When Hamas, a recognized terrorist group, won the 2006 popular elections in Palestine, the western international community was left astounded. It was the first time that a terrorist group was elected into office and this proved a difficult reality to embrace. Typically, popular rhetoric employed by the world’s leading democracies upholds the belief that terrorism and democracy are phenomena that run counter to each other, yet the results of this election seem to reveal a conflicting truth.  That is, the merits of democracy, which are often viewed in light of their ability to bring upon higher ideals of freedom and non-violence, were left deeply challenged. At the same time, broadly held conceptions of terrorism, ambigious to begin with, were deemed worthy of further examination. 

What we find though is an apparent split within western ideology and internal national views in Palestine, with the western world conceiving Hamas as a terrorist organization, and Palestinian populations, rather, perceiving them as a national liberation movement. We question then if a group can sustain both identities without compromising key qualifications. 

Many natural doubts emerged from this. primarily, political thinkers and world citizens were forced to question the very designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization, and further, the qualifications under which a group can be labeled as such. We question then the sphere under which the terrorist label resides and its connection to not only democratic ideals, but also to wider historical and political complexities related to the deep struggle of Israeli occupation. We must understand under what pretenses the American government and other judicial authorities define Hamas as a terrorist organization and how sturdy these qualifications stand in the face of complex conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian one

Historical Context

We begin now with an overview of the Israeli Palestinain conflict as it relates to the formation of Hamas and its political aims. We find that in the end, the events of 2006 were by in large inevitable, and that ultimately the frustrations of the palestinian people, as a result of these events, allowed for the radicalized government of Hamas to gain legitimacy

The conflict begins with the formation of the Israeli state in 1948, a direct result of British and American collusion. The struggle to create an Israeli state against the backdrop of the horrors of the second world war meant comprising Palestinian rights to national sovereignty in order to create a state for millions of displaced jewish people. Palestine was reduced down to two separate pieces of land: the West Bank which runs parallel to Jordan and contains only a piece of their capital, and the Gaza Strip, which runs adjacent to the Egyptian Sinai peninsula. (Since then, 78% of Palestinian land has been succeeded to Israel). Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were thus driven out of their land and taken up by Israeli population, a number that has grown to 6 million by 2006. In 1967, Israel commenced a second war not simply against Palestinians but also to bordering Arab nations. A second wave of Palestinian citizens were displaced from the West Bank to nearby countries, and many Palestinians who had been forced to move in 1948 were displaced once more (Hroub). Neighbouring Arab nations and a newly formed Palestinian national liberation movement, known as Fatah, attempted to fight back on Israeli advancements and territorial gains, yet were ultimately unsuccessful in regaining the land lost in 1967 (Hroub). 

The formation of Fatah around this time is crucial. In its inception it declared no ideology affiliation, yet smaller leftist factions began to form from beneath it, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged under its jurisdiction.  Beginning in the mid-1960’s, the PLO began to adopt armed retaliation as a strategy against Israeli forces, yet Arab weakness and surmounting Western support of Israel rendered the task inconceivable. The unsuccessful aims of the PLO continued well into the end of the 1980’s when they made 2 historic concessions. First, they abandoned their goal to liberate all of Palestine and recognized the Israeli’s right to exist. Second, they decidedly discontinued their use of arms in hopes that they could regain land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through peaceful negotiations.

With these concessions in place, a conclusive agreement between the PLO and Israel was attempted in the 1993 Oslo agreement. Backed by the US and the Clinton administration, and following 5 months of secret negotiations in Norway, the agreement was set into two separate phases: a 5 year phase was set out to test the agreement between the PLO and Israel, to be followed by a second round of negotiations in order to produce a ‘final settlement’. The 5 year period was administered to test the ability of Palestine to successfully govern themselves and to regulate any “illegal” violence or factional strife.

The palestinian population were deeply divided on the agreement. Those who supported the Oslo agreement believed it was the best option that would be offered to Palestine given western favoritism of  Israeli dominance. Still, many were left feeling as though they had been taken advantage of and robbed of any “concrete gains”. 

The unwillingness of Israeli and Palestinian forces to come together for these second round of negotiations resulted from increased apathy from Palestinians as a result of Israelis doubling their colonial settlements in the West Bank, despite this being a period of supposed inaction. With the failure of the Oslo agreement, an intifada broke out in Palestine, giving power and influence to Hamas and its “resistance project”

The historical outline provided up to this point paints a polarized and highly antipathic picture of Isreali and Palestinian nationals. On the one side, a deep resentment felt by Palestinians as a result of brutal displacement from their homeland, and on the other, an enthusiastic attempt to create a sovereign land for uprooted Jewish people. The failed attempt at a peaceful negotiation though was particularly damaging as the promise of peaceful negotiations was rendered improbable. Nationals in both states asked themselves: was violence and force then the only solution? 

Formation of Hamas 

Before the demolition of the Oslo agreement though we note the formation and rise of the national liberation movement: Hamas. We will now enter a narrative which focuses on the formation of Hamas and their distinct ideology. It is important to keep in mind the ways in which their actions continuously drift back and forth from radical beliefs and tactics, to moderate concessions. 

