PALESTINE AND PALESTINIANS: Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement

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Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement, by Zaki Chehab. New York: Nation Books, 2007. xi + 227 pages. Notes to p. 236. Index to p. 244. $25.95.

Reviewed by Leila Hudson

Zaki Chehab's book Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement could not have appeared at a better time. Since Hamas' 2006 electoral victory and its subsequent paralyzing standoff with Mahmud 'Abbas' Fatah over the transfer of power, this organization - part military and part political - is key to any future settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With English language journalists all too often unable to distinguish between Hamas, al-Qa'ida and Hizbullah, the attempt to delineate the distinct contours of the Hamas movement and psychology is welcome.

Among the strengths of this work are biographical profiles of key players based on interviews and firsthand reporting. In addition to an account of Shaykh Ahmed Yassin's life (circa 1937-2004) and those of other Hamas leaders, the reader is privy to some insights from a man who knew them personally and interviewed them multiple times. The book is also current, including opening and final chapters that discuss the 2006 electoral victory - its engineering and implications for the future.

Stylistic weaknesses include a certain chronological choppiness - perhaps this is the effect of television documentary journalism on traditional historical narrative - as Chehab's account repeatedly jumps back and forth between the late 1980s and the very recent past, sometimes introducing characters at their assassinations only to read their biographies later in the text. In spite of Chehab's firsthand contact with many of the leaders, they come across on the page with a certain uni-dimensionality. The main characters share trademark characteristics - promising youth, enthusiasm, piety, dogged fatalism about their impending death, and glassy-eyed commitment to the cause. These sociological descriptors are accurate enough, and yet one would have hoped that from an inside account by a Palestinian journalist, these characters would have been presented in their more compelling and engaging form than as textbook profiles.

A more important weakness is an insistent focus on the military wing to the exclusion of political and social developments. Arguably militancy is the most important characteristic of Hamas, yet the latter's persistent appeal is not just about martyrdom and death, but about life, pragmatics, and ethics in the Occupied Territories. While the book opens with Hamas' landslide victory in the 2006 elections, the subsequent chapters do little to illustrate the appeal of the militant movement to the ordinary Palestinians who made that victory happen.

While I was greatly relieved not to have to plough through the tedious boilerplate account of Islam which bulks up nearly all books in this market category, the absence of any account of the growing role of Islamism in the social life of territories plagued not only with occupation but with subsequent authoritarianism and rampant corruption will leave many readers with their unfortunate illusions about Islamic fanaticism securely in place. Indeed, the untold inside story that Chehab yet might tell in the future is not that of the predictable journeys of human bombs, but of how secular Palestinians of all religions have come to accommodate Hamas' militancy as an uncomfortable alternative to Fatah.

The only female member of Hamas whom Chehab introduces, for example, is the rather unique and extreme Miriam Farhat. We first meet her as a secondary character hiding operatives in her home and laundering their bloody clothing. When next she appears a couple of chapters later, it is as a popular recently elected member of the Legislative Council. But in Chehab's treatment she morphs into the frightening caricature of the suicide bomber's mother and wittingly or not, she and Chehab effectively captivate the reader with the image of a mother who is a little too eager to have her sons meet their heavenly brides. …