Preface In the past two years there seems to be a decline in both the quantity and quality of Hamas terrorist activity. Israeli politicians and journalists, as well as many observers from the Israeli security community tend to analyze this decline as meaning that although the movement is attempting to continue its massive terrorist activity, this attempt fails due to Israeli and Palestinian success in uncovering its activity. Others tend to emphasize—usually for political reasons—the Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the security field as the main reason for the decline. The Palestinians also seems to be very keen on giving maximum exposure to its pressures on Hamas, both political and military.
On the other hand, there are observers who, like this author, believe that although the Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and the pressure on Hamas play a prominent role, this is not the whole story. On the contrary, the change in Hamas activity and the decline in its terrorist operations result primarily from the movement’s own decisions rather than its inability to carry out these operations.
Constant reevaluation of Hamas’ positions The leaders of Hamas, especially the local leaders in the Palestinian Authority—and primarily in the Gaza Strip—are fully aware of what is written and said about their activity. This awareness is central to their high sensitivity to Palestinian public opinion—perhaps even to Israeli public opinion—not to mention to that of their own supporters, or what we may call the Islamic public. It is typical of movements belonging to the school of the Muslim Brotherhood that they constantly reevaluate their situation. In the 12 years since the outbreak of the Intifadah Hamas has tended to view its activity in stages. Every stage has its own strategy, goals and tactics. In most cases they do not conceal their reasoning and reevaluations, but publish it publicity in their main organ, Filastin al-Muslimah, and some of their pamphlets.
During the past two years we can see several reevaluations of the Palestinian scene on one hand and of its activity on the other, made by the Hamas leadership in the Territories. The analysis of these reevaluations has been presented on this website in three different articles by the author—“Is Hamas Reevaluating the Use of Terrorism?” on September 28th 1998; “A New Tactic of Hamas Terrorism” on October 13th 1998; and “Is Yassin Going to Kanossa?” on May 7th 1999. The main consequence of this analysis has been the thesis that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his closest aides in Gaza have thoroughly reconciled themselves to the existence of the Palestinian Authority as a kind of Palestinian regime in a semi-independent state. This change has come about since the Yassin’s release and his return to the leadership of the movement in the Gaza Strip, in October of 1997.
It seems that Yassin’s return to power has brought about two important changes in Hamas. One of these changes stems from Yassin’s position as the last prominent figure of the old leadership of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. As such he has brought Hamas to abide by the movement’s principles and doctrines, without loosing sight of the enormous political importance of the social, cultural and Islamic welfare activities. The second change was Yassin’s success in taking over the authority and influence of the “external” leadership, based mainly in Amman. These external leaders had placed greater emphasis on the military side of the struggle—concentrating mainly in the struggle against Israel rather than on gaining the local support of the Palestinian society in the Territories. The expulsion from Jordan of the Hamas activists by the Jordanian government has further weakened their position vis-a-vis the “internal” leadership under Yassin, and has thus strengthened his position. In fact, although he was obliged to publicly condemn the Jordanian act, we have not seen any real activity of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority to protest against this act. It seems that Yassin and his followers in the Territories can now function more easily, without feeling the external leadership breathing down their necks.
A new course? In the December 1999 issue of the London-based Filastin al-Muslimah, an important unsigned article appeared concerning “The Development of the Influence and Activity of the Islamic Trend in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the last two years.” As in previous cases concerning such movements, an unsigned article means that it reflects the official position of the movement and not the views of someone within the movement. For this reason the content of such articles is all the more important in analyzing the changes in the movement and its strategy.
The first thing that should attract our attention in the article is the connection made between the military and political activity of Hamas. The article compares the terrorist operations during the past two years with the success of the Islamic Blocks in the student council elections in the Palestinian universities over the past three years. This combination is important because it seems that the article is mostly directed to the movement’s supporters and the Islamic public.
