When Hamas won the Palestinian Authority elections a year ago, a number of Israeli, Palestinian and foreign experts speculated that the clock had been turned back 20 years, yet added that all was not lost. About two decades ago, Israelis still refused to recognize the PLO, Fateh activists pledged "armed struggle" and both sides rejected a final status agreement based on a two-state solution. Then, Israelis and PLO activists commenced a long process of narrowing the gaps by discussing their policy differences, to a point of mutual recognition and joint acquiescence in a two-state solution as reflected in the Oslo agreement and those that followed.
A similar process, many reasoned, was possible with Hamas. The day-to-day tasks of running a Palestinian quasi-state would take the sharp edges off the Islamist movement's ideology and its leaders would gradually come to terms with the need to compromise with Israel. To show them the way, a set of three conditions was imposed by Israel and the Quartet. If Hamas would recognize Israel's right to exist, accept previous agreements with Israel signed by the PLO and cease violent activities, Israel and the world would engage it politically. If Hamas rejected the conditions, both financial aid and recognition would be withheld.
The year that has elapsed since that juncture has witnessed the failure of this approach. The three conditions were non-starters: Israel has never demanded recognition of its right to exist by any other Arab partner as a condition for talking; Fateh has refused to bring Hamas into the PLO, as it was committed to do, thereby rendering nearly irrelevant the condition dealing with agreements signed by the PLO; and Hamas attacked Israel on June 25 (the Shalit abduction). In recent months it renewed a near-ceasefire, but it refuses to accept Israel's corollary demand: that it cease arming and training for another round.
Neither Hamas' ideology nor its rhetoric has become appreciably more moderate in the course of a year of government. While the three conditions made no more sense than did America's stubborn rejection of the movement that won the democratic elections the US itself had asked for, we have no way of knowing whether a different approach would have produced a more moderate Hamas. Indeed, recognition might easily have generated the reverse effect: greater ideological intransigence in response to perceived weakness. Lest we forget, Hamas' refusal to talk peace with Israel is anchored deep in the Muslim Brotherhood's total negation of a Jewish national presence on land deemed sacred to Islam; it precedes Israel's own rejection of Hamas as a negotiating partner.
Efforts to starve Hamas into submission have failed. European Union aid funds for Palestinians have nearly doubled in the past year; they are channeled through President Mahmoud Abbas rather than Hamas, but they still put food on Palestinian tables. Arab countries have renewed direct aid. Mediation efforts by Egypt and Saudi Arabia have led inevitably to de facto recognition of Hamas by additional Arab countries.
A parallel major effort to strengthen the Abbas/Fateh camp as a counter to Hamas by training and expanding its security forces and delivering aid to it--including taxes withheld by Israel--has fueled internal Palestinian fighting but not brought down Hamas. After nearly a year of a Hamas government, Palestinians are killing one another in growing numbers. Now Abbas is threatening to call new elections, yet with no guarantee that this would change anything largely because Fateh hasn't changed. Even if Abbas, PM Ismail Haniyeh and Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal agree in Mecca this week on a unity government, this will not reflect any substantive softening of Hamas' positions, and the fratricidal killings are liable to continue. Palestine is a shambles and Palestinians are suffering.
The most disturbing development involving Hamas in the course of this year has been its enhanced financial and military links to the Iranian/Syrian/Hizballah orbit. Thus has Hamas "integrated" Palestine into wider Middle East conflicts that pit Iran and its allies against Israel and most Arab countries, and that widen the Sunni-Shi'ite gap through civil war in Iraq and near-civil war in Lebanon. Small wonder Fateh activists have labeled Hamas "Shi'ites".
With the passage of time, it becomes increasingly pointless to apportion the blame for Hamas' rise to power. Israel undoubtedly contributed; so did Fateh. America's mindless democratization campaign actually put Hamas in office. Of far greater relevance is the question, what to do about Hamas. Will force work in removing an Islamist menace, as the Ethiopians showed in Somalia? Can Israel bypass and eventually neutralize Hamas by negotiating with Abbas? Or is Lebanon, where force has failed and stalemate prevails, a more telling precedent?- Published 5/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Despite the surprise that greeted Hamas' election victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, the Islamic Resistance Movement did not come from nowhere.
