Too many conversations about Gaza begin and end with one word: Hamas. And conversations about Hamas too often rely on reductive talking points.
In this episode, producer Max Freedman speaks with Tareq Baconi, author of the new book Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. They discuss the origins of Hamas, its position in the Palestinian political landscape, and its governance of the Gaza Strip.
This episode was produced and edited by Max Freedman. Fact-checking by Asaf Calderon. Music by Nat Rosenzweig and from Blue Dot Sessions.
Tareq Baconi is the International Crisis Group’s Analyst for Israel/Palestine and Economics of Conflict. His book, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, was published by Stanford University Press in 2018. His writing has appeared in Arabic in Al-Ghad and Al-Quds al-Arabi, and in English in The New York Review Daily, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, The Nation, The Daily Star (Lebanon), and al-Jazeera. He has provided analysis for print and broadcast media, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, BBC, National Public Radio, and Democracy Now!
Tareq Baconi, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (Stanford University Press, 2018)
Tareq Baconi interviewed by Rami Younis for +972 Magazine (January 11, 2019)
The First Intifada on CBS News Nightwatch (December 17, 1987)
Hamas’s original charter (August 18, 1988)
Hamas’s new political document (May 1, 2017)
MAX FREEDMAN: When we started planning our series about Gaza, we knew we’d have to talk about Hamas. And pretty quickly I realized I didn’t know anything about Hamas.
So when I found out that there was a new book out about the history of the group, I ordered a copy and started reading it.
So one day I’m on my way to work, I pull out this book to read on the train and suddenly I get nervous that people are going to see me reading it. A book about Hamas, in public.
Which is ridiculous, right? It’s a book. Written by an academic. I was just trying to learn more. So why did I feel that way?
TAREQ BACONI: There is an aversion to try to understand Hamas and to try to contend with the complexities that Hamas presents.
MAX: This is Tareq Baconi, who wrote that book.
TAREQ: The movement is seen as inherently toxic and one that people don't really want to understand or engage with or are too frightened of engaging with it.
MAX: To be fair, all that most Americans ever hear about Hamas from commentators and politicians is stuff like this:
RON DERMER: Hamas intends to harm Palestinian civilians and to harm Israeli civilians the more civilians they kill the better for them.
ALAN DERSHOWITZ: It's called the dead baby strategy. You use children and women you deliberately put them on the front lines. You make it impossible for Israel to defend itself without occasionally killing a woman or a child or an elderly person. And every time Israel accidentally kills somebody like that, Hamas cheers and celebrates because that's exactly what they want.
BEN SHAPIRO: The Gaza Strip is filled with people who want Israel destroyed and want to kill Jews. And those people have elected people in the Hamas government in order to do just that.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Hamas is like ISIS. Hamas is like al-Qaeda. / Hamas is like Boko Haram.
[MUSIC: “The Telling”]
MAX: This knee-jerk fear I had — that somehow this organization is so uniquely toxic that by allowing strangers to read the word Hamas over my shoulder I might as well be writing TERRORIST SYMPATHIZER across my forehead — it’s not uncommon.
But the fear of engaging with Hamas even as a subject of study means that the scary things people say on TV aren’t contested in the public sphere, and — as Tareq Baconi points out — that has consequences.
TAREQ: I think the misrepresentation that is prevalent on Hamas has become quite disturbing and has allowed a lot of realities to unfold particularly in the Gaza Strip in a way that is unchecked.
And so I think it's really important for anyone who's interested in Israel-Palestine to understand what this organization is and to understand what it stands for to understand the implications of the fact that it's in power governing two million Palestinians and to try to dig a bit deeper beyond the the the surface understanding of Hamas as simply a terrorist organization that merits marginalization and isolation. I think it's it’s much more complex than that.
MAX: So in today’s episode, with Tareq’s help, we’re going to get into some of that complexity.
Because the surface understanding of Hamas that he’s talking about can go hand in hand with a surface understanding of Gaza. So if we want to take a nuanced look at Gaza, we need to make a nuanced assessment of Hamas.
How has Hamas changed over the last thirty years? What is Hamas’s relationship with the people of Gaza? And if Hamas isn’t going anywhere, what does that mean for Israel?
My name is Max Freedman, and this is “Gaza,” a series from Unsettled.
[MUSIC: Unsettled theme]
MAX: Tareq Baconi is an Israel-Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group. His new book is called “Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance.”
TAREQ: So I decided to study Israel-Palestine as a way of learning more about an issue that's important to me on a personal level and that informed a lot of my life growing up.
MAX: Tareq was born and raised in Jordan, but he’s the grandson of Palestinian refugees. His book was published last spring, and it’s the end product of more than a decade of research. “Hamas Contained” is billed as “the first history of the group on its own terms.”
TAREQ: So I pretty much read every single document Hamas has ever issued over a 30 year period.
