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Hamas May Be Closer To Regional Legitimacy


More now on Hamas, which is an Islamist group. It won the 2006 legislative elections in the Palestinian territories. After briefly belonging to a coalition with the nationalist Fatah movement, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, and it has governed there ever since, under a blockade. For more on Hamas, we're joined now by Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University. Welcome to the program once again.


SIEGEL: When that blockade was imposed, the government in neighboring Egypt had a long history of opposing political Islam within its own borders. These days Islamists are in power in Egypt, in Tunisia. They're part of the uprising in Syria. Is Hamas now within reach of a regional legitimacy that it didn't have before?

KHALIDI: I think that they feel that they are. In addition to the factors you've mentioned, there have been revolutions in Libya and Yemen, and there are regimes that are much more favorable to Hamas in Qatar and in Turkey, both of which are throwing their weight around regionally. So, yes, I think they feel the regional environment is more favorable to them.

SIEGEL: Israel is asking for an end to rocket attacks out of Gaza. First, can Hamas actually deliver on that and would they do that for anything short of a complete lifting of the blockade? What do you think?

KHALIDI: I don't know what they would do, but they've apparently very insistently this time said that they want a lifting of the blockade, that they will not simply go back to the kind of cease fire that they have agreed to in the past. And they seem to be sticking to their guns, but who knows?

SIEGEL: I mean, one reading of what's happening now is that Israel has demonstrated to Hamas that in exchange for rocket attacks on southern Israel, there will be the same kind of retaliation that there was at the end of 2008. How does that play with the Palestinian people? I mean, is Hamas regarded as a defender, as a resistant movement or is it in some way regarded as bringing down these terrible air attacks on them?

KHALIDI: Both. Ironically, when the Israelis do these kinds of things, it increases, in the short term, people's resentment of Israel, its occupation, its blockade, its siege, its incredible disproportionate use of firepower. I mean, we have a 30 to 1 kill ratio today.

SIEGEL: Although they would say, it's not for Hamas' lack of trying, they just haven't gotten better rockets yet.

KHALIDI: Absolutely. You have the Iron Dome system shooting down rockets. You have the complete inaccuracy of many of the short-range rockets. At the same time, everybody can see that the people who are getting hurt the most are Palestinians and that this resistance, so-called, is inflicting much more harm on the Palestinians than on the Israelis and is doing absolutely nothing to liberate Palestinian territory.

The calculus that it imposes on Hamas is also quite cruel. Either you sacrifice your own people, as they're doing in effect, or you take what the Israelis are dishing out in the form of siege and blockade and so forth. It's cruel, in particular, for the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, which is in the middle between these two rather cynical players.

SIEGEL: And the smaller groups in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic jihad, for example, are they de-facto responding to Hamas' authority or are they on their own?

KHALIDI: My sense of what's happening is that there's a great deal of frustration among young people in the Gaza Strip, and young militants in particular, with Hamas and with the restraint that Hamas was very heavy-handedly trying to impose. And these tendencies have grown in strength. Some of them represented by Islamic jihad, some of them represented by much more radical groups than Islamic jihad.

And that they have been sort of leading this process and dragging Hamas, as it were, along behind them. Because they are being outbid by these much more radical smaller groups, Hamas has joined in. People have said, well, they're actually calculating that the regional environment is better for them and so this is a larger Hamas calculation. I would guess it's much more of this being dragged along by the smaller groups than a calculated sense on the part of Hamas that things are wonderful in the Arab world and the region, that therefore ought to provoke Israel.

SIEGEL: Rashid Khalidi, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

KHALIDI: It's a pleasure as always.

SIEGEL: Rashid Khalidi, professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.