On August 27, 2012, the BBC repeated the warning issued in a UN report on the Gaza Strip: it "will not be liveable by 2020." The findings of the UN Country Team on the Occupied Palestinian Territory pointed to the evidence that the "basic infrastructure in water, health, education and sanitation 'is struggling to keep pace with a growing population.'" The implication is clear and grim. The dire warning compels readers to reflect on the fate of the Gazan population, which has been defined, demonized and disposed of by Israel and the United States as an accomplice to terror.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the political, economic and, above all, human tragedy of Gaza has by no means captured public attention, particularly in the United States. On the contrary, after the shock and awe of the Israeli invasion of Gaza in late 2008-09, it has largely fallen into the ample bin reserved for what the mainstream media portray as the irrational, conflict-prone politics of the Arab world. In this perverse kaleidoscope, Gaza is presented as an isolation ward under the control of a terrorist movement, a failed land without a history and without a human face.
In this context, Sara Roy's studies of Gaza have come to be recognized internationally as unequalled resources that, in the context of the United States, are essential antidotes to indifference as well as ignorance. They have contributed to our understanding of the history and political evolution of a region that continues to be marginalized in the abortive discussion of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict of which it is an integral part. Roy's 1995 study, The Gaza Strip, The Political Economy of De-development, examined Israel's systematic dismemberment of Gaza's economy and society. It was followed in 2007 by Failing Peace, in which Roy investigated the political impact of Gazan development under Israeli occupation and the Oslo Accords in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza extends Roy's decades-long inquiry by focusing on the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and its communal work, a dimension of its experience that is little known to nonspecialists. Yet it is one that is illuminating insofar as it reflects how Hamas translates its vision in terms that affect civil society through its work in education, health and the economy. The resulting narrative is enriched by the author's lived experience in Gaza and by her commitment to giving voice to her subjects, their concerns and, above all, their humanity.
Roy's study relies on meticulous research harvested over several decades, amplified in the present study by a broad array of interviews with diverse political figures in Gaza and the West Bank, including male and female social and political activists and professionals working in the West Bank, but primarily in Gaza, including in its refugee camps. In the process of explicating the context of these interviews, Roy repeatedly underlines what may seem to be truisms: history matters, the past is often very present, and a sensitivity to context is essential to the comprehension of events. In this instance, the Israeli occupation is key to such an understanding.
In situating Hamas, Roy reminds readers that Palestinian society was not notably sympathetic to the idea of an Islamic state, making the growing social constituency that was responsive to Hamas's institutional innovations that much more significant. If Hamas was able to carve out such a supportive constituency, it was because it offered needed services with a professionalism that was appreciated. In short, it was not primarily the Islamic character of Hamas's institutions that accounted for its appeal. Of course, the importance of that dimension cannot be eliminated in a context in which communal belonging and identity were under perpetual threat, as was the social and political fabric of Gazan society under occupation.
Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza illustrates the fact that "the Palestinian Islamist movement, especially in Gaza, is defined not only by political/military organizations such as Hamas but also by a range of social service institutions, many with a long history in the area" (p. 11). Such institutions, operating in Gaza and the West Bank, enhanced its participants' sense of belonging and their capacity for meaningful social action and interaction, attributes whose importance can hardly be exaggerated in a society under occupation. Roy provides a number of examples of such institutions, some of whose operations she witnessed. Two of the many cases Roy cites include the kindergarten and rehabilitation programs of Gaza's al-Ihsan Association for Disabled Children, in which mothers' participation was a prerequisite that was beneficial to both parent and instructor. In Hebron, there was the al-Anwar al Ibrahimiyya Library for Children, containing some 17,500 volumes by 2008, a collection covering a broad range of subjects around which the library offered classes in reading as well as in computer science and English. Demand in both of the above cases was high, and these are but two examples.
Hamas emerged out of the Palestine Muslim Brotherhood in the years between 1987 and 1993, a period in which Hamas defined itself in militant terms as committed to "political action-resistance and martyrdom." This was the period in which Hamas built up its grassroots base, inaugurating institutions with a civic thrust that were to remain important anchors for its future work. In 1993, the signing of the Oslo Accords created a new political environment. Within a year, the newly established Palestine National Authority under PLO leader Yasser Arafat was given "limited autonomy," in exchange for its recognition of Israel's right to exist and its abandonment of claims to pre-1948 Palestine. Notwithstanding their opposition to Oslo, Hamas's leaders, along with those of other Palestinian groups, were obliged to recognize the widespread support that the promise of Oslo inspired in the West Bank and Gaza.
