Book Review -“The Making of Hamas’s Foreign Policy” by Daud Abdullah

By Steve Bell

Daud Abdullah’s book is published at a time when the Palestinian people are facing difficulties as great as anytime in their existence.  Their survival is dependent on their continued struggle, and the resources that their supporters around the globe can muster.  Nothing is guaranteed.  This important book is a direct aid to those who wish to support the Palestinians in refusing to surrender to historic oblivion.

A worsening situation for an oppressed people

In 2021 the Palestinians remain a dispersed, dispossessed and stateless people.  Under the shelter of the Trump presidency, the Israeli government consolidated this status through a relentless programme of settlements on Palestinian land, and demolition of Palestinian homes and properties.

Trump went further than previous Presidents by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jersualem, breaching the UN position of maintaining the international character of the city and its status of joint capital of Israel/Palestine.  He endorsed the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, Syrian territory. Trump also accepted annexation through the settlements on the West Bank.  His proposed ‘Deal of the Century’ gave the entire Jordan Valley to Israel. 

The Israeli government was only deterred from actually annexing the Jordan Valley, in July 2020, by the size of the international and domestic opposition. The Israeli and US governments were isolated in multi-lateral organisations such as the UN, the EU, the Arab League, etc.  Significantly there developed a substantial opposition within the Jewish community in the US, and inside Israel.  Much of this appears to have been due to security concerns – that the annexation would provoke a new intifada, that it would jeopardise the Treaties with Jordan and Egypt.  A significant shift nevertheless.

This was a rare setback for the Israeli state for the general encroachment upon the rights of the Palestinians.  But, if not in one fell swoop, this annexation continues by degrees on a daily basis.

A severe blow against the Palestinians was felt in the defeat of the two most influential pro-Palestinian politicians inside the US and Britain – Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.  In both cases their bid for government was thwarted by ruling class forces amongst whose priorities include the ‘security of the Israeli state’ over the elementary rights of the Palestinian people.  While Biden may not be simply following Trump’s uncritical endorsement of Netanyahu, he is definitely not preparing to deliver justice for the Palestinians.  Corbyn’s defeat has left the Labour Party with a leadership determined to follow US policy, and prepared to accuse supporters of Palestine, including Jewish supporters, of being “antisemitic”.

To make the situation even more difficult, a number of Arab regimes have ended their formal opposition to the Israeli state.  This has been done without reference to the Palestinians, or their own domestic population.  For the autocratic regimes in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the price of their betrayal was the prospect of mutual investment opportunities with Israeli capital, and greater involvement in the execution of US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa.  The regimes claimed that the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020 prevented the annexation of the Jordan Valley – yet it was well known that Trump pressed Netanyahu to halt the move the week before the proposed annexation in July.  For the monarchy in Morocco the price was US government recognition of its annexation of the Western Sahara.  For the dominant military officers, in the Sudan transition regime, the reward was their removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the lifting of US sanctions.

And, to complete this grim survey,  the permanent timidity of the EU in formally defending the rights of the Palestinians meant that at no point did Trump, and the Israeli government, feel any sustained pressure to modify their behaviour towards the Palestinians.

From Oslo to apartheid

Much, though not all, of the deterioration of the Palestinians situation can be seen as the failure of the Oslo Peace Process.  That process gave the Israeli state continuing control over the occupied territories of Palestine, pending the outcome of “final negotiations”.  There were apparent concessions on the issue of the recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the representative of the Palestinian people; and the establishment of a Palestinian Authority with a degree of autonomy on Palestinian national affairs.  Yet in reality, this process channelled Palestinian energies into a political deadlock where the Israeli state refused to recognise Palestinian self-determination, and constantly hindered attempts to achieve it.

This led to a situation whereby Palestinian rights, including the refugees right of return, the right to establish a state, and the general right of self-determination, remain as elusive as they were at the time of the signing of the first Oslo accord in 1993.  In 2021, the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem wrote:

“More than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under a single rule.  The common perception in public, political, legal and media discourse is that two separate regimes operate side by side in this area, separated by the Green Line.  One regime, inside the borders of the sovereign State of Israel, is a permanent democracy with a population of about nine million, all Israeli citizens.  The other regime, in the territories Israel took over in 1967, whose final status is supposed to be determined in future negotiations, in a temporary military occupation imposed on some five million Palestinian subjects.”

