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On January 25, Palestinians went to the polls and, in an election supported by the United States and judged free and fair by observers, elected members of Hamas, a movement on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist-organization list, to 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats.
Six weeks after the election, I sat down separately with two of the key architects of the Hamas victory, Prime Minister–designate Ismail Haniyeh and Foreign Minister–designate Mahmoud Zahar, and with a dozen other Hamas leaders, activists, and supporters in Gaza and the West Bank. A main question in diplomatic circles has been how Hamas will respond to the “three demands” that the United States and its allies have placed on the new Palestinian government: that it recognize Israel’s right to exist; that it affirm its commitment to all international agreements concluded by its predecessor, the Fateh Party; and that it renounce violence. President George W. Bush and the leaders of the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia—the so-called Quartet that has sought since 2002 to manage Israeli–Palestinian diplomacy—stressed that they could not work diplomatically with the new Palestinian government if it did not meet these demands. The United States and the EU also threatened to withhold economic aid, and Israel threatened to block its provision.
I interviewed Haniyeh on March 7 in the crowded satellite seat of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza City. (The Gaza journalist Laila el-Haddad came with me and helped with the translation at a couple of points.) When asked about the three demands, Haniyeh answered wearily that the PLO—the Palestinians’ longstanding political umbrella organization, which gave birth to the Palestinian Authority in 1993—“already gave answers to those questions. So why do they ask us this over and over again? Anyway, why does the international community always face us with questions and conditions? It’s Israel that they need to ask. We ask that the international community demand that Israel recognize the rights of Palestinians and recognize a Palestinian state in all the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967. Then, for sure, we will have a response to this question.”
Dr. Mahmoud Ramahi, Hamas’s chief whip in the PLC, made a similar statement when I interviewed him a few days earlier in the PLC’s main seat in Ramallah:
We have said clearly that Israel is a state that exists and is recognized by many countries in the world. But the side that needs recognition is Palestine! And the Israelis should recognize our right to have our state in all the land occupied in 1967. After that it should be easy to reach agreement. They ask us to recognize Israel without telling us what borders they’re talking about! First let us discuss borders, and then we will discuss recognition.
Haniyeh made clear in our short interview that his government would be putting domestic rather than international affairs at the top of its agenda. “We are confident we can succeed in this new challenge of organizing the Palestinian house,” he said. “Our people want internal security now.”
The previous evening, Mahmoud Zahar had spelled out in greater detail Hamas’s desire to focus on domestic affairs. I interviewed him in his mosque-side Gaza home on March 6, after the end of evening prayers, as he had specified. We sat in a very large ground-floor reception room, near a corner in which stood two large flags: the green Hamas flag and the four-colored Palestinian flag. An aide brought us coffee from a kitchen at the far end of the room.
“Our strategy right now is twofold,” Zahar said. “To clean the Palestinian house and also to clean up our people’s relations with the Arab countries. In our own house here, we need to find a good way to make the social and economic investments that are so badly needed here, and also to clean Palestinian society of collaborators.” He did not specify who these collaborators were or what they were planning to do with them. PA legislation defines unauthorized collaboration with Israel as a capital offense.
Through the kitchen I could see a small, beat-up Japanese sedan parked in an indoor garage that was open to the reception room. Zahar pointed to it. “That’s my car,” he said. “Did you see the expensive cars that the Fateh leaders drive?” Later, he said, “The people saw the sacrifice that the Hamas leaders made for the people’s interest.” He made no specific mention of one key sacrifice he and his family made: in September 2003 his son, Khaled, was killed, along with a bodyguard, when an Israeli F-16 dropped a 1,100-pound bomb on the family’s home. (The bombing occurred one day after Hamas suicide bombers had killed 15 young people—including a number of soldiers—at two locations inside Israel.) Zahar, his wife, and one of their daughters were injured in the attack.
Now 60, Zahar is one of the few surviving members of the group of (mainly) professional men who founded key Hamas precursor institutions in Gaza in the 1970s. The spiritual leader of that group, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was killed by an Israeli guided missile in March 2004; his successor Abdel-Aziz Rantisi was killed a month later. Nearly all the other Hamas founders from Gaza were assassinated at that time. (Khaled Meshaal, who has run Hamas’s operations in the Palestinian diaspora for some time and is now the head of the organization’s ruling Political Bureau, barely survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in September 1997.)
In the days before I met with Zahar and Haniyeh, Israel’s leaders issued stern warnings to Hamas leaders that they would be killed if the organization resumed its attacks on targets inside Israel. But these two men and their colleagues seemed unfazed. One Hamas official told me, “They tried to destroy our movement back in 2003 and 2004 when they tried to kill all our leaders. But not only did Hamas survive, we went on to win in the elections. That should show them they can’t destroy us.”
Religious faith, which seemed strongly and sincerely held by the people I met, has almost certainly helped Hamas remain focused on its goals in spite of Israel’s often lethal threats. But these days, another factor may help: since March 2005 Hamas has stuck in a remarkably disciplined way to a unilateral cessation of attacks against Israel that it negotiated through the PA’s Fateh Party president, Mahmoud Abbas. The only exception came last September, after a series of explosions in a Hamas military parade killed 19 Hamas fighters. The explosions were soon found to be the result of an accident, but not before the Hamas military and other militants had fired a “retaliatory” barrage of rockets into Israel, killing five. But the Hamas leaders were able almost immediately to reinstate the self-restraint regime.
