A dispassionate look at Hamas


Hamas: A Beginner's Guide

By Khaled Hroub

Pluto Press, 2006

170 pages, $36.95

Despite its stunning victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections and having been part of the Palestinian political landscape for more than 20 years, the majority of Westerners, whether politically active or not, have a limited understanding of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement — Hamas. Khaled Hroub in his new book, Hamas: A Beginner's Guide, seeks to redress this.

Hroub, a secular Palestinian, born in the Dheishah refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, is currently one of the foremost experts on the politics and ideology of Hamas. Hroub, who is also the director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project and the host of Al Jazeera's weekly book program has written extensively on Hamas.

In his previous book, Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (2000), Hroub outlined in depth the historical foundations and development of Hamas. Hroub noted that Hamas, like the majority of Islamic groups in the Middle East, draws its lineage from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1987, a day after the first Palestinian intifada erupted, Hamas, however has shown itself to be a purely Palestinian organisation, grounding its ideology and politics in the struggle for Palestinian national liberation.

In many ways Hroub's new book is a distillation of the ideas presented in his earlier work. These ideas, however, have been updated and tweaked to reflect not only the unfolding of events over the past six years in Palestine and Israel, but also to reflect the evolving nature of Hamas.

Hroub seeks to clearly outline the politics and ideology of Hamas in a concise and accessible format. Utilising a question and answer format, he skillfully examines not only Hamas history and ideology, but also the organisation's strategies, objectives, attitude to Israel and Judaism, as well as its military, political and social practices. Also covered are the relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian people, Hamas's relationship with other resistance groups and the West, as well as the structure and leadership of the organisation and the future of Hamas now that it has chosen to enter the mainstream of Palestinian politics.

While some Israeli reviewers of the book have accused Hroub of looking at Hamas "through rose-coloured glasses", this accusation is not backed up by facts. While Hroub clearly departs from and challenges the simplistic Zionist narrative propagated about Hamas, he provides a well researched and nuanced understanding of the evolving nature of the organisation.

Hroub, who has had unprecedented access to the Hamas leadership and internal documents, notes that it is a mistake to just base, as some critics do, an understanding of Hamas on some of its earlier documents, such as the 1988 charter. While Hroub agrees that the organisation's founding charter did contain anti-Jewish content, he notes that over the past 20 years Hamas has moved away from this, making such sentiments in the original charter "largely obsolete". As a result, Hroub argues, contrary to Israeli propaganda, Hamas is not in fact anti-Jewish, but "strongly anti-Zionist", with the term Zionist "defined as 'a person or group whose focus is the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine'".

Hroub also notes that it is simplistic to lump Hamas in the same basket as other Islamic groups such as the Taliban and al Qaeda. Instead, he notes that "Islamist movements have been driven by a host of various causes, the vast majority of which are focused on the corrupt regimes of their own countries. Another stream of movements, the'globalised Jihadists', have expanded their 'holy campaigns' across geo-political lines, furthering pan-Islamic notions that reject ideas of the individual Muslim nation states.

"Contrary to both of these, Hamas has somehow remained nation state based, limiting its struggle to one for and within Palestine, and fighting not a local regime but a foreign occupier. This differentiation is important as it exposes the shallowness of the widespread (mostly Western) trivialising conflation of all Islamist movements into one single 'terrorist' category."

Throughout the book, Hroub also seeks to look at the interplay between Hamas's nationalistic and Islamic leanings. He notes that while currently the nationalistic leanings are dominating the organisation's agenda, Hamas has not completely moved away from its Islamic foundations. Some of the more conservative aspects of Hamas's ideology are a reflection of this, such as their attitude towards the role of women.

The main shortcoming in Hroub's book — more as a result of when it was published, rather than the scholarship contained within the book — is that he is unable to offer a more in depth analysis of Hamas since it won control of the Palestinian National Authority in 2006. However, despite this, Hamas: A Beginner's Guide provides an extremely timely look at one of the central organisations now dominating the Palestinian political landscape. Not only does it provide a sober and well researched analysis of Hamas, it also reveals a Hamas not known to most in the West. As a result, for anyone interested in understanding not only Hamas, but also the Palestinian struggle, Hroub's book is a must read.