B’Tselem continues by explaining that this “common perception” hides a unitary state of oppression:

“The Israeli regime, which controls all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, seeks to advance and cement Jewish supremacy throughout the entire area.  To that end, it has divided the area into several units, each with a different set of rights for Palestinians – always inferior to the rights of Jews.  As part of this policy, Palestinians are denied many rights, including the right to self-determination…

“A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime.  Israeli apartheid, which promotes the supremacy of Jews over Palestinians, was not born in one day or of a single speech.  It is a process that has gradually grown more institutionalized and explicit, with mechanisms introduced over time in law and practice to promote Jewish supremacy.  These accumulated measures, their pervasiveness in legislation and political practice, and the public and judicial support they receive – all form the basis for our conclusion that the bar for labelling the Israeli regime as apartheid has been met.” (1)

Such a characterisation is not accepted by the international allies of the Israeli government. But it is generally understood to be true amongst the majority of the peoples of the world, as expressed in the decision of 139 of the UN affiliated states to recognise Palestine, out of a total of 193 states.  The minority of states who have not recognised Palestine include the imperialist states who aided their dispossession.  Clearly international relations are of vital interest to the Palestinians.

A state without borders

Before examining Daud Abdullah’s treatment of Hamas’s foreign policy, it is necessary to situate Hamas in the international framework that currently maintains the national oppression of the Palestinians.  The organisation was founded in December 1987, shortly after the opening of the first Intifada.  The Islamic Resistance Movement, HAMAS in Arabic acronym, was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan).  Azzam Tamimi describes the foundation thus:

“The day the Intifada began, the institutions created by the Ikhwan inside and outside Palestine came into action, with each performing the tasks assigned to it.  The Ikhwan had no option except to seize the occasion.  They needed to exploit it to the limit of their ability, in order to reinstate themselves as leaders of the jihad to liberate Palestine.  Had they not done so, it would have meant the demise of their movement.  In addition only the Ikhwan had the intention, the will, the infrastructure and the global logistical support to keep the flame of the intifada alight for as long as it could be maintained.” (2)

The decision to lead an active resistance to the occupation represents an actual break with the preceding practice.  This was no longer participation in the trans-national Brotherhood acting in defence of Palestine.  In the words of the 1990’s Hamas document “This is What we Struggle For”,  this was the launch of a “Palestinian national liberation movement that struggles for the liberation of the Palestinian occupied lands and for the recognition of Palestinian legitimate rights.”(3) Perhaps the nature of this change was not evident at first, Hamas was preoccupied with the Intifada for the first three years of its existence.

But the contrast with other forces in the PLO, particularly Fatah, became evident as the PLO became involved in the process for the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991.  This continued into the Oslo process and Accords from September 1993, when the PLO signed an agreement with the Israeli state.  Hamas did not agree in principle with such a recognition of the Israeli state.  This obviously placed them outside the international relations framework that the PLO were operating in.

As Daud Abdullah describes it:

“On the whole, Hamas’s approach to a negotiated settlement has been grounded by two fundamental principles.  First, that the land within the British mandate is an Islamic endowment that has been conquered and occupied by a settler colonial movement.  Second, that no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded, irrespective of the causes or circumstances.”(4)

This placed them outside the proposed settlement framework of the imperialist powers.  As a consequence, Hamas was defined as a “terrorist organisation” by the US government in 1993, with other powers following over a period of time.  Such s description is entirely in line with the history of imperialism in the 20th and 21st centuries, where leaders of liberation movements are treated as criminals rather than freedom fighters.

Of course, the matter is not as presented in imperialist centres.  The UN may have defined the potential borders of the “two-state solution”, i.e. the lands occupied post 1967.  The PLO may have accepted this as a potential settlement,  while supporting further negotiations including possible “land swaps”.  But the Israeli state has never, and refuses to, define its borders.  Nor have its closest allies demanded that it does.

Inside Israeli society, the different parties express views which involve the greater or lesser annexation of current Palestinian territory.  These views range from complete annexation to extensive modification of the 1967 borders.  But the hypocrisy is surely striking in demanding recognition without defining the territorial limits of the state.

The most recent “offer” to the Palestinians was Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity document which reduced the Palestinian territory to around 12 per cent of Mandatory Palestine.  Other notable features included annexation of the Jordan Valley in exchange for two non-contiguous pieces of land adjacent to the Egyptian border; the continued Israeli state control of all movement into, out of and between the disconnected Palestinian territories; no guarantee of a future independent state;  the Israeli army as a protecting army for the Palestinians who were not to have an army; and the complete exclusion of Hamas from governance – unless it surrenders its current program and practice.  This document was endorsed by the Israeli government.  Evidently the refusal to define its borders is an essential stance for a project of continued annexations.

In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that a substantial section of Palestinian society does not accept the terms of debate that the dominant minority of the “international community” regards as legitimate. How widespread such an opinion is within Palestinian society is open to debate.  But the most effective test, to date, was the national elections of 2006 for the Palestinian Legislative Council.  These were conducted in a manner that was considered to be free and fair internationally, including by the Bush administration, the EU, and 900 international monitors.  The result saw Hamas win 44.45% of the vote , receiving 74 seats; while Fatah won 41.43% of the vote and 45 seats out of 132.

