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Palestine: The origins of Hamas and its role today

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Hamas has emerged as a force in the Palestinian Territories and has recently hit the headlines because of a spate of suicide bombings. This article looks at the origins of this movement. It recalls how in the past, when it suited them, the Israeli authorities tried to use Hamas as a counterbalance to the influence of the PLO. Now it has become a source of further instability.

The strength of the Islamic movements in the Middle East has manifested itself at least since the Iranian revolution of 1978-9. Islamic fundamentalism that operates in 70 countries has become a major force in Iran, the Sudan, Egypt, Algeria and Tajikistan, Afghanistan, the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Pakistan and most recently Turkey where an Islamic Party has taken control. Contrary to a common assumption that this movement was born in the late 1970s, the Marxist movement has had to struggle against it since the time of the Russian revolution.

In the Middle East this movement was born in Egypt in 1928 and its founder was Hassan Bana. The Russian revolution had limited its influence for many years because it was able to pose a clear class alternative before the masses. Even the expansion of Stalinism following the Second World War put restraints on it, as it was still a system that was developing the productive forces in spite of its terrible bureaucratic deformations.

The rise of these Islamic movements came as an enormous shock to the liberals and the left wing leaning middle class elements who believed that so-called "modernisation", following on from the victory of the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, would inevitably lead to more progressive societies.

Instead they witnessed the growth of forces which seem to look backwards to a barbaric past, to a society which imposes the burkah on women, uses terror to crush any free thought and threatens the most barbaric punishment on those who defy its will.

What they do not understand is that the growth of this movement is the result of the crisis of Stalinism which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and at the same time to the total capitulation of the secular local bourgeois in the underdeveloped so-called "Third World".

In the 1950s and 1960s the struggles against colonialism and imperialism led by petit bourgeois elements inspired a section of the middle classes in the underdeveloped ex-colonial countries, who supported the demand for the nationalisation of some sections of the economy as a measure of protection against imperialist control. These secular left currents, or at least their Stalinist or left nationalist mainstream, were seen as a movement that offered a real solution to the misery of the masses. At the same time they exercised a degree of control over the masses.

In the late 1970s and 1980s with the signs of the coming collapse of the Soviet Union under the bureaucratic strangulation of the productive forces, the mood began to change and to turn into despair. It was this despair that laid the basis for the Islamic movement to begin to grow once again.

Real nature of Islamic fundamentalism

There is a general lack of understanding on the left about the real nature of Islamic fundamentalism. Thus we see two quite opposite reactions to the growth of the fundamentalists.

The first sees Islamic fundamentalism as a form of fascism. Such a view easily leads some leftists to political alliances to stop the fascists at all costs, including support for the imperialists and the local capitalist states. A clear case is Algeria where these liberals and leftist sects have been supporting the FLN and the Algerian army against the F.I.S, at the same time as the FLN has been carrying out the policies of the International Monetary Fund.

The opposite approach sees the Islamic movements as "progressive", "anti-imperialist" movements of the oppressed. This was the position taken by the great bulk of the Iranian left in the first phase of the 1979 revolution, when the Tudeh Party, the majority of the Fedayeen guerrilla organisation and the left Islamic People's Mojahedin all characterised the forces behind Khomeini as "the progressive petit bourgeoisie". They all supported the Mullahs to the extent that their programme became nothing less than "Allah u Akbar" (God is Great)! When the Mullahs came to power this left paid with blood for their stupid illusions. As Marxists we have explained many times that illusions can kill.

Islam appeared in the 7th century, but today it exists because it is no longer the ideology of the merchant tribes that gave birth to it. It exists today because it has obtained from the landowners and the industrialists of modern capitalism the finance to build its mosques and to employ its preachers. It is a capitalist backed movement but it has been able to gather support among the mass of poor people by offering consolation to the poor and oppressed on the one hand, while at the same time protecting the exploiting classes against the wrath of the workers and thus represents an obstacle to the socialist revolution.

In countries that have never had a "welfare state", as a mechanism for guaranteeing some form of social stability, the fundamentalists lean on the teachings of Islam that demand that the rich have to pay a 2.5 percent Islamic tax (the zdaka) for the relief of the poor, that rulers have to govern in a just way, and that husbands must not mistreat their wives. While presenting this face to the masses, the Islamic hierarchy treats the expropriation of the rich by the poor as theft, and disobedience to a "just" government as a crime to be punished with mutilation and death. It provides women with fewer rights than men within marriage, over inheritance, or over the children in the event of divorce.

