quite welcoming to Israeli journalists.
The reasons for the access that Israeli journalists like Eldar enjoyed are not simply personal bonds or the eagerness of Palestinians to practice the Hebrew they picked up in prison or on Tel Aviv building sites. Hamas leaders, like most Palestinians, are aware of the importance of reaching both Israeli decision-makers and the Israeli public. For example, Eldar was the first journalist to be granted an interview by Haniya, the prime minister-to-be, as soon as the results of the 2006 Palestinian elections were made public. Hamas was anxious to assuage Israeli fears and to send a message of moderation. One of the central characteristics of this special relation is its asymmetry. This imbalance is palpable in everyday interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, of which the book provides plenty of examples. When touring a Palestinian prison, Eldar feels compelled to express his contempt for one of the inmates, Ibrahim Maqadma, who had apparently danced on hearing the news of Israeli children killed in a bombing attack in Tel Aviv. It was only the intervention of the Palestinian prison guard that stopped him from receiving a blow from the detainee.
Eldar is at times driven by passion, and this is not the only instance where his feelings towards Hamas are evident. For example, his affinity towards Haniya is as clear as his personal dislike for Mashal. In general, the level of his personal involvement is quite remarkable, as when he actually starts mediating between the parties, sending messages from Hamas across to the Israeli prime minister. This is a bitter conflict, and it is hard for its actors to put their feelings to the side. But it is also unusual for a journalist to lecture or show contempt towards the subject of his work to their very face.
Perhaps the most conspicuous deficiency of the book is the author’s attempt to place Hamas in the context of political Islam as a whole. His effort to describe a set of fixed religious principles that shape and determine the movement is wanting and flawed.
To begin with, the breadth of his personal, first-hand knowledge of Hamas contrasts unfavorably to his limited acquaintance with the literature on political Islam. He recognizes this problem, although he tries to compensate for this deficiency by praising lavishly his one and only literary reference: Emmanuel Sivan’s Radical Islam. Due to this shortcoming, the conclusions that he reaches on this issue are shallow, reducing Hamas to a caricature, contradicting the flexibility that he otherwise attributes to the movement. Thus, instead of studying Hamas’ use of scriptures to suit its own purposes, he implies the reverse, drawing rigid inferences from the religious texts to the behavior of the movement.
For example, he imbues concepts like dawah, hudna, and tadhiyah with essentialist explanations. In fact, they read like dictionary entries that he backs up with reference to the very ambiguous concept of “Islamic tradition,” without citing a specific source. Elsewhere, he explains the existence of the shura council by stating “according to the Islamic tradition, the organization called ‘shura council’ is established after the death of a leader.” He then notes that the caliph Omar Ibn al-Khatib created on his deathbed such an institution in order to help in the selection of his successor, since then there is no Islamic movement without a shura council. Unfortunately he makes no reference to an interview or piece of writing where Hamas makes reference to this. And even if there was such a source, it would be difficult to ascertain what the significance of this would be, other than to consolidate the idea of Hamas as a rigid entity driven by religious fanaticism.
Another concept that he analyzes in great detail is the term tadhiyah (sacrifice). Though he usefully discusses the tension between the religious and secular senses of the word, his starting point is that it is primarily a religious expression. He writes:
The concept tadhiya in Islam refers to a person who sacrifices himself for the group. The person who sacrifices himself (the righteous person) has much recompense saved in the next world. During the first intifada, the concept became widespread, not necessarily in the context of those who “sacrifice themselves for God” but in the context of those who sacrifice themselves for the sake of the people and its freedom in the struggle against the Israeli occupation.…This social code also influenced Hamas members, even though they never abandoned the religious interpretation of tadhiya. The activists of the movement, despite being pious Muslims who proclaimed that they did not ask for anything material for themselves in this world, did not give up the recompense that they received also in this world, as influential actors in Palestinian society.
