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Levitt: Hamas Unlikely to Moderate Stance Now That It Controls Palestinian Government

Interviewee: Matthew Levitt
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 20, 2006

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Matthew Levitt, an expert on terrorism and the author of a new book, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, says it is unlikely Hamas, which has long preached the overthrow of Israel, is going to change now that it controls the Palestinian government. "Being the government, I don't think, is going to moderate Hamas in the least," says Levitt, who is deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department. Levitt wrote his book while serving as senior fellow and director of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He says there are two things the world will be watching. "The first, of course, is to see whether or not Hamas itself conducts attacks against Israel, what it does with the standing army, and also what it does to deal with other Palestinian elements that continue to attempt or successfully conduct attacks against Israel," he says. But even more important is what Hamas "does domestically in terms of the Palestinian economy, what it does to provide social services, [which] will be no less a determinant of the future." He says if Hamas is found unpopular with the Palestinian people, he thinks it can be voted out of office.

Hamas has now made public its proposed cabinet for the Palestinian Authority and, with the exception of one or two independents, they're all members of Hamas. Will this cabinet be accepted by the parliament and President Mahmoud Abbas?

The new parliament is dominated by Hamas and its supporters, so the proposed group, I'm sure, will make it in that way. And I find it hard to believe Abbas would oppose it either. Hamas won the election, and whether that was a measure of support for Hamas or a protest vote against the octogenarian kleptocrats in Fatah or otherwise, this is the cabinet they're going to have to deal with.

Were there any surprises in the list that was made public?

No, I didn't see many surprises. You expected to see some of the mainstay names. Mahmoud Zahhar in particular, as foreign minister, is upsetting but not surprising. But I can't say anyone is surprised by the list.

Some people have speculated that just as the PLO once was regarded as a terrorist organization until it recognized Israel, Hamas in power might moderate its positions because of the problems it would face trying to run a government. Do you think there's much to be said for that point of view?

Being the government, I don't think, is going to moderate Hamas in the least. And the reason for that is they have a model they have already articulated that they intend to follow, which is the model of Hezbollah in the north. Hezbollah has been part of the government in Lebanon for many years, and it does have a cabinet minister. And it has set a very good example for those who are inclined to engage in militancy, whether it's guerrilla attacks or terrorist attacks, while simultaneously being involved in government and politics and social welfare.

Hamas has made it very clear it intends to follow that model and has already taken steps to actively parallel itself in the West Bank and Gaza to Hezbollah's situation in southern Lebanon in particular. Months before the election, Hamas announced it was going to be setting up a standing militia, the Qassam Brigade; it would not take the place of, but would sit parallel to, existing terrorist wings. This militia is similar to Hezbollah's standing militia in southern Lebanon.

And it also did other things. Hezbollah, for example, has set up an international satellite television station, al-Manar, which it uses to broadcast its message worldwide, and Hamas has now openly acknowledged that its efforts to set up a Hamas television station, al-Aqsa TV out of Gaza, is based on lessons it learned from Hezbollah. Hamas is going to use its situation in power to solidify its rule as a political player in the West Bank and Gaza; it's going to try and incorporate the existing Palestinian security services into its standing militia.

Are there not some people who favor a more moderate bent?

That doesn't mean there are not elements within Hamas that could conceivably moderate. About two years ago there was an internal Hamas document that was circulated in the West Bank by some members of Hamas arguing perhaps it was time for the movement to follow the path of other Muslim Brotherhood groups—Hamas is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood—and like the Islamic Action Front, which is the Brotherhood's political entity in Jordan, perhaps it should pursue Islamist goals through politics and social activity without the parallel guerrilla or terrorist activity.

The fact that a debate and a discussion occurred is telling, even though it was shouted down. There are elements within Hamas that could be moderated. Whenever I have this discussion, I'm brought back to a conversation I had in person with Abbas al-Sayyid. Abbas al-Sayyid is the convicted mastermind of the Passover bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya on March 27, 2002, that killed thirty and left 140 injured. That was the straw that broke the camel's back leading Israeli forces to reinvade the West Bank that year. I interviewed Abbas al-Sayyid in prison, and at one point got into a conversation with him about the issue of whether Hamas can moderate, whether it would be willing to pursue its agenda—even if that agenda includes the destruction of Israel—through political and other peaceful means.

