America's Hidden Role in Hamas's Rise to Power
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Editor’s note: In the U.S., the claim that the actions of Hamas forced Israel to launch a massive assault on the impoverished population of Gaza is almost universally accepted. But, as scholar Stephen Zunes explains below, the picture of Hamas as an organization of wide-eyed radicalism without electoral legitimacy or the support of a significant portion of the Palestinian population is simplistic. In this important piece, Zunes examines the ways in which Israeli and American policy-makers encouraged the rise of the conservative religious group Hamas in an effort to marginalize secular and leftist elements within the Occupied Territories.
The United States bears much of the blame for the ongoing bloodshed in the Gaza Strip and nearby parts of Israel. Indeed, were it not for misguided Israeli and American policies, Hamas would not be in control of the territory in the first place.
Israel initially encouraged the rise of the Palestinian Islamist movement as a counter to the Palestine Liberation Organization, the secular coalition composed of Fatah and various leftist and other nationalist movements. Beginning in the early 1980s, with generous funding from the U.S.-backed family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the antecedents of Hamas began to emerge through the establishment of schools, health care clinics, social service organizations and other entities that stressed an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, which up to that point had not been very common among the Palestinian population. The hope was that if people spent more time praying in mosques, they would be less prone to enlist in left-wing nationalist movements challenging the Israeli occupation.
While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or right to hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities allowed radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored newspapers and even have their own radio station. For example, in the occupied Palestinian city of Gaza in 1981, Israeli soldiers -- who had shown no hesitation in brutally suppressing peaceful pro-PLO demonstrations -- stood by when a group of Islamic extremists attacked and burned a PLO-affiliated health clinic in Gaza for offering family-planning services for women.
Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), was founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who had been freed from prison when Israel conquered the Gaza Strip 20 years earlier. Israel's priorities in suppressing Palestinian dissent during this period were revealing: In 1988, Israel forcibly exiled Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad, a Christian pacifist who advocated the use of Gandhian-style resistance to the Israeli occupation and Israeli-Palestinian peace, while allowing Yassin to circulate anti-Jewish hate literature and publicly call for the destruction of Israel by force of arms.
American policy was not much different: Up until 1993, U.S. officials in the consular office in Jerusalem met periodically with Hamas leaders, while they were barred from meeting with anyone from the PLO, including leading moderates within the coalition. This policy continued despite the fact that the PLO had renounced terrorism and unilaterally recognized Israel as far back as 1988.
One of the early major boosts for Hamas came when the Israeli government expelled more than 400 Palestinian Muslims in late 1992. While most of the exiles were associated with Hamas-affiliated social service agencies, very few had been accused of any violent crimes. Since such expulsions are a direct contravention to international law, the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the action and called for their immediate return. The incoming Clinton administration, however, blocked the United Nations from enforcing its resolution and falsely claimed that an Israeli offer to eventually allow some of exiles back constituted a fulfillment of the U.N. mandate. The result of the Israeli and American actions was that the exiles became heroes and martyrs, and the credibility of Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinians grew enormously -- and so did its political strength.