This unilateral ceasefire, known to Palestinians as the tahdi’eh (calming), was never negotiated with Israel, nor did Israel promise to reciprocate it. Nevertheless, its general solidity was a key factor that allowed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to succeed in his own big unilateral project of 2005: pulling Israel’s troops and settlers out of Gaza. Thus, in 2005, a pattern emerged: each side proceeded with its own unilateral project but in parallel with the other, and though neither side admitted it, each depended on the other’s success. Hamas “won” the Israeli withdrawal, and it claimed this victory was the result of its own actions, both its earlier lethal actions and its later ceasefire. And Sharon “won” a withdrawal that proceeded without major incident. With Sharon’s Kadima party now dominating the Israeli government and Hamas dominating the PA, the pattern of mutually reinforcing, parallel unilateralisms that was established in 2005 could well be carried forward for some years.
This shift toward parallel unilateralisms marks a significant change from the negotiated approach that had hitherto dominated the strategy of both national leaderships (though Benjamin Netanyahu showed a strong aversion to cooperation during his premiership in Israel, from 1996 to 1999). That earlier strategy had been applied to economic issues as well as political issues. Seven months after concluding the Oslo Accords the two parties signed a follow-on document called the Paris Agreement, which delineated a single “customs envelope” around their two countries. Under the Paris Agreement, Israel maintained complete control over the movement of all goods into and out of Gaza and the West Bank—and this control continued even after the withdrawal from Gaza. The Paris Agreement stipulated complete freedom of trade between Israel and the PA-controlled areas and broad freedom of movement for workers between them. But in practice, the Israeli government used security concerns as a reason to maintain tight controls on the movement of Palestinian goods and workers into Israel while continuing to treat the PA-controlled areas as a captive market for its goods; and from spring 2002 onward the Sharon government abandoned any pretense of coordinating its policies, economic or otherwise, with the PA. It also used its military to destroy key nodes of the PA economy such as the airport and the fisheries market in Gaza. Indeed, Israel’s control over all aspects of Palestinians’ external trade resembles the hold that apartheid South Africa once exercised over its Bantustans.
Zahar spoke with me about the prospect of a Hamas government taking Gaza pretty rapidly out of the Paris Agreement. “An opening of our trade links to Egypt and through our seaport is a first option for us,” he said. He continued,
The Israelis have violated all the economic agreements from the Paris Agreement through to the Rafah Agreement [which was concluded with Secretary Rice’s help in November 2005]. So we are not obligated to remain within them.
If we push ahead with regard to opening our border with Egypt, we can certainly make it work to the benefit of both sides. You know, in September, right after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, when our border with Egypt was unsecured, we learned that our people spent $8 million in El-Arish in just ten days because the prices of everything in Egypt are so much lower than the prices the Israelis impose on us here.
I mentioned a concern that some Palestinians had voiced: that if Gaza breaks out of the Paris Agreement, this would split it off even more, both economically and politically, from the West Bank—an area that remains under much tighter and more pervasive Israeli control than Gaza. “Gaza is already cut from the West Bank,” he said. He noted that any switch by the Gazans from the customs envelope with Israel to a new economic link with Egypt “should of course be by arrangement with Egypt.”
I asked what policies he expected Israel to follow after the March 28 election there. He said he expected a further unilateral Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank. “You know, whenever Israel undertakes unilateral withdrawals, they are costless to us, because they do not tie us up in negotiations. They are a big victory for us.”
Nearly all the Hamas leaders and activists I spoke with in Gaza and the West Bank viewed the prospect of negotiations with Israel with great wariness. They referred frequently to Fateh’s record in such negotiations, concluding that those talks had all been a damaging trap for the Palestinian side. But Zahar was the most outspoken on this point of any of them. “The conflict should not be solved in our age, because the power equation here is not yet balanced,” he said. “If the Israelis leave us alone a while and want to come to talk to us later, then okay.”
I reminded Zahar that many Israelis were extremely fearful of Hamas and asked whether Hamas might consider using persuasion to budge Israelis—or at least those on the left, who might be more open to Hamas’s position. He said,
What is the difference between Israeli extreme rightists and extreme leftists? On central issues like Jerusalem and the right of return, there is no difference. How can we persuade people who took away all our rights? Mr. Arafat believed he could, and he helped some of these parties, even with cash. But look where it got him.
They should be scared, because whenever they felt a sense of security they felt it would be okay to make aggressions, like in 1956, 1967, 1982. When they felt insecurity was when they withdrew.
He painted a confident picture of Hamas’s political standing in the Muslim Middle East. He said the organization had received expressions of support from many prominent political figures in the Arab world, including the veteran Egyptian Nasserist Mohamed Hassanein Haikal. He added,
Nowadays, we see many countries inviting us to visit. But when Abu Mazen [the PA’s Fateh president, Mahmoud Abbas] went to Qatar to ask for financial support, they turned him down.
