In the spring of 1995 in Gaza City, I met Musa Ziyada, a 15-year-old boy with huge almond eyes. He had apparently been recruited by Hamas, the radical Islamist group, to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel — a plot foiled at the last moment by Ziyada’s alert uncle, an intelligence officer in the Palestinian Authority police force. Attracted to his local mosque from the age of 10, Ziyada was considered something of a prodigy in Koranic studies. He also played soccer on the mosque’s Hamas-affiliated team, which refused to wear shorts. He was lured to his near-death — or “martyrdom” — with the promises that he would be rewarded with 70 virgins in Paradise and a free pass there for 70 relatives and friends.
In those days, the Palestinian Authority was on to Hamas, eager to prove to Israel that it was fighting terror. But after the Islamists’ surprise victory in the Palestinians’ January 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas is the Palestinian Authority — a development that makes Matthew Levitt’s revealing study both incredibly relevant and somewhat behind the times.
Ziyada crops up in Levitt’s book (in an account drawn from news reports about the jihadist boy wonder) as one example of Hamas’s propensity for cynical exploitation. Levitt’s point is that Hamas uses its religious, social welfare, educational and political structures not only to curry popular favor among Palestinians but also to propagate its murderous agenda — and sometimes to provide logistical and financial support for what he calls Hamas’s “overarching apparatus of terror.” Therefore, argues Levitt, a former FBI analyst now working on terrorism-finance issues at the Treasury Department, no distinction can or should be made between Hamas’s various wings; the group’s political and charitable arms are mere fronts for its bombers.
For those pundits, academics, outside do-gooders or policymakers still wavering on how best to deal with Hamas, Levitt provides a thoroughly documented exposure of the organization’s dark side. (Be warned: The detail is sometimes impressive, sometimes mind-numbing and repetitive.) Extensive research — based on declassified intelligence documents, court records, media reports, academic studies and interviews conducted by the author, mostly with unnamed security sources rather than with Hamas operatives themselves — throws up some intriguing tidbits. For instance, Levitt reports that three members of the cell responsible for the 2002 Passover eve bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya, a watershed attack, belonged to a singing troupe that went around the West Bank lauding Hamas’s actions. One bomber, he adds, dropped out at the last minute, having come down with a cold.
Much of Hamas, though, reads like a long policy paper — which it essentially is, having been written while Levitt was working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. As such, it offers policy recommendations on how to neutralize Hamas, such as cutting off all the organization’s funding and channeling more international aid via moderate or secular Palestinian elements. Levitt also points to one mind-twister for American policymakers: Hamas’s desire to preserve its fundraising network inside the United States has so far helped dissuade the organization from directly attacking U.S. targets; a U.S. crackdown on the group’s stateside money trail could make Hamas less restrained.
At this point, the book starts to feel dated. A crackdown on Hamas’s funding might have helped when the group was filling the gap between a notoriously corrupt, Fatah-dominated Palestinian administration and a largely impoverished Palestinian population. But now that Hamas has taken over the government, the parameters have changed.
Hamas’s ascension to power has brought a host of new confounding problems. For example, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the routed Fatah faction, made a deal with his Hamas rivals last year, promising them a political role in his regime in return for a ceasefire. Both parties so far have stuck to the bargain, but if Hamas is starved out of government as the result of an international economic boycott, we can assume that there will be more Park Hotels. What’s more, given local pride in the democratic process that brought Hamas to power in the first place, anti-Western sentiment would only increase among the ever-poorer Palestinians if the world drummed the Islamists out of office.
I do not know what happened to Musa Ziyada; back in 1995, having narrowly been saved from blowing himself apart along with as many Israelis as possible, he told me that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. Meanwhile, Ziyada’s former patrons in Hamas have gone from running free clinics in the Gaza Strip to taking over the Palestinian Ministry of Health and from training toddlers in local kindergartens for martyrdom to managing the Ministry of Education. Levitt’s rich study does not take that startling rise to power into account — and therefore offers no practical solutions for it. Of course, he is hardly to blame for that: By all accounts, Hamas was as shocked by its success at the ballot box as everybody else. Desperate to receive international aid yet determined to stick to its guns, Hamas, it seems, had not really thought through the possibility either. ·
Isabel Kershner is an associate editor at the Jerusalem Report and the author of “Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”Hamas sells normally for $26, but is available at SPMEMart spme.org/spmemart.html for just $16.38.