Iyad Barghouti, professor of sociology at al-Najah University in Nablus, is the author of The Palestinian Islamic Movement and the New World Order (1992) and Islamization and Politics in the Palestinian Territories (1990). He spoke with Lisa Hajjar on May 5, 1993.
How would you describe the appeal of Hamas and other Islamist groups?
Hamas now is the main competitor of the PLO. This is not because the Palestinian people are more willing to turn to religion per se, but because the current situation in the Occupied Territories has led more and more people to see Hamas as a “nationalist” alternative.
Are the situations different in the West Bank and Gaza?
Averaging out recent elections in various institutions, in the West Bank Hamas has more than 40 percent of the votes. In the most recent student elections at al-Najah, Hamas got more than 30 percent of the vote, and about 45 percent in the Nablus Chamber of Commerce. They got more than 50 percent in the Ramallah and Hebron Chambers of Commerce. But if there were a more general election, surely Hamas would get less. It has a problem appealing to people who were “raised” on the secular politics of Arab nationalism, and to those who see Hamas as a tool used by Israel and the US to divide the Palestinians. But among young people, Hamas has a lot of popularity. Not much of this, in my opinion, is tied to religion. Rather, people are discouraged by the failure of the more established groups to achieve serious political changes and they look to Hamas as an alternative. Much of Hamas’ support is in effect a critique of other groups rather than support for Islamist politics.
In Gaza, because of the relatively more difficult situation that people there face, Hamas emerged earlier and stronger as a major force. But for this reason, Hamas now must protect its past gains. I would say that Hamas has peaked in Gaza, and if people want something that is oppositional locally, it won’t be Hamas. In the Islamic University, Hamas controls the student council. But professional associations — lawyers, doctors, engineers — support the nationalists. Here, too, Hamas’ political appeal is strongest among the younger generation.
How did Hamas and other Islamist forces gain such popularity?
In Gaza, Hamas worked hard to accommodate people’s social needs in terms of services and economic support. That doesn’t necessarily translate into a widely shared vision of social relations as Hamas would define them. The same is true politically. People might not agree with Hamas’ broader vision for the future, but they do support Hamas’ position on the occupation, including military attacks.
The political rise of the Islamists here in Palestine has been influenced by outside factors — the Iranian revolution, Hizballah attacks on Israel, and the Islamist movement in Egypt. In the early 1980s, their political program was criticized for not being “nationalist.” But over the years they have developed their ideology and their strategies to prove themselves on a national level, especially since the intifada. There are still contradictions in their positions regarding national questions, like establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, the possible results (but not the process) of the peace talks, and relations with various governments. But these issues are still abstractions; the contradictions are less important than what Hamas and the other Islamist groups are doing on the ground.
Describe some of the ideological and tactical distinctions within the Islamist movement.
The three main Islamist factions in Palestine are Hamas, Jihad and Tahrir. One interesting way of looking at the distinctions among them would be to consider their respective responses to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent US-led attack on Iraq. Hamas was against the invasion because the Kuwaiti government was a source of financial support, but then sided with Saddam against the West and its Arab regimes. Jihad was against the invasion. They felt that the liberation of Palestine should be the first and foremost priority for Arab military action, and resented Iraq for the earlier war against Iran. Tahrir supported the invasion of Kuwait as a first step to doing away with the political boundaries that keep Muslims divided, but did not support Saddam in the war because of his secular politics.
Here in the Occupied Territories, many people support the more military-oriented activities of Jihad. Jihad is not interested in building institutions and a broad popular base, because such a strategy would constrain its ability to operate. Jihad is appreciated as a small, elite and active force whose actions speak louder than words. Hamas focuses on the process of building and strengthening institutions, and massing support at the grass roots. Tahrir has a top-down strategy, formulating an Islamist ideological perspective but not involving itself directly in the political or social spheres. Tahrir has a very orthodox interpretation of Islam and opposes politicizing religion in a national context. They are waiting for a Muslim army to liberate Palestine. Some of the other groups, especially Fatah, sometimes use Tahrir material to argue against Hamas about religion.
Islamist divisions in Palestine are much less clear than among the PLO factions. In the elections, for example, there are usually two Islamist blocs — Hamas and Jihad. Jihad usually talks about the need for a unified Islamic leadership in opposition to the nationalist one. Hamas shares the same general views but, especially recently, has demonstrated a willingness to at least concur with other groups on more general anti-occupation politics, especially opposition to the peace talks. Another point of difference between Jihad and Hamas is their alignment with the various Arab regimes. Jihad accuses Hamas of being “pro-Jordan.”  And Hamas accuses Jihad of being “pro-Iran.”
What was the effect on Islamist politics of Israel’s expulsion of the 415 alleged Islamist activists?
Immediately after the expulsion, Hamas’ popularity soared. The fact that the [Palestinian-Israeli] negotiations have resumed is good for Hamas, because it is an unpopular decision and Hamas opposes the talks. But this is less direct pro-Hamas sentiment than a broad anti-negotiation sentiment that Hamas articulates. Since the expulsions, the behavior of the expellees has been very important for the image of Hamas in the Occupied Territories. In general people continue to support the expellees, and feel that returning to the negotiations was a big mistake as long as they are not all repatriated.