The manner in which the data is presented in the article gives the reader the impression that the terrorist activity of the “Islamic Resistance” in the past two years was meant primarily to affect Palestinian public opinion and to increase the Palestinian support of the movement, rather than to halt the peace process or to intimidate the Israeli public. Some may say that this was a consequence of the Movement’s weakness following heavy pressure brought to bear by the Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Some may say that the strategy of Hamas has not changed, but that it can no longer maintain its terrorism in Israel. But the fact is that several of the movement’s publications since the release of Yassin two years ago point to the conclusion that the local leadership is concentrating more on the future than on waging a war against the “rear guard” of the present political process. It seems that Hamas has fully internalized the fact that the Palestinian independent state on part of Palestine as a consequence of the reconciliation process with Israel is about to become a reality. Moreover, it has internalized the fact that this is the expectation of the vast majority of the Palestinians. The movement’s main direction of struggle should therefore take place in the internal arena and center around the nature of this future state. The popular support for Hamas The essence of the Hamas self-analysis is the contribution of the terrorist activity to the increased support of the Movement among the students, which in their view reflects the support in the Palestinian public in general. This is the important thing, not to the cessation of the peace process with Israel. The fact is that during the last three elections in the prominent universities Hamas gained the support of two thirds of the students. Since it is hard to argue with facts, we should pay attention to the enormous rates of support for Hamas among Palestinian students and ask the reasons of this phenomenon. Even though this support among the students do not necessarily reflect the support for the movement in the general Palestinian public, as Hamas proudly indicates in the article, it is no doubt significant for the following reasons:
The list of terrorist operations published in the article (Table No. 1) includes 30 operations, 14 in the period between September 1997 to August 1998, and 16 between September 1998 to September 1999. Although we’re dealing with relatively small numbers, the comparison of the data for each year shows a very definite change. In the first period Hamas carried out 9 (out of 14) operations using explosives (Suicide bombing, bombs and car bombs), while in the second period only 5 out of 16 used this modus operandi. Furthermore, in the first period Hamas carried out 5 out of 14 operations using small arms (Shooting, grenades or Molotovs, stabbing and auto collisions), while in the second 11 out of 16 operations used such methods. This means that the terrorist apparatus is having difficulties obtaining and using explosives, probably due to the greater effectiveness of both the Israeli and Palestinian security forces, and the better cooperation between them.
But, another interesting change can be seen in the locales and targets of Hamas’ terrorism. In the first period 9 out of 14 operations were carried out in Israel, including East-Jerusalem (4 out of the 9 outside Jerusalem). In the second period 6 out of 16 were such operations (only 3 outside Jerusalem). In other words, there is a decline in the operations carried out in Israel (inside the “Green Line”) and an increase (from 5 to 9) of the operations carried out in the Territories, against Israeli soldiers or settlers, who are perceived by Hamas as soldiers as well.
The question is whether this change reflects merely the scarcity of explosives, or an overall change in tactics, or both. It is difficult to answer this question in a decisive way. But, if we look at Hamas’ pamphlets over the past year and some of the articles in Filastin al-Muslimah, we can at least mark a greater emphasis on the internal competition with the Palestinian Authority than on the armed struggle against Israel. Hamas has not changed its verbal war against the Jewish State nor its Jihad-like language. But, it seems that some of the changes on the political scene have brought about a reevaluation of the tactics of Hamas, at least in the present and near future. Such political influences include the renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian talks, the election of a new government in Israel, the higher expectations within the Palestinian society, the pressures on Hamas’ activity in Jordan, and the departure of some Palestinian leftist factions like the PFLP and PDFLP from the “Opposition Front.”
The absence of the suicide operations that marked the activity of the armed Islamic resistance in the period of 1994-1997, has brought with it the assumption that there were signs of retreat caused by the circumstances, which led the resistance to abandon its flags and weapons. This assumption has been reinforced by the media and was nourished by the elements of the compromising camp.
In the shadow of stormy propaganda, accompanied by a noisy drumming on the drums of reconciliation, the resistance and those who believed in it have been viewed as a thing of the past. But, if we sift the dust of propaganda and stick to the facts, we see that the reconciliation is eating from the bread of history while the caravan of resistance is moving onwards to the future. This is revealed if we seriously analyze the results of the students’ elections, which precisely reflect the direction of the popular current that is concealed by the Palestinian Authority and the powers of dictatorship. These are the same consequences when we survey the resistance activity by the rifle that refuses to be broken, despite the poisoned winds over the area in this aching moment of its history.
A. The resistance activity against occupation The Palestinian scene has witnessed during the last months a real escalation of the Jihad operations carried out by Hamas. It seems that those operations have contradicted the rumors that the movement had changed its strategy of Jihad and abandoned the alternative of the resistance, under the pressures of persecution and arrests of its activists and members, both on the political and military levels.
The movement has proven its capability to reconstruct and promote itself by more powerful means than in any period in the past, after every blow directed at its military apparatus, either by the Israeli occupation or the Palestinian National Authority. This was proven by the latest series of operations, which kindled the red lights in the Israeli security system, and pushed it to raise the level of alertness among its ranks, to besiege some of the Palestinian cities, and to put mopressure on the Palestinian Authority in order to increase its efforts in persecuting the activists of the resistance in its territory.
It should be noted that there was not only an escalation of the military operations and increase of the activity of the military cells, but a development in the organizational level of Hamas and the capability of taking new and diverse measures, of maneuvering and of succeeding to carry out most of the operations without any losses.
Type of operation:
From the comparison in Table no. 1 we can see an escalation in the number of operations carried out by members of Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, in two years between the periods of 4/9/97-28/8/98 and 11/9/98-1/9/99.