These days, the U.S. presence in Iraq is helping the Palestinian people because the failure of the U.S. project there will certainly weaken Israel. Also, the picture of the U.S. as oppressing people—at Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo or elsewhere—all this increases anti-U.S. attitudes. . . .
You know, when the PLO was hit in Lebanon in 1982 by the Israelis, no one helped them. Why? Because they had previously behaved so badly toward so many Arab peoples. We are different. Hamas is welcomed everywhere in the Arab world.
He described the visit that the Hamas political-bureau chief Khaled Meshaal had recently made to Moscow as “a breakthrough in our relations with the Quartet. And now we are hoping to have a breakthrough with the Europeans because they will not be prepared to follow the U.S. forever.”
What, I asked, did he predict the Palestinian situation would look like in another two years? “I see a further Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank. There will be a flourishing in our economy and in our society. We’ll be represented in the international community, and people around the world will see a good example of how a people without resources can build strong industries.” He made no mention of peace talks with Israel.
Finally, I asked about Hamas’s relations with al Qaeda. He said, “I want to tell the American people: we are not against the American people, but we do note those individuals who support Israel’s aggressions against us. The Muslims are not against any other people. . . . We believe in cooperation, not conflict. . . . We are not Qaeda.”
Mahmoud Ramahi had earlier pushed this argument even further: “Right now, regarding our relations with the U.S. and Europe, Hamas and the other Islamic groups here say they are ready to sit down with them to agree on the future. But they refuse to sit with us. But they should know: if they make us fail, they won’t find anyone else at all to talk with. We are the moderates in the Islamic movement. We condemned the Qaeda actions in the U.S. and London and Madrid. We could have acted outside the area of Palestine, but we never did. We’re the only group here that never did kidnappings or other undisciplined attacks like that.”
* * *
Over the past nine months, the Israelis and the Palestinians have each witnessed far-reaching political upheavals. The specifics have been different, but both resulted from strong shifts in popular opinion against the concept of a negotiated peace. This repudiation was confirmed for Palestinians by Hamas’s surprise victory at the polls in January and for Israelis by the waning of the Labor Party and its former allies in the peace camp and the swift rise of Kadima, whose rallying cry has been the pursuit of unilateralist “solutions” in Gaza and the West Bank.
In the best-case scenario for the next few years, we would see each side forming a stable administration (with the Palestinians able to control all the unruly factions) and in parallel deciding to focus on domestic matters while postponing the conclusion of a final peace.
Certainly, inside both societies, many, many people are ready to simply turn their backs on the members of the other nation. Many Palestinians have long had mixed feelings about the kinds of touchy-feely get-togethers that proliferated in the 1990s, arguing that those gatherings served mainly to mask and perpetuate the vast disparity in power and influence between the two sides. In Israel, the decision to reduce daily contact with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza has already become policy: a massive government-built security barrier now snakes its way deep into the West Bank and through the heart of many Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and Israel has largely ended the reliance on cheap Palestinian labor that for 30 years after 1967 helped to undergird its impressive economic growth. Israeli labor contractors have joined their counterparts in other rich economies of the Middle East in bringing large numbers of very cheap laborers from Asia or Africa into their country on a strictly “contract-only” basis. More than 100,000 Gaza Palestinians used to cross every day to work on farms and construction sites in Israel; now only 4,000 or 5,000 have the Israeli-issued permits required to do so.
The prospect of these parallel unilateralisms raises a number of interesting questions:
Will the Hamas government be able to exert its control over the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, including the many lawless Fateh offshoots? This will not be easy. The Fateh leaders felt badly humiliated by their rout in the January election. One very well-informed Palestinian politician told me that Abbas’s main reaction was a strong desire to humiliate Hamas in return. Hamas’s public position in the weeks after the election was to call for the establishment of a national unity government. Fateh turned down that invitation, and it seemed clear from what Mahmoud Zahar told me that, though he still hoped that some smaller parties would join the coalition government, he was actually quite happy that Fateh had refused to do so. The feud between the two movements has deep roots.
In the end, the smaller parties turned Hamas down as well. (Many of them were pointedly urged to do so by Washington.) When Haniyeh named a cabinet March 20, its 24 members included only Hamas members and generally pro-Hamas independents, mostly professionals and people with technical expertise.
Hamas had strong reasons for preferring a coalition government. One was the tough challenge of the conflict with Israel. Another was the intra-Palestinian political balance: though Hamas won 76 out of 132 PLC seats, it won only 44 percent of the popular vote while Fateh won 41 percent. It is hard to foresee the outcome of a raw military contest for power between the two movements, should it come to that. Hamas has 5,000 trained and disciplined fighters in its Izzeddine Qassam Brigades. The Fateh-led PA security forces have between 60,000 and 70,000 fighters on their multiple payrolls. Those forces have no unified command structure, and only a small number of them are well trained. Nor are they all Fateh supporters: some one third reportedly voted for Hamas.
