Crown Center's Asher Susser traces the rise of Hamas

His report is the inaugural commentary in a new center publication series, ‘Crown Essays’

Asher Susser

Hamas’ victory in the most recent Palestinian elections reflects a Middle East-wide trend toward political Islam and away from a more secular orientation, historian Asher Susser writes in the first of a new publication series from the Crown Center for Middle East Studies.
The analysis by Susser, senior fellow on the Myra and Robert Kraft Chair in Arab Politics at the Crown Center, is in sharp contrast to the view often heard from Western scholars, politicians and journalists, that Hamas won because of rampant corruption and disorganization in the ranks of Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and the late Yasser Arafat.
In "The Rise of Hamas in Palestine and the Crisis of Secularism in the Arab World" (PDF), Susser argues that these explanations are relevant, but they miss a key historical process that is at work: the rise of Hamas as part of a regional phenomenon in which relatively secular Arab and Palestinian nationalism is in decline, while Islamist leaders and sentiments are on the rise. Susser examines this crisis of secularism both in the Palestinian and the broader Middle Eastern context.
Susser, who was previously a senior Crown Center fellow from 2007-2008, is also a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. He was director of the Tel Aviv center in 1989-1995 and 2001-2007. His areas of specialization include the history and politics of Jordan and the Palestinians, religion and state in the Middle East, and Arab-Israeli issues.
"The Rise of Hamas in Palestine and the Crisis of Secularism in the Arab World" is the first in the Crown Center's latest publication series, the Crown Essays. These monograph-length commentaries are intended to foster debate on contemporary issues related to the Middle East. Based on works of scholarship, this series allows for the authors to engage with, and contribute to, important issues in the region in an essay format.
Susser talked about the essay in a recent interview with BrandeisNOW:
BrandeisNOW: Why did you undertake this project?
Asher Susser: I wrote it to question the conventional wisdom. Fatah is corrupt and disorganized, but the story is much bigger. That story is the crisis of secularism. Hamas rose incrementally, year by year, in step with a regional trend of Islamist politics challenging secular politics. This is true in Palestine and it is true in the rest of the region. People should have been less surprised.
BN: How did the West miss what was going on?
AS: There is a tendency in the West, looking at the Middle East, to underestimate the role of religion. And there is an issue of political correctness. If you argue that culture matters, you are in danger of being labeled an essentialist– of believing that the Arabs have a culture that never changes. That is the attack of Edward Said on Bernard Lewis. I argue that culture matters, but that you don’t have to be an essentialist to believe that. Look at politics in Jordan. Look at politics in Egypt. Look at the whole region.
BN: What does this mean for the Israeli-Palestinian situation?
AS: It means that Fatah and the PLO, which for years rode roughshod over Palestinian politics, have lost their monopoly for the foreseeable future, and maybe even forever. For half a century they were the sole legitimate voice of the Palestinian people. That is over. There is now a group that has at least as strong a claim to speak for the Palestinians, and that will not be crushed by blockades or boycotts. Hamas is as much in charge in Gaza as it was three years ago [when it took over there], and seems to be doing pretty well despite all the punishment. The United States cannot engineer the outcome it wants in Iraq, and Israel cannot engineer the outcome it wants in Palestine.
BN: What effect might this have on the peace process?
AS: It has huge ramifications for the peace process. How does one make progress when Hamas is such a big presence? Considering the Hamas position on Israel, it is a huge obstacle that cannot easily be overcome. Who is the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people? Hamas certainly won’t agree that it should be Fatah or the PLO.
BN: How did Fatah fall so far, so fast?
AS: Actually, this was a long time in the making, beginning with the Jordanian civil war in 1970, when the PLO lost its haven in Jordan, from which it might have been able to conduct relatively effective armed struggle. Lebanon was a poor substitute, and they lost that too.
The PLO was a diaspora organization. After it was crushed in Jordan and Lebanon, it had no base of operations. Action shifted to the West Bank and Gaza, which was bad news for the PLO. Hamas was never a diaspora operation – it was home-grown and home-based. The shift came in the first Intifada, forcing Arafat and the PLO to recognize, from the diaspora, that they might be finished unless they could find a way into the West Bank and Gaza. The way in was via Oslo, which Hamas attacked and which became a Fatah and PLO failure.
BN: So where does that leave us?
AS: Maybe the Hamas victory was happenstance. Maybe luck. It doesn’t matter. Hamas is a major player and it is here to stay. Israel and the Americans would be wise to look this reality in the face. The notion that Hamas can be maneuvered out of existence is totally unrealistic. Americans and Israelis must recognize developments in the region for what they are and accept that they can’t reshape the region by force.
This does not mean coming to terms with Hamas on Hamas’ terms. What we should do is give them a choice. That, we never really did. They won and everything came crashing down around them. They were told we’ll blockade, we’ll see your end, no matter what.

We should have given, and still should give, Hamas a chance to make a choice. You can negotiate, you can make some sort of settlement with Israel, or you can continue the fight. If you choose to fight, Israel will retaliate severely…But Israel should not be out there rejecting Hamas at all costs. Hamas should be given a realistic choice, and it is they who must decide what they intend to do with their newly won responsibility.

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