Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Special Report: Hamas; the History of the Islamic Opposition Movement in Palestine

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Special Report: Hamas; the History of the Islamic Opposition Movement in Palestine

Article excerpt

Special Report: Hamas; The History of the Islamic Opposition Movement in Palestine

Islam, Palestine and politics, the most pervasive issues in contemporary Middle Eastern society, have congealed throughout the region, including the Israeli-occupied territories, into populist movements. Curiously, however, this Islamic trend remains the least understood, or perhaps most willfully misunderstood, phenomenon of current Middle East history.

The diversity of these populist groups has been obscured by wrapping them all within the awe-inspiring, fear-invoking banner of "fundamentalism." "Journalists, scholars and politicians have attached such adjectives to these groups as "radical," "terrorist," "militant," "extremist," and "fanatic." These attempts to classify rigidly what is evolving and changing rapidly in the 1990s divert attention from serious questions, such as:

What distinguishes Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood from Lebanon's Hezbollah? How does Hassan Al-Turabi's outlook in Sudan differ from Rachid Al-Ghannouchi's in Tunisia? Who decides whether a group is engaged in terrorist activity or in legitimate military operations?

Such questions are seldom posed in the media, and even more rarely answered. In light of such an information vacuum, how does one fairly evaluate the Islamists, especially those from Palestine with whose fate the peace talks now are inextricably linked?

Israel's expulsion of over 400 Palestinian Muslims, allegedly because they are leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, represents a litmus test. The expellees are the cream of Palestinian Islam--scholars, businessmen, journalists, teachers, ulama, and students. They demonstrate that Islamists are neither irrational nor educationally or intellectually deficient. Yet, since their ideologies are essentially unclear, they instill apprehension among observers of the region. Who are these Palestinian Islamists, and how did they evolve?

Prior to the existence of Hamas or its military wing, Kata-ib Izzidin Qassam (the Izzidin Qassam Brigade, named after a prominent Islamist who fought the British during the 1936-39 uprising), there was the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, established by Hassan Al-Banna in Egypt in 1928, adopted the Palestinian cause, aiding it via petitions, demonstrations and fund-raising.

The Brotherhood opened its first official office in Jerusalem on Oct. 26, 1945. By 1947, it had branches throughout Palestine and boasted a membership of nearly 20,000. When war broke out in 1948, many Brotherhood volunteers joined the fighting. They sought to remain active after the cease-fire, but since Jordan occupied the West Bank while Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian chapters of the Brotherhood were isolated from each other. Thus, the period 1948-1967 was one of minimal activity and support.

After the 1967 war, Palestinian adherents became loosely affiliated with the Jordanian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group abstained from politics throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, concentrating on moral and social issues such as attacks on corruption, administration of awqaf (trusts) and organizing community projects. Many Palestinians nevertheless were suspicious, particularly since this was the period of increasing rebellion against the occupation, and of Israeli attempts to divide and infiltrate the Palestinian movement.

The Brotherhood knew it could not challenge the PLO's position, especially with Fatah's impressive military training camps and operations. Furthermore, the Brotherhood was more concerned with social conservatism than with national liberation. Its leaders held that prior to military confrontation, Palestinian society must have a firm moral base. Brotherhood speakers gave first priority to moral degeneration, which they felt must be halted before political struggle could be effective.

Only in the mid-1980s did the Brotherhood assume an increasingly political dimension, ultimately in the form of Hamas, the Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement (IRM). …

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