Haniyeh named the popular Hamas politician Said Siyam as interior minister with the expectation that he would take over the PA’s security forces. But it remains unclear how many of the PA’s five police and security branches will report to him and how many to Abbas’s office. Similar questions hang over the control of budgets. Three months after the election, key Fateh functionaries were still working hard to gain control over as many levers of PA power as possible. Indeed, the rivalry between the two movements might go even deeper. The International Crisis Group analyst Mouin Rabbani told me in April that some elements of Fateh seemed to be preparing to act as “Palestinian Contras.” There have been some low-level clashes between armed supporters of the two sides, but so far these have been fairly easily contained.
In mid-April the Hamas speaker of the PLC, Aziz Dweik, appealed to Abbas to convene a high-level Palestinian gathering to iron out the internal differences. On April 29, Abbas agreed to hold this conclave within a week, so there was some hope that an all-out clash could be averted.
Fateh’s general political position is not strong. It has remained plagued by the internal divisions that helped it to lose the election; and many of the Palestinians I talked with who voted for neither Hamas nor Fateh told me that they strongly preferred “giving Hamas a chance” to going back to live under Fateh’s chaotic and corrupt administration. Most Palestinians were also extremely disappointed with the results of Fateh’s diplomacy, and many have been impressed by Hamas’s record in the nonpartisan and efficient provision of services to needy populations.
Depending on the policies pursued by an Israeli government—once this is formed—Hamas may be able to exert its control over nearly all of Gaza with relative ease. In the West Bank it will probably have more problems, both because its support there is weaker and because Israel’s forces remain free to act on the ground there and will likely retain that freedom even after the additional, small-scale withdrawal that Olmert is promising in the months ahead.
How will Israel and the international community react to Hamas’s attempt to establish a PA government? Let’s assume that both Hamas leaders and Kadima continue and even expand the model of parallel unilateralisms. Once Ehud Olmert has been able to form a coalition government of some stability, it is quite possible that he will give Hamas a quiet nod to continue with its project of nation-building in Gaza, and possibly also in some areas of the West Bank. This, he might hope, would allow him to proceed with the redrawing of Israel’s boundaries in the West Bank. The one thing he would insist on, of course—though he would not do this through direct negotiations—would be that the Hamas government truly exert its authority over the whole Gaza Strip and bring an end to the troubling intermittent firing of rockets against Israel from its northern reaches.
If Olmert does make such a choice, he would almost certainly be able to persuade Washington to (however quietly) give a Hamas-led government a bit of a chance—for example, by allowing aid from non-Western countries to reach the PA and by not objecting to the PA taking Gaza out of the Paris Agreement. This would echo what happened with the PLO in 1993: first the Israeli government decided to relax its long-held taboos and talk with the PLO, and then it was easily able to persuade Washington to do likewise. With Hamas it might be even easier, since no one would propose talking to or cooperating explicitly with it. Instead the democratically elected PA government would simply be enabled to exercise some (but by no means all) of the powers of self-governance.
To be sure, Israel’s hardliners and their American supporters might want to pursue the kinds of punitive policies toward a Hamas administration that were articulated in Kadima’s election rhetoric. But that would be difficult. The residents of the Palestinian territories remain the wards of the international community, and in an era of instantaneous global communications, neither Israel nor the United States can afford to be seen as conniving to starve them to death—or, indeed, to prevent their flourishing in any unjustifiably harsh way.
How will Israel and other parts of the international community react if a Hamas-led government seeks to take Gaza out of the Paris Agreement? A Kadima-led government in Israel is likely to be quite happy to see the end of the kinds of intimate economic ties that undergirded the post-Oslo peace-building. It is true that the Kadima elder statesman (and former Labor prime minister) Shimon Peres was traditionally Israel’s firmest advocate of such ties. But he has little power or influence within Kadima.
If Olmert’s new government reacts with equanimity to a Haniyeh government taking Gaza out of the Paris Agreement, then the United States again could be expected to follow that lead. So too could the EU, which has long worked to foster economic ties with the PA. One senior European diplomat told me that he had met discreetly with Hamas leaders. He indicated that he and other EU decisionmakers saw real value in the Gazans breaking out of the Paris Agreement: “Let’s face it, the Gazans have always had more in common with the Egyptians and more contacts with Egypt than with anyone else. This would be a natural rebuilding of those ties.”
Will a Hamas-led government be able to work out the kind of modus vivendi with Egypt that Zahar alluded to? How about its relations, more broadly, with the Arab states and the other governments of the world? Hamas’s position on many issues of policy, including Israel, is not wildly different from that of most Arab governments. Arab governments spelled out explicitly in the landmark “Beirut Declaration” of March 2002 that if Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 lines in the West Bank, Gaza, and occupied Golan and agrees to “a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees to be agreed upon in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution No 194” then they would sign a peace agreement with Israel and establish normal relations. For their part, the Hamas leaders say only that if Israel undertakes a complete withdrawal then they would be prepared to “consider” recognizing it and entering into a long-term hudna (truce) with it. Many Arab states have promised to work hard to persuade Hamas to agree to the Beirut Declaration’s formula.
