What Hamas Wants: Insights From An Insider

Ezra Klein has made an important contribution to the discourse on the Israel/Palestine question by interviewing Tareq Baconi [pictured above] on his Dec. 5th podcast for the NY TImes. Currently president of the board of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network (a think tank), Baconi authored “Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance” (Stanford University Press, 2018) on the inception and evolution of Hamas.

Baconi’s insider access to Hamas officials and expertise on the movement’s ideological commitments, jihadist strategies, and political aims has made him a sought-after public analyst (for example, on PBS’s “Amanpour & Company”) in the wake of the shocking mass butchery, rape, and abduction that the group perpetrated in the south of Israel on October 7th.

Klein’s purpose was to have Baconi explicate what Hamas “really wants” from the war it unleashed. Simply branding Hamas as “Satan” or “pure evil,” Klein rightly points out, serves only to mystify the group’s murderous rampage in Israel and depraved indifference to Palestinian life. Treating Hamas as if it had a metaphysical power makes it more difficult to properly scrutinize, let alone defeat it. 

Klein’s probing questions elicited from Baconi both reflection on how Hamas sees itself “on its own terms” -– sympathetically packaged for Western intellectual consumption –- and notable evasions. But the interview’s most valuable takeaway lays in exposing the extent to which Baconi aligns “Palestinian national liberation” with Hamas’s Islamist objectives. He articulates no daylight between the two, preferring repeatedly to emphasize concurrence. How those maximalist objectives drive anti-Zionist discourses more broadly then becomes apparent.

Klein concedes that his conversation with Baconi does not readily yield “a path forward” that would lead to a resolution of the conflict which would depend on the reconciliation of all parties. Yet the stark clarity of Baconi’s rejectionist anti-Israel position is illuminating. It actually does allow us to imagine a path forward, albeit one that will never satisfy the totalizing demands of either Hamas and anti-Zionism or extremist West Bank settlers.

Rejecting any Two-State Solution

Baconi explains that Hamas emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1980s in opposition to the PLO’s decision to renounce armed struggle, recognize the existence of the State of Israel, and engage in a diplomatic process. Hamas “believed the land of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea, was waqf, an Islamic endowment, that has to be maintained with its full integrity in perpetuity. So it was ideologically opposed to the idea that the land of Palestine can be partitioned” (i.e., via United Nations Resolution 181). 

The group’s updated 2017 charter, in a key passage read by Klein, continues to “reject any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea.” Yet the next sentence goes on to say:

However, without compromising its rejection of the Zionist entity and without relinquishing any Palestinian rights, Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June, 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled to be a formula of national consensus.

The charter further insists, “There shall be no recognition of legitimacy of the Zionist entity” and “the right of Palestinian refugees…to return to their homes…whether in the lands occupied in 1948 or in 1967, is an inalienable right and cannot be dispensed with.”

Baconi represents the document as a major pragmatic opening on the part of Hamas “to accept the creation of a Palestinian state [emphasis added] on the ’67 lines…and to limit its military engagement and its resistance against the Israelis to the settlement enterprise, to the military occupation.” Crucially, though, while such willingness acknowledges the de facto reality of an alien Zionist presence in the land (for now), it by no means recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist.

Along with Hamas, Baconi maintains that “Palestinians writ-large” share an ideologically “fundamental” doctrine: “Zionism was, and is, an illegitimate movement that allowed the colonization of the land of Palestine to settle Jews in Palestine and create a Jewish homeland and a Jewish state.” Likewise, “all Palestinians hold as sacred” the right of return “enshrined in international law” (i.e. UN resolution 194).

Note that Baconi accords legitimacy to the UN framework for the right of return, but not for the partition. He estimates the Palestinian population for whom “a representative leadership will center the right of return” to number 14 million. Clearly, the demographic goal is to flood a Jewish-majority state out of existence. 

In response to Klein’s politely non-confrontational but nonetheless withering critique of a political ultimatum so extravagant that it is merely “a recipe for eternal conflict,” Baconi frames the choice for Israel going forward as either “eradication” (presumably of Palestinians), an apartheid-style regime for a Jewish minority, or abandonment of a Jewish polity.

In doing so, he ignores Klein’s observation that violent, unjust displacements lie at the origin of many contemporary states: the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, for example, and the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Iran and Arab countries have passed without calls for “return.”

Baconi never explains why, uniquely among modern tragedies, the Palestinian Nakba alone demands reversion to a status quo ante. No other remedy but the disappearance of the Jewish state will do –- not reparations, not a framework that accepts displaced refugees into a Palestinian state, not a confederation that allows immigration, residency, and free movement between two sovereign polities.

Lest we misinterpret the anti-Zionist project as cataclysmic for Jews, Baconi assures us that the formerly colonized can behave graciously towards their colonizers. He analogizes the dissolution of Israel to the end of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow in the United States. Is such a rosy vision compatible with Hamas’s Islamist goals? Baconi assures us that if Israel and Western interlocutors were seriously to engage with the group, in good faith, they would discover its ability for significant pragmatic accommodation. Hamas might well concede permission for Jews to reside in the land under the terms of (Muslim) Palestinian hegemony. Genocide forestalled.

Equating Hamas with the Palestinian Cause

Baconi’s conflation of the Palestinian cause with Hamas sheds light on the outpouring of solidarity campaigns (letters and statements as well as demonstrations) that minimized, rationalized, or altogether overlooked the savagery of October 7th. Underlying these apologetics, it seems, is a fervent belief that the ravages of empire and colonialism, structural racisms and systems of oppression can be redressed by undoing just one single, small state.

Anti-Zionism’s unyielding insistence on “the River to the Sea,” vehemently rejecting partition, is no less theological in its hyper-idealized, utopian vision of a replacement binational secular state than Hamas’s Islamist dogma proclaiming all Palestine “waqf” — an Islamic endowment never to be given up. Single-state absolutism is immensely damaging to the only realistic prospect for the coexistence of two peoples — a framework that allows each to pursue national self-determination, cooperatively, without infringement on the other. 

The aspirations of Hamas and its allies like Baconi are plainly irreconcilable with any negotiation that Israelis will ever entertain. The voluntary self-annihilation of the Jewish state is not in the cards. Still, the rejectionism of the anti-Zionist movement does not preclude crafting a future that a majority of Palestinians and Israelis can live with.

As has long and often been said, the respective sides must be ready and willing to accept less than what they think they are owed or what they want. In the face of efforts to hammer out an arrangement for the mutual recognition of two states, factions within Hamas that manage to survive the current war will play the spoiler, as will Jewish fanatics. It’s all the more imperative that any framework incorporate strong security protocols for both populations.