As the Gaza Strip hurtles towards becoming one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with the image of ruling party Hamas wholly demonised in the West, Tareq Baconi’s book, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, is a timely read that takes a refreshingly objective look at the history of one of Palestine’s most iconic resistance groups.
Hamas Contained traces the movement’s role in Palestinian affairs in a series of chapters dividing its work into distinct stages, from its founding, its military and then political resistance, Israel’s subsequent crackdown and the division between the Palestinian factions, all of which have culminated in its ultimate “containment and pacification”.
Starting from the movement’s origins early during the First Intifada (1987-1993), Baconi attributes Hamas’s rise to that of Islamic Palestinian nationalism, with the group centring its objective on the fate of the Palestinian people, but celebrating the transnational Islamism that marked so many other regional movements. However, it combined this with a strong commitment to military resistance, a strategy that was apparently imprudent from the start. In the second chapter, “Military Resistance Comes Undone”, Baconi notes Hamas’s limited success against the force of the Israeli state during the Second Intifada, with resistance acts being used by Israel to entrench the narrative of Palestinian terrorism. However, he points out that the movement also recognised the limits of violent resistance and sought to make the Palestinian project more effective and sustainable.
Following the assassination of the group’s founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, and the rise of current leader Ismail Haniyeh, Baconi documents Hamas’s progression towards a united political programme that encompassed the boosting of its national standing. Its rise to power in the 2006 elections is depicted as the crystallisation of the Islamic Palestinian nationalism that it had sought to embody since inception; it was a source of strength that Israel would not tolerate.
In regards to Hamas’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA), the book provides a detailed history of the numerous attempts to negotiate deals between the factions, and how Israel and the US often dismantled the prospect of Fatah-Hamas (and thus Palestinian) unity, propping up PA and Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate alternative to Hamas’s “radical Islamic ideology”. The author highlights how groups within Fatah were secretly armed under the US “train and equip” mission, while Washington insisted on Hamas disarming and disbanding its fighters. Israel hoped initially that the group’s political and economic isolation would be enough to pressure it into surrendering; Baconi traces the state’s various punitive measures in “Strangling Hamas”, which led eventually to the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007.
Divisions between Hamas and Fatah were exacerbated further by the competing national liberation strategies exemplified in the following year. Baconi suggests that this zero sum game between the two factions was orchestrated by Israel, which sustained negotiations, direct and indirect, with both parties separately while obstructing any prospect of unity between the two.
The author also explores the impact of broader regional phenomena on Hamas’s development trajectory. The Arab Spring and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as President in Egypt boded well at first but fraught public opinion in the country and the 2013 coup put a stop to relations before they even started in earnest.
Baconi diverts from mainstream narratives in recognising that Palestinian support for Hamas was not just limited to general discontent with Fatah, but was also due to its unashamed spirit of resistance that has otherwise been constantly delegitimised in the Palestinian context. The depiction of any attempt to struggle against Israel’s military occupation as “terrorism” has delineated the Palestinian experience as one of barefaced injustice, with violence on one side justified as “self-defence” while that by the other side has been vilified, despite its legitimacy for a people living under occupation.
The book’s concluding chapter describes how Israel has used Hamas as a bogeyman — “nothing more than an irrational and bloodthirsty actor seeking Israel’s destruction” — in order to sidestep the political aspects of the Palestinian question. By ignoring and denying Hamas’s political ideology, Israel has been able to focus on conflict management by a designated “terrorist” group, rather than working towards a resolution of the conflict that recognises Palestinian nationalism.
However, Baconi argues that although Hamas embraced democracy from the start of its electoral career, it later unsubscribed from the values of power-sharing it was a part of, and became increasingly focused on reformulating the Palestinian struggle away from the international agreements that had created the PA and given it legitimacy. He ends with a thought-provoking reference to the movement’s Islamist character and, without falling into the trap of orientalist discourse, suggests that the focus should be on the aspirations of people in the Muslim world to allow for the emergence of an indigenous form of democracy, rather than the imposition of liberal Western values.
Hamas Contained is a thoroughly researched book that highlights the desperate need for nuance in discussions surrounding Palestinian resistance and the struggle for political independence. Tareq Baconi’s latest work is a must read for all those wishing to understand the rise of Hamas, and contextualise the current attacks against the movement, from the Palestinian Authority as well as Israel and its allies.