Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Observations on Hamas
I attended a lively discussion on Italian journalist Paola Cardini’s new book, Hamas: From Resistance to Government, last night. Providing comment and questions were Amirah Hass (Ha’aretz) and Joharah Baker (MIFTAH).

While the presence of women on the panel was encouraging, it was unfortunate that Cardini didn’t provide a brief overview of her book. The nature of the discussion assumed that the large crowd who attended had already read it. Fortunately for me, I knew something of the topic to be able to follow; I can’t say the same of my colleague who accompanied me.

I took some notes, but only those about those aspects of Hamas that most interested me. First, there seems to be uncertainty about whether Hamas has really made a clean break and transition from resistance to government and the implications of this for it as a party/movement. There was no consensus among the panellists about whether Hamas has become one or the other or remains stuck between the two. In part this may reflect Cardini’s observation that Hamas militants themselves didn’t expect to win power in 2006. Although they campaigned in those elections, they expected that they would only have a larger share of the vote and mandate to seek reform within the Palestinian Authority and parliament. Hass questioned this and noted the internal debate within the party prior to 2006 to reject the military (and suicide bombing route) prior to the campaign as evidence that they were aware of the different role they were about to play.

While the panellists noted that there is some degree of internal participation within the party regarding policymaking (despite its more authoritarian and conservative policy output), that has changed since the mid-2000s. The main components that provided internal deliberation prior to the 2006 elections were the party in the West Bank, Gaza, the prisoner population and abroad (especially in Damascus). Although decisions were previously decided on majority vote between the different sections, political developments since 2006 has transformed the relative strength of different sections. Given Hamas’s position in Gaza it therefore has greater administrative clout that means its position is relatively stronger to that of the leadership in Damascus; meanwhile the military wing is demanding a greater role.

Second, there was discussion about how Cardini could be sure that her interviewees were speaking the ‘truth’ and not using her journalism as a tool to get their message out. This was especially interesting to me, given the near obsession with achieving rigour in academic circles that I’ve been a part of over the past few years. I was mildly amused to hear a distinction drawn between scholarly work which emphasises documentation on the one hand and journalism on the other, which focuses on interviews and face-to-face dialogue. I was amused since I don’t see the distinction as sharp as that. In my own research I used both kinds. I assume that Hass was especially vocal in distinguishing between these two approaches given her own experience of the type of material that she comes across from Israeli academics, where documents are presented in their books devoid of any context. Although she didn’t call it as such, Cardini described the use of triangulation (i.e. comparing and contrasting documents with interviewees’ comments and recollections of specific events), a method with which I concur – and as far as I can tell it’s the only way of doing qualitative work (I faced the same question of how I knew my informants were telling me the ‘truth’ in interviews that were inevitably retrospective during my viva last year).

Third, panellists didn’t share any consensus over whether the embargo on Gaza has strengthened or weakened Hamas. Cardini said that it had weakened the party, since it made delivery of public services for which they (as the government) are now responsible. As a result there was an increasing awareness that they were losing public support and remained in power through repressive means and control of the administrative apparatus. By contrast Hass suggested that on the contrary, the embargo had strengthened Hamas. Being rejected by international donors and rejecting their aid anyway, they had shown their independence, which appealed to society. At the same time, the Israeli siege couldn’t be blamed on Hamas and instead provided a degree of solidarity between governor and governed. Women were relevant in this regard as well, with both Cardini and Hass noting that female support was important for Hamas’s rise. As secular-oriented women themselves, they noted that female participation couldn’t be seen as always progressive and that given the context of Palestinian society the acceptance of a conservative movement such as Hamas should be understood.

Fourth – and this is where I had the hardest time accepting the proposition – Hass talked about the capacity of Palestinians to accept sacrifice and long-term struggle at the expense of any immediate and individual benefit. She based this idea on her own work and study of Palestinians, the sentiment of which could be tapped into by Hamas. This idea of denial permeates both society and the party itself, meaning that Hamas has strong roots within the communities that it can found. As a result they are able to publicly oppose the Israeli occupation and accommodate the impact that it brings in terms of economic blockade, movement restrictions, etc while drawing on social support for their position. Personally, I find this hard to believe: it sounded much too like a self-interested justification. Although the people suffer and cope as best they can, I find it hard to imagine that they do so without some concern; outwardly, Hamas brooks little opposition and is relatively authoritarian both politically and socially. So to what extent the public’s ‘self-sacrifice’ is consensual or pragmatic remains uncertain.

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