Hamas emerged in 1987 during the first intifada as an Islamist political and militant movement in the struggle against the Israeli occupation. The main force behind suicide bombings inside Israel in the 1990s and early 2000s, Hamas earned a reputation as a terrorist organization — officially designated as such by the United States and European Union. It has governed Gaza since winning elections in 2006, despite U.S. and Israeli sanctions, fierce rivalries with the Palestinian Authority, and repeated wars.
Those who see the movement as dedicated only to violence, or to religious fanaticism, neglect factors that position Hamas to embrace unarmed mobilization under the right conditions. Three key factors are salient in shaping Hamas’s stance in this regard: its internal organization, adaptability to changing political conditions and ideological flexibility.
Hamas’s internal structure is conducive to mass, unarmed protest at least as much as military activity. This has been the case especially since 1991 when, years into the first intifada, Israel imprisoned most of Hamas’s leadership and ravaged it as a local organization. Recognizing that the still-young movement’s focus on armed militancy was bringing it to the verge of destruction, Hamas political leader Mousa Abu Marzuq intervened to restructure it to privilege and protect its greatest source of strength: its popular base.
This complex restructuring did not preclude Hamas’s subsequent use of violence, as the movement’s founding militant orientation continued to dominate its approach to Israel. Critically, Hamas’s core structure remains organized not in terms of armed cells but on the basis of separate groups and ranks of highly socialized cadres tightly linked to their own communities. This local grounding is much more similar to that of the encompassing social project of the Muslim Brotherhood than to a militia. It gives Hamas the latent power to shift from unarmed to popular mobilization when conditions recommend it.
Despite its reputation for ideological fervor, Hamas has proved to be a rational, strategic political actor with the capacity and the drive to adjust to political circumstances. Over the decades, numerous Hamas leaders have declared their willingness to accept a political settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two-state solution on the 1967 borders. This position, as well as rejection of any religious grounds for the conflict, became official in the revised charter that Hamas released in May.
Alongside these high-profile policy shifts are more subtle changes in the movement’s understanding of “resistance,” a concept central to Hamas’s very name as the “Islamic Resistance Movement.” In our ongoing research analyzing more than 200 official Hamas documents or statements by leaders between 2000 and 2007, we find that Hamas uses the term “resistance” to encompass a range of activism beyond the religious and military realms, including economic development and achievement of enhanced security for Palestinian civilians.
Between 2004 and 2006, Hamas framed its electoral promises as a “resistance project.” Under blockade since then, Hamas has framed Gazans’ everyday resilience, or sumud, as resistance. These changes are not mere rhetoric. They are serious and significant indicators that Hamas embraces a plethora of strategies that do not entail violence.
Circumstances today seem to call for such an adaptation. Far from achieving liberation, Hamas’s military project has pushed Palestinians further from the goal of statehood. Suicide bombings inside Israel in the 1990s and 2000s claimed hundreds of innocent lives and moved Israeli opinion further to the right, and rocket fire provided the pretext for three devastating Israeli wars on Gaza.
Hamas’s political project has similarly failed. Its victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative council ended in the tightening of the blockade on the Gaza Strip, a bloody schism between a Hamas government in the Gaza Strip and Fatah government in the West Bank, and conditions of ever-worsening misery for Gaza’s nearly 2 million residents. Hamas is well aware that its popularity is at a dramatic low and it needs a change. Furthermore, it has struggled to adapt to the shifts in Arab politics, especially the Saudi and UAE feud with Qatar. Participating in an unarmed intifada could be seen as a potential route toward regaining a strong place within Palestinian and regional politics.
A new intifada is more likely to erupt from the broader Palestinian public than to be initiated by Hamas. Given Hamas’s low popularity in Gaza, protest that begins at Hamas’s initiation is likely to alienate Palestinians more than inspire them. The dim prospects for a two-state solution, continued Israeli settlement expansion, dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority and generational conflict are pushing many Palestinians toward renewed mass mobilization. If such a new intifada begins, Hamas is likely to find ways to operate within it.
Should conditions trigger unarmed protest, which could then spread over space and last over days, Hamas could encourage its cadres to jump in and lend their organizational resources to the greater Palestinian cause of a mass movement to end the Israeli occupation. Such a likely role for Hamas should not be seen as a death knell for peaceful mobilization. In many ways, an unarmed intifada needs Hamas. As we argue elsewhere, large-scale, sustained nonviolent protest requires coordination, discipline and broad-based participation, which in turn requires organization. Surveying the Palestinian political landscape today, perhaps no movement is better positioned to offer these organizational capacities than is Hamas.
Imad Alsoos earned his PhD from the Free University of Berlin, focusing on Hamas in Gaza.
Wendy Pearlman is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. Her new book is “We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria.”