In some places like in Palestine, or Iraq under the imperialist occupation, it challenges the state and elements of imperialism's political domination. Thus the Iranian Islamic fundamentalists seized the US embassy in the past. The Hezbollah in the southern Lebanon and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza have played a key role in the armed struggle against Israel.

Thus, while the Islamic movements are not "fascist", it is equally true that they are not "anti-imperialist" or "anti-state" either. They do not fight against the capitalist system that exploits and dominates the mass of people. At the same time they fight against secularism, against women who refuse to abide by Islamic notions of "modesty", against the left and, against ethnic or religious minorities. The Algerian Islamic fundamentalists established their hold on the universities in the late 1970s and early 1980s by organising "punitive raids" against the left. In the Algerian towns where they are strongest, they organized attacks on women who dare to show a little of their body, and on the Berbers who are not Arabic speakers. Similarly, in Egypt, they organize pogroms, against the Coptic Christians.

They do not fight imperialism - the capitalist world system - but rather its cultural expressions. They want to keep the banking system operating, but they demand that only the Arabic language be used and they want to force on the workers the reciting of suras taken from the Koran.

It is neither a fascist nor a revolutionary movement, but a populist movement. A recent study of Khomeinism in Iran by Abrahamian (E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism,) compares it to Peronism and similar forms of "populism": "Khomeini adopted radical themes... At times he sounded more radical than the Marxists. But while adopting radical themes he remained staunchly committed to the preservation of middle class property. This form of middle class radicalism made him akin to Latin American populists, especially the Peronists." [page 3]

And Abrahamian goes on to say: "By 'populism' I mean a movement of the propertied middle class that mobilises the lower classes, especially the urban poor, with radical rhetoric directed against imperialism, foreign capitalism, and the political establishment... Populist movements promise to drastically raise the standard of living and make the country fully independent of outside powers. Even more important in attacking the status quo with radical rhetoric, they intentionally stop short of threatening the petty bourgeoisie and the whole principle of private property. Populist movements thus, inevitably, emphasise the importance, not of economic, social revolution, but of cultural, national and political reconstruction." [page 17]

In other words it is a petit bourgeois movement dressed up in religious clothes, not different in its class composition from those who supported previously Stalinism and bourgeois nationalism.

The petit bourgeoisie as a class cannot have an independent policy of its own. This has always been true of the traditional petit bourgeoisie - the small shopkeepers, traders and self-employed professionals. They have always either served the capitalist class or, in certain cases, allied themselves with the working class. In those countries where a layer of this class did lead a revolution (following the model of either the Soviet Union or China) the best that were able to establish were states we define as Proletarian Bonapartist. These are terribly deformed workers' states, with a privileged bureaucratic elite at the top. They are not genuine healthy socialist regimes. Which direction this petit bourgeois layer goes in depends on the balance of forces between the working class and the capitalist class and also on the kind of leadership the working class has.

The failure of Stalinism and nationalism has thrown those same layers of students and radicalised middle classes, who once looked to the left, into the arms of the fundamentalists. Support for the Islamic movements became stronger as they seemed to offer immanent and radical change.

Today, with the growing militancy of the working class the left has been offered by history a chance to grow once again and to challenge the hegemony of the fundamentalists. Take the case of Iraq, where we witness the spreading of the anti-colonialist revolutionary struggle against the imperialist occupation, which is presently being led by the fundamentalists. This is an opportunity for the Communist Party of Iraq to struggle for the leadership of the movement. Instead it has entered the puppet "governing council" appointed by the American occupiers. It seems they want to ensure that the leadership of the movement will remain in the hands of the fundamentalists. What is needed is a revolutionary opposition within the Communist Party, and the Communist movement in Iraq as a whole, that will be capable of posing a clear alternative to the present right wing leadership of the party.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood that was born in Egypt grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s as it picked up support from those disillusioned by the compromises the bourgeois nationalist Wafd had made with the British, as well as by the class collaborationist polices of the Stalinist leaders. In particular, this process was aided by the Communist left under Stalin's influence, which went so far as to support the partition and the establishment of Israel. By recruiting volunteers to fight in Palestine and against the British occupation of the Egyptian Canal Zone, the Brotherhood could present themselves as supporting the anti-imperialist struggle.