Egypt and Jordan are the two Arab states that already have longstanding peace agreements with Israel. Under the terms of their treaties and given the close relationships they maintain with Washington, they are prevented from undertaking any actions that would undermine the security of Israel. While I was in Israel, the high-level Likud advisor (and former Israeli ambassador to the UN) Dore Gold described to me his fears about how a Hamas-led administration could lead swiftly to the importation into Gaza of al Qaeda operatives or serious armaments—or even, in his worst-case scenario, Iranian nuclear weapons. Such fears are extremely exaggerated. Throughout the 27 years of the Egyptian–Israeli peace, Cairo has shown itself committed to those portions of the peace treaty that assure the security of Israel. Egypt is quite capable of controlling the access of goods and persons into a Palestinian-administered Gaza (just as Jordan would be for the West Bank).
At the political level, Cairo has already shown itself prepared to work with Hamas leaders. In 2003 and again in 2005, the Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman made a point of helping to broker the talks between Abbas and Hamas leaders that led to the tahdi’eh. (The first of those agreements did not stick; the second did.)
The relations that the Mubarak government have maintained with Hamas are affected by the fact that Hamas grew out of, and is still closely aligned with, the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has deep support in many Arab countries, including Egypt and Jordan. Both the Egyptian and Jordanian branches of the Brotherhood have for many years pursued a nonviolent strategy that has sought inclusion and representation in the nations’ political systems. Both Egypt and Jordan have, in addition, been the targets of terrorist anti-civilian violence undertaken by more extreme, al Qaeda–linked Islamist groups. But how, exactly, these complex political facts affect these governments’ willingness to work with Hamas is a complex question. Over the years, both regimes have pursued policies toward their local Brotherhood branches that have veered between harsh suppression and cautious cooptation. Both governments also have to balance their close ties to Washington with the fact of strong anti-American sentiment at home.
At the moment Egypt seems more ready than Jordan to move toward a policy of supporting the Hamas project—perhaps because it hopes that this will play well with the public (and because it prefers not to do anything more radical to try to counter American power in the region). In Jordan, with more than half the national population Palestinian, the king will have a much harder time considering anything that would empower Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood at home.
What happens to relations between residents of Gaza and the West Bank if the Hamas-led government pursues the kind of Gaza-first course that Zahar described? Many times in the past 30 years Israelis and their allies have suggested that as a first, confidence-building step the Palestinians might consider establishing their own administration in Gaza, with a view to later extending that administration to the West Bank. Fateh and its allies always resisted that plan for fear that once Israel had divested itself of control over Gaza’s dense concentration of Palestinians (currently, around 1.4 million), it would feel freer to try to annex the emptier lands of the larger West Bank. Indeed, throughout the entire period of the post-Oslo negotiations, Palestinians remained adamant that the two portions of occupied Palestinian land should be treated as a single unit. How ironic, then, that the Hamas hardliners are now discussing allowing Gaza to break out of the Israeli-dominated “customs envelope” while the 2.3 million Palestinians of the West Bank would still remain within it.
This move would have broad ramifications. Certainly, Gaza’s economy would become much more intimately tied to Egypt’s—and to the regional and global economy through Egypt rather than through Israel. Gaza’s students, professionals, and businesspeople would become more closely tied to institutions and counterparts in Egypt than those in the West Bank. Gaza politics might become more carefully attuned to Cairo than to Ramallah or Jerusalem. Nearly all aspects of this switch would benefit the Gazans. The Paris Agreement’s customs envelope has mired them in much greater poverty than Palestinians in the West Bank. Because of the UN schools that educate the 80 percent of Gazan children who are from refugee families and Gaza’s robust networks of Islamic educational institutions—including two Islamic universities—the Gazan population is well educated and in a good position to undertake the reconstruction and general development that their long-battered society cries out for. Under the right political circumstances Mahmoud Zahar’s vision of economic flourishing need not be a pipe dream.
For now, however, this vision is confined to Gaza. Zahar told me, “We know the West Bank will continue to suffer from occupation, and the people there must resist that.” Perhaps he was only being realistic when he said that the two Palestinian territories were already divided. Indeed, all the portions of the Rafah Agreement (and previous Israeli–PA agreements) that ensured freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank have remained a dead letter. I did not press Zahar on how or when he saw the Palestinian communities of Gaza and the West Bank coming back together, and he did not offer a plan. Like the undertaking of peace negotiations with Israel, he and his colleagues clearly preferred to address that challenge in the future. Meanwhile, the political weight of the Palestinian refugees within Gaza’s population virtually assures that the refugee-related portion of the Palestinian national project will never be forgotten by any Palestinians who rule there and ties this population politically to the fate of Palestinian refugees everywhere.
What are the prospects after the recent implosion of Fateh for the survival of Palestinian secular nationalism? Fateh’s performance in the January polls may not look disastrous, but the popular vote reflected widespread disaffection with the party that had monopolized the PA’s positions of power and patronage for the past 12 years. The people of Gaza have suffered particularly harshly from Fateh’s factionalism, which has included armed turf battles.
