Non-State Actors as Providers of Governance: The Hamas Government in Gaza between Effective Sovereignty, Centralized Authority, and Resistance

By Berti, Benedetta | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Non-State Actors as Providers of Governance: The Hamas Government in Gaza between Effective Sovereignty, Centralized Authority, and Resistance


Berti, Benedetta, The Middle East Journal


The article tracks Hamas's political evolution by analyzing its governance record, as well as its political, economic, and social policies as the effective government in the Gaza Strip between 2007 and 2013. By providing a specific snapshot in time, the study focuses on understanding Hamas's approach to governance, as well as how the group has been able to function as a "rebel government" since taking over the Gaza Strip. The article also highlights the complex interactions between Hamas the political party, Hamas the effective government, and Hamas the non-state armed group.

The organizational development of Hamas - the Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya) - illustrates the complex role non-state armed groups can play as political, social, and military actors. Over the past two decades, Hamas evolved from a marginal political and military organization to a sophisticated, deeply embedded, and influential player in Palestinian politics. The group also transitioned from managing an extra-institutional network of social services to the government of the Gaza Strip. Hamas's unique position as an "insider" political party and an "outsider" armed group, as well as its capacity to govern simultaneously through top-down institutional politics and bottom-up social welfare networks make the group an interesting case study when analyzing the link between state and non-state provision of governance, and between effective sovereignty and legitimacy.

Since Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections and gained sole control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, most of the scholarship on the group has focused on understanding its evolution through the lenses of its foreign policy and strategy with respect to Israel. Considerably less emphasis has been placed on analyzing what the group's domestic policies and strategies as a government could reveal about its organizational growth and adaptation. In turn, this outward focus reflects the assumption - well in line with a conventional understanding of "rebel rulers" and their motives - that governance is only of secondary importance to Hamas, and that its political strategy is primarily geared at achieving its extra-institutional objectives, while boosting its economic and military resources and imposing its ideological values.1

This article tracks Hamas's political evolution and its governance record between 2007 and 2013, providing a perspective that goes beyond the notion of domestic governance as guided solely by the prism of ideology or self-enrichment. This analysis reveals an organization struggling between ideology and maximizing and preserving power, and consistently choosing to place the latter practical considerations above the former. Accordingly, Hamas's political leaders in Gaza have focused on centralization and political control, displaying more interest in establishing an authoritarian regime than in creating a "Taliban state"2 or in promoting a "society of resistance." In achieving high levels of internal control over Gaza, the ongoing Israeli and international policy of nonengagement and isolation have unintentionally provided Hamas with an opportunity to maximize its power. In this sense, Hamas's decision to pursue reconciliation with its political foe, Fatah, by entering into a unity government with them in April 2014 with the ultimate vision of relinquishing its control of Gaza in exchange for national integration - while outside the scope of this review - further confirms Hamas's pragmatic approach to governance. Indeed, this shift was more the product of a dramatic alteration in the group's regional status and alliances - resulting in growing political isolation and a steep financial crisis and producing deep internal frictions - than an ideological shift in the group's vision and priorities.

A performance-based review of Hamas's governance record similarly strengthens the image of the group as guided by practical calculations when devising its own organizational strategies. …

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Non-State Actors as Providers of Governance: The Hamas Government in Gaza between Effective Sovereignty, Centralized Authority, and Resistance
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