Examples of this representation of the movement—as fundamentally influenced by religion—are peppered throughout the text. When Musa Arafat orders Zahar’s and Ahmed Bahar’s beards to be cut, he tells the reader that “shaving the beard of a devout Muslim is an unforgivable sin.” However, is this understood as a sin in the religious sense, or rather as an insult in a more cultural sense?
There are also a number of superficial inaccuracies that reinforce the sense that the author has a weak grasp of the subject of Islamic activism. For example, when he writes “in order to establish the utopian Muslim nation, first the Arab society must be prepared,” he appears to confuse the terms Arab and Islamic. Though it is possible that this is done on purpose—there are Islamic thinkers who do give preference to the role of the Arabs in reviving Islam—he offers no further explanation. Later, he makes a similar error, claiming that the name of the party that represented Hamas at the 2006 elections “Change and Reform Coalition” is similar to those of other Islamic movements in what he calls the “Arab world,” like “Justice and Reform” in Turkey (by no stretch an Arab country). Elsewhere, he cryptically contrasts Iran with the Islamic trend. Such an essentialist approach contradicts an otherwise rather nuanced, sensitive, and insightful exposé of Hamas.
This is not to say that he always gets it wrong. For example, at the beginning of the book, he states: “I saw, I investigated, and I thought like everyone that only Jihad against Israel is their objective. Like Majdi, I never understood how much the lost honor, and the feeling of deprivation that Hamas members and its leaders felt were the motor that signaled the road and outlined their activities, military and political.” Elsewhere, he mentions that “the Palestinian elite in Gaza those days sneered at the cripple [Ahmed Yassin] from Shaati that thought of himself as an interpreter of sacred law and accused him of a destructive brainwashing of his students and of distributing shallow rulings that proved his lack of understanding of Islam.” These two quotations indicate that he is aware of the relativism inherent in religious interpretation. But it appears that he fails to apply it consistently to his own writing.
The Final Reckoning
In Lehakir et Hamas, Eldar makes the most out of his rare access to information—the product of years of covering his subject and reflecting on its meaning. He has a profound understanding of Hamas and the Palestinians from the ground up. He also has a good grasp of the Israelis, in particular the decision-making process of the security services, from the top down—a binary that, by the way, defines the nature of the relation between the two sides. Thus this book is a serious contribution to understanding Hamas, and the development of the movement since the turn of the century, from a resistance outfit to a governing authority. More broadly, it also provides a fascinating case study from which numerous conclusions can be drawn on the dynamics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the last few decades.
Eldar’s understanding of the importance of the notion of social capital for Hamas, his definition of the impact of the Oslo years on the movement, as well as his nuanced analysis of the strategy it followed during operation Cast Lead, are examples of his deep insights. On the Israeli side, his discussion of the rationale behind the targeted assassinations and the quarrels among the different intelligence agencies on the interpretation of Palestinian rhetoric provide an added dimension to the analysis of the second intifada and the conflict more generally.
There are also numerous instances in which the author displays an unusual capacity to step back from his own society and provide a surprisingly cold assessment of the situation. This is the case, for example, when he describes the mood of the Israeli public around the time that Israel launched operation Cast Lead, or the internal political considerations that determined the Israeli decision-making process during that campaign.
Eldar offers a particularly rich portrayal of the movement by tying its history to Israel’s interaction with it. In fact, one of the main theses of the book is the criticism of Israel’s approach to Hamas, accusing the political and military leadership of never losing an opportunity to make matters worse. Violence, as opposed to politics, has been the defining characteristic of Israel’s dealings with the organization.
