Monday, September 1, 2008

Let Iran Implode From Within

Courtesy: BBC UK

It's the economy, stupid. No, correct that.

It's the demography, stupid. No...

It's both.

Beginning in the 1970's and continuing through the 1980's, the Islamic Republic of Iran underwent an unprecedented period of high fertility rates coupled with fast-falling mortality rates. This phenomenon has contributed to the creation of a 'youth bulge'. With half of Iran's population currently under the age of twenty-five, and, only five percent of the countries population over the age of sixty-five, Iran's fast-growing yet rigid economy is failing to create the number of employment opportunities necessary to satisfy this potentially revolutionary sub-sect of society.

The greater Middle East is experiencing similar challenges, with the regions youth unemployment rate at twenty-five percent, and with first-time job seekers, aged between 15-24, accounting for more than fifty-percent of the regions unemployed.

What does this mean for Iran's society? And moreover, how should policy-makers take into account these circumstances when formulating the world's approach to Iran's nuclear weapons program?

Currently, Iran's labor force is growing at a rate of 3.4% annually, which translates into 1.2 million new Iranian youths entering the workforce every year. Concurrently, Iran only yields 300,000 newly minted retirees every year, which means hundreds of thousands of additional jobs need to be created annually in order to accommodate the 'youth bulge'.

Young people with university or vocational degrees face severe difficulties in securing employment, even in the public-sector, where long queues have created circumstances where the duration an Iranian youth entering the job market waits for employment can still be measured in years.

Politics in Iran, like everywhere else, is local. Contrary to the blusterous public international image that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has cultivated for himself, his campaign platform was almost universally centered around the economic concerns of lower, and lower middle-class Iranians. A quiet yet discernible dissatisfaction with the failures of Ahmadinejad's economic platform has been percolating through the all-powerful markets of South Teharan; ground zero for Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979.

With increasing unemployment, rampant inflation, and local clerics openly speaking out against Ahmadinejad's failed economic policies; this 'youth bulge' is set to pop. The youth of Iran today are more sympathetic towards western values and culture than their conservative predecessors. Younger, hipper north Tehran has become synonymous with all that is western; even gaining designation as the worlds capital for plastic surgery (yes, beating out Los Angeles).

We do not yet know the full-extent of Iran's nuclear weapons program. Do I think Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program? Yes. Do I take President Ahmadinejad's threats toward Israel seriously? Absolutely. Do I believe they are close to producing a nuclear weapon? No. There is no evidence to suggest the completion of the uranium enrichment process is imminent, let alone the development of a delivery system for the weapon itself.

For this reason, the international community should continue on its current course of increasingly tough economic sanctions against the Iranian regime.

With fifty-percent of the country set to enter a stagnating work force within the next five to ten years, Iran's unemployment rate is sure to experience a 'bulge' of its own. This will only lead to increased frustration and resentment toward the failed policies of a government and regime that have squandered hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue.

Iranians, unlike their Arab counterparts, are known as people of action. History has already proven this.

Let the revolution begin.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Note to America: Meet Me in Damascus

The old saying goes a little something like this: 'In the Middle East, you can have no war without Egypt, and no peace without Syria.'

In this context, Syria is rising as a major component of any settlement reached in Lebanon, and plays a central role in the triangular ties between Hizballah, Hamas, and Iran. Moreover, with its Baathist roots, Syria plays a key role in mobilizing disaffected Sunni Baathist remnants of the old Saddam regime in Iraq. Throw in Syria's outstanding dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights and its strengthening ties with a re-emerging, expansionist Russia and you'll see how this old saying still holds true to this day.

Achieving Syria's cooperation is a key component in any new arrangement made for regional stability. Damascus has served as Iran's conduit for arms and money to Hizballah-controlled southern Lebanon for years. Moreover, it hosts the offices of Hamas's political bureau, headed by Khaled Meshaal. With recent U.S. attempts to establish missile defense bases in Russia's backyard, Damascus has offered to both host Russian missile batteries and open up Syrian ports to Russian naval personnel, a move sure to disturb the balance of proxy power in the Middle East. With Damascus at the center of every significant policy question facing the region today, it would behoove Washington to engage Syria in a constructive and substantive dialogue.

Any discussion on Syria starts and ends with the Golan Heights. Israel captured this swath of land during the Six-Day War of 1967. In recent months Israeli and Syrian negotiators have engaged in intensive, direct and indirect, Turkish-mediated talks on the Golan Heights; with little success. Damascus has held out for further, direct American involvement in negotiations. This presents a golden opportunity for the current American administration to engage their Syrian counterparts.

American-sponsored, direct negotiations between Syria and Israel will provide the opportunity to achieve relative regional stability vis a vie shrinking Iran's sphere of influence. Syria, being both secular and Baathist, shares very little in terms of religious and political ideology with their Iranian and Lebanese counterparts. For this reason Syria is looking for a Camp David style aid-package in exchange for any potential regional alliance. American backed negotiations between Syria and Israel should be incentive based, with the incentive being directly tied to the amount of the Golan Heights Israel returns to Syria. The more land Syria demands, the less they will receive in financial incentives. Syria would also be able to expect a U.S.-Syria alliance along the lines of the one that currently exists between the U.S., Jordan, and Egypt.

