Hamas is in crisis after losing the patronage of Iran and Syria and, more recently, suffering the fall of a sympathetic Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. The movement, which is described alternately as a political movement or a terrorist group, desperately seeks new patronage and protection in a dangerous region.
Published before these crises, this volume by Milton-Edwards of Queen's University Belfast and Farrell of the New York Times remains, nonetheless, a helpful guide to understanding Hamas.
The authors provide good contextual chapters on Islamist antecedents in the British Mandate of Palestine, as well as on the years when Palestinian nationalism and Islamism were nearly extinguished by Israel's birth in 1948 and the allure of pan-Arabism. While describing the rise of Hamas's founder, the late Ahmed Yassin, they also note the influence of a precursor group known as al-Mujamma, which "set fire to libraries, newspaper offices, billiard halls, and bars" to promote its Islamist views.
Israel failed to extinguish this Hamas antecedent when it was still on the rise, indeed granting the group "official status" in 1978, with the goal of weakening the violent and powerful Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Enjoying excellent access to Israeli officials, the authors go on to explain how other Israeli policies have attempted but failed to weaken the movement.
The authors were also privy to the thoughts and insights of senior Hamas figures. The book is filled with a granular analysis of Hamas's internal politics, the movement's civil war with the rival Fatah faction, its cultural misogyny, its suicide bombing operations against Israel (including the use of female "martyrs"), and its fractured leadership, which is often at odds with itself.
Despite the faction's successful participation in the Palestinian elections of 2006, Hamas does not see itself as "evolving" into a nonviolent, political movement. The authors further debunk the notion that there are political and military wings to Hamas, citing insiders who affirm that "once the political leadership has authorized attacks, their location, timing, and nature are left to the military leadership."
Hamas paints a picture of a movement that is in equal parts brutal and pragmatic. At times, the authors' sympathy for the Palestinian cause prompts them to overlook the cost of Hamas's violence and rejectionism. They also downplay the ties that undeniably exist between Hamas and al-Qaeda. These and other problems notwithstanding, this solid study helps to understand Hamas.