However, the book is also interesting for its limitations, and what these tell us about the Israeli approach to Hamas and Palestinians in general. This is, after all, a book explicitly written for an Israeli public. A fundamentally militaristic outlook, typified in his fondness for military terminology, lies at the heart of the relation between Israel and Palestinians. A militaristic outlook is, of course, one of the most salient features of the Israeli perspective, and one that defines the way Israelis view Palestinians. These are the sorts of issues that matter to the Israeli public, and about which they are curious. The military-intelligence complex is a world that many Israelis know well due to the years of compulsory military service that the majority of the population has been through—three years for males, two for women—as well as the incestuous relation in Israeli society between the military and civilian world. At one point, Eldar addresses that fact directly, comparing the large number of former military officers in government to the preponderance of military figures in the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. Jewish Israelis who speak Arabic are likely to have learnt it in the army, more often than not while serving in an intelligence unit.
That Israeli society is highly militarized is no secret. A common example is how when young Israelis travelling abroad meet, they will typically ask each other what military unit they served in, just like young Americans might ask each other where they went to college. There is thus an inclination to look at Palestinian issues through a military lens that shapes their whole encounter. Though Eldar makes an extraordinary effort to understand Palestinians, the book also reflects this particularly Israeli interpretation of Palestinians, shaped primarily by the effort to fight and control them.
Eldar’s persistent use of martial nomenclature, like the names of the Israeli Army’s operations, is an obvious example of this military standpoint. “First Rain” is “the first military operation of Israel in the Strip after the disconnection,” that is, the Israeli “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip. He titles the first chapter of the book “Picking Anemones,” after the name given to the plan to kill Hamas’ top leadership. Others are “Summer Rains,” “Southern Ruler,” and “Samson’s Columns.” Of course, these names may be used as an easy way to refer to an event or set of events of great importance, and to set them within a specific time and space. However, they also carry with them a particular narrative and a way of understanding such episodes that obscures what in fact took place. In particular, they detract from the impact they have on human lives. Such a clinical and detached way of talking about violence is very much part of everyday discourse in the Israeli media—indeed, not just Israel—and is also found in the social science-like terms sometimes coined to describe particular concepts. An example is “the Dahiya Doctrine,” which otherwise simply refers to the devastation by the Israeli air force of Dahiya, a mostly Shiite neighborhood of Beirut known for harboring sympathies to Hezbollah, in the 2006 war. It is employed to denote the use of extreme force—almost disproportionate by definition—to effect massive destruction.
Still, such terms give a sense of a rational thought process lying behind them that may not exist. In the case of Lehakir et Hamas, the author is particularly fond of something he calls “the Maqadma Doctrine,” a reference to a closed door meeting of Hamas members in Jabalia refugee camp, in the north of the Gaza Strip. In that meeting, Ibrahim Maqadma, one of Hamas’s foremost ideologues, is supposed to have set out a strategy to destroy the PA—not directly, because the movement lacked the military capacity, but by means of provoking Israel: “If we fight against the [Palestinian] Authority we will lose, they will eliminate us. If we start with the Israelis, Israel will attack the Authority and that way we will bring down the whole [Oslo] agreement,” he is supposed to have said. Unfortunately, the author cites neither the date when this took place, nor the source of his information, making any sort of verification impossible. As it turns out, this so-called doctrine, or prophecy, was in fact fulfilled during the second intifada, when Israel systematically struck the PA installations in response to attacks by Hamas. However, whether this was the product of a thought-out strategy by Hamas is questionable. In fact, other accounts of the second intifada describe this in detail but place the burden of agency on the Israeli leaders themselves exploiting the attacks by Hamas to settle accounts with the PA, and with Arafat in particular. Eldar, on the other hand, paints a (tendentious) picture of Hamas more obsessed with Fatah than with Israel.
Though he is far from bound by the Israeli perspective, and its militaristic outlook more particularly, he often fails to take his conclusions far enough. He is, for example, aware of the differences in the ways Palestinians and Israelis see the conflict, and makes an effort to portray the Palestinian perspective—clearly with his Israeli readers in mind. Thus, he writes that although Israelis see Palestinians who carried out large attacks against Israel as terrorists, for Palestinians they are nationalist heroes. This is, of course, correct, but it is still an incomplete picture. Because what is also crucial, and what he fails to mention in failing to take his argument to its logical conclusion, is that the reverse is also true—that in turn, Palestinians see Israelis as murderers with blood on their hands.
