BICOM Analysis: Should we engage with Hamas or not?

Executive Summary

  • In Israel’s 60 years of striving for acceptance and peace it is clear that Israel has no permanent enemies. It is prepared to negotiate with anyone who genuinely wants to make peace with it and can provide Israel with the necessary security guarantees. Hamas has not been prepared to do this.
  • There is a lot of confusion about how to understand Hamas. Some people are trying to claim that Hamas has gone enough of a way to meet Israel’s requirements. However, Hamas must be looked at by the combination of its words and actions.
  • In this paper we explain the reality of the concept of hudna. There is a danger of misunderstanding it and what Hamas really means by it.
  • Given the lessons of Gaza and southern Lebanon, we now know that the only workable way forward is having a negotiating partner who can provide genuine acceptance of Israel and deliver on security guarantees. Peace with Egypt and Jordan demonstrate this.
  • It is incumbent on us all to really scrutinise the Hamas negotiation option honestly and sensibly. Israel has no permanent enemies and is willing and able to negotiate provided its needs are met as discussed. However, given the recent events in Gaza it would be irresponsible not to investigate Hamas’s actions and motives. Is negotiating now with Hamas a risk worth taking? As yet the answer is no, and the ball is in Hamas’s court.


As ongoing events in Gaza continue to alter regional dynamics, and as Qassam rocket attacks on Israel increase in capability and frequency, discussion on how best to deal with Hamas has again resurfaced. Indeed, shortly before the significant events of the past few weeks, voices – including those of the former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz – were heard suggesting that amongst the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas there are moderates who might be willing to enter a diplomatic process, provided that such a process is tailored correctly to take into account Hamas’s particular outlook and interests. Advocates of engagement argue that through encouraging these moderate elements in Hamas, a process may begin whereby the movement would reconsider its current strategy – which includes an explicit commitment to the destruction of Israel. Of course, in taking this perspective there is a danger of willing Hamas to be something that it is not.

Nevertheless these arguments are finding an echo in important places. Thus, the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has recommended that the British “Government should urgently consider ways of engaging politically with moderate elements within Hamas as a way of encouraging it to meet the three Quartet principles.” Along with the advocacy of Hamas as a potential partner for peace has gone an attempt to re-brand the movement, as a non-jihadist, non-Islamist Palestinian nationalist movement with a religious colouring. One analyst, for example, has argued against ‘conflating’ jihadist groups with “militant, religiously oriented national liberation movements like Hamas.” 

The recent events and calls to engage Hamas make worthwhile and necessary a revisit of the nature, goals, strategy and practice of this movement. Only through the consideration of Hamas in its own words and through the evidence of its own deeds can a rational policy toward it be formulated. 

Hamas: origins and goals

Hamas (an acronym for Harakat Al Muqawama al Islamiya – Islamic Resistance Movement) emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its founding document, issued in August 1988, describes it as “one of the wings of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” The founding of the movement represented a turn to militancy on the part of the Brotherhood, whose political and social activities among the Palestinians were of long standing.  Hamas has inherited and benefited from the extensive ‘Dawa’ (social welfare) structures established by the Muslim Brothers in the West Bank. The movement has combined terror and paramilitary activity against Israelis and secular Palestinians, social welfare activity among Palestinians and latterly political activity, all on the basis of a commitment to a clearly outlined strategy. What is this strategy?

The Movement’s charter proclaims the basic credo of the movement in the following terms:  “Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.” This slogan is instantly recognisable as identical to the most famous of the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Hamas differs from other branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in that it is involved in a national struggle against a non-Muslim power.

Its founding document reflects this in uncompromising terms. Palestine is described as “an Islamic Waqf (Endowment) consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day.” The document opens with a statement from the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, on the question of Israel: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” The Charter goes on to reject all possible compromise with Israel, and all possibility of a negotiated peace in the following terms: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavours. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with.”

In short, the movement’s founding document explains that it is an Islamist organisation, indeed a branch of the most well known Sunni Islamist group of them all – the Muslim Brotherhood. The document goes on to mandate the destruction of Israel as a religious obligation, rejects all possible compromise, and outlines its strategic goal as a state based on Islamic Sharia law. The document also makes use of classic anti-Semitic imagery: it includes the following hadith, a common usage among Sunni Islamist organisations: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” It includes also passages of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, accusing Jews ‘with their money’ of being behind “the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there.” Such sentences and sentiments are not anomalous, but rather are typical of the ultra-conservative Islamism espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hamas in practice

Hamas is thus an organisation committed to an existing and known Sunni Islamist creed. This creed takes on particularly vivid and politicidal colouration in the Palestinian context, since in this context it finds itself locked in struggle with a non-Muslim power, which it sees as usurping Muslim land.

For the greater part of its history, Hamas has pursued a single-minded strategy of jihad against Israel – expressed in the form of terror activities – and extensive Dawa (welfare) work among the Palestinian population, which served to maintain a high level of popularity and legitimacy for the movement, and acted as a cover for its aforementioned terror activities. The Dawa activity mirrored the practice of the Muslim Brotherhood elsewhere in the region, while the practice of political violence was a product of the Palestinian situation. Indeed while the movement is classified as a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU has been careful to separate what it views as the military and political wings of Hamas, only labelling the former (the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades) as a terrorist organisation.