I was arguing that the issue the international community has with Hamas isn't so much its agenda but its means of pursuing its agenda. I argued that some people, though they may disagree vociferously on Hamas' political agenda, may accept them as a political entity. What he told me is, "Look, I'm a religious person and Hamas is a religious movement. It's not only a terrorist group, it also tells you how to live every aspect of your life through sharia, Islamic law. And as such, I as a Muslim cannot cede any part of what I believe to be an Islamic endowment—all of Israel, presently Israel—to the Jews or anybody else. If I were to agree to a temporary truce—a tahiya—that would be exactly what it is, temporary."

Al-Sayyid said "temporary" can mean a generation or two, but he added: "If I were to subscribe to one of these long-term ceasefires, don't think that I would not continue to train my son, who would enable his son, to eventually consider the struggle, the fight, to regain all of this Islamic endowment that is now Israel." So what we're left with is a situation where those who are primarily nationalists of an Islamic bent could possibly be moderated. But those who are Islamists of a nationalist bent are less likely to be amenable to moderation.

Now, you were comparing Hezbollah with Hamas: Hezbollah has never been in control of the Lebanese government and Hamas is now being thrust into power. Doesn't that make a big difference?

It makes a huge difference, and it makes a huge difference in favor of Hamas, because Hamas has more governmental levers at its control than Hezbollah ever did. It has more benefits that it can give to people; it has more favors it can cull from people. Hezbollah has set the model for how to do that even though it did not control the government, by virtue of the fact that it controls southern Lebanon, which is far from the reaches of the central government and where almost all of the social welfare benefits are provided by Hezbollah, and not just to Shiite Muslims—Hezbollah is a Shia organization—but also to Sunni Muslims and to Christian Lebanese.

How does Hamas rule if it knows the majority of the people didn't vote for it in the first place—I think it got 44 percent of the voting in parliamentary elections—and it's under such pressure from the outside world to conform to the PLO's [Palestinian Liberation Organization] past agreements with Israel?

The outside pressure to conform to past agreements clearly has not fazed Hamas in the least, and they've made it very clear their intention is to set a new course; they should not be bound by the "mistakes" of others. How Hamas deals with the domestic constituency with its plurality is something Hamas is going to have to figure out. That the international community is interested in pursuing a two-state solution that creates an independent Palestinian state that is at peace with its neighbors, Hamas refuses to recognize. Palestinian voters are going to have to make a decision as to whether or not that's the kind of government they want to have, whether that's the kind of government that can bring them peace and prosperity.

I sincerely believe Palestinians are no different than any other people on this earth, and they want to be able to provide for their children, they want to be able to have decent lives, they want to be able to travel, they want to be able to open businesses, and Hamas is going to have to find a way to enable that to happen under conditions that are very, very difficult, because the international community is not going to do business with an entity that is still favoring violence as the preferred means of achieving its goals. But I'm not here to tell Hamas how to succeed.

Sometimes it's said, sometimes jokingly, that when you have a free election, or a group comes into power, it may be the last free election. If they don't succeed in giving people what they want, do you think Hamas can actually be voted out?

Palestinian society is actually very vibrant. Palestinians have traditionally been one of the most highly educated [peoples] in the Arab world. By virtue of living next to Israel they've seen what democracy can do politically and in terms of the economy. So I think the Palestinians really are devoted to democracy. I think they are also realizing elections alone don't make a democracy. Is there a significant chance for some very serious domestic unrest? Yes. I don't think it's going to get to the point of a civil war, but no one really can say. At the end of the day, I do think Palestinians will be able to make a decision of whether to keep Hamas in or out of power. I don't see Palestinian society tolerating, or Hamas being strong enough, to carry through with some kind of coup d'etat.

And of course, the United Nations is continuing to fund humanitarian efforts in the Palestinian Authority. But that's difficult if you're trying to bypass the government, isn't it?

It's very difficult but it is not impossible. And the conclusion I come to in my book is that the inner strength and the Achilles' heel of Hamas is its dawa, its social welfare infrastructure. What enables Hamas to draw support from Palestinian society, and what simultaneously enables the group to raise, launder, transfer funds to support the full range of its social, political, and terrorist activities, is this social welfare infrastructure. What I've called for in my book is an international effort that would think very long and hard about how to undermine Hamas' dawa by talking about building a health clinic on the same street that Hamas has a health clinic on, but building one that is far and away superior—with X-ray machines, MRI machines, what-have-you—to what Hamas is able to provide.

The total sum of funds that Hamas injects into Palestinian society is actually not that huge; they're just much better at marketing it than we've ever been, we the international community. It's entirely within our means to completely undermine the Hamas social welfare system. That's the conclusion I've come to in my book. Nobody wants Palestinian society to collapse. Nobody wants a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza, least of all the Israelis; they would have to deal with the repercussions.

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