MAX: And before we go any further:
Tareq told me that he rejects without question the use of armed violence against civilians. In his work, he tries to understand the context, and to understand how Hamas justifies its violence against civilians, but he does not excuse it. He also rejects the use of violence against Palestinian civilians by the Israeli state.
When we started working on this episode, I really knew almost nothing about Hamas beyond the headlines. So when I had the opportunity to speak with Tareq in September, I asked him to start at the very beginning.
MAX: Where did Hamas come from. Why was Hamas started where it was and when it was. What was going on at that moment.
TAREQ: Hamas started in 1987.
MAX: 1987 was a key turning point in Palestinian history.
[MUSIC: CBS News Nightwatch]
CHARLIE ROSE: Simmering tensions erupted in violence this week along the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. Some 650,000 Palestinians…
MAX: This was the start of the First Intifada: a spontaneous mass uprising on an unprecedented scale — mostly nonviolent, despite the tenor of news coverage at the time.
BOB SIMON: Senior Israeli officers say it can no longer be defined as a wave of disturbances. They’re calling it insurrection. U.N. officials are calling it the worst violence since Israel conquered the Gaza Strip in 1967. Palestinians are calling it the children’s revolt.
MAX: So in order to fully understand the significance of this uprising — and the origins of Hamas — we need to spend a minute talking about the broader Palestinian political landscape.
For twenty years leading up to this moment, the Palestinian cause had been led from abroad, by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or the PLO. The PLO is an umbrella group made up of different Palestinian factions, but historically dominated by one faction, Fatah.
TAREQ: And the PLO's message the PLO's ideology was the full liberation of historic Palestine through armed struggle. And over the course of the 60s and 70s, a great deal of violence was shed by the PLO all over the world against Israel and Israeli targets.
MAX: But by 1987, the PLO had been weakened by years of violent in-fighting. And from its exile in Tunisia, the PLO was relatively disconnected from the Palestinians who were living under occupation and facing the brunt of Israel’s military rule.
So part of what made the First Intifada such a watershed moment was that for the first time since 1948, Palestinians living in Palestine were at the vanguard of the resistance. And suddenly, the eyes of the world were on Gaza.
BOB SIMON: Gaza’s not only forgotten it’s unwanted. The Arabs all insist that the Israelis should pull out. But no one wants to take their place. Even the PLO has offered very little in the way of money or support. Which is one reason why the rallying cry in Gaza these days is Islam. The force is fundamentalism, the mosques are overflowing. Yasser Arafat is being replaced as spiritual leader of the strip by 51 year old Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
MAX: Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was the head of the Mujama Islami: basically a chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. Up to this point, the Mujama Islami had adopted a very different theory of Palestinian liberation from the PLO.
TAREQ: They believed that if the Palestinians living in the occupied territories were more connected to their Islamic doctrine and Islamic belief that that would allow the Islamic nation the Ummah to prosper and ultimately within the Palestinian context to end the occupation.
When the intifada erupted, that belief, that independence would happen organically through living a more virtuous life, came into tension with reality on the ground.
MAX: Leaders of the intifada were calling for a complete boycott of all forms of engagement with Israel.
But Israel had actually supported the growth of Islamic organizations like the Mujama Islami — hoping they would provide an alternative to Palestinian nationalism and draw support away from militant groups like the PLO.
So the Mujama Islami was widely criticized within the Gaza Strip — not only for avoiding active resistance but for working with the occupation forces in order to get permission to expand their social, religious and educational services.
This criticism threatened to leave the Mujama Islami marginalized at what was clearly a historic moment in the national struggle.
TAREQ: And so in 1987, the founders of the of the Mujama Islami within the Gaza Strip got together in the house of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and decided that actually it was time to break off into a splinter group that would prioritize resistance.
MAX: That splinter group was called the Islamic Resistance Movement - better known by its acronym, in Arabic: HAMAS.
MAX: So at the time that Hamas is founded there is a charter. And you know a lot of the time when you try to talk to people American Jews let's say about about Gaza you can't get past the question of Hamas and if you want to talk about Hamas you can't get past the question of the charter. So can you talk a little bit about the charter what's in the charter and why it's such a flashpoint for these discussions.
TAREQ: Absolutely. And it should be. I think that charter should be interrogated and the charter is problematic on so many levels that it absolutely must be something that is brought to people's attention and discussed. Fundamentally it lays out what Hamas’s mission is. So it talks about Hamas being dedicated to the notion of jihad and it defines jihad not as a tactic but as a way of being, as a holistic way of life. The charter talks about how the movement derives its ideology and its beliefs from the Koran. And it talks about creating an Islamic state over the land of historic Palestine.
Now the problem with the charter. There are several problems but I think the problem you're alluding to is the rampant anti-Semitism in it. So it conflates Judaism with Zionism. There is no real sophisticated understanding of the difference between the two in in the charter. And it plays on all the anti-Semitic tropes that are well known. You know the Jews controlling global politics and controlling the U.N. and mass media and amassing wealth and it derives a lot the charter derives a lot of its interpretation of the Jewish people from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. So it's in many ways the charter is a despicable piece of writing.
