A little-known (yet), but very important special report was published recently under the imprimatur of the United States Institute of Peace. The paper is entitled, "Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Pragmatism," and was written by Paul Scham and Osama Abu-Irshaid.
The full report can be downloaded here.
The report is considered so sensitive that a USIP Editor felt the need to preface it with a "Editor's Note" that tries to defuse the potential controversy. Some examples of his preemptive strike against the critics:
"The authors neither endorse Hamas's actions or positions nor advocate taking Hamas's claims at face value, and they certainly do not argue that Israel, the United States, and the West should drop demands for changes by Hamas….
"Even if readers accept the authors' interpretation of Hamas's thinking, many may still question whether engagement is worthwhile, particularly given--as the report describes--the limits for Hamas to compromise and the very real risk of renewed and potentially more dangerous conflict should a truce end.
"The report argues that it is not inevitable that Hamas will accept coexistence, only that its acceptance is more likely if framed within its Islamic ideology."
After reading editorial qualifications like that, you know that some of the USIP are nervous about the reception of the report. You can see the rest of the "Editor's Note" here
The thrust of the report – coauthored by a Jew and a Muslim -- is that Hamas is a major player that will not be going away, and that in order to engage with it, people are going to have to understand the religious ideology, context and rhetoric that guide its actions. Hamas has shown to be a pragmatic organization, but it justifies its behavior from an Islamic perspective, one must be willing not to discount that perspective, but to work within it.
Needless to say, demanding Hamas to recognize the right of Israel to exist, much less the right of the Jewish people to a state, and demanding Hamas to enter into permanent peace negotiations are non-starters for the organization – as it would be for any of the Jewish religious nationalist parties. But the attempt of Hamas to use religious rhetoric to justify long-term truces with the Jewish state should not be dismissed out of hand as genuine.
As I have said many times in this blog, the inability of secularists to understand religious language and ideology, the need to justify all moves according to Sharia or Halakha, is a major stumbling block for justice and peace in the Middle East.
Scham and Abu-Irshaid's article should be mandatory reading for anybody interested in furthering peace, both among the Palestinians, and among Palestinians and Israelis.
Here is the authors' summary:
- Although peaceful coexistence between Israel and Hamas is clearly not possible under the formulations that comprise Hamas's 1988 charter, Hamas has, in practice, moved well beyond its charter. Indeed, Hamas has been carefully and consciously adjusting its political program for years and has sent repeated signals that it may be ready to begin a process of coexisting with Israel.
- As evidenced by numerous statements, Hamas is not hostile to Jews because of religion. Rather, Hamas's view toward Israel is based on a fundamental belief that Israel has occupied land that is inherently Palestinian and Islamic.
- For Hamas, "recognition" of Israel would represent a negation of the rightness of its own cause and would be indefensible under Islam. It considers unacceptable for itself the actions of those Muslim countries that have recognized Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, and those that have indicated their willingness to do so, such as Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab League, because they have provided no theological justification for their policies toward Israel.
- Although Hamas, as an Islamic organization, will not transgress shari'a, which it understands as forbidding recognition, it has formulated mechanisms that allow it to deal with the reality of Israel as a fait accompli. These mechanisms include the religious concepts of tahadiya and hudna and Hamas's own concept of "Palestinian legitimacy."
- Tahadiya refers to a short-term calming period between conflicting parties during which differences are not put aside. A tahadiya stopped most violence between Hamas and Israel from June to December 2008.
- Hudna is a truce for a specific period, which is based on the practice of the Prophet Mohammad and on subsequent events in Muslim history. Hamas has indicated on a number of occasions its willingness to accede to a hudna with Israel, assuming basic Palestinian rights as set forth in the Arab Peace Initiative (API) are agreed to first.
- Palestinian legitimacy is a term employed by Hamas to describe its willingness to consider accepting a binding peace treaty, such as the proposal set forth in the API, so long as the treaty is first ratified by the Palestinian people in a referendum. Although Hamas would not directly participate in peace negotiations with Israel, Hamas has indicated that it would be willing to be part of a Palestinian coalition government with Fatah under which Fatah would negotiate the actual treaty.
- Although a peace process under such circumstances might, for Israelis and Westerners, seem involved, arcane, and of dubious utility, it is necessary to consider the possibility of such a process because there is no realistic scenario under which Hamas will disappear. Understanding the Islamic bases of Hamas's policies and worldview will be essential for the success of any process in which it is engaged.
About the Report
Very little of the recent voluminous literature in English that has discussed Hamas has focused on how to understand--and perhaps influence--its behavior from an Islamic point of view. We have analyzed Hamas's statements and actions since its inception and have concluded that Hamas has indeed undergone significant political changes as well as certain slow, limited, and carefully calculated ideological shifts. It is now at the point where it is ready to explore arrangements that will allow it and Israel to coexist without episodic violence. Its readiness is based on the framework of Islamic law (shari'a) in which Hamas is embedded. Shari'a both provides the basis for the political actions that Hamas can take and defines which actions are forbidden to it.
Paul Scham is a visiting professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park and executive director of the University's Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. Osama Abu-Irshaid is completing a Ph.D. thesis on Hamas at Loughborough University, U.K., and is the founder and editor in chief of Al-Meezan newspaper, published in Arabic in the United States.