While there was never any doubt that the secular groups within the PLO conducted the Intifada of 1987, the Islamist “Hamas” sees itself as the leader of the present one. The failure of the Oslo Accords at Camp David, together with the losses that Islamist suicide bombings have caused Israelis, have encouraged the Hamas leaders to proclaim as their immediate goal nothing less than “the destruction of the Zionist entity”. Thus speaks Osama Hamdan, for instance, leader of Hamas in Lebanon: “We who support the Islamic program do not talk only of Jerusalem, or of Jerusalem as a holy city. We talk of Palestine é the whole of Palestine é and the rights of the Palestinian people.” Hamdan said these words on August 14 at a round-table discussion on “Reverse Direction”, a political talk show on the remarkably open TV station, al-Jezira, broadcasting out of Qatar. How serious are the Hamas leaders when they make such proclamations? Does the Islamic leadership have, in fact, a magic formula for defeating Zionism? When we look at the actual politics of Hamas, we see a large gap between its rhetoric and its ability, or even willingness, to muster the forces it would need in order to vanquish Israel.
1. Hamas avoids competing with the PA for political control
Hamas opposed the Oslo Accords from Day One. It also boycotted the 1996 elections for the PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council). Nevertheless, its leaders repeatedly declare that the movement does not see itself as an alternative to the PA (Palestinian Authority). It held this position even in 1996-97, when the PA helped Israel by jailing Hamas activists é and, according to some, by aiding in the assassinations of its senior military leaders, such as Muhi a-Din Sharif and the Awadallah brothers. (See Challenge # 49.) Until just recently, the top Hamas political leader, Abed Aziz Rentisi, sat in a PA prison in Gaza. In an April interview on the aforementioned al-Jezira, Rentisi declared the security coordination between Israel and the PA to be “the hardest obstacle before the resistance movement.” He had little to tell the PA, however, other than warning it not “to go back to the same old square.” In the August round-table quoted above, Osama Hamdan spoke in a similar vein: “Our declared policy, ever since the PA arrived in the Territories, has been to avoid conflict with it. Today we have reached a stage where we and the PA and the entire Palestinian people stand shoulder to shoulder against the Zionist program.”
In the Rentisi appearance, interviewer Ahmed Mansur put the following question: “But the existence of the PA depends on the Oslo Agreement. How can it retreat from Oslo, which created it in the first place? If the Oslo commitments are overthrown, this means the elimination of the PA. You (Hamas é S.N.) are demanding, then, the impossible!” Rentisi answered: “The guarantee of the PA’s continued existence is its adherence to resistance. The Oslo Agreement required that the PA assent to the splitting of ranks. Only by leaving Oslo behind, will the PA secure their re-unification. The present goal, following the collapse of Oslo, is to stand firm against the Zionist enemy. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to take action as a united leadership in the jihad (holy war é S.N.) against that enemy.”
The interviewer did not relent, however: “The [united] leadership you speak of would then be an alternative to the PA?” Rentisi answered: “It will include the PA. And after a time, elections will be held, in which the Palestinian people will decide whether to choose the way of jihad and resistance, or the way of surrender.” The talk of elections is sheer demagoguery. Why should the PA put itself before the voters? Despite public demand, Arafat has delayed even municipal elections since the PA began its career in 1994.
When it comes to the PA, Hamas is opportunistic. On the one hand, it puts itself forth as the “leading force” in the Intifada, but on the other, it provides a cover for the PA’s treacherous policy, which remains within the parameters of Oslo (represented by the Mitchell Report, the CIA and the White House). Hamas deludes itself and its supporters, as though there were but a single camp, that of resistance to Israel. This delusion will be exposed when the PA finally decides to shut down the Intifada. Till then, the phony cover of national unity will enable Hamas to issue extravagant proclamations and carry out news-making attacks. In the final analysis, though, its activities are circumscribed within the orbit the PA allows. When the moment of decision arrives, Hamas will undergo a rude awakening.
2. Hamas is unwilling to jeopardize the Arab regimes that support the US
Two of the Arab world’s crucial regimes, the Egyptian and the Saudi, are opposed to letting the Intifada unwind. Their inaction, in the face of Israeli violence, engenders rage among Palestinians. Yet the Arab regimes are umbilically tied to America. That is why they keep urging Arafat to return to the negotiating table, and, in effect, to revive the Oslo program. Hamas is unwilling to criticize these regimes (it gets its funding from the Gulf), although the regimes, by choosing Oslo, smother in advance any prospect of a just solution.