In exchange for American financial and political support, and a to be determined percentage of the Golan Heights, Syria would have to sever its ties with an increasingly weakened Iranian regime, allow for Israeli early-warning systems to be deployed, shut down all Hamas-related administrative offices, and cease any and all arms transfers to Hizballah-controlled south Lebanon. Syria would also receive limited American military and training aid, solely for the purposes of securing Syria's border with Iraq.

These steps are tailored to allow a Syrian regime capable of standing and walking, but not jumping and running. A Syria that can walk knows that any failure to abide by the terms of the agreement would result in an immediate Israeli re-deployment in the Golan Heights.

It is ironic that in a Middle East where it is perceived that petrol-dictators and Islamists hold all the bargaining chips; a secular, weakened, resource baron country would serve as the pressure point for many of the regions unresolved problems.

The beauty of this irony is that it keeps us sane, even in the Middle East.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tick, Tock: From Two State Solution to One State Conundrum

Newest opinion piece. Enjoy and feel free to respond.

Israel finds itself at a critical juncture towards what may become the final act of the two State solution. A Palestinian inversion towards this principle and the adoption of a one State solution as the strategy for the Palestinian National movement would constitute an 'earthquake' for Israel's national security.

In recent weeks, due in part to stalled negotiations and the re-strengthening of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, certain West Bank Palestinian Authority officials have threatened to reverse their position regarding the two State solution. This solution would be replaced by the demand for a binational State, or the one State solution. This trend manifested itself currently with statements made by the two highest ranking Palestinian officials in the West Bank; P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and former P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

Upcoming elections in Israel and the persistent weakness of the Palestinian political system have all but assured that the current round of negotiations will not succeed. In a March 2008 interview with Agence France-Presse, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat emphatically stated that the "P.A. will collapse unless there is a peace agreement reached in 2008, with dire consequences for the rest of the region."

This begs the question, can Israel afford the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority? With Hamas reconstituting itself in the Gaza Strip and gradually encroaching on P.A. turf in key West Bank cities, they stand ready to fill the massive vacuum certain to be created by any P.A. dissolution (For my piece on Hamas please click here.) The implications for Israel's national security will be severe. Moreover, Israel's standing as the 'regions lone democracy' will be at risk.

The basis of the one State solution - one man, one vote - will recast Israel as an illiberal Democracy. At stake are Israel's status as a 'Jewish State', democracy, and its national security. Israel's refusal to form a binational consensus will damage its democratic status. It's acquiescence to Palestinian demands will cause a massive demographic shift, ending Israel's status as a 'Jewish State'. Regardless of the path this 'nuclear option' takes, Israel's national security will certainly come under increased risk, with Hamas offering the only institutional security apparatus outside of the Palestinian Authority.

In a world where nuclear weapons equal political cache, the Palestinians have been able to develop the cheapest yet most potent of them all.

The question now is who pulls the trigger first? Tehran or Ramallah?

UNIFIL or UNIEMPTY? A Critique of UN Peacekeeping Policy in Lebanon

A pretty bad opinion piece I authored a while back, but what the heck. Enjoy!

un tank south lebanon GasGaugeEmpty

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has seen its share of conflicts since its establishment thirty years ago. UNIFIL, as it has come to be known as, was established by the United Nations Security Council through the adoption of UN Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426 on March 19, 1978. This was brought about by cross-border skirmishes between the State of Israel and Palestinian guerillas affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization who had set up camps along the Lebanese side of the Israel-Lebanon border. UNIFIL’s was mandated with the following tasks: a) Confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon; b) restore international peace and security; c) assist the government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area. Lebanon’s historical record since the establishment of UNIFIL has proven that the peacekeeping regime has turned out to be a complete and utter failure.

As we already know, Lebanon simultaneously endured a brutal sectarian civil war and Israeli invasion of its territory which spanned nearly 18 years. During this 18 year period, UNIFIL was incapable of restoring international peace and security and assisting the government of Lebanon in reestablishing authority over large swaths of Southern Lebanon. There are those who argue that UNIFIL was prevented from carrying out its mandates by a rampant civil war and unending occupation, forcing UNIFIL to make the decision that protection of the local civil population outweighed the need to forge through with its mandate. I argue that the mandate provided by UNSC resolution 425 (restoration of peace and security), gave the UN, visa-vie UNIFIL, the necessary legal basis to forcefully bring about the cessation of hostilities. The UN was hesitant to commit the resources necessary for UNIFIL to effectively create and then maintain peaceful circumstances. That is the one component of peacekeeping operations that is often overlooked by the UN and other international organizations: in order for peacekeeping operations to commence, an actual peace must first be established. In the case of Lebanon, a peacekeeping force was mandated to “keep peace” in a country that was being torn apart by war. Predictably, UNIFIL was unable to meet its mandates. But the story just begins here.