Unfortunately, the imperialist powers acted to overturn the democratic will of the Palestinians.  Instead of shifting their positions to integrate the Palestinian people’s decision into the international framework, these powers prevented the elected leadership of the Palestinians from exercising its mandate.  This has created the current political impasse facing the Palestinian people.  In the words of Khalid Mish’al, Chief of the Hamas Political Bureau, in March 2006 :

“The day Hamas won the Palestinian democratic elections the world’s leading democracies failed the test of democracy.  Rather than recognise the legitimacy of Hamas as a freely elected representative of the Palestinian people, seize the opportunity created by the result to support the development of good governance in Palestine and search for a means of ending the bloodshed, the US and EU threatened the Palestinian people with collective punishment for exercising their right to choose their parliamentary representatives.”(5)

What followed was the externally engineered division of the Palestinian leadership; the inhumane siege of the Palestinians in Gaza; wars in 2008/9, 2012, 2014; the horrific number of deaths and injuries inflicted upon participants in the Great March of Return;  unabated settlement drives in the West Bank, and the exclusion of Palestinian national rights.

International policy of Hamas

Against this background, we can better appreciate the value of Daud Abdullah’s contribution.  He allows us to see how the liberation movement went from a minority cadre, with no international connections outside the Ikhwan network, to an internationally recognised, if frequently derided, mass party and representative of the Palestinian people. 

In his analysis, there are three stages in this process.  The first is from foundation in December 1987 to 1992, when connections to other states was confined to the Arab states.  Secondly, from 1992 and the expulsion by Israel of over 400 Hamas members to Lebanon, until the January 2006 elections, during which time it secured contacts with western media and civil society organisations. And the third stage was after the elections until today when Hamas has extended contacts with Europe, Russia, South Africa, Malaysia, and others.

For each stage we are given a very concrete analysis which demonstrates how a liberation movement can manoeuvre between states whilst retaining its independence.  At the heart of this ability is a clear set of principles to guide the shifts in policy.  Daud Abdullah bullet points these principles, thus:

*  Non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

*  Independence in decision making.

*  Search for common ground.

*  Avoidance of conflicting alliances.

*  Avoidance of promoting hostility to others.

*  Control of armed resistance to within the boundaries of the British mandate of Palestine.

He adds: “Although these principles are deemed consistent with Islam, they were also derived from the experiences of other liberation organisations, including the PLO.”(6)

From this, one distinction is very clear: “Unlike al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State group and similar organisations, Hamas is not international, or engaged, in a global jihad.  Its sole adversary is Isreal’s settler-colonial project in Palestine”.(7)  The significance of this should not be lost, because the enemies of Palestine exactly pretend that Hamas is ‘the same’ as sectarian terrorists.

The account gives some interesting examples where following these principles has created serious difficulties for Hamas. Very notable is the case of Syria. The Syrian regime under President Assad had provided a home for most of the Hamas leadership from 2001. The regime had also assisted the movement in numerous ways.  As Daud Abdullah notes: “During its decade-long stay in Syria, Hamas enjoyed a level of support from the Assad regime that is rarely afforded to non-state actors. Politically the movement was kept informed of meetings and developments within regional institutions concerning Palestine.  In addition, Hamas leaders were often introduced to official guests of the Syrian government.  Such meetings were invariably held at the presidential palace, with Assad himself in attendance at times.”(8)

Yet the impact of the Arab Spring, and counter-revolution, in 2011 upended this.  Hamas at first attempted to mediate between sections of the opposition and the regime.  However, the growing weight of the armed opposition to the regime pushed Hamas to the breech. 

“From an internal point of view, the challenge confronting Hamas in the Syrian crisis was how to balance its ideological principles with its political and military interests.  As a movement whose raison d’etre was the liberation of its own people, Hamas could not, by any stretch of the imagination, support the denial of freedoms and social justice to the Syrian people, even if that meant going against its political allies – Syria, Iran and Hizbullah.”(9)

Consequently in January 2012, Hamas left Syria after a decade in residence.  Hamas identified with the Syrian people in the armed opposition.  What is notable in this account is the absence of reference to imperialism’s intervention in Syria.  The covert and open intervention by the imperialist powers, in conjunction with the Gulf states and Turkey, supported the armed opposition.  This goes unanalysed.  Yet it is hard to see how the breech with committed allies aided the Palestinian cause.  The Palestinian refugee camps came under siege, and some of the most important like Yarmouk fell to ISIS type forces.  According to the UN body responsible for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, more than sixty per cent of Palestinians experienced “prolonged multiple internal displacements over the years”.  Around 160,000 left Syria altogether since 2011.  It is hard to see how forces such as Al Nusrah/HTS, ISIS, and the Free Syrian Army have advanced the interests of the Palestinians.

