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Analysis: History and Foundation of Hamas



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Today in Gaza City, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to mourn and to protest the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Yassin was the founder and spiritual leader of The Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas. He was killed at daybreak in a targeted Israeli air strike. Hamas militants immediately pledged retaliation. Hours after the assassination, Lebanese-based Hezbollah guerrillas shelled Israeli positions in a disputed border area. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the killing and appealed to all in the region to remain calm. Joining us now to discuss the history of Hamas and the likely effects of Yassin's death are Magnus Ranstorp and Rashid Khalidi.

And it's good to have you both on the program.

Professor RASHID KHALIDI (Columbia University): Thank you.

CONAN: And, Magnus Ranstorp, let me just say by identification, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews. And Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. And they've both been with us before, so welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

First, Magnus Ranstorp, how would you describe Hamas?

Dr. MAGNUS RANSTORP (University of St. Andrews): (Technical difficulties) multiple strands. I mean, I've actually met Sheikh Yassin on numerous occasions and most Hamas leaders both inside and outside of all the West Bank and Gaza. It is a complex organization. It is an organization that revolts. It means `Islamic Resistance'--it's the Arabic acronym of `The Islamic Resistance,' and that resistance takes place on multiple fronts. It takes place on the social, political and military front including using terrorism, killing Israeli civilians.

CONAN: And, Rashid Khalidi, one of the things that distinguished Hamas is that parallel government relationship that I think Magnus Ranstorp was just describing. It addressed things on a number of different levels.

Prof. KHALIDI: Hamas has as one of its major objectives taking over Palestinian politics and replacing the Fatah-PLO Palestinian Authority structure which has dominated the Palestinian national movement for several decades now. So it does have, as Dr. Ranstorp said, a social and political dimension. And it really does see itself as the alternative to the PA and, I believe, will be significantly strengthened by this Israeli attack in the long run.

CONAN: Well, we'll get to that in a minute, but let's go more about the genesis of this organization and how it's developed. Magnus Ranstorp, when did it start? And we're told that Sheikh Yassin was one of the people who founded it.

Dr. RANSTORP: Well, one has to go back in history in order to understand the context. I think if you ask any Hamas official, they would see themselves as part of a chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that was created in 1928. The Muslim Brotherhood was one of the first forces that fought Israel in the war of independence in '48, '49. Hamas--or shall we say that what Yassin sort of was responsible for creating--was primarily in the social sphere. He created the Al-Mujamma Al-Islami, the social sphere which was registered with Israel in 1978. It was primarily at a time in the late 1960s and the '70s that Hamas was expanding its social activity and trying to re-Islamicize society from the bottom up. In the 1980s, the movement became somewhat more militant in the sense--in '84 Yassin was charged and he was also imprisoned for some time for involvement or at least association with some terrorist activity in having weaponry, and he remained in prison for a majority of the time in the late 1980s.

Of course, Hamas really, as we know it today, came out of the first Palestinian uprising that began on the 9th of December, 1987. A few days later in early '88, Hamas actually adopted the name The Islamic Resistance and began to participate in the uprising against Israel. In 1988, it also--and '89--began to want to pursue a more violent strategy. And progressively it has escalated using different means of violence, beginning in 1989, 1990, with a war of knives; kidnapping Israeli soldiers, that led to the expulsion of 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists to South Lebanon; and of course, coming into contact with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Lebanese Shiite group that had been fighting the Israelis, adopted the suicide bombing and imported that into the Palestinian territory and began its first operation in terms of suicide bombings in April of 1994.

CONAN: Let me ask Rashid Khalidi: Do you think that Hamas started out with an agenda to become more militarily active, or if not, what was the process of transformation?

Prof. KHALIDI: Well, as Dr. Ranstorp says, Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood which, in the Gaza Strip, was not only quietist; most Palestinians would say was collaborationist, was--became a tool of the Israeli occupation against the nationalist movement there, against the PLO. Muslim Brotherhood thugs beat up PLO leaders in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In fact, they were taken from the Gaza Strip across Israel to the West Bank to do this--could only have done so with the connivance of the Israeli security authorities. And it was against this perceived collaborationism with the occupation that Hamas was founded. It was a revolt against the quietist collaborationist philosophy that the Muslim Brotherhood had been following up to that point.

I see that its turn towards violence is very much a function of its competition for leadership in the Palestinian polity with the PLO, now the PA--that is to say, it has moved in this direction in order to outflank the Fatah-PLO-PA bloc, which it has succeeded in doing. The net effect of its actions--not only suicide bombings, all of its actions--and of this approach has been that it has gone from having less than 20 percent support in most polls to having close to double that right now.

CONAN: And what do we know about Sheikh Yassin himself? Magnus Ranstorp, what do we know about him other than his role in Hamas?

Dr. RANSTORP: Well, I mean, Sheikh Yassin was placed into or, you know, became paraplegic because of a riding accident, I believe, in the late 1960s or maybe--I may be incorrect in terms of the exact dates. He's been very instrumental in terms of really forging the organizational, social framework. In terms of his involvement with violence, it's very murky ground; it's very difficult to decipher where the lines actually go between the political, social and the military activities, particularly because, you know, the individuals surrounding Sheikh Yassin certainly have functions that extends to all those different spheres.

CONAN: And, Rashid Khalidi, whether--if that's true, nevertheless, this is certainly not the first time the Israelis have tried to assassinate him.