In April 2000, the United Nations and UNIFIL were notified by the Government of Israel of their intention to begin troop withdrawals in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 425 and 426 in the summer of that year. After 18 years of occupation the Israeli government came to the conclusion that they could no longer maintain, economically or politically, the continued occupation of Southern Lebanon. On June 7, 2000, the Israeli withdrawal from all parts of Southern Lebanon in accordance with 425 and 426 was confirmed by UNIFIL to the UN. At this stage UNIFIL’s most important task was to continue assisting the Lebanese government in restoring Lebanese territorial sovereignty over lands previously occupied by Israel. We know today that after the 2000 withdrawal, the Lebanese terrorist guerilla group/political party, Hizbullah, infiltrated large parts of Southern Lebanon, taking up military positions and establishing fortifications. Once again, UNIFIL was unable to meet its mandate of assisting the Lebanese government in establishing territorial control over Southern Lebanon. This status quo remained in place for several years, during which skirmishes between Hizballah and Israeli forces were common place.

In all fairness to UNIFIL forces, it is widely accepted that the Lebanese government did not fulfill its part in reestablishing its own authority over the region. That having been said, they continually requested for the renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate, and the UN continually granted the extensions. The UN was tough, at least through words, in its continued push to get Lebanon to take a more active part in re-establishing its authority. While mere verbal requests went unanswered on both ends, UNIFIL continued to suggest through progress reports that Southern Lebanon, aside from occasional skirmishes between Hizballah and Israel, remained relatively calm. This of course turned out to be a mirage; the calm only came as a result of the continued insistence of both Lebanese and UNIFIL officials that Hizballahs re-armament and militarization of Southern Lebanon continue uninhibited. This policy of non-confrontation allowed Hizballah to grow in strength. Again, I argue that although the bulk of the responsibility lies with the Lebanese government’s inability to reaffirm their authority over the entire country, UNIFIL was in a unique position to help establish greater Lebanese control over its territory. In this case, a relative peace was established, and there in fact was a peace to be kept. Moreover, I argue that as part of a peacekeeping organizations mandate to maintain international peace and security, one of its tasks should most certainly be preventing the fortification and delivery and establishment of military positions and arms to supra-governmental authorities. The inability of UNIFIL to carry this task out led to the further degradation of Lebanese sovereignty. In an address at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2007, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman termed Southern Lebanon as “Hizballahland”, hardly a veiled swipe at UNIFIL’s efforts in the region. Although some might suggest that the Ambassador was caught in an exercise of exaggerated hyperbole, the general sentiment that Southern Lebanon as an entity unto itself is generally accepted as fact.

Years of UNIFIL’s continued abdication of its mandate finally came to a head in July 2006. A heavily armed and fortified Hizbullah carried out a daring cross-border raid during which two soldiers were kidnapped and several others were killed. This raid coincided with a massive barrage of rocket and artillery fire that rained down on the towns and villages of Northern Israel. The encounter quickly escalated to a full out war, complete with aerial bombardment of Beirut as well as Israeli ground invasions of Southern Lebanon, where they met stiff resistance and suffered an unusually high number of fatalities, a testament to the strength Hizbullah was able to attain under UNIFIL’s watch. After nearly a month of intense battle and countless civilian casualties, especially on the Lebanese side, the Security Council passed resolution 1701, which called for the cessation of all hostilities and the further expansion of UNIFIL’s mandate. I argue that this action was the equivalent of giving a larger shovel to a group of people who have already dug an impressive hole.

Among UNIFIL’s new mandates is to “assist the Government of Lebanon, at its request, in securing its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms or related material”. By all accounts, Hizballah has been successful in replenishing its arms in the aftermath of the July 2006 war with Israel. This has been mainly accomplished through Iranian arms shipments that make their way through the Syrian-Lebanon border en route to Hizballah positions throughout the Southern third of the country. As recent events between the government and opposition forces, mainly led by Hizbullah, have shown, there has been very little progress made in re-establishing Lebanese sovereignty over the whole of Lebanon. Arms shipments continue to make their way through Syria, and there continues to be foreign meddling in Lebanon’s internal political and military structures. The Council also authorized UNIFIL to take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces and as it deems within its capabilities, to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind. This of course leaves a massive loophole, as UNIFIL cannot possibly operate in all areas of the south, leaving large areas which continue to be re-fortified by Hizbullah today. The Lebanese governments inability to tackle the issue of re-establishing authority over the whole of Lebanon notwithstanding, I continue to argue that it is UNIFIL’s responsibility, pursuant to UNSC resolutions 425, 426 and 1701, to aggressively, not passively, assist, or even take the lead, in helping reestablish this sovereignty. I believe that the legal basis for this aggressive course of UN actions is set forth in all three of these resolutions. Moreover, UNIFIL continues to state in its progress reports that relative calm has persisted since the end of hostilities in August 2006.

It is often said that a period of great calm often precedes the greatest storm.

My hope is to be proven wrong, but history has already proven otherwise.