Hamas first emerged as a real player on the Palestinian social and economic scene during the first intifada that started in 1989. Even then it came from the ranks of the long-established Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which had remained relatively marginal until Hamas engaged in active resistance to the Israeli occupation.
The movement strongly opposed the peace negotiations with Israel in 1991, the Oslo agreement of 1993 and all subsequent agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that was established as a result of Oslo. The movement also boycotted the 1996 parliamentary elections.
With this opposition, Hamas gained three advantages that allowed it to steadily increase its popularity with the public. The first, and maybe most important, was its heavy involvement in fighting the Israeli occupation at a time when Fateh, which had initiated and led that struggle until the peace process, was no longer involved. Hamas, in other words, strove to replace Fateh as the leading resistance movement.
In this regard, Hamas was helped immensely by Israel's refusal to end its expansion of illegal Jewish settlements during the years of the peace process. Thus, Hamas' second advantage was the failure of the peace process to achieve its promised and declared objectives, whether in terms of ending the occupation or in terms of improving the lives of Palestinians and establishing the institutions of a future Palestinian state.
Hamas took advantage of both the failures in governance of successive Palestinian governments, especially until 2002, and the reluctance shown by Israel to implement signed agreements. That reluctance left the Palestinian public in little doubt that Israel was trying to cheat the Palestinian leadership. It was taking advantage of the peace process to neutralize Fateh vis-a-vis the resistance while normalizing relations with the Arab world without at the same time fulfilling its obligations under the peace process.
Finally, Hamas also received large amounts of money and support first from state sources and then from unofficial, including individual, supporters from the region and the world, allowing it to establish an infrastructure useful to promote its political position.
In addition to these factors, the movement's promotion of Islamic values also proved popular among a population overwhelmingly Muslim. In all, they led to Hamas' victory in last year's elections.
In response to this victory, the parties opposed to Hamas' government opted for different and contradicting strategies.
What had become the Fateh-led Palestinian opposition decided to allow Hamas to govern in the hope that it would fail to deliver on its election promises. Fateh rejected an early invitation by Hamas to join a unity government, and the strategy was based on the belief that, given the limited powers of the PA and the harsh measures of the Israeli occupation, any Palestinian government was bound to fail.
The international community, however, led by the US, adopted a different strategy. By imposing a political and economic embargo on the Palestinian government, Washington hoped to force the government out of power.
Israel took a similar position and decided to stop transferring the tax monies it collects on behalf of the PA and as per the Oslo Accords, some two-thirds of the PA's domestic revenue.
But the international and Israeli strategy contradicted that of the internal opposition. By boycotting the PA, the Palestinian public was led to understand that the international community, which had originally encouraged parliamentary elections, was punishing Palestinians for exercising their democratic rights.
Consequently, Palestinians were easily convinced that the government's shortcomings and inability to fulfill its obligations and meet its promises could be blamed on the international community and Israel rather than Hamas, and the movement did not suffer a public backlash.
This, however, started to change in the last few months when it became clear that in fact international aid and Arab financial support had increased in the past year, something Minister of Planning and acting Minister of Finance Samir Abu Eisheh was eventually forced to concede.
It was a double-edged sword, though. On the one hand, Hamas could not continue blaming only the international community for the dire financial straits of the occupied Palestinian territory, but nor could the opposition convincingly blame it for causing international isolation.
This development, combined with the collapse of the civil servants' strike against the government, the gradual official Arab recognition of the Hamas-led government and the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, has left Hamas with little motivation to get behind a unity government.
But the stalemate on this issue, caused mainly by Hamas' attempts to change the rules of the game by not recognizing the leadership role of the PLO and its international political commitments, brought the situation between Fateh and Hamas to the brink of civil war.