Born in the Gaza Strip in the 1950s, Fateh has never had a strong sense of internal discipline. Indeed, the organizational theory of its founders was to run overlapping and internally competing networks. The “overlapping” part of this strategy may have made some sense at first. But after Oslo, Fateh became a recognized political movement with responsibility for increasing portions of the Palestinian national terrain. Its traditional organizational concept became counterproductive, but a badly ossified Fateh leadership never saw fit to change it. The old-guard leaders did face challenges from younger generation activists like Muhammad Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti. But Arafat, Abbas, and others dealt with these challengers in their same old way: they co-opted them into the existing system by giving them their own new (and competing) networks to run, while still resisting calls for greater internal accountability. Some of the new networks, like Marwan Barghouti’s, were more politically flexible. Others, like the Al-Aqsa Brigades, were much more militant. Various portions of the PA’s five security services have also lined up with various Fateh factions.
Along the way the Fateh leaders had also co-opted most of the members and leaders of non-Fateh secular nationalist movement into their own patronage networks. These groups (or what was left of them) made a poor showing in the January election. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), once Fateh’s leading competitor in Palestinian politics, won 4.25 percent of the popular vote. The electoral list run jointly by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the former Palestinian Communist Party won only 2.92 percent.
Hamas’s rise in Palestinian politics represents a considerable setback for secular Palestinian nationalism that will no doubt have broad repercussions for Fateh. Will Fateh regroup and find an effective formula for internal reform? Having studied the movement’s workings very closely for more than 30 years, I am skeptical. I don’t see any reformers who have the necessary vision or grasp of political organizing. Qais Abdel-Karim (Abu Leila), a longtime leader of the DFLP who has held the DFLP’s seat on the PLO Executive Committee and who won a PLC seat in the January election, told me, “Hamas now seems to be the only Leninist party we have here. They understand about ‘serving the people.’ And they have strong internal debate—but you never hear about it from the outside: they have excellent internal discipline.”
Secular nationalism will probably reemerge within Palestinian politics at some point. But it is hard to say when that will happen.
What are the prospects for Palestinian women, Christians, and secular Muslims if Hamas extends its power? Hamas is different from al Qaeda and the Taliban in many important ways—just as Palestinian society is very different from those of the rugged, underdeveloped areas of Afghanistan and Waziristan that spawned and incubated the two other movements. To understand this, it helps to meet a woman like Jamila Shanty, a longtime professor at the Gaza Islamic University and one of six Hamas women elected to the PLC in January.
Shanty clearly relishes her new role in the parliament, where, she told me, she hoped to sit on the political and legal-affairs committees. She said she was inspired mainly by the Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. “Sheikh Yassin always paid such a lot of attention to women’s affairs.” she said. “He made sure the mosques all provided enough space for the women to pray in, and that they offered lectures and other activities for women. He told us that the work we do in our homes is important because it has real political value. But he also strongly encouraged women to become engaged in causes outside the home. Whenever he visited a mosque he would make sure to have a meeting with the women there, and he would urge all the women to finish their education and contribute what they could to society. He was an example not just to Palestinians but all Muslims.”
I visited some of the social-service projects that Islamic charities have been running throughout the Gaza Strip for more than 25 years and which are now supported by Hamas. I saw a beautifully appointed preschool in which an all-female staff was providing a sophisticated and interactive curriculum to 160 underprivileged girls and boys in a refugee camp. I saw two parallel campuses—one for girls, one for boys—where another Islamic foundation educates 1,500 older children, grades five through 12. (Both campuses had large open spaces for sports, with bleachers.) I saw a small city hospital run by the same charity where around one third of the medical staff members were women.
All those women, including the physical-education teacher energetically leading exercises in the preschool yard, were wearing headscarves and modestly loose, ankle-length over-garments. For many years in Gaza, it has been rare to see women in public spaces with their hair uncovered, or showing bare legs. Certainly in the refugee camps and poorer parts of Gaza, you almost never now see an unscarved woman. In much of the West Bank, the norm of female dress is still much less Islamist. This is partly because there are significant numbers of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, but there are also greater numbers of openly secular Muslims there.
Many Hamas leaders have gone out of their way to reassure the Christians that Hamas does not intend to curtail a lifestyle that—especially in historically Christian towns like Ramallah—includes the easy availability of alcohol. And Ismail Haniyeh included one woman and one Christian in the government list he proposed March 20. But the Hamas-led government will have to negotiate a careful path regarding dress codes, alcohol, and other issues of public life such as the national school curriculum and the activities of PA-backed cultural bodies. The Hamas municipality that has run the West Bank town of Qalqilya since early 2005 aroused great opposition from constituents when it canceled a much-loved cultural festival—and Qalqilya’s voters then became the only constituency that clearly punished Hamas in the recent election. Let’s hope that result taught Hamas to tread carefully in these matters.
Can we conclude that the Hamas “insiders” are more flexible and pragmatic than the organization’s diaspora-based leadership? Hamas’s national leadership is in the hands of a political bureau based in exile in Damascus and led by a 50-year-old former physics professor, Khaled Meshaal. Its 1988 charter holds that the entire land of Mandate Palestine, including present-day Israel, “has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, [and] no one can renounce it or part of it” and states that Hamas strives to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”
When Hamas decided to enter first the tahdi’eh and then the PLC election, outside analysts began speculating that Hamas leaders inside the historic homeland were ready for greater pragmatism and political flexibility than their confreres on the outside. Then after Hamas’s January 2006 victory there was speculation that the people inside the PA’s new Hamas-led government might follow the path that Yasser Arafat and his fellow Fateh and PLO leaders trod 30 years ago—toward the adoption of positions of ever-increasing political flexibility.