Book Review - Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007


This is a short assignment I completed a few months ago. It's a review of an excellent book on the history of Israel's settlement movement. For those of you interested in learning about one of the main obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, I highly suggest giving it a read.


Israel: a State Between the Line, a People over It

Never has a land been as inextricably tied to a people as the land of Israel has to the Jewish people. Genesis 15:18-21 describes the Jewish tradition of Gevulot Ha’aretz, Borders of the Land, a reference to the land promised to the descendants of Abraham. The presence of Abraham, the father of the three monotheistic faiths Judaism, Christianity and Islam, makes certain the multi-farious nature of this promise. This is why the singular nature of the Jewish narrative is a case study in contradiction. The state of Israel and its inhabitants, both Arab and Israeli, have come to embody this contradiction. The chasms within Israel’s state and society are prevalent and bountiful: the regions lone democracy acting as one of its many occupying forces; a modern society unremittingly tempered by its ancient past; and the rule of law perpetually finding itself in conflict with the law of God. To draw on the term “e pluribus Unum”, out of many, Israel, is indeed many. Not anywhere do these chasms collide more, than the vast collection of Israeli settlements that are scattered throughout the Israeli occupied West Bank.

“Lords of the Land” is a cutting, in-depth, expose of the origins and evolution of the Israeli settler movement. It is a historical account that cuts through the core of Israeli society. The authors, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, chronicle the rise of radical messianic Judaism in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, and how a government and the public struggled to find an appropriate response to this righteous phenomenon. Zertal, a leading Israeli historian, and Eldar, chief political columnist and editorial writer for the left-of-center Israeli daily Ha’aretz, portray the settlement movement as a group of individuals committed to their radical interpretation of Judaism, convinced of their nefarious tactics, and resolute, if not fierce, in their belief of a biblical land of Israel inhabited by Jews alone. Dissimilarly, the portrayal of the Israeli government is anything but resolute. The authors paint a picture of an ambivalent government; teetering at the crossroad of fervent religious Zionism and the principles of secular Zionism upon which the State was established.

The authors availed themselves of an unabashedly leftist political tone throughout the book. Within the context of the Israeli political landscape, it is the political, secular “left”; which finds itself most at odds with the radical settler movement. Strikingly, this bias does not prevent the authors from vigorously highlighting the missteps of Israel’s left-leaning Labor government during the early stages of the settler phenomenon. In one passage, Zertal and Eldar chronicle the early attitudes of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin:

“For the moment, however, Rabin proposed taking a softer tactical approach toward the settlers. ‘The evictions just strengthen them,’ he said. ‘Let’s give them permission to go into Qadum camp, and three weeks later they’ll all go home,’ he added, thus testifying to the extent to which he and his colleagues in the old political guard were blind to the new sort of messianic-political energies that had erupted in Israel’s public sphere.” (Pg. 48)

Also highlighted are the divisions that existed, between not only rival political or ideological wings, but also the ones within them. In fact, a compelling narrative can be constructed when combining “Lords of the Land” with in-class readings; specifically, the Jacob Abadi piece, “Religious Zionism and Israeli Politics: Gush Emunim Revisited.” At the center of this narrative is the consistently vague approach to the settler movement adopted by the Israeli government. Zertal, Eldar, and Abadi each point to the dissention within the Labor party as the primary cause behind the rapid rise of Gush Emunim. In “Lords” Rabin is quoted as saying: “…it {an aggressive campaign to thwart Gush Emunim} would not stand a chance as long as the Labor Party was split in its attitude toward the Gush and as long as the defense minister saw its people as ‘true idealists.”(Pg. 48) The defense minister to whom Rabin refers is Shimon Peres.

Another binary that presents itself is one having to do with the state, the settlers, and the question of sovereignty. Hannan Porat, a man regarded as the first settler, wrote, “Co-existence with the Arabs depends on settlers ‘suppressing with a heavy hand any attempt at terror and damaging our sovereignty.’” (Pg. 104) Another settler, Rabbi Yitzhak Shilat, of Ma’aleh Adumim, argued, “Anything we do as a result of distress and anger, even killing, is good, is acceptable and will help. Killing is just a matter for the Kingdom.” (Pg. 105) I believe what the authors are trying to portray is a group of people intent on supplant every metric of State authority, with religious authority. When reading these passages I immediately remembered an occasion when I heard Shimon Peres speaking about Israel’s peacemaking efforts, and I paraphrase: “Israel on four occasions has attempted to make peace with its neighbors. On two occasions, we were successful and on two, we were not. The two times we were successful {Egypt and Jordan}; we were negotiating with one government, with one military, and one policy. The two times we failed {Palestinian Authority, Lebanon}, we were negotiating with two governments, with two militaries, and two policies {referring to the multiple factions - PA/Hamas, Lebanon/Syria}.” Could it be that the settlement movement has intruded on the sovereignty of Israel much in the same way that Hezbollah has intruded on the sovereignty of Lebanon? Can it be that the Palestinians too have a negotiating partner that embodies the failed qualities outlined by Shimon Peres?