The book allows us to understand how distinct the international positions of Hamas were in fast changing situations.  For example, in 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Hamas’s policy was very different to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).  There was popular support for the invasion amongst the Palestinian population.  The PLO expressed this by supporting Hussein.  But Hamas opposed the invasion.

“…their opposition was based on two considerations.  First, they objected to the invasion as a matter of principle because it violated the sovereignty of another state and contravened international law and conventions that provide ample mechanisms to resolve disputes peacefully.  Second, they saw its likely consequences as catastrophic, given the loss of human life and damage to property as well as poisoning of relations and the deepening of divisions between the region’s people.  For all these reasons, they encouraged other Islamic movements to demand Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait.  However, as much as they condemned the Iraqi government’s invasion of Iraq, Hamas also denounced the US-led invasion of Iraq, and did not in any way support the USA and its allies in their efforts to destroy Iraq.”(10)

Certainly the war’s impact upon the Palestinians was very unfavourable.  The Palestinian community in Kuwait was reduced, by the fighting and later government expulsions, from over 400,000 to about 20,000.  It was not until 2004, when Mahmoud Abbas gave an apology on behalf of the PLO, that relations with Kuwait improved.  The Palestinian embassy in Kuwait was not re-opened until 2012. 

Moving forward?

The book offers many such examples of the practical problems that Hamas, and indeed the Palestinian people, face as “non-state actors”.  Alliances, short term and longer, are necessary to increase the relative weight of the nation in international politics.  But these are the tactics of the disadvantaged, nothing can substitute for the existence of a state apparatus.

At the time of writing, parliamentary elections are scheduled for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), on May 22nd with Presidential elections due on July 31st, and finally, elections for the Palestinian National Council, legislative arm of the PLO, on August 31st.  Both Fatah and Hamas have welcomed these, and are committed to this timetable.  Other parties taking part include Palestinian Islamic Jihad (who boycotted elections in 1996 and 2006), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and nine others.  The elections are due to be held in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

A poll(11) conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) gives some insights into Palestinian opinions.  The move to elections is supported by three-quarters of those polled.  Fatah on 38% appear to be leading Hamas on 34%.  But this is complicated by the possibility of either Marwan Barghouti or Mohammed Dahlan forming independent lists.  In which case, Fatah would fall to 19% in the case of the former, and 27% in the case of the latter.

For the Presidency,  the Fatah candidate, Mahmoud Abbas stands on 43% compared to Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh who stands on 50%.  With all due caution about such polls, it suggests Hamas will be close to the largest party, and possible Presidential victor.

Of course, the elections may not take place.  There seems little prospect of Israel accepting a victory for Hamas.  Whether the US and other governments would accept such a victory is far from clear.

A recent survey of academics in the US, who specialise in the Middle East and North Africa further highlights difficulties.  521 academics responded to the survey organised by the University of Maryland, and George Washington University.(12)  These are the intellectual communities feeding the think tanks, and the State Department will refer to them in the development of President Biden’s policy.

The questions on Israel/Palestine are particularly revealing.  When questioned on the likelihood of a “two-state solution”, 52% said its no longer possible; 42% said its possible but improbable within the next ten years; 6% said its possible within ten years.

When questioned on describing “the current reality” in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, 59% said it was a one-state reality akin to apartheid; 30% said it was the state of Israel  semi-permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; 7% said it was a one-state reality with inequality, but not akin to apartheid.

And finally, the academics were questioned on the assumption that a two-state solution is, or becomes, no longer possible what would be the most likely outcome.  77% said a one-state reality akin to apartheid; 17% said a one state reality with increasing inequality but not akin to apartheid; 3% said a confederation; and 1% said a single state with equality between Israelis and Palestinians.

Clearly, the outlook for the Palestinian people remains incredibly difficult.  It is vital that their allies around the world actively re-engage and provide the practical solidarity they need.  Daud Abdullah’s book is not only one of the best books we will see on Palestine this year.  It is also a tool that will assist in reviving the solidarity movement.  In the words of renowned scholar Prof Ilan Pappe “It is a must read for anyone engaged with the Palestinian issue”.



(1) “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Aparthed” B’Tselem 2021, (p 1 and 7)

(2) “Hamas Unwritten Chapters” Azzam Tamimi (p52)

(3) As cited in “The Making of Hamas’s Foreign Policy” Daud Abdullah (p8)

(4)  Ibid (p56)

(5) Tamimi (p266)

(6)  Abdullah (p5)

(7)  Ibid (p8)

(8)  Ibid (p183)

(9)  Ibid (p189)

(10) Ibid (p25-6)

(11)  PSR, Public Opinion Poll No. 78, 27 December 2020

(12)  “Middle East Scholar Barometer”, survey 8-15 February 2021