The Islamic Struggle for Palestine

The informative and entertainingly written book "Hamas – the Islamic Struggle for Palestine" by the historian and journalist Joseph Croitoru offers readers a better understanding of Hamas and the Middle East conflict. Jürgen Endres takes a look

​​Be it as an Islamic resistance movement, as a political party or as a faction within Palestine’s internal armed conflicts, the Palestinian "Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya" – known by its acronym "Hamas" – has played key role in the course and dynamic of the Middle East conflict for years.

It is constantly making headlines in the process. At the same time – at least on the German book market – little has been written about the goals and ideology of the organization.

Joseph Croitoru, a historian and journalist who was born in Haifa and lives in Germany has now addressed this gap with "Hamas: the Islamic Struggle for Palestine”.

The result is a solid and scrupulously researched reference book which provides the comprehensive and detailed background information necessary not only for a better understanding of Hamas, but also of the Middle East conflict and the “Middle East peace process”.

Croitoru’s history of Hamas is dominated by two central messages. One is that the development of Hamas is comparable to that of the Muslim brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928; not only did Hamas follow from it ideologically, it also adopted many of its strategies and structural patterns.

The other is the author’s assessment that Hamas can be expected to have few positive effects for peaceful progress in the crisis-torn region in future. Accordingly, the story of the Hamas is also the story of a Middle East peace process which has foundered so far despite different peace initiatives.

The development of Hamas

Croitoru proceeds here as one would expect from a historian, taking his readers on an extremely informative and occasionally entertaining foray into the history of the Middle East conflict.

Beginning with the foundation of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and its involvement in Palestine, the author describes the long history of Hamas’ origins and informs readers about its predecessors and about the political developments that led to its founding in 1988 by Sheikh Yassin.

In the process he raises questions, informs readers about scholarly discourses and introduces central figures in events with brief biographical excursions.

Croitoru vividly depicts the competition between the secular PLO and Islamists for supremacy, first within the Palestinian resistance and then – with the formation of the autonomous Palestinian Territories – within the political entity of “Palestine”.

Struggle between two rivals

Against this background, Croitoru explains the history of the Middle East conflict in these years as the result of the conflict strategies and counterstrategies of two rival Palestinian resistance movements.

Here Croitoru ascribes particular significance to the two groups’ disassociation from one another, the strategic function of terror (which the author describes in effect as a brutal competition between different Islamist and secular terrorist organizations) and the permanent effort to outdo the rival.

In addition, the author analyzes the diverse structures and networks of Hamas as well as its basic ideological messages, always from the perspective of the rivalry between the PLO and Hamas.

An especially fascinating aspect is definitely Croitoru’s descriptions of the ideological exchange of blows between the PLO and Hamas, for example using flyers that document Hamas’ ideological developments while informing the reader about what constitutes Islamist rhetoric and the function of historiography and myth-making.

All this is grippingly told and – as one would expect from a historian – well-documented. Especially noteworthy is the diversity of sources which Croitoru cites and brings to bear on his research.

This is reflected both in the variety of languages (German, English, French, Arabic and Hebrew) and in the type of sources (secondary literature, ideological writings, pamphlets, Internet etc.).

The foot soldiers of Hamas

However, the reader’s appreciation of Joseph Croitoru’s Hamas book is marred by the following qualifications and flaws: for one thing, the author neglects to answer for his readers the really central and urgent question of “who” Hamas actually is.

One learns a great deal of useful information about the origins and ideology of Hamas, the diverse activities and strategies of the Islamist organization, and about its leadership.

However, a sociological profile of the average members and sympathizers of the organization, in other words, all those who vote for Hamas, constitute the organization and give it life outside the leadership circle, is completely lacking.

Moreover, for long stretches the book restricts itself to “event history”, albeit well-executed due to good structuring.

In the process, the events depicted are invariably interpreted as the results of strategic action on the part of rational people, which is especially questionable from a sociological perspective – and no doubt a result of the author’s fundamental decision to write history (and in this case the history of Hamas) “from above”.

A complementary look at things – namely “from below” – would certainly have benefited the book in this regard.

Jürgen Endres

© 2007

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

Joseph Croitoru: Hamas. Der islamische Kampf um Palästina. C.H. Beck 2007. 254 pages, hardcover. EUR 19.90

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