A Palestinian enigma

Books Twelve years after Israel's botched attempt to assassinate Khalid Mishal, he leads Hamas with more authority than ever. But can Mishal steer his movement into the arena of political compromise?

Twelve years after Israel's botched attempt to assassinate Khalid Mishal, he leads Hamas with more authority than ever, Gershom Gorenberg writes. But can Mishal steer his movement into the arena of political compromise? Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assasination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas Paul McGeough Quartet Books Dh128 "When Israel occupied Jerusalem, I was 14," Sheikh Jamil Hamami once told me. Hamami grew up in East Jerusalem. That week in June 1967, he had heard the promises on the radio that the Arab states would defeat Israel "in a few days, a few hours". Instead came the Israeli advance. Hamami described the day that the Old City fell in a series of staccato images: "The black picture in my mind is seeing an Israeli soldier enter Al Aqsa… Near the Wailing Wall, I saw a soldier step on the Quran… A soldier told us it was forbidden to pray in Al Aqsa."

Hamami later became one of the first leaders of Hamas in the West Bank, though he left the movement in 1995, believing that the time for "military action" had ended with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. His jagged memories of June 1967 allude to two of the reasons for the Islamic revival in the occupied territories - and for the birth of Hamas, for that organisation's ascendance as a rival to the secular nationalist PLO and for its position today as one of the two power centres of riven Palestinian politics.

In Hamami's emblematic account, Israel's military victory in 1967 was an affront to Islam, represented most vividly by Israel's control of the Al Aqsa mosque. But it also revealed the bankruptcy of the Arab states - chief among them Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt. Secular Arab nationalism had brought the Palestinians a second disaster. Islam was both a part of an identity under perceived threat and a potential replacement for discredited ideologies.

Indeed, Islamic activists gave an explanation halfway between sociology and theology for the outcome of the war, as the Palestinian political scientist Ziad Abu-Amr observed in his sympathetic study of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Islamic Fundamentalism in Gaza and the West Bank: Israel's victory, Islamic groups claimed, "was the result of the adherence of the Jews to their religion, and… the Arabs' defeat was caused by their failure to adhere to Islam". (The explanation, ironically, ignored the intensely secular character of Israeli society in 1967.)

The return to faith that followed was incremental, seen more easily by those not in its midst. In 1999, I met in Nablus with a group of activists from left-wing Palestinian organisations. One woman had been deported from the West Bank by Israel in the early 1970s and had recently returned during the Oslo thaw. She wore slacks and a short-sleeve blouse; her hair was uncovered. That had been the style in Nablus when she was exiled, she said. Now, she continued, she was a stranger in the city of her birth, where the hijab and long, modest garments were de rigueur. Later that year, on the last Friday of Ramadan - as it turned out, the last Ramadan when Palestinians from the occupied territories had easy access to Al Aqsa - hundreds of thousands of people filled the open plaza behind the actual mosque building at the southern end of the Haram al Sharif. Before 1967, one Islamic activist told me, the number of worshippers was too small to fill the mosque building itself.

The local Palestinian religious revival was part of much wider patterns. The Arab defeat of 1967 created an ideological vacuum that Islam filled throughout the region. As Abu-Amr notes, the oil crisis of the 1970s enriched conservative regimes eager to promote Islam. The Iranian revolution of 1979 inspired Islamic activists as the Russian Revolution had once encouraged the left: Success was possible.

Yet the resurgence of Islam was itself part of an even larger trend, which the French scholar Gilles Kepel has labelled "the revenge of God". The 1970s and 1980s saw the worldwide rise of radical movements that offered political programmes rooted in anti-modern interpretations of faith. In America, conservative Protestants emerged from political quietism to dominate the Republican Party. In Israel, the Gush Emunim settlement movement declared secular Zionism dead, anointed itself the new vanguard and tilted the entire national agenda rightward. That matched a common pattern: absorbing nationalism and making it a theological truth.

In the occupied territories, the Islamic revival was strongest in the Gaza Strip. In 1973, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin started the Islamic Centre - mosque, clinic, sports club and front for the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Yassin's influence spread through Gaza and into the West Bank. The Brotherhood regarded all of Palestine as Islamic land and rejected any compromise with Israel. But it devoted its efforts to dawa, spreading the faith. Fighting Israel would come later, after reshaping Palestinian society from the bottom up.

Such patience made sense for a religious movement with a long view of history. But the Brotherhood took intense criticism from supporters of Fatah and the PLO's other constituent groups, which filled the post-1967 vacuum by offering direct, violent struggle against Israel. Those groups were born on the "outside", in the Palestinian diaspora. In December 1987, they were taken by surprise by the explosion of the "inside", when frustration with the occupation erupted into the first intifada in Gaza and the West Bank.

The Brotherhood was also caught off guard. Yassin and his comrades decided they had a choice between irrelevance and switching direction. The would-be leaders had to follow the public or lose it. Using the name Hamas - "the Islamic Resistance Movement" - the Brotherhood chose to compete with the PLO for control of the uprising. Hamas's original 1988 charter assigned the same exclusive role to jihad that the PLO once gave to armed struggle - wrapping revolutionary violence in a theological cloak. And it enshrined the idea that all of Palestine was a waqf, an eternal Islamic trust, which therefore could not be "relinquished entirely or partially."

Nearly every account of Hamas history stresses that in contrast to the PLO, it was born on the "inside". Paul McGeough's new biography of Hamas's present leader, Kill Khalid, is an exception. In McGeough's account, Hamas's true architect is Khalid Mishal, who left the West Bank village of Silwad at age 11, just after the Israeli conquest. With his mother and siblings, he joined his father, who was living in Kuwait. He grew up to become an Islamic activist within the country's large Palestinian community.

