Kingdom of God

Funded by Iran and Saudi Arabia, hated by Washington and Israel, can the Islamist party Hamas cling

Inside Hamas: the untold story of militants, martyrs and spies

Zaki Chehab I B Tauris, 244pp, £16.99

ISBN 1845113896

Hamas: unwritten chapters

Azzam Tamimi Hurst, 344pp, £14.95

ISBN 185065834X

Hamas: politics, charity and terrorism in the service of jihad

Matthew Levitt Yale University Press, 324pp, £10.99

ISBN 0300122586

With its dramatic election victory in January 2006, the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas burst rudely onto the world stage. The event stunned its nationalist rival Fatah, which still saw itself - as Palestinian voters clearly did not - as the natural party of government. It shook Israel, still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of its pull-out from Gaza. And it wrong-footed officials in Washington and other western capitals for whom the accepted wisdom was that Fatah would scrape through with a slim majority. Their response to the result was to cut off international aid in an unsuccessful attempt to force Hamas to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept existing peace agreements.

So what is Hamas? Where has it come from? And, perhaps the most interesting question of all, will power mellow it? Three books - two by Arabs and one by an American - offer distinct, and in several respects conflicting, perspectives on the Hamas phenomenon. The most readable is Inside Hamas by the Palestinian journalist and regular NS writer Zaki Chehab. After writing an "insider" account of the Iraqi insurgency, he now turns his attention to the Islamist movement that emerged in Gaza in 1987, at the start of the first intifada - a movement that has been responsible for many of the most deadly suicide attacks in Israeli cities, and which, over time, came to challenge the monopoly on power held by Yasser Arafat's Fatah. This, too, is an insider account: Chehab has been visiting the main players in Gaza and the West Bank since 1998 when, armed with a British passport, he was allowed by the Israelis to go "home" to Palestine.

As a journalist, he's had access to leaders from both the nationalist and Islamist camps, including Arafat (before his death in 2004) and Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the elderly, wheelchair-bound quadriplegic who was the spiritual leader of Hamas (until his assassination by the Israelis in the same year). The book intersperses analysis with vivid on-the-ground reporting that brings to life the militants and their families, and includes interviews in Palestinian prisons with men bribed or blackmailed by the Israelis into becoming informers.

As a Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Chehab understands instinctively that Hamas's success is rooted in the cumulative frustrations of a population that has endured 40 years of Israeli occupation and over a decade of Fatah misrule. He thinks the west should talk to groups such as Hamas, not ostracise them. At the same time, there are occasionally hints of frustration with the movement's intransigence and other-worldliness. "While Hamas might operate on a timescale of centuries and with Allah's will," he writes at one point, "Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor] was more pragmatic, realising that governments must be dealt with in the earthly and present world."

Azzam Tamimi, in contrast, is an unashamed Hamasnik, a London-based Islamist intellectual who provides a detailed and sympathetic account of the movement's remarkable rise to power. Others may challenge some of the arguments in Hamas: unwritten chapters, but there is no denying its authority, based as it is on extended interviews with central Hamas figures in exile, including its Damascus-based political leader Khaled Meshal.

This is a counter-narrative, an explicit riposte to nationalist and leftist narratives of modern Palestinian history. It shies away, for example, from the conventional view that Israel tolerated the emergence of the Palestinian Islamists, seeing them as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Nor does it accept, as most accounts do, that Hamas was created as an improvised response to the outbreak of the first intifada by a movement scared that the other factions would leave it in the shade. According to Tamimi, Sheikh Yassin and the other Hamas founding fathers had carefully planned the creation of an armed wing - even if the start of violent protest in Gaza hastened its birth.

Tamimi devotes much space to what many people would regard as Hamas's Achilles heel: its commitment to use violence to liberate the whole of Palestine, not just Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem (the position of Fatah and the PLO). He dismisses controversy over the uncompromising and archaic language of the Hamas charter, which he regards as a document that has in effect been superseded. Yet he endorses the movement's position that the most it will accept is a long-term hudnah, or truce, with Israel - not formal recognition of it. And he resists the commonly held view that Hamas is split between a more moderate "inside" leadership and a more radical "outside" one (currently led from Damascus by Meshal).

Tamimi is silent about the support Hamas receives from Syria and, even more controversially, from Iran, but has a lot to say about its ambivalent relationship with Jordan. Here Tamimi, himself a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, comes into his own. His account is scarcely neutral, but it portrays in fascinating detail how the Jordanian kingdom first tried to accommodate Hamas and use it as leverage over Arafat's PLO, and then, in 1999, declared it a threat to the country's security and expelled its top leaders (including Meshal), who were forced eventually to settle in Syria.

Matthew Levitt's book, Hamas: politics, charity and terrorism in the service of jihad - first published last year and now reissued in paperback - is, as its title suggests, a different animal altogether. In some respects, this is salutary. Unlike the other two authors, Levitt puts a figure on those Hamas has killed: the 79 suicide attacks it carried out between 1989 and 2004 left 473 dead. (There were, of course, non-suicide attacks, too.) For Levitt, Hamas is a terrorist phenomenon pure and simple. His main theme, pursued at length, is that it is futile for Hamas or others (read: Europeans) to make a distinction between its social and political work and its military activities. As befits a former US treasury official (who now works for a pro-Israeli Washington think-tank), Levitt is a number-cruncher. Using Israeli estimates, he reckons Hamas probably has an annual budget of between $70m and $90m, 80 to 85 per cent of which it spends on its political work and its extensive networks of schools, clinics and welfare organisations, while 15 to 20 per cent goes on military operations.

Much of this money comes from the Gulf, in particular from Iran and Saudi Arabia - a sign that support for the movement crosses the Sunni-Shia divide. Many on the Arab side of the Gulf admire Hamas and prefer it to the PLO, which they still blame for siding with Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. For Iran, as for Syria, providing Hamas with money, arms or sanctuary is a means of exerting influence in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and of showing that their support for the Palestinian cause is more than hollow rhetoric.

Levitt argues that crushing Hamas must entail drying up its cash from external and internal sources and shutting down its social networks. How likely this is to happen is debatable. The chances that the international community, working with non-Hamas Palestinians, will pick up the challenge of running Palestine's social infrastructure, and so put Hamas out of business, seem rather slim. Besides, as Levitt acknowledges in an odd turn of phrase, Hamas officials are "notoriously honest"; Fatah's are not.

Like other writers on the Middle East, the three authors have found themselves overtaken by events. Hamas and Fatah have, after months of haggling and with Saudi cajoling, formed a "national-unity government". Its platform includes an implied commitment to one of the west's demands: an agreement to "respect" previous Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. This is not enough to get western aid flowing again, but it is forcing the US and Europe to reassess their stance towards Hamas. It also suggests that there are some in Hamas who realise the movement cannot expect to hold power without paying an ideological price.

Roger Hardy is a Middle East analyst for BBC World Service