The expulsions raised two related questions: Who actually plays some kind of a leadership position within the Islamist movement, and how broadly does Israel interpret the “Islamic threat”? Some of the people expelled were from al-Najah, and we never realized that they were so important, even from the hyper security-conscious perspective of the Israelis. Even now we don’t know who among them, except the most outspoken of the leadership, are real leaders and who are just lower-level activists or supporters. All we know is that they all consider themselves Islamists.
The pivotal issue is not support for Hamas or sympathy with the expellees but support for or opposition to the peace talks. Virtually everyone united around the issue of the expulsion, and now the delegation has decided to go to Washington without having first secured a favorable resolution to the issue. This might not mean more direct support for Hamas and the other groups that oppose the talks, but it certainly creates a vacuum within which they can now criticize the national leadership and use that to extend their popular support.
Within Hamas itself, how are issues debated — questions of women’s roles and rights, democratization, the role of Islam in national politics?
Among the people who identify with Hamas, there is no real debate over these kinds of questions. The central issues are the struggle against Israel and competition with the PLO, around which there is a solid consensus. In this way Hamas is not really different than other groups in the national movement. Other questions and points of potential difference get sidelined as long as Israel continues to dominate their lives. One thing that the rise of Hamas has proven is that it is above all pragmatic. Whereas there might be an ideological opposition to the mingling of men and women at universities, for example, they realize that it is impractical to demand such a separation and therefore do not do so.
Is there much discrepancy between what is preached and what is practiced?
Not really. Hamas and Jihad have both advocated armed attacks against soldiers and have proven that they are capable of executing them. They are against the peace talks, and when they call strikes against the talks, these are widely observed. An article appeared recently in a Hamas publication in which the author voiced his concern that Hamas not limit itself to oppositional politics within the Palestinian national scene. I see this article, which was widely discussed, as a step toward integrating and participating more positively within the larger national movement. We might anticipate some tactical changes emerging from this kind of discussion. The meeting in Jordan in March between Hamas leaders and Western diplomats is one sign of such a change.
How do people not aligned with the Islamist movement understand the role of Hamas nationally?
Some intellectuals here think that Hamas will be the vehicle for a political solution because of Hamas’ good relations with the conservative Arab regimes. And Hamas is fighting on the ground, which is seen as a sign of their commitment to the struggle, while the PLO leadership is making concessions to continue the peace talks — concessions that even those who always considered the PLO the only representative can no longer condone.
Even those who don’t support Islamist politics have come to accept the Islamists as part of Palestinian national politics. The intifada mobilized all Palestinians, and while some of the internal divisions have been Islamist versus secularist, the lines cannot be drawn on those grounds. The leadership of some of the most leftist groups, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, recently have, for at least pragmatic purposes, lined up with Hamas against the mainstream PLO. The only thing that Hamas and the PFLP agree on is the fight against Israel and against unreasonable concessions. But it is only a tactical move by the leaderships. There is no love lost on the streets. I don’t believe that left groups will ever make the kinds of ideological concessions that would be necessary for a permanent working relationship when the national issue is no longer polarized around the peace process. Lots of people in the PFLP, especially women, opposed even the limited coordination between their leadership and Hamas on principle.
How would you suggest that leftists in the West comprehend the rise of the Islamist movement within Palestinian national politics?
It is ironic that secularist Palestinians have attained the status of being “good” in the eyes of the mainstream Western media. The same struggle continues, and it is Palestinian responses to Israeli policies rather than “Islamist” politics that remains the issue. But Israeli public relations emphasizes the threat of Islamism to the West. In Palestine, perhaps some day the issue of Islamist politics might really divide secularists from those willing to follow a more religiously inspired course, but today the issue remains the struggle to liberate ourselves from the occupation. On this level it is irrelevant to focus on the religious orientation of Hamas. Their rise, their popularity and their strategies are purely political. The Islamist movement in Jordan accepted participation in the democratic process, and I would anticipate the same for the Islamist movement in Palestine, should we ever have a chance to have our own national democratic process.
How are the Islamists able to address the economic problems that people are facing?
The monthly support that the Islamist institutions provide to poor families is even more vital now that Israel has closed the West Bank and Gaza, and I believe that as people start really suffering, more of them will turn to these institutions for financial support. Everyone knows that the religious institutions have lots of money, and this has been one very important source of their growing popularity. This is now where people tum when they need money for medical treatment, for financing studies, for starting new businesses. The closure is really highlighting the need for some kind of “internal” economic infrastructure and the Islamist institutions are certainly poised to play a big role. They have the assets and the ability to solicit financial support from the Arab regimes in the Gulf that cut off the PLO. Israel obviously considers the economic power of Hamas in Gaza as a big threat because many of the expellees worked in these institutions that provide services and support.