By the beginning of the first week of October 1988, as the Palestinian uprising moved into its eleventh month, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, known by its Arabic acronym Hamas) had issued its thirtieth communiqué. Hamas appears to be engaged in a competitive race with the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising for direction of the daily struggle of the people of the Occupied Territories. Yet despite the fact that Hamas is six communiqués ahead of the Unified Leadership, it is another matter altogether whether it can command the kind of legitimacy and influence required to direct the Palestinian struggle against occupation.

Israeli and foreign journalists reporting from the Occupied Territories have been preoccupied of late with this new political force on the Palestinian political scene, devoting much copy to those occasions on which Hamas managed to call a general strike in the West Bank and Gaza. Predictions about the ability of Hamas to make inroads into the Palestinian body politic have been rife. Israel Television’s Arabic service, for instance, has studiously avoided interviewing or giving prominence to Palestinian nationalist figures since the beginning of the uprising. Yet in early September it broadcast a wide-ranging interview with Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, the head of the Islamic Center in Gaza, describing him as the “spiritual leader” of the Islamic movement in the Occupied Territories. A week later followed another interview with Sheikh Bassam Jarrar, a charismatic young teacher and Muslim intellectual associated for the past few years with the Islamic movement, mainly in the West Bank. Neither interview revealed anything of note concerning the aims of Hamas, nor did these personalities acknowledge that they were in fact associated with it. The only message, and indeed the aim of the exercise, was to herald the emergence of a serious rival to the Palestinian national movement in the Occupied Territories.

At about the same time, Israeli and foreign media took the lead in publicizing the distribution of the Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement, a 40-page booklet setting forth in 36 articles Hamas’ program and views on resolving the Palestine conflict. This document, and the increasingly aggressive policy of Hamas in declaring and enforcing general strikes, provided yet another opportunity for the Israeli pundits to warn of the consolidation of a real alternative to the PLO and the impending fragmentation of the collective national effort represented by the uprising. A more sober consideration of the fortunes of Hamas would raise some questions here. What is the recent history of the organization? What does it offer Palestinians who have suffered under the yoke of Israeli occupation for 21 years? In other words, how seriously should we take it?

Chain of Jihad

Hamas emerged on the scene during the early months of the uprising, first in Gaza and then in the West Bank. Its origins date back to the 1930s, when the Society of Muslim Brothers began to spread its influence from its birthplace in Egypt to surrounding areas in the Middle East. The Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement calls Hamas a “wing” of the Muslim Brothers in Palestine, and considers itself the most recent link in the “chain of jihad” beginning with the revolt of Sheikh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam and his Muslim Brother comrades in the 1930s through the jihad of the Palestinians in 1948 and the operations of the Muslim Brothers since 1968.

Hamas’ claim of direct descent from and identity with the Brothers draws our attention to the recent history of the Brothers in the Occupied Territories. After a period of relative inactivity during the first decade of the occupation, they renewed their political and educational work in the late 1970s. [1] This effort was centered around mosques, schools and universities, and aimed at inculcating youth with a religious education as well as forming the basis for a political alternative to the Palestinian national movement and what the Brothers viewed as the “bankrupt” ideologies of its component groups.

The most successful effort of the Muslim Brothers was the mobilization of hundreds, perhaps thousands of youths to join Islamist student and youth groups. This drive coincided with the rise and proliferation of mass organizations affiliated with the national movement, particularly student blocs at schools, two-year colleges and universities. The Muslim Brothers, along with other Islamist groups, established Islamic blocs at educational institutions in the West Bank and Gaza, and joined the student movement with great zeal and energy.

Relations with the nationalist student blocs were fraught with tension and conflict throughout this period, especially in the mid-1980s. Several violent conflicts between nationalist and Islamist students erupted on campuses, sometimes spilling over into the community and requiring great conciliation efforts. Editorials in newspapers associated with the national movement, and public statements issued by nationalist figures and institutions, denounced the violent methods of the Islamic blocs, particularly at Birzeit and Najah universities, and at the Islamic University in Gaza.

The consolidation of a large and organized social base for the Palestinian national movement represented by the PLO during the 1980s increasingly marginalized the Muslim Brothers, who chose to remain outside the nationalist consensus by rejecting the PLO as the embodiment of the Palestinian national will. Any legitimacy they had in the early years was rapidly dissipating. This was exacerbated by the fact that their political program was never clearly spelled out, aside from references to the necessity of establishing an Islamic state in Palestine.

