Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Religious Nationalism and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Examining Hamas and the Possibility of Reform*

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Religious Nationalism and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Examining Hamas and the Possibility of Reform*

Article excerpt

Is the transformation of Hamas-the largest political faction in the Palestinian Islamic movement-possible?1 For many, perhaps most, observers and analysts of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the answer is an immediate and unequivocal "no," particularly in light of the many horrific suicide bombing attacks perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli civilians since the start of the al Aqsa Intifada over three years ago. Yet, recent history has shown that internal change within Hamas is indeed possible, and perhaps under the right conditions, sustainable. History has also shown Hamas to be pragmatic, flexible, and open to change.

There is no doubt that in the five years or so prior to the start of the current uprising, the Islamists-particularly Hamas-had entered a period of deradicalization and demilitarization and were searching for political and social accommodation within Palestinian society. There was a pronounced shift in emphasis within the movement away from political/military action toward social/cultural reform, and political violence was slowly but steadily being abandoned as a form of resistance and as a strategy for defeating the occupier. The shift toward the social realm-and retreat from the political-was dramatic, and by the admission of the Islamist leadership itself, reflected, more than anything, the successful weakening by Israel and the Palestinian Authority ("PA") of the Islamic political sector and the defeat of its military wing. The thrust toward the social arena, furthermore, was not simply a return to old forms of social service provision commonly associated with the Islamic movement, but included entry into new areas of community and development work that pointed to an emerging new logic between state and society.2

The al Aqsa Intifada, which began in September 2000 in response to seven years of a "peace" process that not only deepened Palestinian dispossession and deprivation but strengthened Israel's occupation, reversed the dramatic changes within the Islamic movement. The militarization of the uprising by Fateh, the dominant (secular) nationalist faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization ("PLO"), effectively marginalized the role of civil society-including both secular and Islamic institutions-in the struggle to end Israeli occupation. This contributed to the re-ascendance of the political/military sector as the defining and authoritative component within the Islamic movement. Israel's continued and increasingly brutal assault against Palestinian society and its economy and the deliberate destruction of its civic institutions have only strengthened the embrace of the military option by Palestinians, including the Islamists. Despite this, the social core of the Islamic movement remains strong and has become an increasingly important part of the Palestinian social welfare system, given dramatically heightened levels of unemployment and poverty and the PA's diminished capacity to deliver even the most basic services.

This Article will briefly examine the main political and social transformations in the Islamic movement both before and since the current uprising, about which relatively little is known.3 While certain key dynamics within the movement (for example, an emphasis on the delivery of social services) have remained largely unchanged, others (such as the strengthening and dominance of the PA and the weakening-cum-silencing of the Islamists) are being replaced with some altogether new dynamics that portend damaging consequences for Palestinian society and for a political resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This examination will refer only to Hamas, since it is the largest and most influential of the Islamist parties.


Hamas, or the Movement of the Islamic Resistance (Harakat al-muqawama al-islamiyya), was formalized with the Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, in December 1987. …

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