Arnon Regular has written extensively on Hamas as a columnist for the liberal Israeli daily, Ha'aretz. His focus is the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"As a principle, Hamas cannot fail...Every Palestinian understands that the previous situation of Fatah running things -- in the style of Yasser Arafat, in the manner we saw for the last 10 years in the PA -- is a losing card." -- Arnon Regular
Kate Seelye: The Israeli analysts we’ve talked to say Hamas is a dire threat to Israel. How do you see it?
Arnon Regular: When you talk about the Israelis and the Palestinians, there are many kinds of Israelis and many kinds of Palestinians. Hamas is not one body. There’s a political body, where you have many views and attitudes. A very important question is, “Which Hamas are we talking about?” Is it the Hamas that was established back in the beginning of 1988 or is it something else?
What do you think?
My impression is that this is a different organization. I see a consistent change in Hamas’s political attitudes and perceptions and in its conduct. Basically, starting in 2002 -- I don’t want to get into the long history -- but since 2002, there have been some basic changes in Hamas’s political agenda. If you see the documents the movement is using and distributing, the statements that they give, you see they started talking about the hudna, or tahdia [cease-fire].
My understanding of Hamas, and especially during the last year since Yasser Arafat died, is that there was this big blow to Palestinian representation, in its institutional representation toward everybody. Hamas has changed its principle methods and conduct, and you can see that from all levels -- from their statements, their internal protocols, their attitudes toward the West, their attitudes toward the other Arab countries.
Let’s be specific. Most people think of Hamas as carrying out suicide bombings against Israel, so what’s changed?
Let’s talk about facts. Since Yasser Arafat’s funeral, there haven’t been any suicide bombings by Hamas. And before that, the last suicide bombing was around August 2003. Hamas went through a very difficult phase … the execution of its leaders, basically. All its leaders, all its sources of finance -- there’s been a crackdown by all of the Arab countries. It wasn’t only an Israeli-Palestinian issue. With the whole global war on terror, there have been a lot of changes in how Hamas is operating.
So Israel killed Hamas leaders and the Arab world cut off funding.
The most important leaders were killed, and those who were left were forced to act in a new manner -- a manner that doesn’t allow them to connect with their public. They have to have secret meetings. It’s been very influential on Hamas, which is a public movement. It’s not a military movement. If you go to Gaza or the West Bank, you understand this is a social system. It’s a system of clinics, giving help to people. There is the military wing or cell, and that has to change a little bit. At the same time, I don’t want to be overly optimistic. But Hamas is willing to change and has been changing. If you look at the political platform of the Hamas list in these elections, in the local elections that took place in the PA [Palestinian Authority] and the legislative elections, you see some shocking things.
Like the word “jihad” is not there. You see the phrases used are very similar to the phrases used by Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas]. Maybe I’ll surprise you, but I think Hamas is confused just like us. Hamas is a collection of views. Of course, they are much more coherent, more unified, than other movements, but it’s a group of views that are trying to crystallize its policy in the next phase. If you look, [Hamas leader] Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza is not exactly [exiled Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal in Damascus.
Some are more pragmatic.
Some are much more pragmatic, some push the party very powerfully toward political participation. It’s not one body and it’s not one dogma, which cannot be changed. And they’ve also started using new phrases. For example, if we’re talking about the three demands the international community put in front of Hamas -- recognizing Israel, stopping violence and approving all the existing agreements signed by the PA -- if you look at what they said on that, they said: on recognizing Israel, they won’t do it until the Israelis clarify which kind of Israel we’re talking about. If you’re talking about Israel from the sea to the Jordan River, we’re not recognizing Israel. If you’re talking about 1967 borders or 1948 borders, if they agree to withdraw, maybe we’ll recognize them -- they’ve said that a few times. What I’m trying to say is that Hamas hasn’t yet crystallized its political agenda. It’s open to discussion and negotiations. And we have to understand that all the players we see now -- the Israelis, Egyptians, the Jordanians, as well as the international community, the Americans -- are trying to understand what is Hamas. And I think the players have presented their opening cards in this poker game. This is the beginning of a give-and-take process, rather than the beginning of a clash necessarily. In looking for legitimacy, a peace process will not be able to ignore the existence of Hamas. I don’t know if there will be a peace process, but if there is, it will need to engage also with Hamas.
Everyone’s trying to figure out what Hamas is, but Hamas is also under enormous pressure to fail. Is there a danger to this?
You have to look at this question on a few levels. As a principle, Hamas cannot fail -- maybe I’ll surprise you -- but they cannot fail because the situation in the PA, in the West Bank and Gaza, before Hamas won was so terrible, so corrupted, that they cannot fail. Every misery, malfunction and problem that the Palestinian people face can be diverted toward the West, and that’s what’s going to happen. Some elements, like the Israelis and the international community, will attack Hamas. And if Hamas fails, the criticism won’t go toward Hamas. It will go toward the international community and the Israelis. Every Palestinian understands that the previous situation of Fatah running things -- in the style of Yasser Arafat, in the manner we saw for the last 10 years in the PA -- is a losing card. My personal view is that Hamas does not exist merely in the government. They want real change, and I think they will be forced to bring people in much more than they expect.
What do you mean?
I mean the biggest pressure on Hamas is to succeed in everyday life, not necessarily to go for the big solution tomorrow, free the West Bank and Gaza from occupation tomorrow. This is not what is expected from them in the next year or two or three. This is not what the simple man in the street expects them to do. There is a lot of resentment against the Fatah movement. There are a lot of symbols of corruption being removed in the square of the city. This is the priority of Hamas now -- not the international settlement of the conflict.
