Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- Over the past two years, the Palestinian Hamas movement has made a number of important decisions which have led to historical developments that have left their mark on the course of the movement. Despite its opposition of the Oslo Accords, Hamas participated in the Palestinian legislative elections for the first time and announced its victory over the majority of parliamentary seats. This signified the formation of the Palestinian government, making it the first Islamic movement to assume power through elections.
This development was followed by Hamas’ acceptance of the National Conciliation Document, which was issued by the leaders among the Palestinian prisoners detained in Israeli jails and which included endorsement for creating the Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, the document also included a number of other clauses that were contradictory with what came in the Hamas movement’s principles.
Recently, Hamas and its rival Palestinian faction, Fatah, signed the Mecca Declaration, which was presided over by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and which stipulates the formation of a national unity government.
But what is the decision-making process within Hamas, and how does it reach its final stage?
The answer to this question is by no means an easy one despite the fact that the discussion involves a party that has come to power and is governing Palestine. Hamas shrouds its decision-making mechanisms in darkness, its leadership eluding all questions linked to the subject only revealing that decisions related to operations are taken based on unanimity between the leaders internally and abroad and the prisoners’ leadership.
Figures in the leadership refused to delve into the details related to the decision-making process. According to Dr. Atef Odwan, the Palestinian minister of refugee affairs who is among Hamas’ leadership and was formerly a political science professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, states that the reason Hamas cannot disclose much about its decision-making process is because the group is still targeted by both the US and Israel. As such, one would not be able to find anyone within Hamas who would be willing to volunteer information that the Israelis and Americans, and anyone else targeting the movement, seek.
However, speaking to Asharq Al Awsat, Odwan said that the cadres of the movement in all areas elect their leaders on a periodical basis and that all of the important decisions include the leadership’s participation, which starts with the regional leaders and ends with the members of the Shura Council, in addition to Hamas’ political bureau, headed by Khalid Meshaal who resides in Damascus, and his deputy Dr. Moussa Abu Marzouq.
In terms of the decisions concerning the organizational affairs and matters relating to everyday life, Odwan said that it involves the members’ participation but he stressed that their opinions are not binding but rather consultative. Dr. Yahya Moussa, the second in line in the Hamas bloc in the Legislative Council said that every group has its democratic vision and its specific democratic model that is best suited to the given circumstances.
In his statements to Asharq Al Awsat, Moussa stressed that when addressing the decision-making mechanisms in a given organization or body that the particularities must be taken into account. He indicated that Hamas is a part of the international Islamic movement that has its own ideological and political references and that it deals with its politics in accordance with these political and ideological visions. Moussa stated that the geographical and occupational circumstances were responsible for dividing the decision-making process over four areas: the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the prisons, and outside of Palestine, adding that each of these areas has a Shura Council and its own designated political bureau, all of which are united by a Shura Council.
However, neither Moussa nor anyone else in the Hamas movement’s leadership was willing, in any way whatsoever, to provide information regarding the number of members in the Shura Council. They were equally indisposed towards revealing anything about the electoral process, their meeting locations, the mechanisms of operation, nationalities of members or their locations, among other details. This is the outcome of the security situation so that no one would be able to target members of the council.
Moussa pointed out that the decisions made within Hamas’ consultative institutions are based on unanimity rather than the rule of the majority, describing the objective behind these decisions to be: achieving the most unanimity within the ranks of the movement. He added that, “If we were to presume that the Hamas leadership in the prisons have a different opinion than the other three areas, it doesn’t automatically follow that we go with the majority’s opinion. Instead, we try in every possible way to reach an independent decision to unite us, which guarantees the solidarity and unity of the movement.”
Moussa stated that any decision made always takes into consideration the internal, region and international climates, but that in all cases the considerations that govern the movement are those concerning the Palestinian national interest. Moreover, he added that Hamas forms its relations with all other parties based on its assessment of the extent of positive returns for the Palestinian national interest.
Odwan cites the Mecca Declaration as an example to illustrate a model for decision-making within Hamas, pointing out that the preparations leading to the agreement with Fatah towards forming a national unity government started long before the meeting was held in Mecca. He said that Hamas’ Shura institutions had defined the maximum- and minimum- ceilings of demands that the movement would insist upon in any of the scenarios so that the distance between the two extremes would create room for maneuver for those involved in the negotiation process.
Palestinian researcher specializing in Islamic movement affairs, Ibrahim Abu al Hija, sees that the decision-making process in Hamas does not occur in a conventional manner because the decisions stem from circumstances that are far from normal – thus forcing Hamas to finalize much of its decisions under the pressure of these circumstances. Speaking to Asharq Al Awsat, he pointed out that geographical limitations, the devastating security situation and the ‘time factor’ influence the process of Hamas’ decision-making.
Regarding the significance of internal and external influences in Hamas’ decision-making process, al Hija believes that an important development has taken place on that level explaining that in the past, the leadership abroad exerted more clout but that presently both had the same degree of influence. He added that in some cases this influence may be greater internally. He added that this was a natural progression by virtue of the social and political challenges that Hamas continues to face after it won the elections, and which Hamas alone confronts internally.
Al Hija pointed out that internally; the Hamas leadership could have played a larger role in the decision-making process, a matter that he attributes to the absence of charismatic figures among its ranks. He added that the Israeli-executed assassination operations eliminated the majority of its charismatic leaders, such as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, Dr. Abdel Aziz al Rantissi, who was known as ‘the lion of Hamas’, Dr. Ibrahim al Makadmeh, and Salah Shehada, the commander of the armed wing of Hamas [Izzedine al Qassam Brigades], and Ismail Abu Shanab. “And yet,” Abu Hija said, “the increasing challenges internally have attached a special significance to considerations made by the leadership within since these considerations have come to form an important backdrop for the decisions made by Hamas. He stressed that the considerations that Hamas, internally, rely on to submit suggestions for a given resolution are the considerations that are viewed as the closest to reality. Al Hija added that the Hamas leadership, both internally and externally, seek a substantial amount of consultation from research centers, independent researchers and the intellectual elite, however he sees that decisions are made in secrecy, which decreases the influences of these consultative parties.
Abu Hija explained that with Hamas’ advent to power comes the obligation that it must attach huge significance to listening to more views. He added that Hamas was capable of holding conferences to discuss the decisions it is about to take, providing justifications for them. Abu Hija stressed that the need to expand the consultative circles within Hamas has become more pronounced at a time when it has moved to the arena of political action. He considers that the mistakes resultant of military action could have been avoided or decreased in impact, however that the errors in the field of political thought could lead to Hamas receiving a strong and painful blow.