These are some of the thought-evoking questions provoked by “Lords of the Land”. The strength of this work is rooted in the quality and breadth of research presented by its authors. They manage to present the views of every relevant segment of Israeli politics and society. This statement leads me to what I believe to be the two major weaknesses of this work. Although the breadth of presentation is impressive, the tone in which certain views are presented, more specifically, the views of the settlers, is rather harsh and overly aggressive. This leads me to the fear that the authors, in writing “Lords of the Land”, were out to convince people who have already been convinced of their particular viewpoint. In that respect, I find this work to be of more of a polarizing or contemptuous, and thus counterproductive, work, than a work that seeks to bridge an admittedly irreconcilable divide. The second, and in my opinion, most glaring weakness is the absence of one critical constituent in this conflict: The Palestinian people. The Palestinian narrative does not figure into the book at all. One possibility for this is that the authors believed that the light has shone so brightly on the missteps of the Palestinians over the last forty years that it would be appropriate to shine that very light solely on the missteps of Israel. The other possibility of course is that the authors believed that any inclusion of some Palestinian narrative could undermine their case or give fodder to their ideological opponents. Nonetheless, I do still find it somewhat troubling that the authors make no mention of the very people that this settlement movement has affected the most.

In the final analysis, “Lords of the Land” is the first work of its kind. A comprehensive history of the rise of radical Judaism and the settler movement and the lasting affect they have had on this ever-volatile region. This book gives readers the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in a world of opposing viewpoints. The only question left now is: are we too entrenched to look beyond our world views in order to reach a settlement?

I certainly hope not.

Hamas in Transition: From Fundamentalist Movement to Fundamentalist Governance

This is a paper I wrote a while back for a course at the Harvard Divinity School entitled: Religion and Politics in Current Fundamentalist Movements, taught by Dr. Harvey Cox.


In January 2006, the national Palestinian fundamentalist movement, Hamas, swept into power with a resounding victory in legislative elections. To the western political establishment Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization, this made their resounding victory all the more surprising to the outside world. The purpose of this paper is to further examine Hamas as a fundamentalist movement, paying specific attention to their approach on issues of governance and politics. By focusing on approaches to governance and politics, I hope to answer the following question: Can Hamas successfully transition from a national fundamentalist movement to a viable governing entity? I will begin by putting in context the origins and evolution of Hamas as a fundamentalist organization. After this framework for understanding Hamas is established, I will solely focus on Hamas’ internal structures as it pertains to politics and governance. The purpose of this exercise is to somehow determine whether Hamas does in fact have the internal infrastructure necessary to be a viable governing entity.

Institutional and Organizational Origins

To fully understand Hamas is to understand not only the acute circumstances under which the organization was formally founded in the late nineteen-eighties, but, also the origins of its institutions and how they were influenced in the time leading up to the organizations formal establishment. To assume, as most do, that Hamas was established solely as a means of combating Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories would belie the historical record. Hamas’ establishment at the start of the 1987 Intifada (uprising) was spurred by a series of socio-economic and political changes. Hamas’s origins are rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, first established in Egypt, and more specifically, in its main institutional embodiment since the late 1970’s, the Islamic Center in the Gaza Strip. After the 1948 War of Independence, Jordan took control over the West Bank and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. This provided an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt to gain a foothold in the Gaza Strip, where they immediately started to organize politically. The Muslim Brotherhood of Palestine generally focused on social and cultural activities, and, unlike their colleagues in Egypt, refrained from active involvement in politics or violence. From this fact we can infer that Hamas’s historical origins are rooted in a collection of social and cultural service programs, not in an ideology of violence, though they would later adopt violent means to compliment their social welfare apparatus.

Another context within which the establishment of Hamas should be presented is one having to do with socio-economics. The organization was successful in making inroads with a local population depressed by deteriorating economic circumstances. Hamas’s ability to capitalize on this social reality by providing an alternative way to challenge poverty, the Islamic way, played a critical role in the nascent stages of the organization. The political circumstances that allowed for the rise of an organization of Hamas’s nature play an equally critical role, and can be directly correlated to the socio-economics of Palestinian society. From the mid nineteen-sixties onward, it was the Palestinian Liberation Organization that claimed the mantle of leadership of the Palestinian cause. Although they played an integral role in representing the Palestinian people on the world stage, they were very much outsiders within the local Palestinian political context. The PLO was largely made up of members of the Palestinian Diaspora, many of whom had very little direct or indirect contact with the Palestinian territories. This absence of political leadership at the local level allowed for the establishment of an organization that not only had the ability to organize locally, but also the infrastructure to deliver the social services necessary to have a functioning, thriving society. Having defined the proper context that Hamas’ establishment should be viewed within; I will now go onto investigating their political and governance apparatus.