In the April interview, Rentisi was asked his opinion about striking American targets in the region. He answered: “We envision no such step. We have no wish to disturb the security of any Arab country, and the Americans have interests in many of them. We aren’t willing to involve ourselves in such a campaign. Our present struggle is against the Zionist enemy.” Rentisi, then, plays dumb. Doesn’t he know that the state of Israel owes its existence to American interests: the very same interests that states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait serve? When Hamas avoids confronting the Arab regimes or the PA, it is choosing not to present itself as a political alternative to the Oslo bloc. It winds up backing, in effect, the very forces against which it rants and raves.
3. The policy of suicide-bombings
The suicide-bombers are the heaviest Hamas weapon. Osama Hamdan claims, “The cumulative effect of the suicides will bring liberation. Not today, not tomorrow, but ultimately.” (Ibid.) The use of suicides exacts, without doubt, a most painful price. But Hamas has no political program to which it links these acts, except to cry, “Down with the Zionist entity!”
It turns out, therefore, that the suicide-bombers serve no purpose beyond satisfying a thirst for revenge and raising Palestinian morale. The latter soon succumbs again to a reality of poverty and stagnation. The PLO, like all anti-colonialist movements, has always opposed suicide as a tactic of war. Ideologically, it is at odds with the message of every progressive movement, for this is a message of life. In the act of resistance, death is to be avoided if possible. It is certainly not a thing to be valued for its own sake. What is more, this method makes a cult of individual sacrifice, rather than encouraging the entire people to act toward liberation. The fact that Palestinian youth are ready to blow themselves up does not mark a high point in their people’s history. It marks a tragedy. It expresses the dead end to which the present leadership has brought these youth: both the PA, which took the criminal path of surrender eight years ago, and Hamas, which offers no down-to-earth program, rather a place in paradise.
In his interview with Rentisi, Ahmed Mansur put the matter thus: “Many commentators make the claim that the suicide-bombings by Hamas express nothing but the despair in which Palestinian youngsters find themselves. They see no future except to blow themselves up.” By encouraging these acts of despair, Hamas plays into the hands of the Oslo bloc. With each such act, Hamas gives Israel a pretext for escalating its reprisals against the PA. If Israel gets sufficient pretext to force the issue, the result will be one of two things: either the PA will vanish from the scene, or Arafat will accept the Israeli terms and tell his people, in effect: “Well, we tried, didn’t we? We tried everything in our power and still we failed. Now it’s time to go back to the Oslo process.”
4. “Destruction of the Zionist entity”?
The extravagant promises of Hamas have no relation to reality. The PA (which Hamas does not wish to confront) surrendered at Oslo because the balance of forces, it claimed, did not allow it to achieve all it wanted. There was a seed of truth in this (although Arafat exploited the resulting political situation as a pretext for establishing a corrupt dictatorial regime). Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major blow to all anti-colonialist movements. First Iraq, then Yugoslavia, paid a heavy price in wars that were meant to crown the US as undisputed world leader. To take the Iraqi case in particular: this Arab state, possessing enormous military and economic resources, attempted to carry out an independent venture in the Middle East and to demonstrate its strategic power. It failed. The US, together with its European and Arab allies, destabilized Iraq and turned it into a graveyard.
In the light of this precedent, let us consider Hamas. It claims to oppose the Oslo Agreement. It isn’t willing to confront America. It isn’t prepared to jeopardize the pro-American regimes in the Middle East. It isn’t even willing to challenge the PA! But unlike Iraq, it has in its hands some ultimate weapon against Zionism? No national-liberation movement within the Third World, be it secular or religious, can make significant gains without global support. In the past, the Soviet Union provided this backing for many states and movements, the PLO among them. Now the backing is gone. On what, then, does Hamas rely? Does it really think that suicide-bombings will bring Israel to its knees?
The Hamas rhetoricians would do well to recall a saying by Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau. He advised the freedom-fighters of Africa: “Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories.”
In the light of its opportunistic politics, one wonders what Hamas really intends. It appears as a movement that disavows the Oslo surrender, yet in practice, it supports the wider Oslo regime (stretching from Washington through the Arab states to the PA and even to Israel). The suicide-bombings, rather than helping the Palestinian people shake off the Occupation, help Hamas to gain popularity while concealing the fact that it has no strategy.
The Palestinian people faces one of its hardest hours. Day after day it suffers losses in persons and property. In order to combat Israel, however, it must first settle the question of where to place its allegiances. We Palestinians cannot defeat the Occupation from within America’s court. The present global order has no place for us. Yet between a place in paradise and mere surrender there is another way: to rebuild the socialist alternative. True, we are not on the verge of a new revolutionary era. It is upon us, nonetheless, to examine the situation, to detect the weaknesses of the capitalist camp, and to organize ourselves against it in accordance with our powers. The evils of globalization are spawning a serious resistance movement. We should take part. We need a politics of revolutionary sanity, not a politics that takes satisfaction in blowing itself and the world to pieces.
Samya Nasser is the manager of the Baqa center in Majd al Krum.