The 2006 Palestine Legislative Council elections peaked international attention like never before. For the first time, Hamas - widely considered a radical paramilitary and/or terrorist group - appeared on the candidate list. But the real surprise was yet to come. Hamas won the overwhelming majority of the seats in the Legislative Council and defeated the incumbent, and widely expected victor, the Fatah party. Israel, the international community and even Hamas were shocked. After the quiet stupor of the Palestinian domestic scene, events gained momentum. Fighting between Fatah and Hamas soon erupted on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza, resulting in Hamas's ultimate capture of Gaza and the fragile ceasefire with Israel broken by two large-scale armed conflicts (Summer 2006) and Winter 2008/2009.
The rapid sequence of events raised new questions including: how a recognised terrorist group, calling for Islamic jihad, could win democratic elections? The most popular understandings and definitions of Hamas were unable to provide convincing arguments or answers.
Beverly Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, in their work entitled: Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement make a positive contribution to the literature and reveal often contrasting aspects of the movement. The book explores Hamas from different perspectives and breaches more black-and-white perceptions of the movement. It highlights central factors which helped Hamas win peoples' votes and fury. It finds the reason of the movement's success in the calculated mix of social work, armed struggle and proclaimed internal purity - contrasted to their corrupt rival, Fatah - all under the brand-name of Islam. The book explores more nuanced aspects of the movement's domestic performance including: the high freedom-tax the Palestinians pay for charitable and social services; the indoctrination and manipulation by Hamas's advanced Public Relations (PR) drives; the violent pressures it often deploys; and the rationality with which it calculates its political behaviour. By doing so, the book surpasses its proclaimed goal, to ‘present first-hand accounts of Hamas's fighters, social activists, victims, political supporters and opponents' and to ‘give a glimpse' into Hamas's story and performance.
The structure of the book retails Hamas's history. It reaches into the times of the revolt of Islamic sheikhs against British rule in the 1930's, continues with the seeds of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, Hamas's establishment on the eve of the first intifada and peaks with Hamas's evolution into a political actor, its isolation and the two-front conflict it faces: with Israel against occupation, and Fatah for power.
Several chapters are extracted from the proposed timeline and dedicated to exploring the most speculative aspects of Hamas: its military activities, social approaches, the roles of women, and its relationship to Fatah. Since these themes are examined separately it is clear that they hold special interest for the movement which is reflected in the authors' decision to treat each area independently.
The international public is captivated by Hamas predominantly through the role of its military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. The book discusses this wing's effectiveness based on a system of ‘cell organisation' and casts doubt on Hamas's claim of retaining separate military and political wings. Furthermore, it provides an overview of the military strategies Hamas deploys; rocket attacks and suicide bombings. The work develops fascinating insights into the ‘cult of sacrifice' exploited by the movement to recruit martyrs. Hamas combines ideology, ‘theatre performances, student groups, pop chants and rap songs, films' (p. 139) to promote suicide bombings as legitimate means which serve ‘higher principles,' and portrays suicide bombers as heroes. The Palestinian sentiment as being a people witth ‘nothing to loose' (p.156) serves as a fertile soil for such demagogy.
Hamas as a social-level Palestinian actor presents a more nuanced, but extremely important aspect of the movement. Hamas runs many educational centres, health-care clinics, kindergartens and charities in Palestine. The charitable work and popular activism helped it gain grass-root support, inching Hamas towards its ultimate goal: to Islamise Palestinian society. Youth summer camps are where the first-hand Hamas-style Islamisation occurs and children are taught ‘how to be good Muslims.' To demonstrate Hamas's effective indoctrination, the authors pay attention to the young football teams carrying names of the famous martyrs, or served green-bottled Mecca Cola stamped ‘The Taste of Freedom' and ‘Made in Palestine' (p. 156).
One of the starling facts of the 2006 elections represents the high women electoral turnout for Hamas, despite the movement's perception of women as producers of freedom fighters. The authors explain the relationship between Hamas and women by noting that ‘Hamas exploits the women's fears of poverty, of Israel, and of the corrupt Palestinian Authority officials looking after their own at the expense deserving poor - and also Hamas's promotion of religious certainty as a balm to that fear' (p. 205-206).