But just as the Brotherhood became a mass movement, it began to disintegrate. The reason for this is quite clear. Like all populist movements at the rank and file level it got the support of the mass of petit bourgeois youth, but at the top it was connected with the palace, and with the right wing of the Wafd, and also with the army officers " which were themselves moving in different directions according to their own base of support. Thus the lower ranks were more connected with the petit bourgeois masses, while the uppers ranks were close to the Wafd.

The seizure of power by the military under General Nagib and Nasser in 1952-4 produced a fundamental divide between those who supported the coup and those who opposed it until finally rival groups within the Brotherhood ended up physically fighting each other for control of its offices. The loss of confidence in the leadership enabled Nasser eventually to crush what had once been a very powerful organisation.

In their propaganda the imperialists changed their tune when it suited them. The anti-communist hysteria that had previously dominated the American mass media was replaced with anti-Islamic propaganda. And often this had its reflection within a layer of the petit bourgeois left, that drew very similar conclusions. The Islamic fundamentalists are seen by these, as the Stalinists were once seen, as the most dangerous of all political forces, able to impose a totalitarianism that will prevent any further peaceful progressive development. The logical conclusion that they draw is that, in order to stop the fundamentalists, it is necessary to unite with the "liberal" wing of the bourgeoisie, or even to support openly dictatorial regimes in their repression of the Islamic groups.

The Iranian revolution was not a product of Islamic fundamentalism, but of the contradictions that arose within the Shah's regime in the mid to late 1970s. The economic crisis had heightened the deep divisions which already existed between sections of modern capital (associated with finance capital) and the merchant class centred around the bazaar (which was responsible for two thirds of wholesale trade and three quarters of retail trade). At the same time there was the mass of the workers and the vast numbers of recent ex-peasants who had flooded into the cities. In these conditions, the protests of the intellectuals and the students - which the disaffected clergy also joined - spread to involve the urban poor in a series of major clashes with the police and army. A wave of strikes paralysed industry and brought the all-important oil fields to a standstill. And then early in February 1979 the left wing guerrillas of the Fedayeen and the left-Islamic guerrillas of the People's Mojahedin succeeded in fomenting large-scale mutinies in the armed forces, that finally brought about the collapse of the old regime. The tragedy of the whole situation was that the left supported Ayatollah Khomeini, presenting him as a "progressive". Thus, with the absence of a revolutionary working class leadership the Islamic clergy was able to come to power and divert the movement of the masses away from the main task - the overthrow of capitalism - and begin to build its own reactionary regime.

The result was a totalitarian regime based on a one-party regime not unlike Eastern Europe under Stalinism, with the important difference that Iran remained a capitalist state. Today the regime is clearly in crisis and has exhausted its reserves of support among the masses. The key question now is the independence of the working class led by a leadership that understands the lessons and the mistakes of the past.

Israel's support for Hamas in the past

Today in the Palestinian territories the main opposition to the Israeli occupation of 1967 has become the Islamic movement known as Hamas. While our support for the Palestinian struggle for national freedom does not depend on who is leading that movement at any given moment, Marxists must struggle to replace this reactionary leadership not with the bankrupt PLO but with the leadership of the working class. Hamas' aim is not to liberate the working class, the poor peasants and the urban poor, but to create a single, Islamic state within historical Palestine, which is now largely divided between Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Hamas, meaning "zeal" or "fervour" in Arabic, is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Resistance Movement. The group was founded as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.

It is not a well known fact, but it will not surprise those who know anything about the history of the Taliban in Afghanistan, that Israel in many ways initially created this monster but later lost control over it.

Richard Sale, a UPI Correspondent, wrote an illuminating article on the origin of Hamas in which he pointed out that, "According to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials, beginning in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years."

Israel "aided Hamas directly ‑ the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization)," said Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies.

Israel's support for Hamas "was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative," said a former senior CIA official.

According to documents United Press International obtained from the Israel-based Institute for Counter Terrorism, Hamas evolved from cells of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928. Islamic movements in Israel and Palestine were "weak and dormant" until after the 1967 Six Day War.