There is little evidence that this is happening. Some experienced Palestinian analysts argue that Meshaal has been as strongly supportive of the pragmatic aspects of Hamas’s recent activities as the “insiders” and that the insiders remain as strongly committed to the goals of the charter as the Damascus-based national leadership. Indeed, the decision to name Zahar, an outspoken proponent of Hamas’s traditional goals, to the important post of foreign minister indicated that Hamas’s in-Palestine leaders were not planning to move toward a more flexible political view anytime soon. Certainly, Zahar’s statements to me reflected his strongly ideological commitments.
Among the pro-Hamas constituency in Gaza, I sensed broad continuing support for the organization’s hard line. One example: the director of the Islamic preschool that I visited told me firmly that all the Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to the homes their forefathers had left or had been forced to leave, in 1948. “And the Jews who are there now should go back where they came from.”
What are the prospects for the Israeli peace movement of the repudiation by many Palestinians and Israelis of the cooperative approach to peacemaking that it has long pursued? One day near the end of my trip I sat in the vaulted basement bar of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem with Naomi Chazan, a strategist for the strongly pro-peace Meretz-Yahad Party who was herself a Meretz member of the Israeli Knesset. In the mid-1990s Meretz had between nine and 12 Knesset seats, and in 1999 Chazan became a deputy speaker. In the 2003 election, Meretz won just six seats, and in March 2006 it won only five. When I was with Chazan she said she expected a low turnout, especially among voters on the left, and she talked about the splintering of the Israeli left in general. For example, among the mainly Jewish parties to the left of Labor, Meretz had now been joined by both a Green Party and a “Green Leaf Party,” whose decidedly post-Zionist platform focuses on the legalization of marijuana. Chazan expressed some annoyance when we talked, because the Green Leafers had started running ads showing a gay couple getting married, an approach that she felt could slice even more voters away from Meretz’s traditional constituency.
Chazan has been a long-time participant in all kinds of “track two” discussions. She held a number of meetings with PLO representatives back in the 1980s when that was still illegal in Israel. I asked if she felt ready to talk to Hamas leaders or known supporters. “I’ll talk to anyone who will talk to me,” she said. “That’s always been my position—back with the PLO, or now with Hamas.” But openly held people-to-people activities such as cultural exchanges or joint conflict-resolution seminars are unlikely to win the same support from a Hamas-led PA that they have always won from Fateh—and especially from Mahmoud Abbas.
Though the prospects for people-to-people contacts that proliferated in the 1990s now seem dim, some people on the Israeli left feel cautiously hopeful that some deeper trends in their society might, over the longer term, move in that direction. In Cholon, south of Tel Aviv, I talked with Adam Keller, a smart peace activist who works with Uri Avnery’s Gush Shalom “Peace Bloc.” He noted the relatively calm way that many Jewish Israelis reacted to Hamas’s electoral victory: “I was pleasantly surprised that in polls done then, 48 percent of respondents said they were in favor of talking to a Hamas government, while 42 percent were opposed.” He also said, “After Ehud Barak discredited the peace option, Ariel Sharon then discredited the war option. . . . Israeli society really is becoming less militaristic.”
Is this so? He gave one indicator: a smaller proportion of Israeli males than ever before is now called to the military-reserve duty that is required until around age 50. “Now only around ten percent of the reserves get called up each year,” he said. “In general, more people now seem ready just to end the conflict.” If that is the case, though, for now they seem much more ready to do so by supporting Kadima’s unilateral formula than by giving back their support to the cooperative approach long favored by Labor and the left.
What are the prospects for the United States’ standing in the region if the Olmert government proceeds with its plan of unilaterally establishing “final borders” for Israel, before 2010, that incorporate into Israel large portions of the West Bank including East Jerusalem? On March 8 Ehud Olmert said that by 2010, “Israel will be disengaged from the vast majority of the Palestinian population, within new borders.” These permanent borders would, he said, be close to the line of the present separation barrier in the West Bank, with some adjustments; and Israel would determine their location on its own. The line Olmert described would fold into Israel less land than some Israeli right-wingers would like. But he said he aimed to keep within the border all of East Jerusalem and several large settlement blocs elsewhere in the West Bank, including Maale Adumim, whose connection to Jerusalem (which he vowed to complete) would cut the West Bank laterally into two. He also vowed to keep the fertile bottomlands of the Jordan Valley. He said that after becoming prime minister he would give the Palestinian government one last chance to recognize Israel and renounce violence. But there is little chance of that happening—so his unilateral plan seems very likely to proceed.
Olmert told Israelis that day that his plan had been shared with the Bush administration, and he clearly implied that Washington gave at least tentative approval.
