Sunday, 25 November 2012

Hamas seeks independence for Gaza

For eight days, during Israel’s Pillar of Defense operations, Hamas stood at the centre of the world stage, representing the Palestinian cause, or at least the so-called “armed struggle”. And of course, in the intensive negotiations leading to the cease-fire, it was Hamas who was one of the two principals settling the terms for the cessation of hostilities.

Where was the Palestinian Authority (PA) − the so-called “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”? Completely sidelined.

Now, following Pillar of Defense, Hamas stands high in Arab popular opinion. Compared with the last formal clash with Israel in 2008, it has demonstrated a greatly enhanced offensive capability. Its prestige has been augmented by the support of its Muslim Brotherhood (MB) friends (Egypt, Turkey, and the foreign ministers of a range of Arab states who came calling while hostilities raged.) And it can point to a significant easing of restrictions on the free flow of goods and people into and out of Gaza as part of the cease-fire agreement.

It is unfortunate indeed for PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, that these events occurred just a few days before he is due to stand before the UN General Assembly and ask them to vote on recognizing Palestine as a sovereign state within the pre-1967 borders. If successful, this would have the effect of upgrading the PA delegation at the United Nations to non-member ‘observer State’. Although Abbas is almost certain to be granted what he seeks, it will be clear to the world that he is speaking for only a proportion of the Palestinian people − in short, that his writ does not run in Gaza, home to 40 per cent of Palestinians.

What is worse, perhaps, is that Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza strip, is totally opposed to Abbas’s bid for recognition of a Palestine within the 1967 borders because, by implication, that vote also recognises Israel outside them. Hamas views each round of armed conflict with Israel as a stage in a long-term war of attrition. Refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and liberating Palestine "from the river to the sea", remains the aim of the Islamist organization – boosted now by the results of the “Arab Spring” which has brought MB regimes to power across the Arab world.

When Abbas gets his vote in the UN, the Palestine state that will be recognised consists of 6205 square kilometres of land in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The rest of what was Mandated Palestine will, by definition, be acknowledged by the UN General Assembly as Israel. So although the PA remains nominally the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, in practice it is pursuing a policy that will be rejected not only by Hamas in Gaza, but by a significant proportion of Arab, including Palestinian, opinion.

Which perhaps explains the little known fact, reported in Arab newspapers like Al-Arabiya and Al-Hayat last July, that Hamas was considering a unilateral declaration of independence, and that the possibility was seriously discussed between Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi. Khaled Mesmar, head of the Political Committee at the Palestinian National Council, was reported at the time as saying: “Hamas is trying to garner as much support as possible for the idea of secession, especially among several Arab regimes.”

There’s a scenario to strike despair into the heart of PA President Abbas. Unity between Hamas and Fatah has been stretched virtually to breaking point already. Hamas refuses to accept the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority, and it has been doing its best to undermine the PA administration in the West Bank. It has been infiltrating its agents into the region to recruit students to its version of Islamic jihad, and attempting to win over public support through welfare programs of various sorts.

These efforts have been countered both by PA security forces and, on occasion, by those of Israel, and so far the status quo has been preserved. However, secession of Gaza from the Palestinian state for which Abbas will shortly seek recognition would create an irreversible schism in the Palestinian body politic.

The end result might well be a negotiated peace between Israel and a sovereign Palestine sited on the West Bank. But with the Gaza strip, there would be only a continuing uneasy truce or ceasefire, on the lines of that negotiated to end Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation.

One intriguing possibility arises from the reported discussions between Egypt’s President Morsi and Gaza’s prime minister Haniyeh last July. Could Egypt be considering a more active role in an independent Gaza − somehow renewing, not the direct administration it once exercised perhaps, but a sort of stewardship? After all Hamas, like President Morsi, is a child of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their interests are likely to coincide.

Another dread possibility for PA President Abbas to consider in the dark watches of the night.

Published in the online Jerusalem Post magazine, 25 November 2012:

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