MAX: Well we're having a very kind of measured conversation about this. But I mean when I hear that those things are in the charter as a Jewish person should I not feel threatened by that.
TAREQ: Absolutely you should. Absolutely. And that's exactly what I'm saying. So this is a document that needs to be interrogated it needs to be challenged. I very much sympathize and understand with the worries that Jews or non-Jews have about the the charter frankly you don't need to be Jewish to be disturbed by this. I wouldn't ever say that Hamas has no anti-Semitism. But I do think that the charter isn't representative of Hamas’s political thinking today and isn't representative of the degree of sophistication they have in engaging with Israel.
MAX: Tareq interviewed many leaders of Hamas while writing his book: across different levels of seniority, in the occupied territories and in the Palestinian diaspora. And he explained to me that many of them do understand the difference between Judaism and Zionism.
TAREQ: Hamas's leaders at least the leaders that I interviewed and certainly many of the people that I spoke to have tried to distance themselves from the charter.
MAX: In fact, in May 2017, Hamas issued what they called a new “political document.”
MAX: Is it a new charter?
TAREQ: So in my mind and in the mind of many it is seen as a new charter but Hamas never officially renounced the old charter. And more than not renouncing it attached the old charter as an appendix to this new political document.
TAREQ: But so the question about why Hamas wouldn't renounce the charter is one that is quite perplexing. I think many people have openly within Hamas as well have openly called on Hamas to renounce the charter. I think Hamas is still very much a populist movement and it is still very much connected to what they like to call maintaining the fiery roots. So maintaining a certain level of passion and a certain level of ground mobilization and I think that renouncing the charter would appear to be a concession or at least present Hamas in a way that might distance the political leadership from its rank and file.
MAX: When you say that they haven't renounced the old charter because they are a populist movement it seems to me what you're implying is that what is in the old charter is popular.
TAREQ: That's I don't think that's what I'm implying. I think that it’s it’s seen as a way of maintaining your ideological commitments. So I don't think I'm suggesting that Hamas's followers are believing in the anti-Semitism that Hamas’s charter portrays but I think they believe in Hamas's ideological purity and Hamas's refusal to bow to pressure.
MAX: This ideological purity and refusal to bow to pressure became so central to Hamas’s identity in part because of what was happening within the PLO at the same time that Hamas emerged.
[MUSIC: “Clay Pawn Shop”]
TAREQ: By the 1970s the PLO under the leadership of Yasser Arafat was starting to understand the limits of armed violence. Particularly when you're dealing with a state that had a very clear territorial level of control and institutions and an army that was developed and supported by the world's nations. So throughout the 70s and the 80s there was a process of transformation that was starting to take place within the PLO which was to contend with the need to enter the diplomatic fold to start engaging with Israel as a reality. That transformation obviously was one that took a significant period of time to come through. But it led to ultimately by 1988 for the PLO to make the decision to recognize the state of Israel.
MAX: Wait I'm sorry. The PLO recognized the state of Israel in 1988.
TAREQ: Yes. So in 1988 —
MAX: The reason I ask is because that's definitely not that's definitely not what I was raised to believe.
TAREQ: Yes. I know.
MAX: Tareq explained that in November 1988, Yasser Arafat gave a speech in Algiers declaring the creation of the state of Palestine.
[SOUND: Yasser Arafat in Algiers, November 15, 1988]
MAX: In this speech, Arafat agreed that the PLO would accept a state on 22% of the land of historic Palestine — effectively conceding the fact that 78% of the land of historic Palestine had indeed become the state of Israel.
I was surprised to find out about this.
MAX: So when I hear even today that a precondition for negotiations or what we call the peace process is that the Palestinians must recognize the state of Israel. What does that mean. If that happened 30 years ago.
TAREQ: Yes that's a good question. And if you look at the way that that demand is put forward so now for example it's not recognizing Israel it's recognizing Israel's right to exist which is very subtle but very different. Recognizing Israel's right to exist many legal scholars have scratched their heads to try to understand what that means because there is no nation state that has a right to exist. Nation states exist and come into being and falter and what is this right of a nation state to exist.
And then the demand changes in different guises. So for example Prime Minister Netanyahu today would condition any kind of engagement with the Palestinians on the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. So there are constant demands that Palestinians need to rise up to and that they need to fulfill before they are seen as legitimate partners. And the irony of course is that there hasn't been a recognition of Palestinian statehood yet in an official capacity by most Israeli political parties including the party of the current prime minister, the Likud.
So you're right to be bewildered. But the constant call on Palestinians to recognize Israel. To my mind is nothing but an exercise in ensuring that there can be no equity between Israel and the Palestinians and to keep demanding of Palestinians what they've already given.
