In Hamas's view, what would be the future of the Jews in Palestine? Is Hamas part of a global network of international Islamism? How cohesive and united is Hamas, and are there radicals and moderates inside it? Khaled Hroub, the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (2000), here presents another book on the same subject in a simple question-and-answer format, with the questions arranged by chapter and subheading and the answers given in a modest, unpretentious tone. While the questions occasionally tend towards the artificial (“What is the content and significance of the Hamas Government platform, the prime minister's inaugural speech to the parliament in which he asked parliament to furnish his cabinet with a vote of confidence?”), they serve their purpose of organizing the information in a practical, accessible way.

The problem with simple questions of course is that they do not always have simple answers. Happily, Hroub for the most part avoids simplistic answers that sweep away exceptions and ambiguities. This can be seen in his description of the Islamist nature of Hamas: while Hamas is officially in favour of religious tolerance there are tensions within the movement and elements, particularly in Gaza, which have acted violently against public immorality, such as the consumption of alcohol. Hamas's official position also does not reflect subtle pressures it exerts – Hroub gives as an example the fact that a Palestinian woman would not consider applying to Hamas for financial support without wearing a hijab. Thus, although the religious nature of Hamas has been a significant strength in motivating the kind of idealism that has won it support over its often corrupt secular rivals, it is also a weakness in alienating many secular Palestinians who fear an Islamic agenda. Nevertheless, it has attracted significant electoral support from the latter camp, including Palestinian Christians; Hamas, in turn, supported the election of two Christian candidates in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections and included a Christian minister in its Palestinian Authority.

The book was written after Hamas's 2006 election victory and before the so-called coup of 2007 which left Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah of the West Bank. There is ample explanation for the former result and Hroub's book is also not outdated by the latter event: he assesses an outcome of that kind as highly probable, after examining the potential contributing factors, including the fact that the various armed groups within Fatah are difficult to control and caused problems even for Fatah when it had control of the Palestinian Authority. In some respects, Hroub could hardly have improved his treatment had he been writing with hindsight rather than foresight.

This lends additional credibility to his analysis of current and future trends. Hamas has implicitly accepted many western ideas, such as the nation state, democracy and the rule of law. To an increasing extent, Hamas has tended to cite international law in public statements – recognizing that law and justice, if not the West, is on the side of the Palestinians. Hamas also gives primacy to the national cause in seeking diplomatic contacts wherever possible – for example, by pursuing good relations with Moscow despite the latter's war against Muslim Chechnya. The author suggests this trend of politics tending to supersede religion is likely to continue, albeit without any positive engagement from the West and in spite of Israel ignoring Hamas's repeated offers of a long-term truce. Among other arguments in favour of engagement with Hamas are the moderating effect of governmental responsibility and the fact that Hamas have the political capital to negotiate a lasting agreement (it is also Hamas policy to put any agreement to a referendum of the Palestinian people). Unfortunately, the chances of Israel agreeing a truce and entering into dialogue are of course currently remote.

Hroub is open about his own position as a Palestinian (in the secular camp) and he clearly tries to maintain a reasonably detached perspective. In this, he is in the main successful, while at the same time correcting common misconceptions. On the topic of religious prejudice, however, one could form the impression that the Arab world was always a utopia of tolerance and that all Muslims without exception observed Quranic instructions on respect for the other Abrahamic faiths. While it is true that Jews who fled persecution in Europe were treated far better in the Arab world, he goes further than necessary to counter the myth that the Palestinian cause is based on anti-Semitism. On the same subject, Hroub tells us that Hamas's founding charter was written by an uneducated man who had never been outside the Gaza strip and that it has been an embarrassment to the organization's leaders who make a clear distinction between Zionism and Judaism. However a question he does not answer is why Hamas has not since then disavowed or amended the charter, especially if it was circulated without proper review or approval.

This slight colouring apart, Hroub does an excellent job of summarizing Hamas in all its aspects, including: its origins and evolution in political thought; significant leaders, their background and influence; the structure and funding of Hamas; its social and economic policies; the position of women in the movement; suicide bombings and the way it has sought to justify them; its core and floating levels of support and the dynamics of that support; its relations with other Palestinian groups as well as with Arab and Islamic countries and the wider world; its perceptions of the US and Europe. In keeping with the book's simple, non-academic format, there are no references, though there is a short “recommended reading” list.

This book is a valuable and illuminating one for anyone with an interest in the internal dynamics of Palestinian politics, their character as a response to difficult conditions and external pressures, and how they are likely to continue to evolve into the future.

Book review © 2007 Michael Breen