Hamas is not the Palestinian Al Qaeda


In an overheated bit of rhetoric, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday: "Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda."

Mr. Netanyahu was referring to Hamas, the Islamist movement that won the 2006 Palestinian legislative election, fought a brief civil war with Fatah, the secular-minded party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the following year, and patched up differences with Mr. Abbas's party last month.

Hamas's crushing 2006 victory was largely due to Palestinian disaffection with Fatah. On top of failing to deliver a Palestinian state, Fatah's old guard was widely derided as corrupt by average Palestinians. In the years since, Hamas's often-thuggish rule in the Gaza Strip has eroded its popular support, though it remains one of the most powerful and cohesive forces in Palestinian society.

That reality, and the realization that a Palestinian house divided made a mockery of moves toward peace talks with Israel (since Abbas's government didn't speak for Gaza) led to the reconciliation of the two groups. Mr. Netanyahu is furious about this development.

There are, of course, good reasons for that. Hamas, unlike Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), hasn't formally recognized Israel's right to exist. Rocket fire has frequently poured out of a Gaza under Hamas control (though often fired by other groups, the Israeli argument has been that it's done with tacit Hamas approval), and the group is cozy with Iran and Syria.

But Hamas is a far, far cry from the utopian global fighters of Al Qaeda. Hamas stems from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda's ideological opponent. The Brotherhood and its progeny are largely national in interest. The Egyptian group is focused on Egypt, Hamas is focused on Palestinian territories, the Jordanian branch is focused on Jordan, and so forth.

Unlike Al Qaeda's vision of a global caliphate – and hostility to modern states and democratic processes – Hamas wants an independent Palestine with a dominant role for Islam in guiding legislation. Al Qaeda generally views the Brotherhood and its progeny with scorn.

And while Hamas's charter continues to call for an end to Israel, the organization offered Israel a 10-year hudna (truce) after it won the 2006 elections.

Israel's leaders argued that the truce was nothing more than a way for Hamas to buy time and build its strength toward the Jewish state's ultimate destruction, and they may well have been right, but the offer itself was a long way from Al Qaeda's continuous demand that Israel be destroyed as quickly as possible.

Hamas also seems to have a firm grasp on violence as a tactical tool in pursuit of its goals. Since the reconciliation deal with Fatah, no rockets have flown out of Gaza, as far as I can tell. The group's leaders, meanwhile, have been negotiating with the military junta that runs Egypt to open the Gaza border, something that would take some of the steam out of Israel's ongoing economic blockade of Gaza.

There are of course Al Qaeda fellow travelers in Gaza. In 2009, 22 people died in a Hamas led-raid on militants loyal to Abdel-Latif Moussa, a Salafi cleric who had set up an Al Qaeda-style militant group in Gaza. About six of the dead were Hamas policemen.

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