News Release

What is Hamas?

The Jerusalem Post is reporting: “Blinken trip to Israel aimed at preventing aid to Gaza from reaching Hamas.” Poorly understood is that Hamas won the last Palestinian parlimentary elections, in 2006, that have been allowed to take place. In 2014, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson wrote a piece in Foreign Policy titled: “Ending this war in Gaza begins with recognizing Hamas as a legitimate political actor.”

TAREQ BACONI, tbaconi@crisisgroup.org@TareqBaconi
Baconi is the Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine and economics of conflict. He is author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, Stanford University Press, 2018.

See his recent interview with +972 Magazine, “Hamas breaks out of its Gaza cage,” in which he states: “The pro forma language around Israel’s ‘right to self-defense’ and ‘de-escalation on both sides’ is a symptom of that inability to grapple with Hamas, showing that the international community is very much frozen when it comes to the movement. They are unable to understand Hamas as a political faction committed to Palestinian liberation and are still focused on a very particular narrative.

“It’s not just about Hamas, though. What’s mind-boggling to me is that by the time the international community started saying ‘self-defense,’ there were 500 Palestinians injured by Israeli forces in Jerusalem. The rhetoric of a ‘right to self-defense’ only came out when the first rocket landed in Israel; it is triggered only for Israel and is triggered only by Hamas. Outside of that, there’s no way for the diplomatic community to understand the violence of the occupation or the right of Palestinians to defend themselves.

“Until we fix that premise, no form of engagement with Hamas is going to be productive, because it is only going to be seen as a party that is irrationally attacking Israel for some decontextualized, unknown reason. …

“For a long time, even under [former political chief] Khaled Meshaal, Hamas has flirted with the idea of popular protest. The movement was not always exclusively committed to armed struggle; it had thought about the power of popular demonstrations and of international law. However, there’s a streak of cynicism within the movement that popular protests are never going to garner the level of international pressure or support like that of the U.S. Civil Rights struggle or the South African anti-Apartheid struggle.

“This cynicism was tested in the Great March of Return. Over weeks and weeks of a sustained popular mobilization, there was no adequate response from the international community, even when Israel was sniping off Palestinians. It was only when Hamas came into the fray and started upping the ante of ‘disturbances’ against Israel that the situation started shifting, and negotiations began around concessions such as easing the blockade on Gaza. The lesson for Hamas was very clear: unless Israel feels pressure — usually militarily or other forms of ‘disturbances’ — nothing would give.”