How Hamas Came to Power
Hint: You can blame George W. Bush
In case you’re new here, I do write about things other than the Middle East. I have a new piece out today in Foreign Policy about the planned armed intervention in Haiti—a doubly outsourced intervention sponsored by the United States but slated to be led by police from Kenya. Summary: I think it’s a bad idea. You can read the article here.
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The Israeli government says the primary goal of its war on Gaza—a war that both Palestinian and Israeli sources report has killed over 10,000 people—is to “eliminate Hamas.” If you’ve read anything about Hamas in the last month, you know that this would mean destroying the de facto government of the Gaza Strip. If you’ve read a bit more, you probably know that Hamas came to power through a 2006 legislative election—and that there hasn’t been an election since.
But a key detail is almost always missing in news summaries of that story: How exactly Hamas ended up as the sole Palestinian governing entity in Gaza, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party held on in the West Bank. This is unfortunate because the story behind the ascendance of Hamas in Gaza is a cautionary tale of the perils of the kind of bullheaded imperial interventionism we are now seeing repeated—featuring central roles by the United States and Israel—only this time with even bloodier results.
The story begins in 2005—not, as some believe, with the withdrawal of Israeli ground troops and settlers from Gaza, but with Abbas’ election several months before. Abbas had long been the lieutenant of Yasser Arafat, and the face of Palestinian nationalism for 40 years until his death in November 2004; that Abbas would succeed his mentor as leader of Fatah, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the Palestinian Authority was never in doubt. But Abbas was far less confident about his party’s chances in elections for the Palestinian parliament—the first elections held in a decade—which had been scheduled for the summer. So he postponed them. As the make-up date in January 2006 neared, it seemed likely that Abbas would postpone them again.
But there was a far more powerful president with a timetable of his own. George W. Bush still saw himself as the liberator of the Muslim world, the president whose historic destiny would be to bring his version of peace and democracy to the Middle East—in the form of a string of U.S. client states, starting with Iraq. He had already stunned many in 2002 by becoming the first U.S. president to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state, one which he said would live “side by side in peace and security with Israel.” But now it was four years later, and the clock was ticking on Bush’s second and final term.
Bush demanded the elections be held immediately. And, just as Abbas had feared, Hamas won the largest number of seats—not only in Gaza, but across the entirety of the occupied territories. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was now the Palestinian Prime Minister.
This stunned everybody. Hamas had long been seen as one of the most incalcitrant and violent of the Palestinian nationalist groups; its 1988 charter not only rejected the existence of the state of Israel but declared war on the Jewish people. Hamas fighters had carried out the largest number of suicide bombings that killed over 1,000 Israelis during the Second Intifada, which was just winding down. That Hamas now controlled a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature was a catastrophe from the points of view of both Israel and the United States. A U.S. Defense Department official later told the journalist David Rose: “We sat there in the Pentagon and said, ‘Who the fuck recommended this?’ ”
But others noted at the time that Hamas was showing signs of political moderation. As the French political scientist Leila Seurat has written, starting in 2006, Hamas began “unceasingly highlight[ing] its acceptance of the 1967 borders”—meaning that the State of Palestine would consist solely of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and not the rest of Israel—“as well as accords signed by the PLO and Israel.”
There was reason to doubt the group’s sincerity: Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had a few years earlier proposed a ten-year hudna, or temporary ceasefire, with Israel based on the pre-1967 borders, after which they would resume their struggle for their historic rights on the whole of the land. (Israel responded by killing Yassin, who was a quadriplegic, by firing Hellfire missiles at his wheelchair as he left morning prayers in Gaza City.) But Even Efraim Halevy, a former director of the Mossad and head of the Israeli National Security Council recommended strengthing the more moderate wing of Hamas and recognizing them as a legitimate partner within the Palestinian government, with the aim of fostering a two-state solution.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice disagreed. According to confidential documents