MAX: So going back to 1988.
MAX: How did this evolution of the PLO shape the kind of organization that Hamas became and its mission.
TAREQ: This is seen as a huge betrayal by Hamas. Hamas believes that the PLO had conceded central tenets of Palestinian nationalism and Hamas in a way rose to protect those to safeguard those tenets and to remain committed to what it views as the purity of Palestinian nationalism.
MAX: The end of the First Intifada led to the Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the PLO between 1993 and 1995. Oslo created the Palestinian Authority, which was supposed to be temporary: the embryo of a future Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, Hamas had become a powerful player in the occupied territories, not just in the Gaza Strip. And Hamas rejected Oslo. Hamas refused to concede 78% of historic Palestine, refused to renounce armed struggle, and spent the 90s trying to undermine negotiations with terrorist attacks — often suicide bombings, which Hamas referred to as its “signature” operations.
TAREQ: Of course there are people and scholars now who would say that even in a peaceful reality the negotiations wouldn't have produced a Palestinian state. But at the time there was for the Palestinians and I think for the majority of Israelis as well a very strong hope and belief that the peace negotiations would produce a two state solution. And Hamas played a significant role in spoiling that.
[MUSIC: “Emmit Sprak”]
MAX: A decade of negotiations and hope, at least for some, gave way to devastating violence with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the fall of 2000.
NEWS ANCHOR: Clashes erupted at several flashpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The death toll mostly Palestinians now stands at 236 people. Yasser Arafat made a rare public call today to restrain Palestinian gunmen. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak dismissed Arafat's words as inadequate and told Israelis they are in for a long struggle.
TAREQ: With the eruption of the second intifada and of course with the failure of that decade of negotiations Hamas remained committed to the idea that violence could work.
MAX: Suicide is considered sinful in Islam, but Hamas essentially rebranded suicide attacks as “martyrdom operations.”
And though Hamas was not the only faction which carried out suicide bombings during the second intifada, its attacks were the most destructive.
In August and September 2005, under the direction of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip. Jewish settlements were dismantled and Israeli security forces were withdrawn.
TAREQ: My reading of the situation is that the movement believed that the more pain it could inflict on the Israeli public the more likely the Israeli public would pressure their government to let go of the territories.
MAX: Well and in 2005 2006 they did let go of the territories. So were they right?
TAREQ: Hamas absolutely claims that Israel let go of the territories because of its armed attacks and for Hamas it has made the argument consistently that only force works. And when Ariel Sharon made that decision in 2005 he reinforced that message.
But until that withdrawal happened, the way that Israel dealt with Hamas's attacks was to carry out hugely destructive operations throughout the Palestinian territories to reoccupy Palestinian villages invade refugee camps and the numbers of Palestinians killed over the course of the intifada in terms of the violence of the occupation forces dwarfs the number of Israelis killed by the resistance of the Palestinian factions.
MAX: Most of Hamas’s senior leaders were killed during the Second Intifada — including its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
TAREQ: Hamas’s response to that level of reaction from Israel — the fact that the disengagement from Gaza happened within the context of a blockade that would then isolate the Gaza Strip — I think there was a moment of transformation within Hamas where there was an understanding that armed struggle wouldn't actually achieve liberation. It was an awakening that was very similar to the one that the PLO had gone through.
MAX: In January 2006, just a few months after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, Hamas decided to run as a political party in Palestinian national legislative elections for the very first time. And much to everyone’s surprise, they won.
[MUSIC: “Noe Noe”]
MAX: For Tareq and many other Palestinians, this development raised a lot of questions.
TAREQ: How could a movement such as Hamas to be elected through democratic elections. How could a movement such as Hamas run in democratic elections. What did this mean for the Palestinian struggle.
MAX: After the surprise election results, most of the international community refused to recognize the new government led by Hamas. Israel began its blockade of the Gaza Strip — which we’ll explore in more detail in the next episode. And Fatah - the secular political party which had dominated the PLO and the Palestinian Authority — would not cede power to Hamas easily.
By the end of 2006, there was open violence between the factions, and in June 2007, the split became official: Hamas took control in Gaza, and Fatah created its own government in the West Bank.
For nearly two decades, Hamas had been defined by its rejection of mainstream Palestinian politics. Now, Hamas made the decision to embrace the democratic process and join the Palestinian political establishment. Hamas went from doing everything they could to undermine Oslo to taking responsibility for what Oslo had created: the municipal infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority.
MAX: It's hard to say that they have abandoned armed struggle.
TAREQ: Well I mean —
MAX: You know the line is, “Israel disengaged and they got rocket fire.”
TAREQ: Right. So Hamas didn't abandon armed struggle. Hamas still believes in armed struggle as a means of liberation and hence the rocket fire. But the kind of resistance that Hamas engages with today is very different than the resistance of the Second Intifada.