Hamas, at this late stage in the game, cannot both accept the parameters of Oslo by running in elections for control of the PA and want to change them by denying the legitimacy of the Oslo agreement that created this body.
At the same time, all other interested parties, inside or outside Palestine, have to shape their policies around the fact that Hamas came to power through free and legitimate democratic elections. In turn, that must be the only way the movement loses power.- Published 5/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Is Hamas becoming more pragmatic?
by Reuven Paz
These days mark a year since Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority and established the new Palestinian government. Hamas won totally free elections, a very rare event in the Arab world. The elections were supported and even encouraged by the United States in accordance with its expressed policy of importing western democracy to the Middle East and even imposing it.
Neither the United States nor Israel, not to mention the ruling Palestinian Fateh government and the rest of the Arab world, predicted such a result. It was reminiscent of Algeria in 1991, when the Front for Islamic Salvation were winning the first free elections ever held in the Arab world and then confronted a military dictatorship supported by France and the US. In the case of Hamas, victory generated a global boycott, led by the US, aimed at strangling the new government until its slow death.
Thus the United States contradicted its stated policy. It ignored the wishes of a significant Palestinian majority and the fact that Hamas' victory took place not only due to its terrorism against Israel, but primarily as a result of its social activism and its integrity in the eyes of the Palestinians. Its victory also constituted an attempt to break the sense of siege and political dead-end in Palestine.
Yet the most significant element missed by the United States and Israel concerning Hamas' electoral triumph was the chance to create a process whereby, on the one hand, the local Hamas leadership would be released from the political chains of the past, and on the other, the gap between the local leadership and the external hard-line leaders in Damascus and Tehran would be widened.
What was the leadership status of Hamas in early 2006? It entered the elections after about seven months of a hudna or (relative) ceasefire with Israel. The veteran leadership was almost entirely dead; the movement did not have any prominent local leader; and the new ministers who formed the government were in fact a collective leadership of people hitherto involved only in the Hamas social infrastructure, alongside some technocrats. Local figures such as Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar suddenly had a chance to promote themselves to positions of real leadership.
These factors bear emphasis insofar as they point to an element that has always been ignored by both Israel and the United States regarding Hamas. The movement provides the only authentic social leadership in the PA and is the closest to the public. Hamas has always been the most sensitive seismograph of the Palestinian mood, especially in Gaza, even as it has always attempted to move Palestinian public opinion toward its Islamic creed.
It has, in turn, also been shaped by the public. The best example, an issue well understood by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is Hamas' focus on local struggle only, within the boundaries of Palestine, and its prioritizing of withdrawal by Israel to the 1967 border and the establishment of an independent state. These positions do not coincide with the movement's 1988 charter, its declared ideological slogans and the indoctrination of its cadres. Hamas, it emerges, has placed pragmatic constraints upon itself in order always to keep the door open to the public's wishes.
In some ways, what happened with Hamas during the past year could be used as a script for a typical Middle Eastern movie. A poor old maid receives a marriage proposal from someone she and the entire family regard as an old and ugly man. Given her age, her family wants her to compromise and marry at whatever price. They hate the future groom, but at the same time they know that he is the only possible candidate and they could benefit from the marriage. She wants to get married but cannot make up her mind, and dares not say anything to her family or the potential groom. In the meantime, her wealthy brother who lives in the big city free of local family pressures is doing his best to prevent the marriage and calls upon her to resist. Is there a happy ending? We shall all have to wait... and wait..., because no one is willing to produce the film.
Similarly, in the course of 2006 there was a chance that Hamas would become more pragmatic in return for satisfaction of one of the most important elements of the Palestinian mindset: recognition--recognition of its legitimate victory, its status as representative of the Palestinian public and its right to make its own decisions. Yet the reality of the past year was that Israel, the United States, most of the Arab world including the Saudis, and Europe--albeit with a lot of reservations--joined in pushing the Hamas local collective leadership into the arms of Iran, Khaled Meshaal and other hard-liners who in turn presented themselves as the only defenders of the Palestinian people. Now, in early 2007, we confront civil strife in the PA that will lead nowhere.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved by means of a short process in which the lines of a final settlement are sketched out, as some suggest. It will take Hamas years to recognize the existence of Israel or to abandon violent jihad as the core of its ideology. Yet we should be testing Hamas by its deeds rather than its ideology; by its practical behavior, not its dreams.
