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A scribe and scholar enter Hamas' world

A New York Times correspondent teams up with a Belfast professor to write the story of Islamism among the Palestinians.

Milton-Edwards provided much of the historical background that informs the book’s fascinating sections on the history of Islamism among the Palestinians before the foundation of Israel, and the activism in the 1970s of the men who would later form Hamas. But she, too, participated in much of the research on the ground, having a long-term knowledge of the place. She completed a Ph.D. on Hamas and Islamic Jihad after a media internship in Jerusalem during the first intifada.

That extensive research provides some of the most interesting snippets in the book. Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin was, in fact, an educator, not a religious leader, though he has been almost universally known as “Sheikh Yassin,” an honorific implying great Islamic learning.

The book’s historical perspective also provides surprising statistics. During the five years before the 2006 elections, Hamas had killed 400 Israelis. That’s an enormous toll, but amounts to just a couple of days work for Islamic radicals in Iraq about whom we know much less.

Written in a tone that tends closer to a plain academic style than the more trendy novelistic type of nonfiction book, “Hamas” doesn’t restrict itself to the politics and the violence. There’s a lengthy segment on the group’s approach to women — largely negative, particularly when seen through the eyes of the cosmopolitan leaders of the previous generation, like the chain-smoking Mariam Abu Dugga who wears no headscarf and used to be a member of the “Martyr Guevara” group.

Within Palestinian society, Farrell and Milton-Edwards examine Hamas’ treatment of those it considers collaborators with Israel or merely uncommitted to the Islamic lifestyle. Needless to say, it doesn’t look good.

“We don’t whitewash Hamas,” said Milton-Edwards. “We don’t ignore their cruelties.”

The more recent internal divisions within Hamas are laid out plainly and in a detail not found elsewhere. The book looks at the still burgeoning conflict between the group’s original leadership — no blushing softies, after all — and a new generation of military leaders in Gaza in particular which wants Hamas to adopt a “salafi” line akin to the even more uncompromising Islamists produced by the Gulf states. The less-than-encouraging news is that in the last year the “salafist” wing of Hamas has taken the upper hand over the relative moderates.

Behind all this Farrell and Milton-Edwards identify a failure of leadership on the part of Hamas and its Fatah rivals that’s summed up by Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian peace negotiator quoted in the book: “Hamas had to learn very quickly how to be in power and Fatah has to learn how to be out of power. Both of them haven’t learned, really. Fatah is not used to being in opposition, it doesn’t know how to, and Hamas is not used to being in government, and it behaved like an opposition.”

(Photo courtesy of The New York Times)