So through the Second Intifada Hamas was on the offensive in terms of invading Israeli cities and towns and settlements and carrying out suicide bombings and carrying out stabbings and carrying out various forms of armed struggle. Now for structural reasons including the fact that the wall is there and the the disengagement happened but also for strategic reasons that's not the kind of armed struggle that Hamas engages with today.
So you mentioned rocket fire. That's strategic and deliberate. That's done in a way to force Israel to renegotiate access into the Gaza Strip to pressure Israel into lifting the blockade or it's used in order to maintain deterrence. After Israel carries out their military incursion into the Gaza Strip Hamas would respond with rocket fire.
MAX: And aside from this strategic use of rocket fire, Tareq says:
TAREQ: Hamas today has become extremely effective at policing resistance.
MAX: I know what you’re thinking. Hamas is policing resistance? This is what Tareq's book is all about: how the leaders of Hamas have, in recent years, been willing and able both to keep their own members in line, and to stop other armed groups from attacking Israel when it doesn’t serve Hamas’s interests.
TAREQ: If Hamas wasn't in power whatever other faction or organization would come to power could be infinitely more hostile. Hamas has actually been a very effective party in terms of committing to ceasefires controlling rocket fire stabilizing the Gaza Strip.
MAX: What was it like for you personally to spend time there and to spend time with leaders of Hamas and do the research that you had to do for this book.
TAREQ: There's really no place that I'd ever visited that's like the Gaza Strip. I might disagree with Hamas's ideology and I might find a lot of what it stands for problematic but I also understand their thinking and their desperation and their their belief that they are engaged in a moral struggle that Israel is the invader and that Zionism is a form of colonialism that disenfranchised people of their land. I understand those things so I'm able to see Hamas and to see its leaders beyond the surface beyond this bloodthirsty terrorist organization and to try to understand this deeper reality that animates them and animates their following.
And beyond Hamas I think going to the Gaza Strip for me was a very difficult experience. But also what I felt was an enormous responsibility and an enormous privilege. To go into the Gaza Strip and and see the way that people are made to live in this age for political reasons and for demographic reasons for to to leave two million Palestinians penned on a side of a state because they're not Jewish.
For me the most difficult the most difficult thing for me about the Gaza Strip is that I could leave. And that carries with it a huge amount of guilt. Because you have two million Palestinians who can’t. And that's incredible to feel incredible in a very dark way.
[MUSIC: “Emmit Sprak”]
MAX: All four of Tareq’s grandparents were expelled from their homes in Haifa in 1948. They fled to Lebanon, and then because they were Christians, they were naturalized and given Lebanese citizenship. They lived in Lebanon until the civil war, when they fled to Jordan, where Tareq was born.
TAREQ: Just because by sheer coincidence when my grandparents were made refugees in 1948 because of their religion I can have a passport now that allows me to leave when I could have easily been one of the people there. That is a type of guilt that a still on a personal level I'm trying to address.
MAX: So as you said two million people are living in these conditions because they are not Jewish. I think some people would say they are living in these conditions because they are not Jewish and because they chose this group of people who hate Jews to represent them. So my question is why did so many people support Hamas in those elections in 2006.
TAREQ: So the first thing I would say is Gazawis didn't choose Hamas.
MAX: “Gazawis” is the Arabic word for Gazans — using a letter we don’t have in English.
TAREQ: Gazawis didn't choose Hamas. The legislative elections that Hamas ran in ran in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well. So it's certainly not just Gazawis and there were many people within Gaza as there were within the West Bank who voted against Hamas and who voted for Fatah.
So there are many reasons why Palestinians chose Hamas in 2006. There was a huge amount of dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority under Fatah's leadership.
MAX: Again, the Palestinian Authority is essentially a municipal government that runs the West Bank under Israeli occupation. The PA is distinct from the PLO, but they are both dominated by Fatah.
TAREQ: Fatah was seen to be a corrupt and elitist movement that was no longer connected to the needs of the people. What I think is that it's much bigger than that. Hamas isn't just its ideology and its charter. Hamas is a movement that is rooted in principles of Palestinian nationalism that go back to 1948.
So for example Hamas calls for the right of return. Hamas calls for the atrocities of 1948 to be recognized. In negotiations and in the two state solution that the Oslo Accords put forward the Palestinian Authority was dealing with 1967. It was dealing with the beginning of the occupation. It was calling for an end to occupation. Hamas in many ways goes further back than that to address the injustices of 1948.
So if you shed Hamas of everything that you or I or many Palestinians would disagree with there are still principles and values that animate Hamas that many Palestinians would identify with and openly support.
And you see that you see that. So for example in 2014 when Israel was carrying out its major operation in the summer of 2014 —
BRIAN WILLIAMS: After this 10 day back and forth air war Israel launched a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip tonight. This is a major escalation. Flames and flares and outgoing fire were visible in the night sky over Gaza.