From 2005, a turn toward political activity took place. There is, however, insufficient evidence, to support a claim that the turn toward politics represented a change in the movement’s strategy. Rather, subsequent events revealed Hamas to be a sophisticated, patient organisation capable of pursuing a multi-tiered strategy combining both politics and violence. Aptly illustrating this is the year and a half that the movement spent following its 2006 electoral success, slowly building up a new, independent paramilitary force in Gaza – the Executive Force – before choosing its moment to strike and establish itself as the sole authority in the Gaza Strip in July 2007.

Over the past two years Hamas has therefore been faced with new challenges. Concerned to break the international isolation imposed upon the PA territories after its election victory in 2006 and on Gaza since the coup, the movement enlisted the support of PR professionals – such as Birzeit University media professor Dr. Nashat Aqtash – with impressive success. Articles by movement leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Meshaal and Ahmed Yussuf have appeared in major publications in Europe and North America. Yussuf achieved the enviable feat of having opinion pieces published in the two leading US newspapers – the Washington Post and the New York Times – on the same day in June 2007.

The articles were characterised by a studied vagueness concerning Hamas’s strategic goal, and a tendency to gloss over unpleasant truths. For example, Yussuf claimed in his New York Times article that Hamas had adhered to an 18 month ceasefire – forgetting to note that during that period, at a time when it was the ruling authority in the PA, Hamas actively supported the launching of attacks on Israel by other Palestinian organisations. Similarly, Ismail Haniyeh, in the Washington Post, spoke ambiguously of ‘serious and fair negotiation’ on the “core 1948 issues, rather than the secondary ones from 1967,” burying Hamas’s strategy in a cloud of vague language – behind which the real intention was still visible, for anyone versed in the terminology of the conflict. More recent PR successes, as reported by several whistle-blowing Palestinian journalists, took place in January 2008, when major western media outlets were successfully duped by staged scenes of darkness organised by the Hamas leadership.

And any understanding of Hamas must also recognise that the movement is said to be internally divided. Ismail Haniyeh and overall movement leader Khaled Meshaal are said to favour a temporary ceasefire, with the possibility for negotiations, while the more dogmatic faction led by Dr Mahmoud al-Zahar and Sayed Siam are said to be opposed. Furthermore Ahmed al-Jabari, who commands the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades in Gaza, is also understood to oppose a ceasefire, which raises the question of whether Hamas would prove able to impose such a decision even on its own men. While advocates of engagement point toward Hamas statements calling for a long-term ‘hudna’ (sometimes translated as ‘ceasefire’) it is important to consider the precise meaning of this term.

A hudna is defined by the Islamic Encyclopaedia (London, 1922) as a “temporary treaty,” lasting a maximum of ten years, preserved or abandoned depending on whether or not it serves the interests of Islam.  The model for it is the Hudaybiyya treaty of 628, concluded by Mohammed with the Khuraysh. The treaty was concluded in order to give Mohammed’s forces time to strengthen themselves, and was unilaterally abrogated after three years, when Mohammed’s forces initiated conflict, crushed the Khuraysh and conquered Mecca. Thus, a hudna is neither a truce nor a genuine ceasefire, but is rather a tactical tool to gain a military advantage.   

Its efficacy as a tool for the Palestinians, in the eyes of Hamas, was explained by Dr Mahmoud a-Zahar, one of the movement’s leaders in Gaza, on 5 December 2004 in the following terms: “The strategy of Hamas is the liberation of all lands of Palestine. This is a well known strategy. We believe in the liberation of all lands of Palestine, as an order from the Koran. As we achieve this reality, we must go through several stages and sustain as few casualties as possible. Yet we will not give up on our goal to return of all of the Palestinian people to all of our land.”

In practice, events in Gaza indicate that far from preparing for real dialogue with Israel, the Hamas ‘statelet’ in Gaza is turning into a brutal and repressive regime. Arms and weaponry are being smuggled in from Egypt at an alarming rate.  Just this week, Dr Abu-Osama Abed Al-Ma’ati, Hamas’s representative in Iran, said, “The Dimona attack is a message. That message is that Izz al-Din al-Qassam has renewed the suicide attacks.” Suppression of opposition, of the media, of Christians – all are increasing, as the Hamas rulers confront and predictably fail to meet the challenges associated with governance.


There is much confusion about how to understand Hamas. While there are those who claim that Hamas has gone enough of a way to meet Israel’s requirements, the fact remains that it must be judged by the combination of its words and actions. Hamas is a radical Islamist movement that considers that it is performing sacred work in striving for the destruction of Israel. In this respect, it does not differ from the radical Salafis of al-Qaeda and associated groups, who also have both a revolutionary political programme and a self-proclaimed divine sanction for this programme. Hamas is also a partner in a regional axis centring on Teheran and Damascus which currently regards itself as on the ascent. 

Israel has consistently shown a willingness to negotiate with anyone who genuinely wants to make peace with it and can provide Israel with the necessary security guarantees. Given the lessons of Gaza and southern Lebanon, Israel knows that the only workable way forward is having a negotiating partner who can provide genuine acceptance of Israel and deliver on security guarantees. Peace with Egypt and Jordan demonstrate this. Hamas, unfortunately, have not been prepared to approach the discussion table.

It is imperative that we all fully explore the Hamas negotiation option honestly and sensibly. Yet to date, Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction, and Israel cannot afford to ignore this harsh reality. Is negotiating now with Hamas a risk worth taking? As yet the answer is no. The ball is in Hamas’s court.