Social Movement, Moral Order

In fact, in their work among the youth and the community the Muslim Brothers gave priority to laying the preconditions to achieve an Islamic moral order, not to actively struggle for an Islamic state. Their publications and teaching emphasized the importance of remolding the Muslim individual and the necessity of combating the corrupting influences of the secular and godless society in which Muslims were forced to live. On university campuses they jealously guarded their reputation as hard-working, disciplined, serious individuals, and rarely participated in political activities organized by the nationalist groups. They also eschewed “frivolous” student activities such as folk dancing, theater and excursions, and concentrated instead on organizing study circles, communal prayers, and commemorating religious occasions in public events and rallies.

On the community level, the mosque and a number of charitable societies founded by the Brothers served as foci for their educational and social efforts. They were particularly successful in bringing a significant number of young refugee camp and urban women out of their homes and into the mosque and other groupings, largely under the influence of a number of charismatic women leaders in the main towns in the West Bank and Gaza. Increasing numbers of young women and even girls adopted the “uniform” of the Islamist movement — the distinctive head covering and coat. Such manifestations attested to the Islamists’ success in fashioning a religious consciousness and identity different from the religious consciousness of most Palestinian Muslims.

Still, the success of any social movement depends on its ability to put forth a political and social agenda responsive to the real needs and aspirations of its constituency. This agenda must also appear to be capable of implementation, and must take into consideration the configuration of prevailing social and political forces. What do the Muslim Brothers — and by extension Hamas — have to offer the people of the Occupied Territories?

It is not difficult to understand why the Muslim Brothers chose to adopt a new name when they entered the political arena during the uprising. Their history of conflict with the national forces, coupled with their absence from anti-occupation activities throughout the preceding two decades, had seriously compromised their standing as a credible political force. The new name, denoting a more militant stance, was meant to rehabilitate the Brethren in the charged atmosphere of the uprising. Hamas Communiqué 30 invites the public to read the Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement to learn the truth about Hamas and to "know what it is, and what its aims are." A central tenet, as spelled out in the charter, is that the land of Palestine is an Islamic trust (waqf), to be held as such for generations of Muslims until the Day of Judgment. No one has the authority to give up any part of Palestine. Nationalism is a function of religious belief, and the defense of Muslim land is the duty of every Muslim. This view is equivalent to that of religious Zionism, which sees the Land of Israel as a divine trust granted to the Jewish people in perpetuity.

This premise means that negotiations with the enemy over the Land of Palestine are tantamount to treason. In response to one of the main slogans of the uprising, calling for the convening of an international conference to decide the future of Palestine, Hamas says this in its charter: “Such conferences are nothing but a form of judgement passed by infidels on the land of the Muslims. Since when have unbelievers been fair to the people of faith?… There is no solution to the Palestine question other than sacred struggle [jihad]. Initiatives, proposals, international conferences — they are all a waste of time and an exercise in futility. The Palestinian people are more precious than to have their future, their rights and their destiny thrown away.”

Hamas admits that the path to jihad is not an easy one. Here is how the charter places the struggle for Palestine within the context of a pan-Islamic liberation movement: “The issue of liberating Palestine is connected to three circles — the Palestinian, the Arab and the Muslim. Each circle has it role and its obligations in the struggle against Zionism. It is the height of folly and ignorance to neglect any one of these circles, for Palestine is an Islamic land…. Once the matter is dealt with on this basis and the potentials of the three circles are mobilized, present circumstances will change, and the day of liberation will come nearer.” Hastening that day requires “the dissemination of Islamic consciousness among the masses on the local, Arab and Muslim levels. The spirit of jihad must be spread among the umma (the Islamic polity), and the enemy must be engaged, and the ranks of the mujahidin must be joined.”

Competing Vision

This then is what Hamas has to offer the people of the Occupied Territories: a vision of an all-Islamic Palestine, to be realized only through untiring work in spreading Islamic consciousness all over the Arab and Islamic worlds and through mobilizing Muslims everywhere to join the ranks of the fighters for Palestine. Based on this vision, Hamas is unlikely to become a significant political force in the Occupied Territories. Quite simply, it is very difficult to imagine how Hamas can mobilize Palestinians in the occupied territories around a strategy that calls for the total liberation of all of Palestine, this being conditional upon the mobilization of the Arab and the Islamic peoples. Hamas’ prospects appear to be even more remote if the political process gains momentum and continues to move forward, and if the current level of mobilization around the agenda of the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising is maintained or intensified.

