In a rousing speech before Congress on May 24, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected peace talks with the newly unified Palestinian government because it now includes -- on paper at least -- officials from the terrorist (or, in its own eyes, "resistance") group Hamas. In a striking moment, Netanyahu defiantly declared, "Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda," a statement greeted with resounding applause from the assembled members of Congress.
But hold on a minute. Yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, is an Islamist group that uses terrorism as a strategic tool to achieve political aims. Yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, rejects Israel and has opposed the peace talks that moderate Palestinians have tried to move forward. And sure, the Hamas charter uses language that parallels the worst anti-Semitism of al Qaeda, enjoining believers to fight Jews wherever they may be found and accusing Jews of numerous conspiracies against Muslims, ranging from the drug trade to creating "sabotage" groups like, apparently, violent versions of Rotary and Lions clubs.
But the differences between Hamas and al Qaeda often outweigh the similarities. And ignoring these differences underestimates Hamas's power and influence -- and risks missing opportunities to push Hamas into accepting a peace deal.
While Congress was quick to applaud Bibi's fiery analogy, U.S. counterterrorism officials know that one of the biggest differences is that Hamas has a regional focus, while al Qaeda's is global. Hamas bears no love for the United States, but it has not deliberately targeted Americans. Al Qaeda, of course, sees the United States as its primary enemy, and it doesn't stop there. European countries, supposed enemies of Islam such as Russia and India, and Arab regimes of all stripes are on their hit list. Other components of the "Salafi-jihadist" movement (of which al Qaeda is a part) focus operations on killing Shiite Muslims, whom they view as apostates. Hamas, in contrast, does not call for the overthrow of Arab regimes and works with Shiite Iran and the Alawite-dominated secular regime in Damascus, pragmatically preferring weapons, money, and assistance in training to ideological consistency.
Hamas, like its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, also devotes much of its attention to education, health care, and social services. Like it or not, by caring for the poor and teaching the next generation of Muslims about its view of the world, Hamas is fundamentally reshaping Palestinian society. Thus, many Palestinians who do not share Hamas's worldview nonetheless respect it; in part because the Palestinian moderates so beloved of the West have often failed to deliver on basic government functions. The old Arab nationalist visions of the 1950s and 1960s that animated the moderate Palestinian leader Mahmood Abbas and his mentor Yasir Arafat have less appeal to Palestinians today.
One of the greatest differences today, as the Arab spring raises the hope that democracy will take seed across the Middle East, is that Hamas accepts elections (and, in fact, took power in Gaza in part because of them) while al Qaeda vehemently rejects them. For Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin's deputy and presumed heir-apparent, elections put man's (and, even worse, woman's) wishes above God's. A democratic government could allow the sale of alcohol, cooperate militarily with the United States, permit women to dress immodestly, or a condone a host of other practices that extremists see as forbidden under Islam. So yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, talks of an Islamic government, but in practice it makes compromises, as its unity agreement with Abbas and his regime suggests. In power, Hamas has tried to Islamicize Gaza, and its rule in Gaza is notable for its repression, but it has not imposed a draconian regime as did the Taliban in Afghanistan, the only government al Qaeda ever recognized as truly Islamic.
In the end, Hamas is pragmatic. It makes compromises with rivals, cuts deals with potentially hostile foreign sponsors, and otherwise tries to strengthen its political position, even if this exposes it to the charge of hypocrisy.