His discussion of targeted assassinations is rich, pointing out the excessive ease and carelessness with which these were executed. This is a point that Eldar makes quite clearly. However, once again, he doesn’t manage to step back far enough from the events to perceive the drama in its true measure, the broader and more important implications: the ease with which the Israeli leadership decides who lives and who dies. The conflict is truly extraordinary, for Israeli decision makers determine the ultimate destiny of Hamas leaders, who risk their existence with every decision they make. For example, when Hamas decided to discontinue the ceasefire at the end of 2008—shortly after an Israeli incursion into Gaza in which six Hamas members were killed—the Israeli leadership regarded this as a “suicidal act,” and this was meant literally.
When it comes to killing a Hamas leader, the question has rarely been how but when, a function of the high level of Israeli capabilities. Even though since the early 1990s they were no longer on the ground in the Gaza Strip patrolling the streets, the Israeli military establishment was able to identify the hiding place of any wanted individual and dispatch a helicopter or unmanned drone to shoot a missile at the exact time when the victim was there or moving through the streets—not once, or twice, but dozens if not hundreds of times. There was next to nothing that the Hamas leadership could do to save itself. Indeed, there are few examples of Palestinians who Israel wanted to kill but did not manage to, thus neutralizing the hit-and-run tactic of guerrilla warfare to an astonishing degree. To witness such an attack or its aftermath feels like watching a science fiction movie. One of the first reactions is almost inevitably the question, how is this possible. Such power also meant that the Israeli leadership, both military and political, did not need to contemplate alternatives—thereby making the technological capacity lead the policy.
Again, during operation Cast Lead, Eldar courageously challenged the Israeli media and military establishment, forcing them to retract when they deny responsibility for the killing of a Palestinian family. However, one important conclusion that Eldar fails to draw is that this incident puts into question the information that the Israeli military produces (although seldom corroborates) to incriminate Palestinians and justify all acts of aggression, and in particular targeted assassinations. Indeed, the author relies on information from the Israeli military for much of the book.
His own role as journalist-activist-mediator, while often impressive and remarkably influential at times, is also a reflection of a fundamental asymmetry of power relations between the two sides. This is not to speculate on the morality of blurring the boundaries between journalism and activism. His reporting has an impact, shaping Israeli public discourse and influencing Israeli decision-makers in ways that reduce tension, at least superficially and in the short-term, between Palestinians and Israelis. What is evident here, however, is the asymmetry between Palestinians and Israelis—how Palestinians depend on Israelis to represent them. It is Israelis who decide who is a good Palestinian and who is a bad Palestinian. Though Eldar does well in pointing out how Israel has influenced Hamas’s behavior, the whole approach to his subject is the same as that of the Israeli army and political class—as that of an object to be classified, deciphered, contained, controlled, and submitted.
For Eldar, Palestinians exist only as a self-contained category, not as individual agents. Indeed, there is one area in particular where this bias is most glaring: his treatment of Hamas in the context of political Islam. Hamas is reduced to and defined by a set of essential characteristics. At the same time, some of the bold conclusions that he proposes contrast with the fact that he uses almost no references, which take away credibility from the work as a whole. Too often, for example, he uses inverted commas to quote a phrase that encapsulates a thought, but that is not attributed to anyone in particular.
These criticisms, however, should not deprive this serious and important book of the wide readership it deserves. Its central message becomes increasingly relevant with every passing day: there is no military solution to the conflict, and no alternative to recognition of Hamas. The destructive approach that Israel has pursued, eliminating the possibility of a negotiated solution to the conflict, may in fact be extended to Israel’s relation to the Palestinians and the region as a whole, and does not bode well for the future of Israel.