TAREQ: Support for Hamas was low. I think it was about 35 percent within the Gaza Strip. But support for resistance and for armed struggle against Israel was 95 percent. So how do you explain that discrepancy. These are Palestinians who are saying, “Okay we might disagree with the fact that Hamas is in power or that Hamas is an Islamist movement or that Hamas has authoritarian tendencies but we believe in Hamas's right to use armed struggle. Because you know what? The blockade is an act of war and the blockade is violent and we cannot sit back and put up a white flag and allow to be starved to death. We believe that we have a right to defend ourselves.”
That's not Hamas. That's Palestinians living under occupation seeking dignity and a better life. And Hamas understands that and Hamas speaks to that. And so when Hamas comes out and says, “You know what? The Palestinian Authority has a police force that's committed to Israel's security and that will crack down on Palestinians in the West Bank when they protest the occupation. I protest the occupation and I will come out and support you and give you tools and give you weapons to protest the occupation.” Many Palestinians would choose Hamas over Fatah because of that. You're choosing between what has essentially become a subcontractor to the occupation and a movement that says, “You know what? There is a nationalist struggle here that's rooted in 1948 that hasn't been resolved.”
What I tried to do in my book is to understand that and to understand Hamas in many ways not as this sort of exceptional Islamist movement that if it didn't appear and if it wasn't there that somehow we would have justice and Palestinian self-determination. No in my mind Hamas is a continuation of Palestinian nationalism. And if Hamas gets quashed you know what you're going to get another political party that calls for the same thing.
MAX: How can Hamas continue to claim to the people of the Gaza Strip that violence, that violence works when the result of the violence from Hamas has been these incredibly destructive incursions from the Israeli army in which thousands of Palestinians have died and many many many more been injured and had their lives completely changed.
TAREQ: Did violence not work? I mean that is a question mark. Israel disengaged in 2005 and disengaged from south Lebanon in 2000. Israel has consistently reacted to and negotiated with Hamas in a way that undermined and undercut the Palestinian parties that were committed to negotiations and that were committed to achieving statehood through diplomacy. So I don't think Hamas has a very difficult task ahead of it in claiming that actually violence works certainly more than negotiations. I think Israel has been very good at rewarding some of Hamas’s policies and at least dealing with Hamas as the more powerful of the two parties.
MAX: Can you can go into more — I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that. That Israel rewards Hamas.
TAREQ: I mean look at some of the things that have happened over the course of the past decade. You have a Palestinian Authority that's sitting in the West Bank that is committed to negotiations. And what it gets out of that commitment is settlement expansion and signposts that are constantly moving out of reach. On the other hand you have in the Gaza Strip some of the most successful prisoner release negotiations happened between Israel and Hamas where a thousand Palestinian prisoners were released for Gilad Shalit. More than a thousand a thousand twenty seven.
MAX: Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, was kidnapped in June 2006 and held in a Hamas prison for more than five years before being released as part of a prisoner exchange.
TAREQ: This dwarfs any successful negotiation that the Palestinian Authority have had with Israel around prisoner exchange. And so it might not be seen as a reward by Israeli government officials but what's happening is a tacit agreement between Israel and Hamas where the two use violence cynically and openly to negotiate the relationship between them with the understanding that there are no ideological concessions so Hamas still hasn't recognized Israel and Israel still refuses to let go of the blockade. But the two parties use violence in a way that allows an equilibrium to be produced between them. Whereas if you look at the Palestinian Authority you have a complete subjugation. Instead of supporting the Palestinian Authority to lead and build a Palestinian state, Israel has used the openness of the PLO to enter into negotiations in order to entrench its occupation.
And so yes I do think that the manner in which the relationship has unfolded between those two Palestinian factions and Israel could very easily be read and portrayed and often is read and portrayed by Hamas’s leaders and Hamas’s followers as, “Israel only understands force. And Israel will only respect a Palestinian party that is able to inflict pain on it and that certain concessions will come.”
Now I personally would disagree with that reading and I would say that Palestinians in Gaza haven’t actually gained anything. Their life is as miserable as it can be and they're living under horrendous conditions and under an unforgiving blockade and in are suffering under a collective punishment.
There is a very high level of disenchantment and anger within the Gaza Strip at Hamas for dragging the Gaza Strip into or I should say opening the Gaza Strip to Israeli military assaults in the way that Hamas does. But for Hamas I think it can easily claim that Israel has rewarded its its refusal to engage with with Israel.
[MUSIC: “Drone Pine”]
MAX: How does Hamas govern.
TAREQ: Hamas governs in what is often called soft authoritarianism. So what that means is it doesn't allow for political mobilization by other parties. So Fatah for example is repressed within the Gaza Strip. Freedom of expression is often quite fragile. So they would allow certain forms of freedom of expression but not forms that are openly critical of the movement. There isn't always due process in terms of dealing with prisoners or in terms of dealing with Palestinians in Gaza that Hamas would see as opponents or criminals or whatever the case might be so there is definite authoritarian tendencies within the Gaza Strip.
