Now Hamas Must Come into its Own
Now Hamas Must Come into its Own
The UAE, Israel and a Test of Influence
The UAE, Israel and a Test of Influence
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Now Hamas Must Come into its Own

The Palestinian legislative elections planned for this summer are clouded in uncertainty. Fatah, the secular, nationalist organisation that has dominated Palestinian politics for decades, enjoys the advantages of incumbency, the support of state-like institutions and the backing of all major international actors. Hamas, the radical Islamist organisation, has never before participated in national elections, lacks governmental experience, and is branded a terrorist group by the US and the EU. Yet Fatah is worried and Hamas is gaining ground.

With the implicit encouragement of some Israelis and westerners who usually advocate Palestinian democracy, Fatah is seriously toying with the idea of postponing the ballot to forestall a poor showing. Yasser Arafat's death, the collapse of the Oslo accords, internal strife and a reputation for corruption have badly weakened Fatah. Hamas, seen as incorrupt, efficient and equipped with a more focused set of political goals, stands ready to pick up the spoils.

Fatah was the big tent Arafat used to accommodate different sensitivities and outlooks. But by the time Abu Mazen assumed the presidency, Fatah had lost both heart and spine. Oslo introduced a contradiction at the core of the Palestinian movement: is it a liberation movement or a political party?

Fatah is now fast becoming a label of diminished utility invoked by politicians to enhance their credibility. During the liberation struggle the lack of a precise political agenda helped to hold Fatah together; post-Oslo and post-intifada it is tearing Fatah apart.

Fatah lacks a plot it can follow. Hamas, meanwhile, is determined to write a new one. Hamas was created in the first Palestinian intifada between 1987 and 1993. From the outset it challenged Fatah, eclipsing all other PLO factions as its chief rival. Hamas gradually took up arms and launched attacks against Israelis, but its social and religious agenda was always of central importance. Hamas worked through mosques and set up charitable institutions that, after the advent of the Palestinian Authority, proved more efficient than their official counterparts.

In the Oslo years Hamas remained outside the authority; it opposed the peace process but did not fight fellow Palestinians. It held to its goal of establishing an Islamic state but made it clear it would not impose that goal on the Palestinian people. It disparaged the authority's diplomatic strategy and argued that violence was necessary, but calibrated its armed attacks according to the popular mood.

Initially focusing operations on Israeli soldiers and settlers, it extended them to include suicide attacks against civilians, defending them as retaliation for Israel's killing of Palestinian civilians. Abu Mazen has challenged this position. But throughout, Hamas leaders remained confident that they ultimately would benefit from public disenchantment with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Events may have proved them right.

Vindicated by the breakdown of the peace process, Hamas can now join a new process; it can give Abu Mazen a chance without giving the Oslo accords approval; and it can join the authority and other Palestinian institutions without endorsing their past policies. Ariel Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza expresses better than anything else the fact that Oslo is a thing of the past. In Hamas's eyes, the withdrawal confirms the view that armed resistance produces results.

From a position of relative strength, Hamas believes it can retain its independence while influencing the decisions of the PLO and Palestinian Authority. Although bitter enemies, Hamas and Sharon have an important feature in common. Neither believes in the possibility of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian settlement and both favour a long-term interim agreement, though of a very different kind.

Abu Mazen's efforts to include Hamas are, in some respects, a curious move. He has inherited in Fatah a fragmented organisation whose principal asset is its past glory. The benefits of his strategy towards Israel are yet to be demonstrated and popular impatience is growing. Israelis and Americans, convinced that Abu Mazen cannot succeed without clashing with Hamas, have questioned his approach.

Abu Mazen has a different view. Bringing Hamas into the Palestinian Authority can, he believes, change Hamas, Fatah, and the way Palestinians view politics. Fatah cadres reproach the president for what they fear will be a poor showing in the elections, but they have only themselves to blame. Delaying elections would confirm that Fatah is prepared to hold on to power, not compete for it. Instead, if Fatah has to fight for votes and then deal with a strong Islamist parliamentary presence, its leaders would be encouraged to discipline their militias, articulate a national agenda and control runaway personal ambitions.

The prospect of Hamas's political integration within the PLO and the authority has generated anxieties. Some fear that it will take control of Gaza or even the authority as a whole; that it will tie Abu Mazen's hands; or that it will upset the diplomatic process. But these concerns reflect only a partial reading.

Hamas has a natural ceiling in the limited number of Palestinians that will back its hardcore Islamist positions. As the early May local elections show, Fatah is still dominant. Most Palestinians still oppose the Islamists' outlook; their support for Hamas is less a measure of the appeal of its Islamist programme than of popular attitudes toward the peace process, the authority, and social and economic conditions. Change those, and Hamas's appeal will diminish.

Political responsibility is not what it is after, at least for now. It will not want to be blamed if Abu Mazen fails. Hamas sees every advantage in the unconventional political arrangement first practised in Lebanon by Hizbullah: operating both as part of the governing institutions and parallel to them; not endorsing their decisions but being implicitly bound by them; denouncing official actions while also benefiting from them.

From the Palestinian president's perspective, if Hamas is going to remain in opposition it will be better to bring it inside Palestinian institutions. Abu Mazen hopes to to persuade Hamas to relinquish violence and integrate its armed wing into the authority's security services. To those who criticise Abu Mazen's approach, his response is to ask for a credible alternative.

Confrontation would carry greater peril. Hamas has the loyalty of a sizable portion of Palestinians. Any attempt to forcefully disarm it while the Israeli occupation persists would almost inevitably trigger civil conflict. There is indeed a problem with Palestinian politics today. But the core of the problem concerns the identity of the two principal Palestinian organisations, not a conflict between young reformers and old diehards. And it is best dealt with by bringing more forces into the political mainstream, not by excluding them in the name of a putative Islamist threat.


Former President & CEO
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Hussein Agha
Senior Associate Member of St Antony's College, Oxford

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