Author: Daud Abdullah
Publisher: AMEC, Afro-Middle East Centre
Dr. Daud Abdullah’s timely book is a frank and well-informed account of Hamas’s journey since its founding at the outset of the first intifada in 1987. In the words of one of its founding leaders, Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, “since our homeland is occupied, we want to liberate it”. Engaging the World describes how the Hamas leadership has responded to diplomatic challenges and opportunities, notably the Iraq invasion of Kuwait (1990), the Madrid and Oslo talks and agreements (1991, 1993-95), dealings with the late King Hussein of Jordan – and the deportation of Hamas leaders by his successor (1997), US hostility after the electoral success in Gaza (2006) and the break with Assad’s Syria (2011-2012). The author notes, “today, the movement’s responsibilities are far greater; it has to administer Gaza and provide for its two million people. Despite being a non-state actor, Hamas is now obliged to engage with states, some of which are avowedly friendly while others are patently hostile. This book is an account of how Hamas has harnessed its international relations to survive military aggression, economic blockade and political isolation.”
The author notes that Hamas’s resolve to engage in politics and diplomacy while maintaining its armed resistance is a position similar to that of the African National Council (ANC) in South Africa – in the words of Oliver Tambo, “we say that to remove armed struggle, the regime should first remove apartheid, which is the cause of the armed struggle.” Engaging the World is a master class on a liberation movement’s experiences in maintaining “a delicate balance between strategic consistency and tactical flexibility”. Dr Daud Abdullah has drawn on sources hitherto only available in Arabic, together with his interviews in 2019-2020 with those in the know: Khaled Meshaal, former head of Hamas’s political bureau; its members Musa Abu Marzouq, Muhammad Nazzal and Usama Hamdan.
There is a comprehensive and inspiring account of an episode that “that became a turning point in the evolution of Hamas’s foreign relations” – the Marj az-Zuhur expulsion. In December 1992, Israel deported 415 members of Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad from Gaza and West Bank. They were handcuffed, blindfolded, and driven into an area in Southern Lebanon, dumped, and told to go north. In an amazing act of bravery, they decided not to do so, and remained through a harsh winter along a mountainside in an area home to snakes, scorpions, foxes and wild boars. Among the group was a 28-year-old schoolteacher, Nawaf Takroori from Nablus, also one of the author’s interviewees. The plight in the wilderness became a focus of worldwide attention. Takroofi remembered how visitors were moved to tears when they saw the terrible conditions in the camp and vowed to campaign on the deportees’ behalf. Dr. Abdullah notes
since many of the deportees were senior Hamas members, it was relatively easy for them to organise the group. They formed committees to take responsibility for matters such as security, logistics, health care and media liaison. With so many scholars present, they also established a ‘university’ . . . while Israel had always presented themselves to the world as victim, by expelling hundreds of civilians the Israeli authorities exposed themselves as violators of international law . . . throughout the ordeal, the exiles refused to accept their expulsion, and demanded that they be allowed to return . . . as the group approached the Zumriya Crosssing, the Israelis began firing mortars at them . . . eventually, many people worldwide understood that the experiences of the deportees was just one more episode in a long process of ethnic cleansing that had started in 1948.
Engaging the World details the moves to fracture the Palestinian struggle, by creating divisions within Fatah, and then arming Fatah to decimate Hamas. Thus, efforts were made to curtail Yasser Arafat’s powers by creating the office of prime minister, to which Mahmoud Abbas was appointed in 1993: one was relegated, the other elevated in a game of thrones. The US State Department could not accept Hamas’s electoral victory in Gaza in 2006 and began to plot regime change, “besides seeing Hamas as a threat to Israeli and US interests, the Bush government assumed that the movement’s election success would pave the way for other Islamist parties to contest and win elections in the region”. The US provided money, armaments, and training to bolster Abbas’s presidential guard and made secret deals with his security chief Mohammad Dahhlan. The policy to topple Hamas failed, and Dr. Daud Abdullah draws a comparison with USA’s 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which only served to strengthen Fidel Castro’s position. The US put pressure on many governments to cut ties with Hamas, threatening to reduce military and other aid. This affected the careers of European politicians as well, “[in 2006] British politician Jack Straw told a group of journalists in Riyadh that the West should be talking to Hamas because it had won the elections . . . when news of his statement became public, Straw was sacked.” Some nations have stood up to the neo cons in the State Department, notably Qatar, and to some extent, Turkey. The Republic of South Africa has also been willing to engage with Hamas and support the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, affirming its commitment to the principle upheld by Nelson Mandela that ‘no one chooses our friends for us’.
Engaging the World highlights Hamas’s foreign policy successes and discusses the mistakes with some candour. The leadership could have done more to protect Palestinians in Kuwait in 1991 after Iraqi forces had been thrown out. The Palestinians suspected of collaboration by the Kuwaitis were executed and “tens of thousands who did not leave voluntarily were rounded up and taken to the border.” Hamas could have raised concerns in its meeting with Kuwaiti leaders in Mecca in September 1990 but did not. Dr Abdullah observes, “for a liberation movement that was still in its infancy, the diplomatic challenges facing Hamas at that time were much greater that its capacity to meet them. He also notes “a measure of disconnect and incoherence” between the uncompromising Article 13 of Hamas’s founding charter and Shaikh Yasin’s willingness to a truce with Israel if certain conditions were met – “obviously, achieving such a truce would requires some form of political engagement, direct or indirect, with Israel”. The decision by Abu Marzouq to settle in the USA in 1995 was “a huge error of judgement”.
Hamas faced a dilemma when the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising began in Syria in April 2011. In the past, Asad had been a rare head of state providing it support in Arab League meetings. A percentage was also deducted from wages of Syrian civil servants for support for Gaza, and collections organised in markets and public places urging support for Hamas. The movement’s security and military personnel were assigned specially marked cars in which they were able to cross the border between Lebanon and Syria with their weapons without being stopped. Hamas had reconciled itself to the facilities of a police state. However, Dr. Abdullah notes, “as the uprising persisted, with even more civilian casualties, it became increasingly difficult for Hamas to stay in Syria and remain silent or neutral . . . according to Meshaal, Hamas’s decision to leave Syria was one of the most difficult and painful decisions its leaders have ever had to make”. The Hamas political bureau is now located in Qatar, but Doha is not Damascus. However, these landlord-client relationships are fraught with compromises.
Hamas continues as the only robust response to Israeli colonialism, despite assassinations of many of the movement’s founding members, the colonial tactics of divide and rule, F16 missile fire, and economic strangulation. The author notes that after years of secret contacts, a growing number of Arab countries are normalising relations with Israel – so it would be “aspirational at best and delusional at worst” to see them as pillars of support in the continuing struggle for the restoration of Palestinian right to self-determination. The need for Palestinian national reconciliation and unity cannot be overemphasised. In the face of a multipolar world order, Hamas needs to train and develop a competent diplomatic corp. The next generation of leaders should have the necessary academic qualifications, experience, communication, and social skills to function effectively on the global stage.
This is a concisely written account, free from rhetoric, and a much needed riposte to some of the assertions in Tareq Baconi’s Hamas Contained, the Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (Stanford, 2018), including the claim that the movement gave precedence to its right to govern rather than accepting Fatah’s authority, resulting in suffering for Palestinians (p. 242).
Jamil Sherif May 2021