The Road Ahead

Reading Hamas

By Nathan J. Brown

Published April 30, 2012, issue of May 04, 2012.
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One year ago, I sat in the Nablus living room of the late Shaykh Hamid al-Bitawi, a leading religious figure in Hamas. We were joined by one of his sons, a man in his 20s. As an academic specializing in Islamist political movements, I was interested primarily in how (or if) Hamas was operating in the West Bank.

But the conversation turned quite naturally toward al-Bitawi’s views on a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The solution was simple, he genially explained, since an Islamic state in all of Palestine would naturally provide for the rights of all inhabitants. His combination of excessive politeness with an extremely pugnacious position prompted his (even more polite) son to pipe in: “What my father says is absolutely correct from a religious point of view. But from a political point of view, Hamas accepts a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.”

After he spoke, father and son looked at each other, smiled and nodded. I was used to hearing confusing signals and even contradictory positions from different Hamas figures. But what I found utterly baffling was that the two seemed to think they were agreeing with each other. Some months later, I recounted the story to another of Shaykh al-Bitawi’s sons. He laughed and said that all of the family’s conversations were like that.

What are we to make of a movement that simultaneously prides itself on its fixed principles and on its practicality? For all its bloody-minded rejection of compromise on its core beliefs, those beliefs also contain considerable ambiguity. And in ironing out its differences, Hamas is not only involved in family discussions; it is enmeshed in hard politics, governance of Gaza and political violence. And these necessitate difficult choices.

Does Larry Cohler-Esses’s interview with Mousa Abu Marzook (which appeared in the April 27 issue) help us understand how Hamas will make its choices in the future? There are some familiar elements in what Abu Marzook says, like the distancing from the movement’s charter (a document that activists rarely cite, even in internal propaganda, even as they decline to modify it). There are a surprising number of details on Hamas’s confusing signals about an Israeli-Palestinian accord — not all of them encouraging by any means to those who would hope to bring Hamas into negotiations of some sort. And there are unsurprising silences on matters of internal organization and finance.

But two elements of the interview stand out for what they indicate about the future. First, Abu Marzook devoted an extraordinary amount of time to an interview with an American Jewish newspaper, apparently in the belief that he had something important to say to it. Second, he had never heard anyone claim that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a forgery.

Taken together, these elements suggest that the integration of Hamas as a diplomatic and political actor is neither inevitable nor impossible — but also that if the movement ever decides to embark on such a path, it is likely to be a torturous and difficult one for all concerned.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of the recent “When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics” (Cornell University Press).


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