BOOK REVIEW: Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza

Meticulously researched, Hamas and Civil Society: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector (Princeton University Press, 2011) is a significant study of Hamas and Gaza’s social institutions. The evolution of Hamas brought about radical change in Gaza’s society – bolstered and hindered by Israel’s illegal occupation. Established in 1987, Hamas was largely regarded as a terrorist organisation during Bill Clinton’s presidency – a perception which heightened in post September 11 rhetoric when President George W Bush included the organisation on the US terror list. Contrary to the propagated conventional perception, Sara Roy’s study portrays Hamas as a legitimate organisation operating within several, separate structures.

Focusing on Hamas from the viewpoint of society, Roy elicits the social, political, military and economic circles of Hamas. By constructing its legitimacy using the social sphere as its base, Hamas created a cultural framework which promoted the involvement of the recipient community. The provision of free social services was instrumental in providing Hamas with popular support. However, contrary to prevalent assumptions, Hamas’ recognition and subsequent electoral victory as a political party was not based on the Islamisation of Gaza but rather by applying an understanding of Palestinian Islamism ‘from within its own framework’. As a rival to PLO and Fatah, Hamas provided resistance to the Israeli occupation and was an expression of a dominant ideology in the Middle East. Hence, resistance was amalgamated with the prospects of social change.

Roy explains how Hamas evolved from an organisation concerned with militancy during the First Intifada, when Sheikh Ahmed Yassin exhorted the occupier’s defeat through nationalism. Sheikh Yassin’s argument of fighting for self-determination evoked an Israeli campaign of targeted assassinations, deportation, arrests and torture against Hamas leaders. By 1989, Hamas radicalised its strategy to incorporate the social sphere and became renowned for its distribution of social services and also for its transparency. During the Oslo period, the PLO’s acceptance of ‘Israel’s right to exist’ elicited an opposite reaction from Hamas, who drew attention to the contradictions between the Oslo Accord and UN Resolution 242 which called for territorial inviolability, political independence and demilitarisation. Read more.

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