Statecraft, Religion, and Democracy

Hamas’ political evolution and its shaping into a (semi) coherent group with ability to impact Palestinian politics were largely due to its paraplegic leader, Sheikh {Ahmad} Yassin. Yasin was recognized as the preeminent MB figure in the Gaza Strip in 1968. Yasin became the driving force behind the rapid rise of the MB movement in the Gaza Strip, which was spearheaded by his institutionally based efforts to imbue the society with da’wa, that is, religious preaching and education. I argue that Sheikh Yassin’s early acknowledgement of the power of institutions as drivers of social progress and support was the critical element of Hamas’ greater plan to achieve widespread popularity among the local Palestinian population. Yasin embarked on establishing a systematic, institutionally organized, penetration of Gaza, by creating cells of three members each through the Strip. Eventually, the movement expanded to the point where Gaza was divided into five sub-districts, each with parallel responsibilities, and all under the direct command of Yasin’s close aides or disciples. This undeveloped network of individuals served as Hamas’ earliest form of government, that is, those who would make the day to day decisions as to what direction the movement and its adherents should move.

When Hamas talks about an Islamic state, what exactly does it mean? The government of the state Hamas advocates consists of an executive, a legislative and a judicial branch. Legislative power rests with a Shura (consultative) Council whose members would be elected in regular elections which would be open to all citizens (including Christians, Jews, communists and secular Muslins). The executive branch would be formed from this Shura Council and judicial power would rest with judges and legal scholars that would operate independent of the other two branches of government. The principle source of legislation would be shari’ah law. Shari’ah is the legal framework by which public and some private aspects of life are regulated for those living in societies where the legal system is based on Islamic principles of jurisprudence. The law is derived from four main sources: the Qu’ran, Hadith, ‘Ijma (consensus of legal scholars) and qiyas.

Religion plays a central role in Hamas’ political and governing philosophies. Again, it is important to present the role of religion as it pertains to Hamas and its activities in the proper context. Religion, in western parlance, is typically believed to be a private, personal system of beliefs. Within Hamas’ cultural framework, religion is a comprehensive system of beliefs and institutions. It is used as a political construct that preserves freedom because it is in harmony with God’s purpose for humanity on earth. This philosophy runs in stark contrast to western philosophies of governance, namely, the separation of Church and State that we enjoy in the United States. Moreover, there are scholars who argue that Hamas’ incorporation of religion in its politics makes Hamas inherently non-democratic. I would argue that this view of a religious movements’ palpability as a governing entity is rather simplistic, and moreover, is an attempt at re-aligning the term with western interests and practices. If we define democracy as an aggregative process to solicit citizens preferences and then to aggregate those preferences to decide what social policies society should be adopted, then Hamas’ activities as such, through both coercing an electorate with social and religious services, and contrasting their philosophies with those of their political rivals, would in fact, fall under the definition of a democratic system of governance. Additionally, a 1999 survey of political and religious attitudes in the Palestinian territories found not only that just 24 percent of respondents believed Islam and democracy to be incompatible, but that those who support political Islam, are actually more likely than others to believe that a political system based on Islamic Law can be democratic.

When observing through a macro-lens current electoral trends within the Arab and Islamic worlds, it is important to note this one reality: The freer and more open elections have been, the more success the Islamist groups have had. If we are to assume that electoral processes are a function of democratic practices, then we can infer that Islamist participation and success in these processes prove that Islamist groups are in fact, not incompatible with democratic forms of governance.

Hamas is as genuine in its democratic conviction as any other political party, in a region inexperienced in this form of governance. Internally, the movement has embraced democratic practices in choosing its leaders. For example, when Hamas was in the process of forming its government in March 2006, the prime minister and all the cabinet ministers were elected by the rank and file. It is also important to note that the Palestinian polity, especially in the post-Yasser Arafat era, is not receptive to any kind of authoritarian rule. If Hamas decided to remain in power contrary to democratic practices, the immediate result would be severe.

I would like to quickly return to the issue of religion as it pertains to the politics of Hamas. As I mentioned earlier, religion plays a central role in Hamas’ organizational and political institutions. This statement is often misconstrued as Hamas being an organization that is solely and exclusively operated by figures of religious significance. This generalization would be the equivalent of associating the Christian leaning Republican Party of the United States as a party that is pre-dominantly run by leaders of the Christian Church. In fact, in the most detailed analysis to date of seventy-four Hamas legislators’ careers, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy lists only twelve as having affiliations with mosques, four as ‘Imams’, one as being involved in a religious court, and three as members of religious committees. Many more legislators are involved in their local mosques, and have some religious knowledge, but; their symbolic capital is not primarily defined by mosque affiliation or religious expertise. In fact, the study goes on to point out the dominance of engineers, medical doctors, and secular university professors in Hamas’ first Cabinet. For reasons pertaining to this study, I would then argue that it is best to characterize Hamas as an organization whose leaders are practitioners of the Islamic faith, but by and large, do not claim to have divine expertise. I felt that this was a very important distinction to make.