Interestingly, the authors depict the Hamas-Fatah relationship as a ‘rivalry replete with blood' (p. 208). The deep-seated enmity between the fractions surpasses the national-religious rhetoric of ‘Palestinian fellow brothers.' The mutual violence deepens the breach between the two sides even further, leaving them bathing in blood and balancing on the edge of a civil war. Whereas Israel constitutes a common enemy the Palestinians should unite against, Fatah competes with Hamas for Palestinian ‘hearts and minds' raising the question of which party more comprehensively challenges Hamas's ambitions to establish Islamic rule in Palestine more; Israel or Fatah?
The analytical and interpretative approach of the book is enhanced by excellent, first-hand insights into Hamas's 2006 electoral campaign, which is, oddly, one of the least publically discussed issues related to Hamas. The authors keenly capture the techniques Hamas applied in preparation for its political battle against Fatah, and thereby demonstrate a clear added-value for those interested in Hamas as a contemporary political actor. For instance, Hamas hired tens of communication managers, opinion formers, media specialists, political scientists and other professionals ‘to give [the campaign] organizational sharpness and sophistication' (p. 248). The book presents and thoroughly examines the impact of Hamas's electoral label of ‘Change and Reform,' rhetoric, posters, media promotion (etc). The analysis goes to such depths as to describe how Hamas valued each poster which were ‘covered in plastic to protect them against rain' (p. 252).
The authors draw on a mosaic of interviewed opinions and historical events, which offer readers a sophisticated, multicoloured snap-shot of precisely how Hamas impacts Palestinian society and only rarely are personal opinions reflected in the work. More frequently, the evaluation rests on third persons and the authors masterly manage to highlight the problematic through different prisms. The subjective opinion represented by one person follows the opinion of a person from the ‘opposite camp,' so that the reader is presented with contrasting arguments. This work generally preserves a great deal of the authors' neutrality and simultaneously encourages readers to reflect on the issues raised and generate conclusions based on objective analyses.
At some points in this work however, the authors' biases are difficult to ignore. Nevertheless, perfect objectivity is a rather elusive goal, particularly when dealing with issues related to Hamas, and it must be said that this book maintains an admirable effort to present the situation(s) facing Hamas as impartially as possible.
If the historic-sociological approach of the book mirrors Milton-Edward's profession as Professor of Politics at Queen's University Belfast, the lively language seems to be a reflection of the newspaper-style of Farrell; a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Milton-Edwards and Farrell deploy a particularly descriptive and illustrative language, which adds an important dynamic to the overall flow of the book. For instance, with great tongue-in-cheek irony they sum up the day after Hamas's electoral victory by noting that ‘Gaza woke up with an alcohol-free hangover' (p. 260).
Milton-Edwards and Farrell successfully present the situation in Palestine in terms the (Western) reader can vividly grasp, while using popular terms or phrases, keeping the distance and humour simultaneously such as describing a Hamas officer as a ‘George Clooney look-a-like man.'
In this reviewer's opinion, the book's comprehensive approach touches upon all important aspects of Hamas. The reader feels as though they were sitting in the cinema and watching a narrated story about a warlord and his fierce, violent way of achieving his interest: bloody clashes with his enemies, and autocratic but generous handling of subordinates.
Nevertheless, those with little previous insight into Hamas and the problematic which encircles it might become disorientated in the (at times) overly detailed descriptions. The book is not suited for those expecting clear conclusions condemning Hamas as a ‘bad' or praising it as a ‘good' actor for Palestinians. Rather, the work provides a guide for a fascinating journey into Hamas's world.
The puzzle made up from history, personal stories, opinions and the analysis of Hamas's discourse and performance reveals the multi-dimensional image of one of the most visible movements in the Middle East. Milton-Edwards and Farrell sum up the book with a clear-cut thesis: that Hamas, whatever its intentions and intended course of development might be, is an established actor on the Palestinian domestic scene. It is so deeply integrated in all aspects of the Palestinian life, that any way out from the current impasse without its participation is hardly possible. According to the material presented in this work there is nothing left to do but to agree.