Sunday, 4 August 2013

Getting rid of Hamas

The immutable political law of “unforeseen consequences” is already in operation. The reopening of the Israel-Palestine peace process has set in train a series of unanticipated and surprising developments, and what can only be described as a new political atmosphere. 

For example, on Thursday August 1, newspapers in Israel featured a quite startling picture. Taken the day before inside Israel’s parliament building, the Knesset, it featured an Israeli and a Palestinian flag draped behind three men – Abdullah Abdullah, Muhammad Madani, and Hilil Bar.  The first is the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the second a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, and the third an Israeli MK. The photograph was taken to record a meeting between Israeli members of parliament and the Caucus on Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict.  A Palestinian flag on display inside the Knesset!  Several distinguished Israeli prime ministers must have been turning in their graves.

Nor was this the only bewildering aspect of the occasion, for during the meeting Muhammad Madani, a representative of the Palestinian Authority (PA), announced that when the Caucus visits Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of the PA, the Israeli flag will be raised, for the first time in many years.  If this indeed comes to pass, it will reflect a remarkable change of mood within the Palestinian camp.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in launching the renewal of the peace process, emphasised that every aspect of the negotiations would be kept secret, and that  authoritative reports of progress would emanate from him and him alone.  Far from inhibiting media conjecture, Kerry’s remarks were, of course, bound to foster them, and press speculation is already running riot.   Wildly conflicting reports are appearing, ranging from a confident assertion that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said that negotiations would focus first on borders and security before moving on to the other core issues, to another which suggests that the agreed framework for negotiations will see all core issues discussed simultaneously, to yet a third to the effect that US Secretary of State John Kerry believes that Israel will be able to keep 85 per cent of the major West Bank settlement blocs in a final agreement.

Among the multitude of conjectures, one report appears to have some real substance behind it – namely that US General John Allen is hard at work developing a security plan for incorporation into a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.  Allen was appointed last May by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as special envoy on security issues.

It is indeed on the subject of security for the two sovereign states – Israel and Palestine – that the most astonishing of the “unforeseen consequences” has emerged.  On August 1 the PA Minister for Religious Affairs, Mahmoud Habbash, actually issued a fatwa requiring Palestinians to revolt against Hamas and end its control over Gaza.

Habbash has, of course, put his finger on one of the major problems facing the current peace initiative, and it has nothing to do with settlements, borders, refugees or Jerusalem.  The plain fact of the matter is that the PA’s writ runs only in the West Bank; it has no locus in the Gaza strip, which is under the de facto government of Hamas.  As long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza, seized in a bloody coup directed against Fatah back in 2007, Mahmoud Abbas and his team can speak only for the Palestinians in the West Bank. 

That in itself is sufficient of an embarrassment for the President of the PA, operating on the world stage in support of a sovereign state of Palestine which, presumably, is intended to include Gaza.  The schism, however, runs deeper than that.  During the political ups and downs of the past few years, Hamas has shown itself more than once to be in serious contention with Fatah for control of the whole Palestinian body politic.  Hamas’s radical Islamist administration in Gaza is not to the liking of all Palestinians, but its rejection of the two state solution, or indeed of any kind of recognition of Israel, appeals to a wide swathe of Palestinian opinion.  Building on this favourable street image, Hamas has been trying to infiltrate its supporters into the West Bank in an attempt to undermine President Abbas’s administration.  Israel and the PA have cooperated in combating attempts to stir up feeling against the Fatah government in the West Bank.

In short, Hamas is a thorn in the flesh of Mahmoud Abbas and the PA.  They realise that a peace settlement which excludes Gaza, a vital part of any future Palestinian state, would be of limited value.  For the sake of the PA’s credibility in the current negotiations, as well as to ensure its future political and military security, it would be of the greatest value if the Hamas administration in Gaza could be overthrown and the rule of the PA re-established.  Incidentally – but not perhaps irrelevant in the current changed political climate – the removal of Hamas, and the establishment of an effective PA administration, would relieve Israel of the constant threat of indiscriminate rocket attacks.

The timing of the “Get rid of Hamas” fatwa is particularly opportune.  Hamas, an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), has never been in a weaker position.  The MB’s loss of power in Egypt has exacerbated the divisions within the Hamas leadership which, reports indicate, is split three ways, all bitterly at odds. 

The three segments are, it is alleged, headed respectively by the head of Hamas’s political wing, Khaled Meshaal; Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh; and pro-Iranian, pro-Hezbollah Mahmoud a-Zahar, along with military commanders Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa and the Hamas representative in Turkey, Saleh al-Aruri, who is also in charge of Hamas operations on the West Bank.

Meshaal, fearful perhaps of a deal between Egypt’s MB and the military, which has sealed off many of the tunnels between Gaza  and Egypt and may be preparing for an onslaught against Hamas, advocates breaking off relations with the MB.  Haniyeh, wholly focused on holding on to power in Gaza, no longer defers to the authority of the non-resident Meshaal, lodged in Damascus until the Syrian conflict, and recently thrown out of Qatar.  A-Zahar advocates an immediate alliance with the Shia Muslim Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, and the restoration of Iran’s financial and military support for Hamas’s so-called armed struggle against their common enemy, Israel.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand” – words of wisdom from the Book of Matthew.  The call to Muslims from a leading Palestinian to topple Hamas’s unstable structure may not fall on deaf ears.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 August 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 August 2013:

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