The Palestinians in general are more practical than other Arab publics. They have the power to impose this practicality upon the uncharismatic local Hamas leadership, if only it can be released from its Iranian chains. This in turn can be accomplished by allowing Hamas to exercise its legitimate rule and ceasing the boycott of the movement. This would push the Palestinian people to encourage Hamas to adopt a more pragmatic line.
The will is already there. It is the sense of siege that pushes Hamas into the arms of the hardliners.- Published 5/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Reuven Paz is founder and director of PRISM, the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Still going strong
an interview with Taher al-Nuno
bitterlemons: Hamas has been in power now for a year since it won elections. In that time, Palestinians are poorer than ever and a civil war is stirring in Gaza. Whom do you blame?
Nuno: In the agreements it signed with the PLO, Israel attempted to link the Palestinian economy with its own in order to keep Palestinians under Israeli control. After the start of the Aqsa Intifada in 2000, Israel imposed a siege and destroyed the Palestinian economy along with its infrastructure. When this current government took power, Israel simply tightened its siege. This government does not carry the responsibility for the siege. Blame must be placed squarely on the shoulders of Israel and on the international community, which is supporting Israel and its occupation at the expense of the occupied Palestinian people.
Regarding the civil war, this is part of what [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice once called "constructive chaos" to oust Hamas after it won elections last year. It complements Israel's intervention on behalf of those who want to overthrow the government.
bitterlemons: The international community, led by the US, has boycotted the government until the government accepts its three conditions. What is unacceptable about these conditions?
Nuno: They are simply unjust. Recognize Israel? Which Israel? Are there any specific borders for this Israel ? What about Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights? Does Israel recognize Palestinian rights? All these questions must be answered.
Regarding previous agreements signed with Israel: given that the Israeli side has refused to adhere to them, why should we? Israel has cancelled these agreements by reoccupying the West Bank, besieging Gaza and killing and arresting, on a daily basis, our people. Why should we be committed to agreements that no one respects and that the international community itself is not enforcing?
Finally, the government has condemned violence but it makes a distinction between violence and legitimate resistance. Resisting foreign occupation is the right of any occupied people.
bitterlemons: Is there a compromise possible? Do you believe that a unity government, for example, is acceptable to the international community?
Nuno: Palestinians must be united to confront and defeat the siege. Both sides can reach a compromise and build an internal front to confront the Israeli occupation and Israeli designs to cancel Palestinian rights.
bitterlemons: In what other way does Hamas and the government believe it can get around the international boycott?
Nuno: Not all the international community boycotts Hamas. We have good relations with Islamic, Arab as well as non-Arab and non-Islamic countries. These are countries that have received us and with whom we maintain continuous contact.
We also maintain contact with European countries and understand from them that they too want to see an end to the isolation imposed upon the government and our people.
It is because of these friends that we have withstood the American-Israeli siege and maintained the struggle for the rights of our people.
But we need everyone's help. The whole world should understand that the key to security and stability in the region is to honor the results of our elections and the rights of the Palestinian people.
bitterlemons: In case the international community refuses any compromise solution or refuses to deal with a unity government, what are the options for the government?
Nuno: We don't expect anything from the international community. But we are still confident that the moral cause will prevail over the non-moral one.
bitterlemons: How much contact is there between the government and the Quartet members?
Nuno: We recently sent a letter to the Quartet calling on them to engage in a serious dialogue to achieve security and stability in the region. We hope that the message will find receptive ears.- Published 5/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Taher al-Nuno is media advisor to Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar.
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