Middle East

Hamas: From PLO Rivals to Gaza Overlords

A Hamas militant stands on top of an armed vehicle parked outside Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas' office in Gaza City on June 15. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP-Getty Images)

The world watched in horror as they shot up Red Crescent ambulances, executed Palestinians in their hospital beds, and tossed others off the tops of tall buildings. In mid-June, the militiamen of the Islamic Resistance Movement (known by its Arabic acronym "Hamas") rose up against Fatah and, after a series of pitched battles, swept their secular rivals from the Gaza Strip. Roundly defeated, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas could only vituperate from the West Bank.

The decisive battle between Hamas and Fatah took many by surprise, but a Palestinian civil war has been some time in the making. Early last year, Hamas won a victory over the long-dominant Fatah party in the PA parliamentary elections. Since then, the two factions have tried to form a national unity government, the Islamists demanding control of PA security forces and President Abbas refusing to yield. Finally, Hamas — tired of being deprived of its political spoils — conquered Gaza.

In "Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement," Zaki Chebab, the London bureau chief of Al Hayat-LBC TV, traces the rise of Gaza's new overlords. He writes about the inner workings of the movement, its penetration by Israeli intelligence, and an undying dream of an Islamic Palestine from the river to the sea. Chehab is undoubtedly a consummate storyteller: His style is smooth, his anecdotes always fascinating. The problem is that the author makes far too many mistakes in his book to be trusted.

The story of Hamas begins with a quadriplegic sheikh named Ahmed Yassin. In 1973, Yassin opened the Islamic Compound in the Gaza Strip, and over the years, the society grew into a sprawling network of mosques, clinics and schools. For a time, the Israelis funded his endeavor, believing it would act as a conservative counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Fatah chairman Yasser Arafat. However, by 1983, the Compound had sought to purchase arms for a military wing ("the Palestine Mujahiddin") it had secretly cultivated.

Chehab notes that the Shin Bet soon arrested Sheikh Yassin and his gun-buying associates in a sting operation, but the sheikh would return in 1987 with a new group, Hamas. Positioning itself as a competitor to the secular PLO, the Islamist movement would claim to have spearheaded the first intifada. In fact, it was during those early years of rebellion, says the author, that bombmaker Yehiya Ayyash proffered his idea of fighting the Israelis with suicide attacks. By 1994, those homicidal dreams had become reality.

After signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel, the PLO (or, more accurately, the newly constituted PA) maintained an odd relationship with Hamas. The PA had committed itself to the peace process, but all the while, it coddled Islamic terrorists. Quoting Fatah security boss Muhammed Dahlan, Chehab notes that the PA shielded Hamas members from Israeli assassination — a courtesy that continued even after the group had plotted to murder Yasser Arafat in 1998. In fact, acting on a tip from French intelligence, Dahlan himself warned a senior Hamas official in 2004 that the Israelis were hunting him.

By contrast, Chehab describes the merciless war the Israelis waged against Hamas. He interviews one Palestinian who worked for a Singaporean think-tank only to later discover that it was a Shin Bet front. Caught in a web of collaboration, he "agreed" to recruit Palestinian militants and then have them killed off in hopeless missions. After 9/11, Israeli agents tried to create phony al-Qaeda cells in Gaza to discredit local Islamists. That operation failed, but ironically, some Hamas members would later befriend Bin Laden-wannabes in Egypt.

Chehab's book is — in a word — incredible. But is it credible?

Sadly, the author makes enough errors to warrant serious skepticism from the reader. For example, he asserts that the U.S.S. Cole — attacked by al-Qaeda in October 2000 — was an oil tanker. It was really a destroyer. Likewise, Chehab claims that the Hamas suicide bomber who killed 21 young people at a beachfront Tel Aviv disco came dressed in drag. The explosive was hidden in a guitar, the author added. No doubt, all this makes for a riveting and risqué tale of mass murder, but it does not square with eyewitness testimony.

Not that Chehab cares much for accuracy. In his book, he has Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian co-founder of al-Qaeda, befriending the famous Egyptian firebrand Sayyid Qutb! How this happened, the author does not say. Apparently, a séance must have been performed since Qutb had been hanged five years before Azzam came to do his doctorate at Al-Azhar University. Oh, and had Azzam actually written the Hamas charter (as Chehab says he did on Page 193), would not other scholars have noted this minor historical detail too?

Chehab fares no better on Israel. In a gob-smacking display of sloppiness, he misspells the names of three security officials and a prominent human rights activist. Footnotes are treated just as lackadaisically. For instance, Chehab says that the barrier Israel is building in, and along, the West Bank is electrified ("If touched, it can kill") and then offers no citation to back up his absurd claim. Finally, the few sources he does note, like the uncorroborated memoirs of a rogue Mossad agent, are just there to bolster conspiracy theories.

No doubt, many people will want to read up on Hamas following the dramatic events in Gaza, and this fascinating Palestinian Islamist movement does deserve closer study. Unfortunately, Zaki Chehab's book will just as likely misinform, as it will inform.

Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement by Zaki Chehab. New York: Nation. 243 pp. $25.95.

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