Officially created in the late 1980’s, Hamas originated as both an islamic religious movement and a national liberation movement that was willing to take up arms in the face of Israeli occupation. Their roots can be traced back to the mid 1940’s during the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jerusalem. While Hamas is a distinguished branch of the Brotherhood, its ideological and tactical foundations are deeply rooted in the origins of this prior movement. 

The Muslim Brotherhood was an extention of the original Egyptian movement which intended to reestablish a muslim caliphate, which had collapsed in 1923. The primary goal of this group was to reestablish an “all-encompassing pan-Islamic nation” in the area, following years of western domination and growing resentments. The Brotherhood was reformulated in Palestinian terms so that the aims could broaden beyond just cultural and political islamization, but also towards the liberation of an Islamic Palestine

A long-term strategy solution was thus formulated that held within its view these two goals. This manifested in a “a long preparation of generations,” in which the Palestinian nationals would need to be at the same time, groomed and prepared for battle, and educated and trained to become “true muslims”. 

The full fledged emergence of Hamas occurred in December 1987, when the Palestinian Intifada erupted as a result of a failed Oslo agreement. Intense rivalries between Palestinian groups also broke out at this time, some claiming the merits of the use of force, and others, still hopeful for a peaceful liberation process.

A few days after the intifada broke out, and emboldened by the cry for change, the Palestinian Brotherhood transformed into Hamas, and launched fully into direct aggressive strategy against Israel.

On December 1987 the Muslim Brotherhood met and formed the Islamic Resistance Movement, in hopes to bridge the factions within and create a unified campaign. Those who attended the meeting are known as the founding members of Hamas, and soon after its conception they rejoined a few months later in the drafting of its ‘Charter’

This is now where we see the full fledged ideology of Hamas formally expressed, its objectives clear, and its vision evident. The central claim in the charter was to affirm that “Palestine is an Arab and Muslim land that should be liberated from Zionist domination, and that Israel was a ‘usurper’ and an alien entity which was ‘transplanted’ in Palestine only with the support of Western superpowers”. Still, the charter which made seemingly naive claims, was largely unsuccessful at describing the more grounded and realistic political aspirations of the movement. Particularly though, it failed to make claims that the international body and Israel would concede to. The rhetoric of the charter is polemic- consistently religious, interwoven with Quranic verses and classical Arabic poetry, and with “limitless generalizations”. For this reason the Charter has seemingly damaged the movement’s international recognition as it lacked sophistication and finesse

Following the intifada and the forming of this charter though, Hamas still managed to grow exponentially. Their main concerns during this time were centralized on the ways in which they could expand militaristic capacity, and also how they would be able to compete with the PLO, who tended to strive for more subdued forms of rhetoric over leadership in Palestine. The PLO, the leading group and spokesperson during the Oslo agreements, had gained the international recognition that Hamas desperately lacked. While they had an image associated with peace goals, Hamas “was sidelined as an enemy of peace”. Their public image then, which was deeply “out of touch with reality” would need to change in order to gain the legitimate control that they seeked. 

In light of these realities, Hamas began to mellow their militaristic image while persisting to ramp up its criticisms of the Oslo agreement. In fact, this proved to be a successful plot, and as support for the Oslo agreement disintegrated, people looked away from the PLO and towards other groups, such as Hamas for political guidance. 

These events lead us to the culmination of the 2006 elections by which Hamas finally gained the political authority it had been craving and needed in order to protect their military wing “who had been under the watchful eye of Israel and the US”. A clear mellowing of terror tactics ensued in order to gain public appeal. They made a unilateral decision to stop suicide bombings, decided to join the PLO, and finally, took part in the municipal elections of which they won the majority of councils. This set them up perfectly for the 2006 legislative elections, as the public was persuaded by their efforts to renounce terror tactics.  

On 25 January 2006, Hamas, which was labeled a terrorist organization by the USA and EU won 73 of the 132 seats in the Legislative Council election. This was a rare moment in history, as the US and EU were now placed in a position where they would seemingly have to negotiate and work in tandem with a labeled terrorist group. The Quartet (the USA, the EU, Russia, and the UN) thusly imposed 3 conditions before they would institute “normal” relations with the newly elected Hamas government: “recognition of Israel, acknowledgement of all previous agreements between the PA and Israel, and a complete cessation of terrorism”. The three conditions were rejected and ultimately Hamas found itself in a position of international exile and isolation.

What we find in the end is a group that formed an identity along various lines: first, along religious principles, second, along claims to national liberation. The practices that aim at achieving these goals have been proven to move back and forth and vacillate between radical violence, to a more conservative use of force, to extremist language, and back again to modest rhetoric. This lack of cohesion that exists within the ideological goals of the movement is one of the primary issues and reasons for which a terrorist label is not always so easily applied. If we are to take though the more radical actions of this group alone, the question of terrorism is answered quite simply. Still, some questions remain that concern their ability to gain political strongholds, as typically, terrorist groups are not understood as legitimate political actors. 

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