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War of the Words

How descriptions of Hamas shape our understanding of the Gaza conflict
January 8, 2009

As the extent of physical damage and human suffering in Gaza comes into sharper focus, one aspect of the current conflict remains frustratingly unclear. Who or what is Hamas, exactly?

Definitions vary depending on which news outlet you consult. Al Jazeera English calls Hamas “the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip,” while the New York Post refers to “the Islamic militant group Hamas.” The New York Times sometimes calls Hamas “the militant Palestinian group” and sometimes adds a little more context with “Hamas, the Islamist militant group that governs Gaza.”

The Associated Press describes Hamas in terms simultaneously objective and subjective (my emphasis):

Some Arab states are pressing for a cease-fire to be included in a U.N. Security Council resolution, but both Israel and the U.S. are wary of any move that might give Hamas—which they consider a terrorist organization— legitimacy equal to that of a member of the United Nations.

Ultimately, these definitional disagreements all come back to the question of Hamas’s legitimacy. And the level of that legitimacy differs depending on who you ask. Looking at the group’s complicated recent history, it’s not hard to see why. In January 2006, Hamas won a majority of seats in Palestine’s parliamentary elections—but the West refused to recognize Hamas’s majority government. In early 2007, after a year’s worth of fighting, Hamas and rival party Fatah formed a unity government—which disintegrated that June after Hamas seized control of Gaza in a brief and bloody battle. That same June, prime minister Ismail Haniya was dismissed by president Mahmoud Abbas—but Haniya refused to accept the dismissal, leading to the rise of two parallel governments—one controlled by Hamas, one controlled by Fatah—each claiming to be Palestine’s legitimate governing body.

It’s a complicated history—which goes to underscore the inadequacy of the simplistic labels being deployed by the press during the current conflict. Precision reporting is essential during wartime, when misinformation flows freely and all sides want to win the war for public opinion. But journalists continue to frame Hamas primarily as a terrorist organization. This may suit the U.S. and Israel’s purposes; but according to the Council on Foreign Relations, these definitions of Hamas are limited in scope:

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Is Hamas only a terrorist group?

No. In addition to its military wing, the so-called Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas devotes much of its estimated $70-million annual budget to an extensive social services network. Indeed, the extensive social and political work done by Hamas—and its reputation among Palestinians as averse to corruption—partly explain its defeat of the Fatah old guard in the 2006 legislative vote. Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. “Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities,” writes the Israeli scholar Reuven Paz. The Palestinian Authority often fails to provide such services, and Hamas’s efforts in this area—as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption—help to explain the broad popularity it summoned to defeat Fatah in the PA’s recent elections.

At present, American papers’ reflexive use of the words “militant organization,” or some variation thereof, closely mirror the U.S. government’s political stance on Hamas, which is that it’s a “terrorist organization.” But the phraseology is simply too stark, given the complexity of forces at play in this decades-old conflict. This isn’t to say that Hamas’s violent history ought not be included in the public record. The organization is believed to be behind more than 500 deaths—via suicide bombing, short-range rockets, small arms fire, and other means—since 1993.

But the line between Hamas and the Palestinian people can be hard to locate. As Economist correspondent Gideon Lichfield argues in a recent New York Times op-ed:

In the longer term Israel will have to accept that Hamas is no fringe movement that can be rooted out and destroyed, but a central part of Palestinian society.

The terminology of terror works to unfairly lump Hamas together with other militant and ideological groups. And this compression is simply not accurate, given the substantial power struggles and divisions among the region’s power players.

The historical long view may be helpful in tempering the public’s and press’s understanding of Hamas. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was once considered a terrorist group by most governments, but is now treated as a legitimate governing body in Palestine by the press, despite the fact that, in 2004, the U.S. Congress again declared PLO to be a terror organization. One day, Hamas, too, may be recognized by the international community as a legitimate government.

But the press shouldn’t wait for that day. Journalists are already hampered by distance in reporting the Gazan point of view, given that they are physically excluded from covering the fighting. Incomplete descriptions of Hamas make it harder still for readers to make sense of it all—and create the additional distance of misunderstanding. Journalism’s task is to elucidate, not obscure the truth, and, in the case of Hamas, a short label hardly tells the whole story.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.