Hamas has had a hard year. In October 2012, they severed ties with previous ally Bashar al-Assad of Syria and more recently suffered from the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Slowly being starved of financial and military resources, they received another blow in recent weeks when a highly sophisticated underground tunnel leading from the Strip to Israel – was destroyed by the IDF. The tunnel (probably built using the scant amount of building materials in the Strip), was most likely intended to facilitate a raid similar to Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping in 2006.
But despite their challenges, they appear eager to rebrand themselves. This is illustrated by their recent appointment of 23 year-old Israa Al-Mudallal as the Palestinian Government of Gaza’s latest spokesperson. Young, female, English-speaking and partly educated in the UK, she marks a radical departure from the bearded, middle-aged Arabic-speakers who dominated media reports on Hamas. But who is she, and does her appointment mark a genuine turning point for the movement? Are we seeing the evolution of Hamas 2.0?
On the afternoon of Thursday 7th November I was lucky enough to interview her, making me the only writer working with an Israeli news agency that Hamas-government spokespeople were willing to enter in dialogue with. Although I made it clear that I was a Times of Israel blogger and that the subsequent article may be published on its website, she was still happy to go overhead with the interview. After just a couple of phone-calls to organise the best time to talk, we were ready to go.
A resident of Rafah with one daughter, Al-Mudallal married at nineteen but divorced approximately a year later. Working out of Gaza City, she went to great efforts early on in our interview to emphasise the fact that she was not formally affiliated with Hamas, “I’m just here to speak of the whole Palestinian government in Gaza Strip…I don’t belong to Hamas.”
While the appointment of “a non-affiliated civil servant” as a government spokeswoman may seem as if the group is becoming less partisan, this is not in fact the case. In the past she has worked as a correspondent for Iranian-government sponsored Press TV, having read Media Studies at the Islamic University of Gaza, which is known for its strong links to Hamas. In our interview, she spoke very highly of Hamas, referring to them as “the resistance” on more than one occasion. While she may have mentioned Fatah in passing several times, it was certainly never in any positive terms. If Governor Christie of New Jersey can be called a RINO (an acronym for Republican In Name Only), then Al-Mudallal is NHINO: Not Hamas In Name Only. As the group has also zealously cracked down on opposition in recent months, it is highly unlikely that they would not appoint an ideological ally to such a key position.
When asked about her early life, she was eager to refer to herself as being a “Palestinian refugee…from the ’48…divided lands”. Born in Egypt, her family originated from the village of Al-Buthani Elrabi close to modern-day Ashdod before leaving during the period of the War of Independence in 1948. Her father is an academic, and his studies abroad brought her to the UK where she lived in Bradford for three years from 2000 to 2003, attending the Grange Technology College as a secondary school student. She looks back on those years with a great deal of fondness, “I have good memories. It was a good part of my life.” It was here that she learned English, which still retains a strong Yorkshire burr. For her the UK was, “the window for the world, how to talk to others, how to be an open-minded person, and how to educate yourself in a good way…I mean from all sides of culture; not just one side.”
Should the Hamas-led government of Gaza also actually take such an open minded and balanced approach then this would be a refreshing change from the dogmatic status quo, but judging from Al-Mudallal’s clearly stated view set out during the rest of the interview, this seems unlikely. She was eager to emphasise her focus on human rights and their deterioration because of Israel’s actions and policies, yet when asked how she felt about working for a government with such a dismal record in that area and the mistreatment of minorities (a major concern for NGO’s such as Human Rights’ Watch and Amnesty International), she skirted round the question. “I don’t have to believe what the West believes about Hamas”. She mentioned her own position as a single divorcee, saying that she had had “[no] problems or anything with them”.
It is hard to believe that Al-Mudallal is unaware of her government’s persecution of Shias and homosexuals within the Strip, It is equally unlikely she has not noticed Hamas’s clampdown on women’s liberties and freedoms – women have been banned from smoking shisha in public, and can face harassment if they do not wear a hijab. Her silence on the matter, even when pressed further on it may be seen as a mark of personal approval to this brand of religious conservatism which seems far from waning.
Her comments about the State of Israel, Israelis and the Middle Eastern conflict also indicate a lack of any kind of real change within Hamas. She defended the continual rocket strikes against Israeli civilian centres in the Negev, and downplayed them on the grounds that many of the projectiles in question were “hand-made”, as if this fact made them harmless. She also referred to such attacks as simply being those “people under occupation finding a way of defending themselves”, despite the fact that there has been no Israeli military or civilian presence in the Gaza Strip since the unilateral disengagement of 2005. She also likened the on-going barrage from Gaza to America’s reaction to the September 11th attacks in 2001, implying that there was a double standard. “Nobody said anything when America defended on herself” – perhaps choosing to forget the international outrage at Bush’s War on Terror, especially in the Arab world.
The old lack of nuance also surfaced when she tarred all Israelis with the same brush, claiming that they were – without exception – “working with [the government] and military.” When challenged, she only backed off slightly saying her previous assertions applied to “most of them”, and that the majority of Israelis believed in “kill[ing] the Palestinians and [wanted] to make them [go] out of their land.” She also said that collectively, Israelis only had one goal which was to “destroy the Palestinian People’s dreams and lives …all of them are the same”. Similarly, she lumped the entire Arab world together inextricably linking it to the Palestinian cause stating that “when there is no Palestine, there are no Arabian countries at the same time”
However, she did concede that “We [Hamas] have to change. We have to think in different ways….It’s a time to change our speech…to change the subject of our words”. While it appears that the movement is shifting its strategy to – albeit a certain extent – this is not because of any desire to moderate its ideologies. Rather, it has reached the realisation that it needs new ways to successfully engage with the West.
While Hamas claims to have renounced suicide bombings, it is still committed to rabid anti-Zionism and to violently attacking the Jewish state and its people. Although the past months have been quiet on the Israel-Gaza border, that does not negate the recent Hamas plan to launch explosive laden drone attacks at Israeli towns and settlements (which was ironically foiled by local Palestinian Authority police officers in Hebron).
Yes, Hamas is changing. But this has more to do with realpolitik and less a reflection of any change in the desires and choices of its leadership. When we see its new “softer” face, turned towards Western media, in be an attempt to suggest more substantial policy changes, this is just a veneer. At its heart, Hamas remains as it always has been, the same violent Islamist group, committed to terror and violence. We would all do well to remember that, and not be taken in when we see the new “moderate” face of Hamas. There is no “Hamas 2.0”.