The Hamas Conundrum

The Untamed Shrew, Four Years On

Courtesy Reuters

In the four years since it swept Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas has neither moderated its policies nor adopted democratic principles. Constantly torn between its ideology as an Islamist jihadi movement and its responsibilities as a governing authority in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has proven unwilling to transform itself. The result has been an ongoing ideological and political crisis for Hamas and, more generally, the Palestinian Authority. Last October, Hamas was faced with the challenge of new elections mandated by Palestinian law and set for January by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction is Hamas’ chief rival. Hamas’ reaction was to ban any voting from taking place in Gaza. Consequently, Abbas postponed the elections indefinitely, sparking heated debate with Hamas over the legitimacy of his continued tenure as president.

Soon after Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory, I identified some conditions necessary for co-opting ideologically extreme and violent political movements (“Can Hamas Be Tamed?” March/April 2006). I argued that Hamas was unlikely to become more moderate in the foreseeable future, primarily because there was neither a strong Palestinian government nor a viable political center capable of containing and co-opting the group. Unfortunately, this has proven to be true -- and it remains so today.

After winning the 2006 election, Hamas immediately began grappling with various conflicting pressures. The Israeli government, which evacuated its citizens and military from Gaza in 2005, reacted strongly -- militarily, economically, and diplomatically -- to the continued firing of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, first by factions other than Hamas and later by Hamas itself. Meanwhile, immediately after Hamas’ electoral victory, the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia) demanded that Hamas, in order to gain international legitimacy, commit to nonviolence, recognize Israel, and accept previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. All the while, Hamas felt a domestic imperative to secure Palestinian national unity. In the face of these pressures, it consistently tried to govern without moderating its ideology. It remained

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