The Unified Leadership in the occupied territories has far outstripped Hamas in the clarity of its political vision and in the concreteness of its aims. For the first time since the occupation, the Palestinian national movement has been able not only to sustain a popular rebellion but to formulate a political agenda capable of enlisting widespread international support. Hamas considers itself part of the uprising without subscribing to its slogans and objectives: it does not recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, it is against the convening of an international conference, and it does not support the establishment of a Palestinian state. On the face of it, it is difficult to understand Hamas’ zeal in furthering the uprising while at the same time rejecting its main slogans. This enigma can be understood on two different levels. The most simple explanation, and one which has some currency in the Occupied Territories, is that the Israeli intelligence services have incited or at least encouraged Hamas to sow discord and disunity among Palestinians. The history of the relationship between the Muslim Brothers and the national movement, and the long-held suspicion on the part of the movement that the Brethren were encouraged by occupation authorities help give credence to this interpretation. [2] Army patrols on the streets have generally not interfered with their attempts to impose general strikes on days other than the ones designated by the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising. Fairly or unfairly, people see these facts as evidence casting doubt on Hamas’ purity of intent.

This view is further strengthened by the growing distinction in the public’s mind between Hamas and the militant Islamic Jihad Organization, generally believed to have been founded in the early 1980s. Several months before the outbreak of the uprising, in May 1987, Jihad caught the public’s attention by the sensational jailbreak of several of its members from Gaza prison. In August, Jihad was back in the news when an Israeli officer was shot at close range in a crowded Gaza intersection by a man identified as a member of the organization. In early October, three of the prison escapees and four other men, all believed to be associated with Jihad, were killed in ambushes set by Israeli security forces in Gaza.

The widespread demonstrations which gripped the Gaza Strip and West Bank following these killings highlighted Jihad’s growing weight in the struggle against the occupation, especially in the Gaza Strip. The deportation in April 1988 of Sheikh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ‘Awda, a teacher at the Islamic University in Gaza and considered to be a prominent Jihad leader, was followed by a wave of arrests, still continuing, of members and associates of the organization. The Islamic Jihad Organization, unlike Hamas which has been spared this type of persecution, has earned itself important nationalist credentials. Throughout the uprising, Jihad has adhered to the national consensus and is reported to be in close contact with the Unified Leadership.

To return to the question of Hamas’ motives in joining the uprising: the more likely interpretation has to do with Hamas’ long-term objectives. Though Hamas does not support the uprising’s specific aims, it wants to shore up its image in preparation for carving itself a niche in the very state for whose establishment it is not prepared to struggle. Hamas is employing here the strategy for which the Muslim Brothers have become known in Egypt during certain periods, where it promotes a degree of coexistence with the prevailing authority in order not to risk a total loss. [3] Hamas knows that it cannot block a political settlement once the process is initiated. With this in mind, Hamas aims to guarantee a presence "on the streets," so to speak, during the process leading up to and beyond such a settlement.

Once the uprising has borne fruit and Palestinians begin to take hold of their own political future, Hamas will be there to influence that process. The efforts of Hamas will most likely be concentrated in the areas of political and social legislation. One can expect that it will press for freedom of political organizing, the application of the shari‘a to as many spheres of life as possible, and changes in the character of the educational system, particularly at the university level. Hamas’ active participation in the uprising, then, should best be seen as part of the campaign of a prospective opposition Islamist party in a future Palestinian state. As such, there is no doubt that Hamas should be taken quite seriously.


[1] For a survey of Palestinian Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brothers, see Jean-Francois Legrain, “Islamistes et Lutte Nationale Palestinienne dans les Territoires Occupes par Israel,” Revue Francaise de Science Politique 36/2 (April 1986), pp. 227-247; and Sa‘id al-Ghazali, “An Introduction to Islamic Parties and Programs,” al-Fajr Weekly, June 29, 1984, pp. 8-9.
[2] Israeli journalist Yehuda Litani has claimed as much: “Until [a] few years ago, some Israeli officials thought that the best way to fight the PLO was to encourage the Moslem fundamentalists in the territories. Some of the fundamentalist groups did receive help and encouragement from the Israeli authorities.” Jerusalem Post, September 8, 1988.
[3] In contrast to pre-uprising Muslim Brethren positions regarding the PLO, the Hamas charter considers the PLO as “the closest of intimates.” And until such time as the PLO adopts an Islamist outlook, Hamas’ attitude toward it will be that of “a father to his son or a brother to his brother.”

How to cite this article:

Lisa Taraki "The Islamic Resistance Movement in the Palestinian Uprising," Middle East Report 156 (January/February 1989).

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