HAMAS: Moving from militancy to media

By Agatha Glowacki, PhD Candidate, Institute for Conflict Analysis & Resolution (ICAR)

Recent news that HAMAS is forgoing the use of armed resistance, specifically the use of the short-range Qassam rockets that for years have flown into Israel, for what it is calling “cultural resistance” may prove that one of the lessons it learned from the war has been that violence doesn’t work. In a recent article by the New York Times, HAMAS leader Ayman Taha explains this policy move as partly the result of popular pressure by a public that increasingly perceives terrorist tactics—such as rockets—as ineffective. The article quotes, ““What did the rockets do for us? Nothing,” Mona Abdelaziz, a 36-year-old lawyer, said in a typical street interview here.”

But this policychange is more than a tactical move meant to appease its public. Instead, it represents a shrewd strategic calculation by HAMAS to move from a physical battlefield—upon which it wasn’t winning—to a virtual battlefield in the arena of global public opinion, on which it just may have better odds of success. HAMAS is pragmatically calculating that by relinquishing terrorist tactics, which have been used by Israel to paint the Palestinian resistance movement as evil and effectively delegitimize Palestinian grievances, it will more effectively “beat” Israel through publicizing the legitimate human rights abuses being undertaken.

The goal now has become strengthening international condemnation of Israel over allegations of disproportionate force, and HAMAS’s energy is now being refocused from militancy towards media. HAMAS already runs a modest media empire, its reach stretching to newspapers, radio, and satellite television, and now it is ambitiously reaching out to the world of film and entertainment, a medium that could prove an even more potent propaganda tool. (Read more in the July 16, 2009 Foreign Policy article, “Welcome to Hamaswood” by Sharon Weinberger.)

“We are not terrorists but resistance fighters, and we want to explain our reality to the outside world,” Osama Alisawi, the minister of culture, said during a break from the two-day conference. “We want the writers and intellectuals of the world to come and see how people are suffering on a daily basis.”

That suffering is quite real, as the article points out. And Israel recognizes its vulnerability in this new battlefield of public opinion and Israeli officials know they must improve public relations and message management. And so the war for opinion is on, and the lesson to be learned by all, perhaps, is that in a globalized world the true battlefield exists virtually in the arena of public opinion—and the true strength comes not from rockets but from the moral high ground.

© Marc Gopin