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Reuven Paz: The Hamas Movement. An Israeli Perspective

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Dr. Reuven Paz is an Israeli historian specializing in Islamic movements and Palestinian society both in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He is the founder and director of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements, based in Herzliya ( Israel ). Paz’s forthcoming book is on “The Mindset and Culture of Global Jihad.” We interviewed Dr. Paz on Hamas, its future and its Middle Eastern links. The interview was conducted by Aziz Enhaili for ®. 

Aziz Enhaili: What exactly is Hamas? How is it structured?

Reuven Paz: Hamas is an Islamic movement, which in December 1987, emerged in Gaza from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by developing a military wing using the outbreak of the Palestinian popular uprising (Intifada). Its founder and leader was Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, until he was killed by Israel in 2004. Since 1987, it remained under the general framework of the MB, with a unique nature that was affected by its terrorist activity against Israel, and its unique relations with Iran and the Lebanese Shi`ite group of Hizballa. Hamas is so far, the only branch of the MB, which is engaged in terrorist activity. As a result of its relations with foreign elements, primarily since the deportation of its leadership to Lebanon between December 1992-December 1993, on one hand, and the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, it developed a double command inside the PA and outside of Palestine. It also developed a strong terrorist wing named Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which took the lead of the military fight against Israel . At the same time, Hamas continued very intensively its social, cultural, educational, and welfare activity, through numerous charity associations, in the Palestinian territories and in the Arab and Western world. In January 2006, Hamas won the general elections in the PA, and its rivalry with Fatah, the mainstream power of the PLO, reached another peak. In June 2007 this rivalry brought about a takeover by Hamas of the government in Gaza , and an unsolved conflict, so far, with Fatah, which led to a De Facto split between Gaza , under Hamas rule and the West Bank under Fatah.

The above-said created a very complicated structure of Hamas. In the absence of a charismatic leader such as Yassin, Hamas is directed by a communal leadership, which is composed of the religious-legal council (Majlis Shura) in both Gaza and Damascus ; the Hamas government in Gaza ; and the commanders of Al-Qassam Brigades. Under this communal leadership, there is a structure that involves the traditional structure of the MB -- the Da`wa, meaning a covert infrastructure of members, who are leading the indoctrination, and an open infrastructure of charities, student unions, and a variety of other kinds of unions. A similar infrastructure acts in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.

Aziz Enhaili: What does Hamas believe in and what are its goals?

Reuven Paz: Unlike the PLO and its main group - Fatah, Hamas emerged from within the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and therefore, it has, so far, limited its immediate goals to the fight against Israeli occupation, within Israel and the Palestinian Authority only. Nevertheless, Hamas has long-range goals of liberating all of Palestine in order to create an Islamic state. Hamas' goals were published in August 1987, in a covenant, which has not been changed so far. According to its stated declarations in the past 22 years, and its covenant, Hamas believes in the need to unite the Muslim world on the way to establishing the longed Caliphate.

However, this struggle is very long, and should start through a social revolution from below, not by force, in any of the Arab countries. It also behaves as a pragmatic movement, which is carefully listening to the changing mood of the people. Hamas believes that by "Islamizing" the majority of the Palestinians according to their norms, those of the MB, and hard efforts in the field of social work, and by adopting for the time being the political Western norms of democracy, elections, or parliamentary activity, they will be able to recruit the support of the majority of the Palestinians. At the same time, a central element of recruiting support is their fight against Israel , either by terrorism or through public support in the Arab and Muslim world, and in the West.

Hamas believes that the Israeli rule in Palestine is temporary and can be defeated by recruiting the Islamic cause. However, their pragmatism, and the hard conditions of the Palestinians in Gaza , not to mention Israeli retaliation, force them to make temporary compromises, such as kinds of ceasefire with Israel , indirect negotiations over daily issues, and limiting their immediate goals to the liberation of the territories occupied by Israel since 1967. Hamas, like the mother movement of the MB, believes in a policy of a very long breath and patience (Sabr) on the way to victory. In this very long way, there is plenty of room for compromises and pragmatism.

Aziz Enhaili: How does Hamas recruit and train suicide bombers?

Reuven Paz: The affect of the Palestinian long struggle against Israel makes it relatively easy to recruit volunteers for suicide bombings. These volunteers come, in most cases, from the ranks of the movement, from families that were hit by Israel and seek revenge, or from high educated Palestinians, who view this kind of sacrifice as part of a noble contribution to the Palestinian Islamic cause. Many of them are pinpointed at the mosques, at student unions, or within families of killed or imprisoned Palestinians. Suicide bombers do not need to be trained for the operation, beside a mental preparation, which is usually short. The main element of the suicide bombings are the handlers and those who build the bombs, not the suicide bombers that carry the bomb on their body.

Aziz Enhaili: Where does Hamas’s money come from?

Reuven Paz: Until recent years, most of Hamas' finance came from Arab countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The financing was channeled through charities, many of them in the West. Hamas has used its many charities and associations in the Palestinian territories to finance itself. In recent years, following the stubborn fight of the West against global terrorism, most of its finances were blocked or ceased to be transferred. As an alternative, Iran became the prime financier of Hamas, in many cases by big sums of cash money smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Since Hamas became the government in Gaza , part of its budget is used for the movement, whose many members became government employees.

Aziz Enhaili: Do You think, Dr. Paz, that Hamas’s recent relations with Iran could jeopardize in the long run its traditional ties with the Sunni Arab powers?

Reuven Paz: Its relations with Iran have not started recently, but in 1993- 94. In recent years their relations intensified, as a result of Hamas’s isolation in the Arab world. For quite a long time, Iran has been using the Arab countries’ neglect of the Palestinian struggle in order to infiltrate the Palestinian territories and expand its patronage over them. These efforts are part of the Iranian wish to become the most dominant power in the region. However, the open Iranian hegemony project as well as its nuclear power aspiration have created a growing resentment in the Arab Sunni world. But, on the other hand, Hamas enjoys a large popularity and sympathy in the Arab Sunni world, which affects certain Arab governments. It may prevent or at least weaken their relations with Hamas. The Middle East in general is a very fragile region, and developments take place here in an unexpected way sometimes. A more likely element to jeopardize Hamas' relations might be a possible peace negotiation between Israel and Syria.

Aziz Enhaili: Do you think that someone like Marwan Barghouti (if released) could help reconciliate Hamas and Fatah and bring forth a unity government willing to negotiate a final deal with Israel?

Reuven Paz: The real support for Marwan Barghouti, if released, is still a puzzle. I am not at all sure that he will be released in the PA, and it is more likely that he will be deported to some European or Arab country, where his power will be limited. I believe that Hamas may find in Barghouti a more comfortable opponent, but it will have to fight against him in any election campaign, which will reduce the prospects of unity. Unfortunately, under the present circumstances, I doubt there exists any possibility of unity, unless Hamas becomes the main power in the West Bank, following elections. The issue does not involve only Hamas and Fatah. It also involves the huge gap between Gaza and the West bank, not to mention the Israeli actions too.

Dr. Reuven Paz founded in 2003 the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM – HU in the GLORIA Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, in Herzliya ( Israel ), which he directs. PRISM focuses on research in the field of Islamic radical movements and ideology and global Jihad. In 2006, PRISM has opened a special research project for radical Islam in Africa .

The interview was conducted by Aziz Enhaili for ®.

December 14, 2009

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