Not Built for Surprises

As a religious movement, Hamas is in no rush; the future belongs to Islam, even if only the great-grandchildren, or their grandchildren, will see it.

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Planning, organization, self-control and order - these characterized this week's mass rally held by Hamas in Gaza and reflect the organization's modus operandi, both open and concealed. Neither force nor bribery spurred the masses to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the movement's founding. The very large number of women who participated also demonstrated the widespread support Hamas has garnered, despite Israel's assassinations of its leaders, which may even have helped Hamas.

Observers heard people in cars traveling to the rally shouting slogans like, "Just wait, Abu Mazen - we're on our way to Ramallah." While Ramallah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may be far away, Fatah officials were close by, and they stayed away from the streets. Yes, Hamas also knows how to use fear and deterrence.

Hamas in the Gaza Strip wears three hats: It is the ruling party, a popular semi-underground movement and a military organization. Some believed its role as the ruling party would contradict its self-image as a resistance movement opposing the Israeli occupation, leading one role or the other to be weakened or renounced. But so far, the facts indicate otherwise. The lab conditions of an isolated and impoverished strip of land allow both kinds of discourse to exist peaceably, side-by-side.

The rally saw the rhetoric of resistance given wide expression. Many young people have joined Hamas' military wing in recent years, a lot more than the armed and masked men who showed up at the rally. Skeptics and "heretics" with a sociological bent will ask what's the big deal, what else do young people have to do in the sealed Strip other than to go to mosque or join the resistance? For Hamas, that is a revolting argument; the movement maintains that its recruits have found the light and are guided by the desire to sacrifice their lives for the future of the people.

In broad strokes, the future looks like this:

Politically, Hamas accepts the borders of June 4, 1967, for determining the boundaries of a Palestinian state. The public is told two versions of what will happen next. In one, the state will be achieved only through a genuine armed struggle ("not like that of the PLO") and greater Palestine will be returned to its legal owners at the right time. The other, shorter version skips over the 1967 stage and gets directly to the future.

As a religious movement, Hamas is in no rush; the future belongs to Islam, even if only the great-grandchildren, or their grandchildren, will see it. This is a very real future, the evidence of which can be found in the Koran. Every believer can cite the relevant proofs and knows that the hour will come when the Arab states and Muslim nations are able to overcome the pro-American governments. Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization once had a similar agenda for the liberation of all of Palestine, but when it became clear that the future was becoming a mental refuge, the nationalist organizations chose compromise and the present.

It may seem that Hamas also deals with the present. In his speech at the rally, the prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, promised several measures intended to make the material aspects of life easier, including a modest pay raise for teachers; immediate financial assistance for 3,000 students and 10,000 needy families; a special budget for small businesses. The Gaza government is saying, "Here is a nation and a people who, despite the blockade and the global embargo, has its own ways of getting money and building a budget." In other words, it functions as a government, under the minimal conditions the siege allows it. But you don't need a government to distribute urgent aid: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other international organizations help many more of the needy. The present is much more than a promise of food and charity.

As a consolidated political movement, Hamas has done a good job of predicting what its rivals and enemies will do. Hamas leaders expected Fatah to do all it could to sabotage the 2006 election and prepared accordingly. Since the Oslo Accords, Hamas has crafted its policy on the assumption that Israel would do everything to foil the implementation of a two-state solution along the 1967 borders. The history of settlement expansion, the splitting up of the West Bank and the isolation of Gaza since 1993 show that they were right.

As a movement beholden to order, Hamas is not built for surprises. And Israel continues to fail to surprise. Israel, which controls the electricity, the water and the gates, continues to rule the Palestinian present. It is a present of chicken coops, without industry, without traffic, without development, without freedom of choice. Creativity is limited, and many want to leave. Without a present, what is left to the Palestinians, in the West Bank as in Gaza, is the heroic, mystic past, and the distant future, as a refuge. This is the bread and butter of religious politics.