The period of the Oslo Accords, which, as the author repeatedly explains, must be scrupulously examined to appreciate its impact on the lived experience of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, is clearly central to this analysis. Roy's study effectively destroys the mainstream mythology of these accords, which identifies them as another opportunity for peace subverted by Palestinian intransigence. She demonstrates, in ways that are at once intellectually rigorous and politically sobering, that they systematically subverted the possibilities for peace.
The Oslo period began when the initial agreement was signed in 1993 and continued with a succession of related agreements in the coming years. As Roy's study meticulously shows, the significant changes that Hamas underwent were profoundly marked by the events of the Oslo period, its ensuing relations with other Islamist and secular forces, including Fatah, and the Israeli occupation. In its initial manifestation, the Oslo Accords held out the promise of a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that was mostly welcomed by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Hamas was affected by these developments. As Roy reports, interviews with senior political figures revealed that they recognized the military superiority of the newly established Palestine National Authority, while having to maintain their own base against the efforts of Fatah and Israel, working separately and together, to undermine it. Some in leadership positions expressed their "opposition to violence as a form of resistance, in effect rejecting the strategy of violence as a way to defeat the occupier" (p. 88).
Responding to this situation as well as to their community's increasing opposition to militant political action, Hamas turned increasingly to the communal front. As a result, "political violence was slowly but steadily being abandoned as a form of resistance and as a strategy for defeating the occupier" (p. 85). Islamist social activity was expanding into new areas including health care, education and banking, with results that Roy describes as reflecting an increasing "normalization, institutionalization and professionalization of the Islamic sector" (p. 90). Embedded in this shift was Hamas's changing conception of communal action and its impact on the sense of community and civic life that Gazans engaged in.
Contrary to our image of Oslo as a positive turning point in the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations, in practice it deliberately thwarted the possibilities of a sovereign or even autonomous Palestinian state. The effect of the Oslo Accords was to increasingly circumscribe and weaken Palestinian institutions and render the Palestinian National Authority, established in the same period under Fatah's control in the West Bank, more dependent on Israel. The resulting arrangement was one by which Israel retained total control over the Palestinian people and their resources but relinquished all responsibility for them.
The above dimension of the Oslo period, which has been routinely underexamined in the mainstream U.S. media, served to embitter and embolden Gazans, who despaired of the heavy-handed treatment that passed for a golden age. It explains the Palestinian uprising that was the Second Intifadah in 2000, following the failed Camp David summit, which was supposed to seal the peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Fundamental realities on the ground in Gaza had not been altered.
The move to hold elections at the municipal, local and region-wide levels in this political environment — which, as Roy points out, was promoted by the U.S. secretary of state and supported by Israel — did not bring about the hoped-for results. The first set of municipal elections was held in 2004, with Hamas emerging victorious, as it did in those that followed.
In 2005, the Israeli government decided to withdraw its settlements from Gaza, but Roy's study reveals that its much-vaunted claims regarding this withdrawal were at odds with what occurred. Far from relinquishing control, Israel continued to apply pressure, overtly and covertly, against Gaza, a phenomenon that intensified after the remainder of the elections were held.
Hamas won the 2006 region-wide elections in Gaza, which its representatives conceded was more a sign of disaffection with the dominant party, Fatah, its corrupt elite and complicit politics, than an indication of support for Hamas itself. Nonetheless, the movement was now in a position to participate in the new Palestinian government, which it did, albeit with caution and some reluctance. Nonetheless, its 2006 electoral victory, despite being held in democratically run elections, was rejected by Israel and the United States for endangering peace and stability.
With Hamas's seizure of power in Gaza in 2007, the momentum of U.S. and Israeli economic warfare against Gaza assumed a more menacing character. Justified as curbing terror, the results succeeded in impoverishing Gazans, reinforcing their separation from the West Bank and promoting conditions that gave rise to the reradicalization of Hamas and the renewal of its militancy and violence. In this political cauldron, the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008 was the final attempt to crush Hamas. But this was more than an attack on Hamas; it was aimed at the Gazan people, whose economy and society were shattered.
This review can hardly do justice to Roy's account of Hamas and Gaza in the critical period under consideration. If it persuades those reading this review to enter its pages, they can be assured of an enhanced understanding of the complex of policies that lie at its source, including those of the United States. There is no time to waste.