The Palestinian universities, like the rest of the universities in the world, are a reflection of the political and social components in society. The students are biased to various political currents. Moreover, the messages of the political parties and movements reach the university campuses through the students. Therefore, every studential move is a political position but from a university point of view. The elections for the students’ councils in the Palestinian universities are a balance, and the political trends in the universities are similar to the natural trends in the Palestinian public. The positions of the students and their voting are therefore means to the reading of the tendencies of the Palestinian public and its various currents.
* The Democratic Polar is a front of the Popular Front, the People’s Party, FIDA, the Struggle Front and the Communist Party, in the elections of 1999. It represented the leftist trend.
Al-Najah National University in Nablus is the largest Palestinian university and the most famous in the history of the Palestinian struggle. Therefore, you cannot ignore the political, social and cultural elements of the student movement inside and outside the campuses, with the Israeli occupation in the past or the Palestinian National Authority, in the present.
If we survey the history of the Palestinian student movement in the last two decades, we notice the absence of the Islamic trend in the 1970s and 1980s from the general Islamic arena, while the PLO was the dominant element in Al-Najah University and a fruitage factor for its supporting trend—Fath. The Shabibah movement had had a dominance over the student council’s seats, until it was defeated for the first time since the outbreak of the Intifadah, and the Islamic block succeeded in gaining the confidence of the majority of the university students and hence, the control of the council. Only then, the power balance has changed.
As we see in Table no. 3, Hamas has increased its votes in about 2.7% between 1996 and 1999 and succeeded in crossing the barrier of majority, which enabled it to control the council with no need of the other factions. It seems that the popularity of Fath has retreated versus the increase of the Islamic trend of Hamas. The increase in the support for Hamas means that there is a real change in the tendencies of the students and their affiliations, after a long period in which they supported Fath. The increase of the rate of the voters should be noticed too, as it reached in 1998 and 1999 more than 80% from the total number of the students, which exceeds 10,000.
The election of 1999 was a kind of referendum on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, between Hamas as the trend of resistance to the Israeli occupation and Fath and the march of reconciliation supported by the Palestinian National Authority.
Several days prior to the elections there was wave of arrests of Hamas students in the university, in order to assist Fath. But the result was the victory of the Filastin al-Muslimah block in most of the council’s seats for the second year, in spite of the oppression and threats of the Palestinian Authority against Hamas members and supporters, and the assistto Fath.
The progress of Hamas in the elections was firstly at the expense of the Palestinian left and secondly the traditional dominance of Fath.
From Table no. 4 we can see that Hamas controlled all the 9 seats in the Islamic University in Gaza, its traditional center, where it has been developed before it expanded to the rest of Palestine. Despite the fact that Gaza Strip was the first area of control of the Palestinian National Authority and returned to Palestinian hands according to the peace process, the political trend supporting this reality has failed to win even one seat of the student council under the banner of Fath. It may be explained by the bad political and economic conditions in Gaza since the Oslo Accord, which are much worse than in any other Palestinian area or city. The lower classes suffer there from poverty and unemployment, while according to the report of the Palestinian Parliament, enormous sums of money from the Palestinian budget went to the purchase of tens of vehicles for Palestinian officials. Not to mention the political situation that was revealed in the reports of organizations of human rights about the political detainees in Palestinian jails and the beatings and humiliation they are exposed to, due to their political opposition tendencies.
The elections in Bir Zeit University were marked by many changes in the results of all blocks. The Islamic trend has been developing and maintained relative equality with Fath. The achievement of the Islamic trend in this university is remarkable due to the importance of the institution and its weight in the Palestinian public and society. The students at Bir Zeit have high political awareness and a tendency to absorb ideologies and ideas of different kinds.
Hebron University has witnessed the dominance of the Islamic Trend, composed of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in the first elections under the Palestinian Authority. This success was at the expense of Fath and the leftist trends. The Islamic trend won in 1997, 19 out of 35 seats, with 54.3% of the votes. In 1998 and 1999, it won, under the banner of Filastin al-Muslimah, 22 out of 41 seats, with 53.7% of the votes.
Fath movement won in 1997, 15 seats with 42.9%, retreated in 1998 to 17 seats out of 41, but succeeded in 1999 in gaining 19 seats. Among the other blocks only the Taghyir (Change) Block gained in 1998 two seats, and all the others have totally failed.
The table above presents the rates of dominance of Hamas and Fath movements in the four big universities in the Palestinian Authority in the past three years. Hamas has succeeded in gaining the support of twice the number of the students than Fath.
Authors Note: On the importance of the Palestinian universities in the Territories for the Islamic groups, see the author’s forthcoming article, “The centrality of the Palestinian Universities in the Territories in the development of the Palestinian Islamic Groups,” to be published by the Begin-Saadat Institute for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.