Hamas in the West Bank

Hamas is the Islamist group currently best known for its role in Gaza, the coastal territory that has been under Palestinian control since the Israeli withdrawal of 2005. Hamas operates politically, socially and militarily. The US, EU have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas, which was founded in the late 1980s, traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Although Hamas developed particular strength in Gaza, Hamas has followers throughout the West Bank. In the struggle for political control in Palestine, Hamas has been the chief rival of Fatah, the more secular political party founded by Yasser Arafat, and the dominant force in the Palestine Liberation Organization. The rivalry between Hamas and Fatah descended into a bloody internecine war in 2006-07, with Hamas emerging as the dominant force in Gaza and Fatah taking control of the government apparatus of the West Bank.

Although Hamas is religiously Sunni, the group has received support from Shiite Iran and it was allied with Syria, a Shiite leaning country that has been bolstered by Iranian support.

Leaders of Hamas in the West Bank are mostly in jail, mostly Israeli jails, although the Palestinian Authority is detaining many. In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas won a decisive majority. The US and European countries suspended economic support for the Palestinian Authority, helping to precipitate the collapse of a Hamas-led coalition government and the intra-Palestinian battle in Gaza. The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), with Hamas as the majority party, has never met.

We filmed three different Hamas-affiliated Palestinians during 2012. Our first interview with was in Bethlehem, Jan. 2012. The potential subject was Sheikh Khaled Tafesh. Tafesh had been elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 2006. Tafesh had also allegedly been the head of Hamas political and military operations in Bethlehem (http://bit.ly/WRwlMh), including an active cell of suicide bombers. But Tafesh was not destined to be one of our main characters. He was arrested the night after our interview, and has been in prison for the most of the time since.

Further investigation led us to another Hamas Sheikh, this time in Nablus, a beautiful city to the north. Sheikh Hamed Al-Beitawi had been a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank: Beitawi was hard core Hamas. He was in a lifelong struggle not only against the Israelis, but against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Someone (probably from Fatah) attempted to assassinate him. He was a preacher in Al Aqsa mosque. He had spent many years in jail, and in exile in Lebanon. He was also the top Nablus vote getter in the 2006 parliamentary elections — the parliament that never met.

Beitawi’s health deteriorated after Feb., 2012. He was hospitalized in E. Jerusalem, and died a few days later. His funeral was in Al Aqsa mosque.

Even was we had started to film Beitawi, we met Ahmed Attoun, an East Jerusalem Islamist who had been elected to the PLC. He emphatically denied being a member of Hamas, and we agreed not to identify him as such. It should be pointed out, however, that the Israelis consider him to be a member of Hamas and that the US government has him on a terrorism sanctions list because of his alleged Hamas connections. Attoun had spent a good bit of time in the Israeli prison system. He was released for a time in 2010 — but as word of his imminent rearrest circulated, Attoun and two Hamas-affiliated parliamentarians ran to the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross in East Jerusalem to seek refuge. There they stayed for the next year and a half.

Then there was a car accident outside the ICRC. Attoun ran out to help the victims. It was the Shin Bet. Attoun was arrested, and shortly thereafter, exiled to Ramallah. Attoun was arrested again in Feb. 2013 in a sweep of “senior Hamas figures.” As one source told the Jerusalem Post: “It’s part of the ‘lawn mowing’ that is required to stop Hamas from converting street popularity and its motivation into organizational achievements.”