Prof. KHALIDI: No, it's not. I think two things have to be said. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, as far as I know, never condemned violence, and I believe was an advocate of violence, but at the same time, with Ismail Abu Shanab, also now assassinated by the Israelis--he was one of the main Hamas political leaders who was moving toward some form of long-term accommodation with Israel. If Israel were to withdraw from all of the occupied territories, Abu Shanab and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said, Hamas would accept a long-term truce, a 10-year or in one case he was reported as having said a hundred years' truce. This was something that was opposed by the external leadership of Hamas, Khalid Mishaal, in Damascus and some of the internal leaders like Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who refused any compromise with Israel. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the two most--I'm not saying moderate--I don't think those terms apply; these are radical leaders of a radical organization--but the two most accommodating or accommodationist of Hamas' political leaders were the ones to be assassinated by Israel.

CONAN: We're speaking with Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University in New York and Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as we look at the days ahead, it seems, Rashid Khalidi, you're saying a lot of this has to do with internal Palestinian politics.

Prof. KHALIDI: Well, I think it has to do with internal Israeli politics, too, to be frank. The Israeli government and the Israeli military seem to me to have a number of objectives here. One of them would seem to be to make an orderly transfer of power in the Gaza Strip to the PA impossible. I think they see this as undermining not just the accommodationist wing of the Hamas leadership but undermining the PA. This will push everybody in the direction of retaliation on the Palestinian side and will completely prevent the possibility of the PA taking control of anything, should Israel withdraw.

CONAN: And when you say the PA, you mean, of course, Palestinian Authority.

Prof. KHALIDI: Precisely, yeah. Should Israel withdraw, I think it will mean that the Palestinian Authority will have very little capability to control anything, and I'm not sure this was the intention of the Israelis, but it certainly will be one effect. Another, I think, is to avoid the impression that Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip, if it ever does, under pressure. The Israeli army wants to come out of here looking like it's a victor, and it is committed to crushing Hamas. I think they have no chance whatsoever of doing that, but they seem to believe that this is doable, and the reports I'm reading out of Israel indicate that that's what the chief of staff and the defense minister have argued to the Cabinet.

CONAN: Well, Magnus Ranstorp, from what you know of the organization, how much is the loss of Sheikh Yassin going to affect Hamas?

Dr. RANSTORP: Well, certainly it will affect it in terms of being one of the symbols of the Hamas as the--not only perhaps the spiritual leader but also the ambassador. I mean, I can't see that anyone can naturally fill in his shoes. It also--as the previous observer said, it is certainly going to sort of complicate the efforts within, you know, particularly not only for Hamas but also for the PA in what it will do in terms of pushing everyone in the line of the militants.

CONAN: But is Hamas a highly centralized structure? Is it something that can be effectively decapitated?--as what we seem to be hearing, as least in some arguments.

Dr. RANSTORP: Well, I mean, I agreed totally--totally--with the previous comments about--and I would perhaps even go so far as to say that it has all to do with Israeli politics. You know, the Israelis could have picked off Sheikh Yassin, they could have picked off Abu Shanab anytime they wanted to. We're talking about a hermetically sealed environment. I think we have to differentiate between Gaza. There we have a leadership that is very closely knit together; there may be differences in opinions. But then of course, you have the West Bank leadership and they are acclimized in their different localities. And as has been mentioned earlier, you have also the outside leadership, those that are sitting in Jordan as well as perhaps the most important ones in terms of militants, those that are sitting in Syria as well as in Lebanon.

CONAN: So as we look at, Rashid Khalidi, I guess, an important and vital question, if Magnus Ranstorp is right that the Israelis could have gotten to Sheikh Yassin at almost any time they wanted...

Prof. KHALIDI: I think that's right, yeah.

CONAN: ...why now then?

Prof. KHALIDI: Well, I think it does have to do with this potential handover of Gaza. I think it has to do with American electoral politics. I think it has to do with the Israeli army wanting to ensure that what many Israelis perceived happen in Lebanon, Israel leaving with its tail between its legs--not happen in the Gaza Strip, should there ever be a pullout. And I think it also has to do with a sense, on the part of the Israeli military, that they may have the upper hand in this struggle. The number of attacks has decreased on Israeli civilians. I think that that's for another reason myself. I think it's because Hamas and some of the other Palestinian factions are thinking about other things. The question now will be: Will this major escalation provoke a further radicalization of the Palestinians? I would be surprised if it doesn't.

CONAN: And based on recent evidence in the cycles of violence that we've seen, Magnus Ranstorp, there's every reason to believe that the Hamas militants who vow revenge will see their day.

Dr. RANSTORP: Without question. And they will try at any opportunity that they can. It's interesting to note that there's been no attacks from Gaza for a long time; it's a hermetically sealed-off area. Let me also say that...

CONAN: Well, excuse me...

Dr. RANSTORP: thing that hasn't been mentioned, and that is, Hamas has a long-term strategic agenda. In fact, Sheikh Yassin talked about the beginning of an Islamic state in Palestine will begin around the year 2022, 2023, and that has to do with life after Yasser Arafat, Palestinian demography, possible Islamic revolutions in Jordan and in Egypt and, of course, this program of mayhem and destruction.

CONAN: I didn't mean to cut you off, but wasn't the raid last week against Ashdod traced back to people who came across from Gaza?

Dr. RANSTORP: Well, I mean, there have been very few instances, very few instances comparative to what has been going on in the West Bank...


Dr. RANSTORP: That is an aberration rather than the norm.

CONAN: Magnus Ranstorp, thank you very much for your time.

Dr. RANSTORP: Pleasure.

CONAN: Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews. He joined us from his office there. And, Rashid Khalidi, always good to speak with you.

Prof. KHALIDI: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: He's director of Middle East Institute at Columbia University and joined us from his office in New York City.

In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

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