Who Lost Gaza?

Of all the dramatic twists and turns that have characterized the Middle East conflict over the last five decades, no event blindsided more people than the landslide victory of the radical Hamas movement in the Palestinian elections of January 2006. For months, close observers of the campaign had forecast an easy win for Fatah, the ruling party dominated by the late Yasir Arafat since the 1960s and led since Arafat’s death by his moderate successor, Mahmoud Abbas. The only question, it seemed, was the size of the victory. Khalil Shikaki, a respected Palestinian pollster, forecast that Fatah would secure between 47 and 50 percent of the votes, while the Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, told the Knesset that Fatah would squeak by with “a small majority.” Instead, Hamas humiliated Fatah by capturing seventy-four of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council; Fatah took just forty-five. “Why was it that nobody saw it coming?” asked Condoleezza Rice, after summoning her staff to an emergency meeting the next Saturday morning at the State Department in Washington.

The answer, as Zaki Chehab makes clear in his richly detailed investigation into the rise of the group, Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement, was a combination of factors that have greased Hamas’s rise as the most potent force in Palestinian politics: fierce discipline, a powerful grassroots organization, a reputation for incorruptibility, and a stealth approach to campaigning that caused almost everyone to underestimate the group. Moreover, by downplaying its Islamic fundamentalist beliefs and its dark history of suicide bombingsits rallying cry during the campaign translated as “For Change and Reform!”Hamas was able to win the votes of many moderate, secular Palestinians fed up with the failures of the Fatah-led government.

But serving as a radical voice of opposition and wielding power are two very different things, as the past year and a half have illustrated, often tragically. While refusing to renounce the key component of its charterthe destruction of IsraelHamas has faced international isolation, fought a vicious civil war with Fatah that cleaved the Palestinian Authority in two, and watched the area under its control, Gaza, sink into deeper destitution and despair. The question that Chehab sets out to answer is whether Hamas’s ascendancy will doom the Middle East to further turmoil or an accommodation with the movement can somehow be reached.

Chehab, a noted Palestinian journalist who grew up in a refugee camp near Tyre, in southern Lebanon, is a dogged reporter who has winnowed his way deeply into the secretive organization. With access that Western reporters can only dream abouthe interviewed at length, and repeatedly, everyone from Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to Yassin’s successor, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, to would-be suicide bombers from Hamas’s military wing, the al-Qassam BrigadesChehab provides an exhaustive account of the group’s agenda, ambitions, and inner conflicts. He takes the reader through Hamas’s early history, in the 1980s, as an Islamic charity organization, initially supported by Israel as a counterweight to Fatah; to the emergence of Hamas’s military wing under the stewardship of its quadriplegic founder, Yassin. He chronicles the complex dynamic between Fatah and Hamas, which embarked on a campaign of suicide attacks inside Israel in an effort to derail the Oslo Accords and emerged as the Palestinian Authority’s most dangerous rival. He provides a fascinating account of the ludicrously botched attempt by Israel to assassinate the Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, by spraying him with a toxic substance in Amman, Jordan. Along the way, we get intriguing glimpses of the Arafat-Yassin relationship (a facade of cordiality belied the fact that, in 1998, one of Yassin’s bodyguards had attempted to kill the Palestinian leader); Hamas’s cultivation of Middle Eastern actors ranging from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah to the Syrian dictatorship; the training of young Palestinians for acts of martyrdom; and the links between Hamas operatives and al-Qaeda.

Chehab’s narrative, however, gets bogged down by its disorganized structure and its overabundance of detail. His need to chronicle the exploits of seemingly every Hamas militant who ever fired an al-Qassam rocket or launched an attack on Israel becomes numbingly monotonous, and much of the text reads as a Palestinian version of inside baseball, a cascade of Arabic names that all blur together. He is certainly no stylist, and much of the book comes off as dryly academic. Even moments of great drama, such as the targeted killing of Sheikh Yassin by an Israeli missile in March 2004, followed by the assassination of Yassin’s successor, Rantisi, are treated in an almost offhand way. As a former Middle East correspondent who witnessed much of Israel’s campaign to decapitate the Hamas leadership between 2002 and 2004, and who was assured by Palestinian colleagues in Gaza three years ago that “Hamas is finished,” I would have liked to hear more about the group’s self-resurrection from the ashes. Chehab’s decision to abandon the chronological approach in favor of a more thematic onehe circles back repeatedly to the beginnings of the movement, and retells the Yassin and Rantisi killings several timesmay have been the correct one, but it often makes the narrative feel far more confusing and repetitive than it needs to be.

Chehab is no friend of Hamashe recoils from the group’s wanton disregard for human life, its uncompromising dedication to terrorbut he recognizes that the movement is a force to be reckoned with. Simply ignoring it, as the Bush administration and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel have done, means turning a blind eye to political realities, keeping the peace process on hold, and prolonging Palestinian suffering. “Hamas is not some alien guerrilla force,” Chehab writes. “The West and any future Palestinian Authority will have to accept it for what it isa leopard that is unlikely to change its spotsand negotiate with Hamas.” But, as many Israeli leaders argue, how does one negotiate with a radical group that refuses to renounce violence and offers only the possibly of a temporary hudna, or ceasefire, in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders? Israel’s departure from Gaza and the breakdown that followed has, for most Israelis, served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unilateralism. It may be that the best way to defang Hamas and empower the Palestinian middle is to put the peace process back on track. It may be that that mutual rejectionism will give way at some point to attempts at accommodation. For the foreseeable future, however, the most likely scenario appears to be the perpetuation of the dismal status quoand of the same misery and frustration that empowered Hamas in the first place.

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Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.