A Look at the Leaders of Hamas

Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, discusses the history and leadership of Hamas with Melissa Block.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The word Hamas in Arabic means zeal. The name is an acronym formed from the Arabic words for Islamic Resistance Movement. We asked Rashid Khalidi to walk us through the history of Hamas and how its philosophy has changed over the decades. He's the Edward Siad (ph) Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University.

Mr. RASHID KHALIDI (Professor of Arab Studies, Columbia University): Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an organization that was established in Egypt in the late 1920s. It describes itself as and was the Palestinian branch of that Egyptian-based organization. For the first couple of decades of the Israeli occupation, from '67 until the end of the '80s, it tended to follow a quietest, non-confrontational policy towards Israel and the occupation.

And most Palestinians believed, and there's been confirmation from some Israelis who are involved in the security services, that Israel actually encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip, especially as a counterweight to the PLO, to the secular, nationalist PLO. There was change at the end of the '80s when a lot of Palestinian Islamists began to feel that the quietest and non-confrontational policy of the Brotherhood was inappropriate and it turned towards greater militancy, Hamas was founded in that year, 1987 and since then it has grown to be a formidable rival to Fatah and the more secular PLO.

BLOCK: And its tone changed substantially from non-confrontational to something that --

Mr. KHALIDI: Absolutely, a few years after Hamas was founded. It issued a charter in which it argued that all of Palestine was not just an Arab land, but was an Islamic endowment, a (unintelligible) for the all of the Muslims and that it would be inadmissible to give up any part of it under any circumstances.

So it issued, as it were, the most uncompromising position and that marked it out as much more uncompromising than the PLO, which at the very same period, 1988, had accepted the idea of a two-state solution of the Palestinian state side by side with Israel. It differed as well in tactics because in the same period, the PLO had renounced terrorism and Hamas launched its first suicide attack in 1994. And since then, it really pioneered the use of attacks on Israeli civilians by people who killed themselves in the process.

BLOCK: When Hamas espouses a theocratic state to be established in Palestine, what does that mean? Do you get a sense of what they would be looking at?

Mr. KHALIDI: Well, I mean, you can look at their mentors in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They are talking about a complete restructuring of the way in which life operates. People are to become good in terms of Islamic norms, as they define them, the role of the state is to facilitate people living within these norms. It should be said that this is a vision, which most Palestinians don't adhere to.

Most Palestinian Muslims don't adhere to, which is a reason that all the polling up until these elections showed that, you know, just need 20, 25 percent of Palestinians agreed with the program of Hamas. They didn't vote for Hamas because of this, but the program is explicit. It is a particular vision of an Islamic state, which I think they share in many respects with other branches of the Muslim Brotherhood.

BLOCK: And if they try to impose that program, what do you think the result will be?

Mr. KHALIDI: Well, they'll have real problems. You have a Christian population in Palestine, you have a secular Muslim population in Palestine, and you have many pious Muslims who do not believe in Hamas' interpretation of Islam. A solid majority, I think, would oppose.

Hamas didn't run on that though. It's worth looking at the Hamas platform on which they actually ran in these elections: reform and change. And they very strictly adhered to not talking about confrontation with Israel, not talking about their charter, not talking about an Islamic state, neither their strategic program, nor their religious program and social program were emphasized in the platform on which they ran. They said, We're going to stop the corruption. We're running on the fact that we're clean, we are efficient, we are not corrupt.

BLOCK: I think what a lot of people are wondering is that essentially a wolf in sheep's clothing. In other words, is that what it took to get elected but their aims are quite other than that.

Mr. KHALIDI: Well, a lot of people are worked about that and the people who are probably most worried about that are Palestinians, including that large majority of Palestinians who don't agree with their social program and who don't agree with their strategic program, but who respect them because unlike Fatah and the PLO, they're seen as having stood up to the Israelis, unlike Fatah and the PLO, they're being seen as incorruptible.

That's what people voted for, but I think a lot of them woke up yesterday worrying what else did they bring in their bag and baggage and we will see the answer to that.

BLOCK: Rashid Khalidi, thanks so very much for talking with us.

Mr. KHALIDI: Pleasure.

BLOCK: Rashid Khalidi is Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. We reached him at a conference on democratizing the Middle East at Tuft's University in Medford Massachusetts.

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