I personally don't think that it is far worse or even not comparable to the authoritarianism we have in the West Bank. I think the Palestinian Authority has been increasingly repressive over the course of the past decades. I think that they have used their security forces against Palestinians in the West Bank in a very cynical way. I think freedom of expression within the West Bank is policed as well and not tolerated. Hamas and any kind of political opposition to Fatah and specifically to Mahmoud Abbas's power within the Palestinian Authority is not tolerated at all.
So the point I'm trying to make is that there is authoritarianism in the Gaza Strip and Hamas is in no way a model government. But the movement has a very active social and charitable infrastructure that ensures that the movement has open communication channels and is connected to the people it’s serving. And so I think that by default makes Hamas more sensitive to criticism.
So for example when I was there I interviewed a lot of human rights organizations and journalists that were active in the Gaza Strip and they talk about how Hamas invites them in to hear about their criticisms and their reports and to try to understand the grievances that Palestinians in Gaza might have towards it. I don't think the Palestinian Authority does that in a similar way.
MAX: In particular isn't it dangerous for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip to try to engage in any kind of relationship with Israelis.
TAREQ: Yes. So in the same way that Israelis cannot engage with anyone in Gaza. I mean it's illegal for Israelis to go into the Gaza Strip and in the same way it's absolutely the issue of collaborators is taken very seriously by Hamas.
MAX: Well, maybe not exactly in the same way.
TAREQ: There’s no system of law here that would provide suspected collaborators with a legal approach that would safeguard their rights. I think Hamas often takes the suspicion of collaboration as sufficient to result in someone's execution.
[MUSIC: “Drone Pine”]
MAX: Hamas’s surprise victory in Palestinian national elections took place in 2006. Since then, there have been no new elections in Gaza. Since there hasn’t been an election since 2006, and since the majority of Palestinians in Gaza are under 18 and therefore would have had no opportunity to vote for Hamas — would it be fair to say that Hamas can’t accurately claim to represent the majority?
Tareq explained that Palestinians have a leadership crisis that goes beyond Hamas and Fatah, beyond the Palestinian Authority, to the PLO, the one organization that is supposed to represent Palestinians all over the world. Neither Hamas nor the PA nor the PLO really represent the Palestinian people — and that’s precisely why there is increasing authoritarianism in both the West Bank and Gaza.
MAX: One of the claims of your book is that really the status quo which seems to any reasonable observer untenable for the two million people living in the Gaza Strip but that the status quo actually works for Hamas and works for Israel.
TAREQ: Absolutely it works for both. I think the status quo. I think Israel benefits a great deal from having Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The dynamic that has emerged between Israel and the Gaza Strip what Israeli security officials call mowing the lawn which is that you carry out a hugely destructive attack on the Gaza Strip every few years to remove or destroy Hamas's military tactics or Hamas's military infrastructure excuse me is a way of actually ensuring stability. It doesn't destroy Hamas. It doesn't completely collapse Hamas.
MAX: And they don't want to.
TAREQ: Well they would then they would have to deal with having two million Palestinians with no government think about it. Hamas now addresses the needs and governs two million Palestinians that Israel wants nothing to do with. If Hamas wasn't there or if the Gaza Strip collapsed what would that mean for Israel.
MAX: You're asking me.
TAREQ: Yes. As in the status quo is one where two million Palestinians can continue to live governed by a Palestinian entity without Israel claiming any responsibility for them. And while maintaining the Gaza Strip as a separate entity from the West Bank which is the area that Israel is or the current Israeli government is ideologically committed to maintaining. Without a functioning government in the Gaza Strip there would be much more difficult reality for Israel to contend with.
So I think both Hamas and Fatah are engaged in a very short term game where they both try to have small victories without making any actual ideological long term concessions. So they're both involved in short term management of the conflict. And the external dynamic is that Israel benefits from the absence of reconciliation. So you see the Israeli prime minister claiming that there can be no peace because there isn't a single partner. Palestinians are divided. But when when in the past the Palestinians did reconcile the prime minister would then say, “Well, the Palestinians have chosen terror. There can't be discussions with them.” So there has been a constant effort by Israel to ensure that the division isn't healed and that's because this divide and rule framework has actually served Israel's purpose.
MAX: So if if this miserable status quo works for Israel and works for Hamas and works for Fatah how do what do we do. How do we get out of the, what you call this “equilibrium of belligerence.”
TAREQ: I don't think we do. I think that the current situation is what we will continue to see for a while until a major unexpected tipping point happens. And I think for me you know to answer your question about how was it for me on a personal level to deal with this research. That was the most difficult realization to accept. I don't think the situation on the ground can change in any fundamental way.