Hamas in the Realm of Palestinian Domestic Politics

I will now focus on Hamas’ approach to the Palestinian domestic political arena. Politics in its purest form is based on a series of compromises that ultimately determine who gets what, and how much of it. The ability to compromise is critical in any open political or governmental structure. Hamas has been willing to compromise, or at least fudge, its core message, and put forward eligible non-member candidates instead of party members, where it deemed it advantageous to do so. Case in point is the newly elected Mayor of Nablus, a West Bank town. ‘Adli Ya’ish, a businessman whose family, one of the old notable families of Nablus, owns the local Mercedes-Benz dealership, he is well known for his charitable work, and more importantly, for his good relationship with the Israelis. One of his long-time friends is an Israeli businessman with whom, only months before the election, he agreed in principle to establish a local program promoting coexistence with Israel among Palestinian school children. Ya’ish was first approached by the rival Fatah party, but, when Hamas asked him to lead its list; he agreed to run on the Hamas ticket. This is a clear example of an instance where Hamas has openly compromised on its core principles. That being said, this pattern of behavior is not convincingly consistent, but it is worthwhile to say that the mere openness of Hamas to behave in this fashion does go toward proving the movements’ willingness to compromise as a means of continued existence as a political entity.

Islamic thinkers discern four main strategies that mark the political behavior of Islamic movements: (1) reformist, operating through education, preaching, and guidance; (2) communal, focusing on the Muslim institution of welfare and other social services; (3) political, operating through mass mobilization and public conviction aimed at pressuring rulers to implement the shari’ah; and (4) combatant-political, using military force or violence against the ruling elites. Since Arab regimes began to offer new modes of political participation in the 1980’s, Islamic movements have evolved to a political strategy that centered on gaining access to power. This willingness of Islamic movements to take part in various levels of state-controlled and limited democratic systems demonstrated their belief that they could gain influence and promote their goals by operating within the existing political order. Hamas’ wish to ensure its survival and continued growth necessitated its access to power and resources, based on coexistence with the PA. Again we see a pattern of behavior predicated on survival as a political entity.

Adjustment has become the main feature of Hamas’s political conduct. Their adoption of Palestinian national values, as opposed to pursuing exclusively the goal of an Islamic state, has enabled Hamas to position itself as a viable political alternative to the Palestinian Authority. Now that I have outlined Hamas’s behavioral patterns visa vie the domestic Palestinian political landscape I would like to pay specific attention to the underlying reasons behind Hamas’s stunning rise to power in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

It is widely assumed that Hamas’s sweeping victory in national Legislative elections in January 2006 had more to do with the Palestinian electorates “Fatah fatigue”, and disenchantment with the rampant culture of corruption manifested during Yassir Arafat’s leadership of the organization. While there is no question as to the significance this attitude played in the 2006 election, I will present data that argues that certain demographic trends in Palestinian society helped facilitate Hamas’s victory in January 2006. As a rule of thumb, wining political campaigns have one common characteristic: they tend to be able to grab the majority of voters in densely populated areas. In this respect, local Palestinian demographic trends confirm this idea. Hamas supporters were twice as likely as Fatah supporters to live in refugee camps, and a significantly higher proportion of Hamas supporters lived in Gaza City. As the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz noted that in municipal elections of 2005, “only seven of the thirty-eight authorities in which Fatah won have more than 4,000 voters…In contrast, of the 30 authorities in which Hamas won, 11 have more than 4,000 voters…In the Gaza Strip, Hamas won the three largest authorities {with a combined total of 112,000 voters and 284,000 residents}” (‘Fatah takes most councils’, 8 May 2005). This trend continued to manifest itself in the 2006 legislative elections. These numbers lead to the interpretation that Hamas did well because of greater organizational presence in towns, refugee camps, and urban centers. Most of the headquarters of Hamas’ most successful charities are situated in these urban centers and refugee camps. This lends credence to the argument that Hamas’s institutional capacity building efforts, first undertaken by Sheikh Yasin three decades earlier, have paid political dividends. Now that I’ve covered Hamas’s behavioral pattern as it pertains to Palestinian domestic politics, I will proceed by reviewing Hamas in the realm of international politics and relations.

The International Relations of Hamas

Like most non-state actors, Hamas’ ability to survive and develop has been dependent on the actions of other states, which at various points have seen the Islamist organization as an irritant, an enemy, a burden and an opportunity. It is often on the international stage where states, nations, and societies go to find legitimacy. Moreover, it is the international community to which it often falls to bestow such legitimacy. Hamas’ most significant foreign relationships today are with Syria and Iran. Within the Arab/Muslim world Hamas enjoys unparalleled popularity and support. This group includes Iran, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon and Libya, where Hamas has succeeded in establishing official links and has its own offices. Key to Hamas’s continued financial viability has been their ever developing relationship with Iran. Hamas enjoys near full diplomatic status in Teheran. This relationship once again goes toward explaining Hamas’s philosophy on alliance building. Iran is predominantly comprised of practitioners of Shi’a Islam, and has been widely known to support both the Shi’a community in Lebanon as well as the Lebanese Shi’a terrorist organization, Hizb’ullah. This makes their alliance with Hamas all the more interesting since Hamas, and more specifically, Palestinian society, are of the Sunni Islam persuasion. I argue that this reality further proves Hamas’s willingness to compromise on its core beliefs in order to achieve longer term political and geo-strategic goals.