After 1967, a great part of the success of the Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood was due to their activities among the refugees in the Gaza Strip. The cornerstone of the Islamic movement's success was an impressive social, religious, educational and cultural infrastructure, called Da'wah, that worked to ease the hardship of large numbers of Palestinian refugees, confined to camps, and many who were living on the edge of poverty.

"Social influence grew into political influence, first in the Gaza Strip, then on the West Bank", said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to ICT papers, Hamas was legally registered in Israel in 1978 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement's spiritual leader, as an Islamic Association with the name of Al-Mujamma al Islami, which widened its base of supporters and sympathizers through religious propaganda and social work.

According to U.S. administration officials, funds for the movement came from the oil-producing states and directly and indirectly from Israel itself. The PLO was secular and leftist and promoted Palestinian nationalism. Hamas wanted to set up a transnational state under the rule of Islam, much like Khomeini's Iran.

"The thinking on the part of some of the right-wing Israeli establishment was that Hamas and the others, if they gained control, would refuse to have any part of the peace process and would torpedo any agreements put in place," said a U.S. government official who asked not to be named. "Israel would still be the only democracy in the region for the United States to deal with," he said.

According to former State Department counter-terrorism official Larry Johnson, "the Israelis are their own worst enemies when it comes to fighting terrorism. The Israelis are like a guy who sets fire to his hair and then tries to put it out by hitting it with a hammer. They do more to incite and sustain terrorism than curb it," he said." (Published on the June 18, 2002)

Hamas today

Today Hamas's following is estimated to be in the tens of thousands, but until 2000, less than 18 percent of the population of the West Bank and Gaza supported its political views. After a renewed Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip erupted in September 2000, and the failure of the secular PLO to provide any leadership, but rather acting in the service of the US and Israel, support for Hamas grew to more than 25 percent. Its appeal is greatest in the more impoverished Gaza region than in the West Bank. Its leaders include religious figures, sheikhs (Arab chiefs), intellectuals, and businessmen.

Mosques and Islamic religious organizations are Hamas's most important vehicles for spreading its message, and it mobilizes local popular support by providing social services to the needy. In September 1993 Israel and the PLO signed a so-called a peace accord that gave Palestinians limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Hamas denounced the agreement and continued to conduct strikes against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Israel proper. It boycotted January 1996 Palestinian presidential and legislative council elections - to avoid giving legitimacy to Arafat's recognition of Israel and to the secular nationalist camp that the PLO represented. Under the accord, Israel, the United States, and Western European imperialism asked the newly created Palestinian National Authority (PNA), headed by PLO leader Yasir Arafat, to suppress Hamas's attacks. Arafat periodically restrained Hamas terrorist actions against Israel but he could not suppress them altogether. The signing of this treaty, while unemployment among the Palestinians grew massively and more lands were confiscated for Jewish settlements, helped to spread Hamas' influence. Hamas participated in the outbreak of the second intifada against Israel in September 2000. The renewed uprising led to a further significant increase in support for Hamas's views among the Muslim Arab population.

During the"Al-Kuds" Intifada Hamas carried out many terrorist actions that killed innocent Israelis and pushed them into the hands of reaction in Israel. Whenever Sharon needs to divert the class struggle into reciprocal national hatred he assassinates Hamas leaders and activists and Hamas responds by playing its role in organising acts of individual terrorism. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon then immediately reacts by vowing to fight "Palestinian terror" and summons his cabinet to decide on a military response to the organization.

The real aim of the latest cease-fire between Israel and the PNA is to push the Palestinian non-elected government to start a civil war against Hamas. Clearly Abu Mazen is incapable of this. [Editor's note: since this article was written Abu Mazen has been forced to resign, confirming that he had no real basis of support].

This article is being written when all the signs are there that the cease-fire, the "Hudna", is collapsing and many more lives of Arab and Jews will be lost so that the US and the local rulers of the Middle East will continue to dominate.

The only way out of this bloody insane circle is the revolutionary struggle of the Arab and Jewish workers for workers' power in the form of a socialist federated state as part of the socialist federation of the Middle East. A dream some will say. But these are the people who want us to think that the nightmare we are presently living in is the only possible reality.

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