The Hamas dilemma
The tahdiya cease-fire agreement between the Palestinian factions is based on an internal Palestinian understanding that Hamas is going through a process of “domestification.” Hamas has participated in the local municipal elections and is planning to participate in the national elections for the Palestinian parliament. Hamas is a real political-social force in Palestinian society that cannot be discounted.
Mahmoud Abbas understands that the only way to weaken Hamas’s appeal among the Palestinian public is to strengthen the appeal of Fatah. Hamas’s public attraction has been consistently strengthened over the years due to the inability of the Palestinian Authority to produce political, social and economic results that improve the lives of the Palestinian people. Coupled with years of corruption inspired by the system of control that Yasser Arafat instituted, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are fighting an uphill battle to gain the confidence of the public prior to elections.
Abbas ran on a ticket of non-violence and diplomacy. He promised the Palestinian people that diplomacy and non-violence would produce political, social and economic results that would improve their lives. Instead of being able to deliver on those promises so far, most of the Palestinian public believes that Israel was forced out of Gaza as a result of the violence led by the Hamas.
Abbas does believe that there must be “one authority and one gun” in Palestine and that Hamas must be disarmed and brought into legitimate Palestinian political life. He does not believe, however, that he has the public legitimacy or real capacity to confront Hamas by force. Abbas knows that he is playing with fire by not confronting Hamas, but he also knows that the fire would be even hotter if he did confront them. Hamas’s own behavior in recent weeks, beginning with the explosion in Jabaliya that killed 19 people and followed by the irresponsible launching of Kassam rockets into Israel, is beginning to open up space for greater public legitimacy to confront Hamas. The massive launch of arrests by Israel of Hamas activists in the West Bank over the past two weeks has led to a weakening of Abbas’s public legitimacy to confront Hamas. But on Sunday evening the first confrontation took place and resulted in an evening of rioting with three people killed – two from Hamas and one Palestinian policeman and dozens wounded.
Israel’s calls, supported by the US, to prevent Hamas from participating in the elections may be legitimate from the point of view of the commitments that Abbas has undertaken within the road map to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. On the other hand, preventing the participation of a major player in the eyes of a large part of Palestinian society delegitimizes the very idea of democracy.
HAMAS IS definitely going through a process of soul-searching and evolution. Two of the Hamas activists arrested by Israel this past week are people who have begun to reshape the Hamas agenda and have even suggested that it is possible to change the Hamas covenant that calls for the destruction of Israel. Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Youssef has said that a 10-year hudna with Israel is possible and it could even be renewed for another 10 years if Israel withdraws from all of the occupied territories. Arrested Hamas leader Muhammad Ghazal has stated that the Hamas covenant is not the Koran and it can be changed. The arrest of these leaders by Israel has weakened Abbas and has strengthened Hamas – not quite the result that Israel should be interested in achieving.
There is a real dilemma for Israel regarding Hamas. If Hamas runs in the elections and wins a majority, or wins enough seats in the parliament to create a coalition government with Fatah, can Israel be expected to negotiate in the future with the Palestinian Authority? Can a partner be defined as someone who seeks your destruction? The answer is obviously no.
Can Israel force the Palestinian Authority to prevent the participation of Hamas in the elections and expect anyone to view those elections as being democratic, free and legitimate? The answer is also no.
Abbas needs for Hamas to participate in the elections, but not to win enough seats to have to include them in his next government. Abbas’s real challenge is to gain enough legitimacy prior to the elections to ensure a large victory for Fatah and other independent forces that could join a coalition. Only with a strong enough victory for those forces in Palestine that support a diplomatic process of negotiations will Abbas have the ability and the legitimacy to enforce the law of “one authority one gun” after the elections.
IN ORDER for Abbas to gain public support he must produce real results in the coming months. There must be an opening up of the territories. Investments and job-creation projects that the international community has promised must be implemented without delay.
The average Palestinian citizen must be able to understand that war and violence cost and peace pays. That is the bottom line and Israel has a crucial role to play. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must stretch out the hand of Israel to Abbas and the Palestinian Authority and must engage now.
There are some good beginnings. Last week the IDF notified the Palestinian Authority of an attempt by some people to cross the border into Israel illegally. The PA security forces took action and arrested three young people. No one was killed and the security coordination at the field level worked. This must be increased.
The Karni crossing, which is the lifeline of Gaza, had been closed for almost two weeks in response to the shelling of Sderot. The crossing has only now been reopened.
Israel must act in unison with the Palestinian Authority and with the international community which is willing to put observers and even troops on the Palestinian side in order to enhance security and efficiency. This offer of support must be accepted by Israel and coordinated with the Palestinian Authority.
Daily contact between Palestinian and Israeli governmental ministries must be established and encouraged. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the minister of national infrastructure, together with his PA counterpart, Azzam Shawwa, has taken the lead on developing cooperation. The ministries of tourism and transportation on both sides have followed suit and new agreements for cooperation have been reached. Abbas and Sharon must also establish a good working relationship that includes daily contact and cooperation. The two leaders speaking to each other should not be a lead news item; it must become part of a daily routine.
Sharon and Abbas must reach an understanding for the participation of Hamas in the elections that will be based on Abbas’s commitment to implement the “one authority one gun” policy in full – following the balloting. This can be achieved if it is clear that both sides are committed to implementing their road-map obligations.
Sharon has stated that there will not be any more unilateral moves by Israel. The alternative to unilat eralism is political engagement. Unilateralism strengthens the forces against peace in both societies and reengagement, negotiations, coordination and cooperation strengthens the forces of peace and non-violence. There are real choices to be made by both sides and the right choice should be clear to them both.
The writer, based in Jerusalem, is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research & Information.
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