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The origins of Hamas

 The origins of Hamas  ING-046
17 November 2023

Ghanem Nuseibeh is a renowned Middle East political and economic analyst with far-reaching experience. Born in Jerusalem, he lived and worked for many years in London, where he taught at King’s College, and he carried out research for Harvard. In addition to his work as a strategy consultant, he is strongly committed to the area of interreligious dialogue. He is president of the British association, Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, he supports the Neve Shalom Wahat Al Salam interfaith village project, and he sponsors initiatives against religious extremism.

What has happened since 7 October?

What has happened is that Hamas, a terrorist group, irresponsibly left to govern over two million people, has marked a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whose effects will unfold for several years to come. I think an accurate study of what has happened and what will happen cannot be separated from a closer analysis of what Hamas is. Two factors in particular seem to me to be decisive. The first — often not sufficiently acknowledged — is that Hamas is a subsidiary of the Muslim Brotherhood, meaning that the ideology imposed by Hamas has been imported from other Arab countries. It is not, so to speak, indigenous, and contradicts a long tradition of “secular”, pan-Arab, socialist Palestinian thinking. The old leadership of the plo gathered around Yasser Arafat, had these characteristics. For example, two prestigious and very radical leaders of those years, such as George Habbash and Nayef Hawatmeh, were Christians. Islamic fundamentalism does not belong to the character of the Palestinian people. I think that most Palestinians “use” Hamas as the only possible instrument to free themselves from the occupation, but I do not think they would ever accept to put up with an “Iranian” way of life. What then is the origin of this fundamentalist drift that has brought Hamas to power? It stems from the inconclusiveness of plo governments and the existence of a privileged political caste that has left the people in miserable conditions.

Just that?

No, the process is certainly more complex. I would identify three moments of transition towards the “religionization” of the conflict. First, in 1988, fighters from Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine joined the increasingly “Islamised” Afghan conflict. Second, the first war in Iraq, when Saddam, for propaganda, raised the (instrumental) flag of the “liberation of Al Quds” (Jerusalem). Thirdly, very often underestimated in its broadcasting capabilities, was the launch in Qatar in 1996 of ’Al Jazeera’.  This television channel — followed by other religious broadcasters — created a homogenisation of political-religious thought in many Arab countries and especially in Palestine. The role of Qatar in this entire history should be further considered.

And other Arab countries?

The first war of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the 1948 war, which the Israelis called “liberation” and the Palestinians remember as “Nakba”, had a domino effect on all seven Arab countries that participated in it. The internal political balances of the Arab countries were shaken and changed by the unexpected military defeat inflicted by Israel. Since then, the Arabs have learnt that one must tread carefully on the Palestinian issue. Palestinian politicians, on the contrary, do not seem to have learnt much from their Arab “alliances”, from which they have repeatedly had to note bitter disappointments, if not worse, as in Jordan in 1970. I was thinking about this just yesterday while seeing the embarrassed reactions of the Palestinian side to the long speech of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who, while appreciating the 7 October massacres, was keen to stress that it was an initiative of Hamas alone.

How will this develop in the coming weeks?

It is still too early to tell. Two things seem difficult to me: for Hamas to accept the return of Mahmud Abbas to Gaza, and for the Jordanians and Egyptians to accept responsibility for intermediation first and administration later. The price to pay would be too high and no one is in a position to give them guarantees of support. There is a further point on which it would be appropriate to start reflecting, that of the reconstruction of Gaza. To date, and we are only at the beginning, about 140 thousand houses have been destroyed, an initial rough estimate of the damage is around 40 billion dollars. When the tragedy of the war is over, the struggle to provide homes and bread to the inhabitants of Gaza will begin. But it will be a tragedy that is not in the spotlight.

By Roberto Cetera — Jerusalem