From Terrorism to Political Participation: Hamas & Islamic Jihad

In today’s “war on terror,” the world regularly debates the mechanics of counterterrorism measures in the context of military action. Debates over the use of torture, drone strikes, and intelligence often dominate counterterrorism discussions. In the face of these militaristic discussions of terrorism and counterterrorism, it is surprising that most terrorist groups do not end as a result of military or even of police action. Instead, 43 percent of terrorist organizations end as a result of involvement in the political process.

There are many well-known examples of terrorist organizations that have become involved in the political process through the creation of a political party and participation in elections. Hezbollah in Lebanon has had a strong standing in the legislature of the country. The group also participates in other nonviolent actions such as charity work and service provision within Lebanon. The African National Congress in South Africa, led by Nelson Mandela, was very successful in politics at the end of the apartheid following its history as a violent terrorist organization. Sinn Fein remains a dominant political party in Northern Ireland and has a history of very close ties to the terrorist organization of the Irish Republican Army.

What causes a terrorist group to enter the political arena? Scholars have proposed three possible answers to this question: external pressures, shifts in ideology, and changes in the organizational strength of a group. Per the first theory of external pressures, Leonard Weinberg views actions of the state as a key factor in influencing the political transition of terrorist organizations. In addition to the state, public forces may work from outside of the terrorist organization to influence the group to participate or abstain from involvement in national elections. The second argument focuses on a group’s ideology. Shifts in a terrorist group’s ideology may make the organization more or less likely to become politically involved. This is the position that Julie Herrick takes in her study of the political transitions of Hamas and Hezbollah. Lastly, the organizational structure and strength of an organization may influence the political participation of a terrorist organization. Peter Krause explores the impact of organizational strength on terrorist organizations’ use of violence in his study of the Palestinian National Movement and the Algerian National Movement.

This paper explores the validity of these explana- tions by analyzing Hamas’ decision to participate in Palestinian elections in 2006 after abstaining from involvement in 1996. This analysis is deepened by comparing Hamas’ decisions at the time of these two elections to that of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that that did not participate in either elec- tion. The analysis of these two groups finds that on the basis of group membership, public popularity, and the number of attacks, the organizational strength of a terrorist organization is the most important consideration for participation in elections.

Image released to Public Domain by the Israeli Defence Forces Forces Spokesperson's Unit

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