I think if we look at if you look at the way that in the way that discussions around the Gaza Strip has evolved particularly over the course of the past year. You see the Trump administration obviously working very closely with the prime minister's office in Israel talking about humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip. Talking about major infrastructure projects like desalination plants and sewage treatment plants and electricity generators. No one is talking about lifting the blockade. Which is the reason Palestinians in Gaza are suffering. And so you have a reality where the major world powers are accepting the structures of occupation. There is there's not only no cost for the blockade now there is also an EU power footing the bill of the blockade paying for the humanitarian suffering that the blockade is inflicting.
So in many ways the reality is sustainable. Israel has managed to — it's effectively outsourced its occupation. And I don't see why things would change. If I were sitting in the prime minister's office in Israel. It's a very comfortable seat. The economy is booming. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is completely subservient. And the Gaza Strip isn't their problem. There is no cost to Israel's occupation at all.
And I think until there is a major tipping point something that's unexpected which there will be of course because there are in those conflicts you know the Berlin Wall or or apartheid South Africa until there is a tipping point. I think the current reality is one that is likely to persist.
[MUSIC: “Slow Dial”]
MAX: What do you more than anything want to contribute to the public discourse and the academic discourse about Hamas.
TAREQ: I think the main intervention that I tried to do in the book is that saying that Hamas is a terrorist organization doesn't absolve us of the responsibility of understanding what is happening on the ground today. It doesn't absolve us of the responsibility of holding Israel accountable to the illegal ways it deals with the Palestinian people. I think that Hamas has become a very effective fig leaf that allows Israel to legitimate policies that are morally corrupt. And I think that we need to understand Hamas as a party despite a lot of the issues that are very troubling about the organization that has very legitimate political grievances ones that cannot be dismissed if we actually want a just outcome for Palestinians and for Israelis for that matter.
TAREQ: You know people who live in Gaza and who come from Gaza even if you speak to Gazawis abroad there is a pride and rootedness in their right to resist and their belief that they are on the right side of history that even with all the difficulty that they're going through now this long arc of justice will bend towards them. There is pride in the fact that they’re not the Palestinian Authority that it is quote unquote liberated territory that's free of the occupation within. Of course there is an occupation that is controlling it from the outside but on the inside that it has somehow purged Zionism. There is there is pride in Gaza that makes it a very special place.
MAX: Last spring, during the first few weeks of the Great March of Return, I was involved in a protest here in New York where we said the Mourners’ Kaddish for those Palestinians who had been killed by Israeli sniper fire. We got a lot of angry comments online in response, but one really stood out to me. “We don’t say Kaddish for terrorists.”
I can’t tell you exactly when or where I learned that Hamas was the Boogeyman. I grew up during the Second Intifada; I’m sure that had something to do with it. But I think the effect is that it gave me permission not to see the people of Gaza as fully human. And not seeing the people of Gaza as fully human makes it easier to brush aside what happens to them. Especially when it’s supposedly for the sake of the safety of Jews.
You know, I’ve never lived in southern Israel, but I can vividly imagine having to run to a bomb shelter when rockets begin to fall. And I can compartmentalize - even if I don’t like the current Israeli government and I think Ariel Sharon was a war criminal, I can still usually see Israelis as humans.
I’m not asking for a medal, I’m saying that I think for many Jews in the diaspora, it is more difficult to do this for Palestinians. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the portrayal of Hamas as nothing more than bloodthirsty fanatics plays an important role in circumscribing our empathy.
So of course, I acknowledge and condemn their use of terror. And I think it’s important to try to understand Hamas as a rational political actor. It might feel scary and complicated to do that — even just to read a book or listen to a podcast — but what’s the alternative?
On the next episode of “Gaza,” a series from Unsettled:
[MUSIC: “The Records”]
MAX: We’ve referred a few times in this series to the fact that Israel controls everything that goes in or out of the Gaza Strip. Why is that, and what’s the impact on daily life for Gazans? We talk to a young engineer and entrepreneur who’s trying to get electricity to her people.
MAX: What's the dream. If everybody has SunBox in their home. What is possible in Gaza.
MAJD MASHHARAWI: I can see the dreams started from now when we installed the pilot. The amount of happiness I saw in people's eyes. It's I can't describe it here seriously. I remember one time installed a unit for a family and I went back to the office. I was like I felt I wanted to eat everything around me because I was so happy and I was so hungry. And I was like yaani the amount of happiness I had it was just too much yaani. I felt like it's really changing life.
[MUSIC: Unsettled theme]
MAX: Unsettled is produced by Emily Bell, Asaf Calderon, Ilana Levinson, and me, Max Freedman. This episode was produced and edited by me. Fact-checking by Asaf Calderon.
Our theme music is by Nat Rosenzweig. Additional music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions. Original art for our Gaza series by Marguerite Dabaie.
You can sign up for our newsletter on our website, unsettledpod.com. While you’re there, you’ll also find a link to Tareq Baconi’s book as well as other resources on the topics we discussed.
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