In 1983, McGeough recounts, about 30 Brotherhood activists from the occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora met secretly in Amman. There Mishal proposed that the Brotherhood's Palestinian wing seize the role of the vanguard of violent resistance against Israel. The PLO had been evicted the year before from Lebanon and Mishal believed that the moment was ripe to surpass the weakened secular organisation. Diaspora supporters would raise money from Arab governments and businessmen for the Muslim Brotherhood's new effort. At first the funds financed Yassin's schools and charitable projects. When the intifada broke out, McGeough quotes Mishal as saying, it was "the opportune moment to declare a project that was already born". Those words suggest that from Kuwait, Mishal made the decision that the Muslim Brotherhood on the "inside" would switch from dawa to jihad.

It's possible that McGeough has properly recast the history of Hamas. Equally likely, though, the strange shape of his book pushed him to portray Mishal as the movement's central figure from its start. The core of Kill Khalid is a 100-page riff on the Israeli attempt to assassinate Mishal on an Amman street in 1997, using a puff of poison from a fake camera that was absorbed through his ear. The attack was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following a series of Hamas suicide bombings in Jerusalem. In cold strategic terms, it was a remarkably foolish decision: a hit job in the capital of an Arab country that had signed a peace agreement with Israel. Two Mossad agents administered the poison, but failed to remain unnoticed; Mishal's bodyguard caught them after a mad chase through the city. Afterward, Israel had to work desperately to salvage relations with King Hussein. Besides providing an antidote for Mishal, it released Ahmad Yassin from prison. Hamas received a significant boost in stature. So did Mishal, seen as the martyr who did not die. McGeough's description of these events is classic espionage writing - quick-moving, detailed and suspenseful.

But to make this story worthy of a book, he has set it inside a biography of Mishal. And to justify that, he has emphasised the role of Mishal and the Palestinian "outside" in creating Hamas - though parts of his own narrative undercut that picture. His writing sheds little light on the forces that shaped Hamas or on the group's synthesis of faith and nationalism. Any biography suggests that history is a product not only of social forces but also of personalities. Yet at the end of his book, McGeough admits that "the Khalid Mishal who had risen through the ranks to speak with such authority… was a Palestinian enigma". Unfortunately, that's true. After 400 pages, we haven't learnt what makes him tick.

What the book really teaches is that history is also shaped by rolls of the dice, bad bets and unintended consequences. When Mishal moved to Amman during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, he was an anonymous functionary, according to McGeough's own account. The head of Hamas's political bureau was Mousa Abu Marzook, a Gazan-raised, American-educated disciple of Yassin who moved control of the organisation to the safety of Amman after Israel jailed the sheikh in 1989. In 1995, as a sop to the United States and Israel, Jordan expelled Abu Marzook - who made his own ill-considered gamble. Rashly, he returned to the United States. There he was arrested and held nearly two years until Israel dropped an extradition request. Mishal took over as political bureau chief and effective head of Hamas. Abu Marzook's mistake gave him his position. Israel's mistake cemented it.

One more example of the influence of unintended consequences was provided by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's 1992 decision to deport 415 Islamic activists to Lebanon. As Israeli scholars Shaul Mishal (no relation to Khalid) and Avraham Sela noted in their book The Palestinian Hamas, a year of close contact with Hizbollah led Hamas to adopt the Shiite organisation's trademark tactic: suicide bombings.

In 2006, Hamas bent its ideology to compete in elections in the Palestinian Authority, an institution created through an agreement with Israel. Entering electoral politics indicated that "Hamas is drifting toward moderation, not radicalism", Ziad Abu-Amr told me at the time. "You don't go into the [political] system to wage an all-out war against Israel." That said, the movement was as unready as everyone else was for its victory, which put it under immense international pressure to recognise Israel in order to govern. The flow of foreign funds that the PA needed to operate was cut off. Fatah and Hamas slid toward violent conflict.

The events that led from Hamas's electoral victory to its current position await a more coherent account than McGeough offers. Today, though, Hamas rules the besieged and shattered enclave of Gaza, while Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah-based government suppresses it in the West Bank. Based in Damascus, Mishal continues to head the organisation by remote control. In one sense, he has never been more powerful. Without a mechanism to include Hamas and Gaza, Barack Obama's effort to revive the Palestinian-Israel diplomatic process and engineer a two-state solution will be stymied.

And yet, that is part of the reason that Hamas is besieged ideologically as well as physically. Israel failed last winter to overturn Hamas's rule of Gaza by force. By the same measure, though, Hamas cannot even lift the siege by jihad - much less conquer Israel. Meanwhile, recent polls of Palestinians in the occupied territories show that backing for a two-state solution ranges from 55 to 61 per cent, more than twice the support for any other option. That solution is the most realistic path for Palestinians to achieve political independence - and to get there, Hamas must accede to the diplomatic process. So to remain relevant, Hamas is again seeking to follow the public that it seeks to lead. Just as it had to bend its strategy to join the intifada in 1987, today it needs to reconcile its theology with the need for political compromise. In various statements over the past year, Mishal has adopted the positions generally ascribed to Hamas's relatively moderate wing: in favour of creating a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, next to Israel but without formally recognising it. This is far from the movement's original stance. Whether Mishal and Hamas can yet move far enough to join a diplomatic process remains to be seen, but the pressures are strong. Mishal's personal rise may be partially due to accident; his movement's rise was part of forces greater than itself. So, too, its current shift is a product of forces larger than Khalid Mishal. Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. He blogs at southjerusalem.com.