So, then, not armed resistance either?
The cease-fire ended the first of January, and they prolonged it without even getting anything in return. They know that if they go back to suicide bombings at this stage, this will endanger the whole process of coming to power. I don’t think, in the foreseeable future, that we’re going to see suicide bombings from Hamas. But there may be other forms of what they call resistance. There could be mass demonstrations. There could be attacks in the West Bank, on the roads; there could be huge demonstrations at the wall … the range of measures is very wide. I believe that when they talk about resistance, they don’t necessarily mean suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. They mean maintaining the political struggle to the point of retrieving some of their rights.
How moderate can Hamas get? I mean, aren’t Israel and Hamas stuck?
Just to get a little bit historical: the American administration, it took six or seven years after it started formally to interact with the PLO and Yasir Arafat, until it was willing to recognize them as the true representative of the Palestinians. It took long years of interactions and questions asked in Tunis -- it was a long process. My understanding is that the process this time, with Hamas, will be much shorter, only because there is no popular legitimacy for any other regime in the Palestinian streets. I think it will be a tough process.
Of negotiating. Of a process of give and take. If they don’t do that, they’ll lose power very quickly. If they don’t interact with the international community and accept some of the conditions, they will have a big problem. My understanding is that they’re not going to accept everything now. In the near future we’ll see them stopping violence, to some extent approving the existing agreements. The issue of recognizing Israel will have to be postponed to a later phase … they cannot give everything now. It’s impossible. And let’s not lose perspective here. Hamas is a local Islamist movement. It’s connected to other Islamist movements in the Arab world, but it’s not the bigger player in the Middle East. There are much stronger players, like the Israelis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the international community. If you look at the political platforms of the parties in the Israeli elections, you will see that some of them are intertwining with the interests of Hamas. If Hamas is talking about announcing a long-term cease-fire without announcing the end of conflict, and the Kadima Party is talking about unilateral disengagement without dealing with the Palestinians -- maybe these two are going to meet in the near future.
It’s not that far-fetched. But what about the Israelis who are saying Hamas is al-Qaeda?
Whoever says Hamas is al-Qaeda does not understand a thing about the internal debates in Islamic movements. If you check the ideological background of al-Qaeda -- and all of the elements comprising al-Qaeda because we cannot pinpoint a single organization -- if you read the 15 most important Web sites of al-Qaeda, and, as a whole, the Muslim Brethren [others generally say, Muslim Brotherhood] Web sites, you see the deepness of this rift between these two streams. There is absolutely no connection between the two. There are huge debates and attacks between the two. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 of al-Qaeda, recently attacked Hamas and warned Hamas against making agreements with the West. I’m not saying some policies of Hamas will not make it to other phases, but as a whole, the position of the Muslim Brethren is a completely different position -- of responsibility to the community -- and exactly the opposite of what al-Qaeda is representing.
Is Hamas a terrorist organization as the Israeli government claims?
Hamas is a terrorist organization because, until now, it hasn’t been forced to conduct itself as a political party. They accepted some of the democratic rules applied in the PA, but that doesn’t mean they’ve really changed. We’re in a moment where we all have to show some responsibility. I’m not talking only about the Israelis -- it’s the Israelis, the countries around Israel, the international community. If the policy will be a rational policy, not an emotional policy, Hamas can change and will change. I’m not terrified by the word “Hamas” -- that’s what I’m trying to tell you.
“Change”: meaning a legitimate party that Israel can deal with?
There are a lot of questions that have to be decided. Is it going to be a new government or a new regime? A government is when you change only the faces, a regime is something much deeper -- the nature of everyday life, the government and the citizens. Is it a sharia state? Is it an Islamic jurisdiction state? Is it going to be on the Turkish model, with a separation between religion and the state? Or is it going to be the Saudi Arabian format? All these questions are still open. If we don’t interact with Hamas, it means you can’t influence Hamas’s position. We have a responsibility to interact with Hamas because we have a responsibility to change its views, to moderate its views.
And you think this is possible.
Let me tell you about my experience as a journalist. Most of the journalists entering the Gaza Strip in the last year were afraid only of kidnappings by Fatah people. I’ve never had any problem with Hamas activists.
But that’s just personal. You don’t think Hamas is going to take this time to retool and attack?
I’m not underestimating the power of the military wing of Hamas. It is there with the capability to strike. They could go back to suicide bombings even. What I’m saying is, there is a window of opportunity that must be used. I’m not saying that Hamas will go back or will not go back. But this window allows us to practice the rules of diplomacy and international negotiation. If you ban Hamas, it means you cannot change Hamas.
Hamas has this enormous prison population. What is its importance?
Unlike the Muslim Brethren organization, from which Hamas is derived, Hamas is not an open, public organization. You don’t even know who are the members of the politburo of Hamas! All the decision making is so secret … we know more about the military wing of Hamas than about the political procedures of Hamas. What we do know, so far, is that there are a few axes in Hamas making decisions. Of course, there is the leadership outside, which, in the years since Ahmed Yassin was executed, has grown stronger because of the pressure on the activists in Gaza. We know the decisions are made in four main axes: one outside, one in Gaza, one in the West Bank and the fourth is in the Israeli jails. We know that in some decisions, and specifically for the elections, the leadership in jail had a veto on all the decisions because it’s a very important leadership, a leadership with moral power over the other three. But still we don’t know the mechanism of decision-making. We can tell you, in every specific moment, who is stronger at this day or this period, but we can’t tell you who has the complete decision in his hands, because nobody knows that.
This interview between Kate Seelye and Arnon Regular took place in Jerusalem in March 2006. It has been edited for clarity.