If Olmert proceeds with this plan, Washington will face a tough dilemma. Ever since 1973, Washington has been able to balance its role as Israel’s main outside supporter with its parallel role as the main facilitator of an ongoing Arab-Israeli peace process. But if there is no peace process and Israel is proceeding with an openly annexationist plan—and Washington still continues to give significant financial and political support to Israel—then the United States’s standing in the Middle East is bound to be harmed. This at a time when the U.S. troop deployment in Iraq and its lengthy supporting supply lines are already very vulnerable to actions taken by the region’s many nationalist or Islamist groups.
The Bush administration may or may not have given Olmert the claimed “orange light” for his plan, but it refrained from constraining him during his election campaign. It can now be expected to work hard behind the scenes to persuade him not to make any further decisive declarations about, or moves toward, the establishment of Israel’s “final” border; once that happens the idea of a negotiated settlement and of the road map that is supposed to get us there will collapse. What happens in the Middle East then is anyone’s guess. (On April 9, Olmert declared publicly that he would define Israel’s final borders in the West Bank by 2008—which is, of course, an election year in the United States.)
Is there any way in which the thorny issues of Jerusalem, borders, and Palestinian refugees could be resolved through negotiation—after a years-long period of parallel unilateralisms? The single most problematic aspects of the Olmert plan is that it would assert as an irreversible fact on the ground Israel’s annexation of large portions of the occupied West Bank including all of East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem was the central issue that caused the rejection—not just by Yasser Arafat but also by all the Arab states—of Barak’s allegedly generous offer to the Palestinians back in September 2000. Jerusalem lies at the heart of Palestinian national identity, and Palestinian longing. (Most of Gaza’s people have been completely barred from visiting Jerusalem since 1987, when the first intifada started; but jewel-like depictions of the Dome of the Rock can be found in nearly every home and office in the Gaza Strip—as in the homes of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and elsewhere throughout the world.)
But the retention of Israeli control over all of East Jerusalem has also been a central goal of nearly all those Jewish Israelis who support Kadima’s unilateralist approach to border drawing. (Olmert himself was mayor of the city from 1993 to 2003.) The high probability of impasse over the Jerusalem issue is enough to indicate the difficulty of imagining any easy transition from the era of parallel unilateralisms to one of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a peace agreement, though over time the two publics may become more open to considering formulas for power-sharing in the city such as those developed earlier by Naomi Chazan, Rashid Khalidi, and others.
Meanwhile, the rest of the region remains plagued by considerable uncertainty. The position of the United States and its allies inside Iraq is far from stable or assured. The Iraqis themselves are on the cusp of a civil war whose effects could reverberate throughout the region. The Bush administration seems headed for a confrontation with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programs. These arenas may seem distant from Israel and the Palestinian territories, but they are tied to them through close-braided strands of sentiment, politics, and military logistics. A large-scale attack on a U.S. military supply line in Jordan, an explosion on an Iranian tanker in the Persian Gulf, the killing of Ismail Haniyeh or Khaled Meshaal—any one of these incidents, or others like them, could plunge the whole Middle East into turmoil.
Under these circumstances of very high stakes and great strategic uncertainty, the idea that the Palestinians and Israel could win even a few months of relative calm through parallel unilateralisms might be seen as a real benefit. (Certainly, if the people of Gaza could win some respite both from Israel’s strangulation of their economy and from Israeli military attacks, this would constitute a real benefit.) Over the long haul, however, it is impossible to see how this situation can lead to stability.
It is impossible, too, to see how Israel and the United States can maintain or even mount a strict worldwide embargo against the elected PA government. Khaled Meshaal has already visited Tehran and Moscow. He and other Hamas leaders (including Zahar) have since visited a number of Gulf countries. And Hamas leaders are also scheduled to visit China and South Africa in the weeks ahead. It will be hard though not impossible for any combination of countries to replace the aid donations that the United States and the EU have now decided to withhold from the PA. But continuing to withhold the aid will impose clear political costs on the Western nations—within and possibly far beyond the Palestinian territories. Meanwhile, if over time the 1.4 million people of Gaza can be gotten off the international dole and integrated constructively into the world economy through Egypt, the PA’s budgetary needs could fairly rapidly become less burdensome.
As recently as January George W. Bush was crowing about the great strides that his project of rapid democratization was making in the Middle East—and he was pointing to the popular elections in both Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories as prime fruits of this campaign. In Iraq, the democratization project brought results very different from what the Bush administration had intended. In the occupied Palestinian territories, it brought a sea change in internal politics that poses a sharp, probably fatal challenge to two key features of recent Palestinian–Israeli diplomacy: the post-Oslo negotiating process and its longstanding domination by the United States. Responsibility for peacemaking will likely shift back to the UN over the next few years. In the meantime, Hamas will pursue reconstruction in all the communities to which it has access. Israel’s incoming leaders have already shown some signs that they can live with this. Washington has no real alternative but to do likewise, and wise policy may be to make a virtue of this necessity.
Helena Cobban blogs at JustWorldNews.org. Her 1985 book The Making of Modern Lebanon was named to Choice magazine's list of Outstanding Academic Books. She is president of the nonprofit Just World Educational.
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