With predictably strong ties with the Arab and Islamic world, I feel it is more important to now delve into Hamas’s relationship with the western political establishment. The main reason for this is that it is the very western liberal political institutions that govern the legitimacy of movements, states, and nations, that Hamas has had the most tenuous relationships with. Hamas’s relationship with the west has been of two different natures. These attitudes form along the fault line of US-Hamas relations, which can be described as non-existent at best, and Hamas-Europe relations which can be described as more cordial. Hamas looks at Europe as a diverse pool of powers. What separates individual European countries on major foreign issues, demonstrated in the lack of an effective common EU foreign policy, transcends what unites them. The US perception of Hamas by and large mirrors the Israeli one. I argue that the one major obstacle hindering Hamas’s ability to become a full fledged political force is its lack of support, or, dialogue, with the Western world. Within the paradigm of Hamas’s relations with the west, this has been one area where Hamas has not shown willingness to compromise on its own principles. The two most notable obstacles are Hamas’s unwillingness to recognize the State of Israel and cease all terrorist activities. These are the two most prominent parameters that western powers, and Israel, have set in order establish some sort of dialogue with Hamas. Hamas argues that as long as Israel continues to be an occupying power they cannot do any of the above. Either way you look at it, these issues have served as a major impediment to Hamas being able to establish itself as a legitimate organization in western eyes. On the flip side, there hardened stance toward the west can help burnish their credentials with the Palestinian electorate. It is an electorate that has observed for the better part of the last decade a Palestinian Authority that has been bestowed legitimacy by the West and Israel while at the same time having very little to show for it.

Conclusions and Final Thoughts

Can Hamas successfully transition from a national fundamentalist movement to a viable governing entity? I believe the evidence presented throughout this paper proves that Hamas in fact does have the institutional capacity to serve as a viable governing entity. Moreover, Hamas has shown a propensity to politick, that is, undertake a series of compromises for the purposes of maintaining and expanding its political viability. I’m sure you’ll notice in this paper a glaring omission, and it was not by mistake, but rather by design. You’ll notice that nowhere in this paper do I mention Hamas’s terrorist activities against the State of Israel. As I outlined at the outset of this paper, the purpose of this paper was to exclusively focus on Hamas’s capabilities within the realm of its politics and governance. Some would argue that Hamas’s terrorist activities are part of their overall strategies on politics and governance. I argue that the mention of terrorism allows others to detract from the truly impressive political and social service institutions that Hamas has built over a period of two decades. Moreover, I believe the introduction of the issue of terrorism allows for an inaccurate distillation of the overall problems facing both the Palestinians and Israelis. Having said that, and in light of the events of 14 May 2008, where a Katyusha grad rocket launched from Hamas controlled Gaza Strip found its way to a populated mall in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, I do personally condemn Hamas’s terrorist activities. I felt that it was important for the author of this paper to make unequivocally clear their condemnation of any terrorist activities, while at the same time being able to objectively present Hamas’s truly remarkable accomplishments over the course of the past two decades. I hope in this paper, this is what I have been able to do. 

1 Gunning, Jerome. Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 34.

2Mishal, Shaul, and Avraham Sela. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 16.





5 Chehab, Zaki. Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement. New York: Avalon, 2007. 103.

6 Mishal, Shaul, and Avraham Sela. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 19.

7 Literally, a call (for submission to Allah). Practically, it became a code name for social and cultural activities, primarily Islamic preaching, education and social welfare, conducted by the MB.

8 Mishal, Shaul, and Avraham Sela. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 19.

9 Ibid.

10 Gunning, Jerome. Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 57.

11 Ibid.

12 Islam, Governing Under Shari’a, Council on Foreign Relations, 2005. <>

13 Ibid.

14 Gunning, Jerome. Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 65.

15 Ibid.

16 Gunning, Jerome. Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.160.

17 Lecture, April 2008, Dr. Noah Feldman, Professor Harvard Law School

18 Hroub, Khaled. Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Pluto Press, 2006. 64.

19 Ibid.

20 Gunning, Jerome. Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 162.

21 Gunning, Jerome. Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 157.

22 Ibid.

23 Yusuf al-Qardawi, al-Hall al-Islami: Farida wa-Darura {The Islamic Solution: Duty and Necessity}, 5th ed. Cairo: Maktabat Wahaba, 1993, pg.155-192; Fathi Yakan, Nahwa Haraka Islamiyya ‘Alamiyya Wahida {Toward One Global Islamic Movement}, 3d ed. Beirut: Mu’assassat al-Risala, 197, pp. 8-21.

24 Mishal, Shaul, and Avraham Sela. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 118.

25 Mishal, Shaul, and Avraham Sela. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 147.

26 Gunning, Jerome. Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 148.

27Ibid. 149.

28 Chehab, Zaki. Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement. New York: Avalon, 2007. 129.

29 Ibid. 134.

30 Hroub, Khaled. Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Pluto Press, 2006. 93.

31 Ibid. 93.

32 Hroub, Khaled. Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Pluto Press, 2006. 113.