Saturday, 5 January 2013

Hamas flexes its muscles

There’s a great deal of talk these days about a “reconciliation” between Hamas and Fatah. In December the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) allowed Hamas to celebrate its 25th anniversary in the West Bank; last Friday Hamas permitted a rally in Gaza city to commemorate Fatah’s “launch of the revolution” 48 years ago. Buoyed up by recent self-proclaimed “successes” on both sides (Hamas has deluded itself into believing it won a great victory in the recent Operation Pillar of Defense; the PA regards its recent vote in the UN General Assembly as tantamount to achieving a sovereign Palestinian state), there is now much loose talk of “moving forward towards unity”, in the words of Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.

However the underlying truth is that Hamas and Fatah are irreconcilable, for Hamas is concerned above all with outflanking Fatah in the battle for Palestinian hearts and minds. It refuses to accept Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate president of the PA, to endorse the PA’s policy of seeking to establish a sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or even to acknowledge Israel’s existence. So it is unlikely that current efforts at reconciliation will achieve anything more than the many previous abortive attempts.

On the contrary, strange rumours have been circulating about Hamas in the past few months.

They were sparked off shortly after the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won its convincing victory in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, and the MB candidate, Mohamed Morsi, topped the poll for president. Hamas, founded in 1987 during the first intifada, was an offshoot of the Egyptian MB, set up with the specific aim of establishing an Islamic state in the whole of the area that is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The overwhelming success of the Brotherhood in what is arguably the leading nation in the Arab world − and Gaza’s next door neighbour to boot − must have seemed to the Hamas leadership like a golden opportunity too good to miss.

Accordingly, in July 2012, very shortly after Morsi took over as Egypt’s president, Arab newspapers like Al-Arabiya and Al-Hayat reported a meeting between Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and President Morsi. The subject of their discussion, according to the reports, was the possibility of Hamas issuing a unilateral declaration of independence − in short, breaking away from the PA and establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in the Gaza strip, possibly under the benign overlordship of an MB Egyptian government. 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.”

Clearly the proposal – if indeed it was made in the terms reported − was not to President Morsi’s liking, for no such move followed. However subsequent events further strengthened Hamas to a degree that the leadership could not have foreseen back in July, and may have led to renewed efforts in that direction.

Emboldened by the MB’s success in Egypt, and also by the growing confidence of jihadists elsewhere as a result of the Arab Spring, Hamas began stepping up its rocket attacks on Israeli civilian targets. Israel’s reaction, in the form of Operation Pillar of Defense, gave Hamas the opportunity to stand for eight days at the centre of the world stage, representing the so-called “Palestinian armed struggle”. As a result Hamas greatly enhanced its standing in Arab popular opinion.

Riding the crest of this popular acclaim, the latest story to surface concerning Hamas is a statement made in the last days of 2012 by senior Hamas official, Musa Abu Marzouk, a likely candidate to replace Khaled Mashaal as head of the organisation. A frustrated President Abbas had been reported as saying that if there was no progress in the peace process: “I will take the phone and call Netanyahu and tell him : ‘Sit in the chair instead of me, take the keys, and you will be responsible for the Palestinian Authority’.” Abu Marzouk riposted: “Why does Abbas want to hand the keys over to Netanyahu? Why not hand it over to Hamas?” Hamas’s record, he asserted, “qualified it to run the West Bank successfully.”

Fatah officials are reported to have reacted angrily. Jamal Muheisen, a member of the Fatah Central Council, claimed that Hamas was renewing its pursuit of a unilateral declaration of independence for Gaza − though now, he asserted, Hamas had turned from seeking to do so under Egyptian auspices, and was conducting secret negotiations with Israel, with US approval, aimed at establishing an Islamic emirate in the Gaza strip. The West Bank, claimed Muheisen, was to be left as cantonised pockets of Palestinians separated by the Israeli settlements.

So the rumoured claim − which has about it the hallmarks of paranoid fears by an embattled Fatah − seems to be that Israel is prepared to allow the Gaza strip to become an extreme Islamist Palestinian state in its own right, and for Hamas to take over from the PA as the ruling authority in Palestinian-occupied West Bank areas, provided they leave all Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria under Israeli control.

The whole story seems wildly improbable, starting with the idea of secret Israel-Hamas negotiations. Even more unlikely is the concept of an Israel-approved takeover by Hamas of areas of the West Bank, however tempting the kickback. Hamas’s objective, its very raison d’être, is undisguised – the elimination of Israel, and the establishment of an Islamist Palestine “from the river to the sea”. To permit Hamas to assume control of parts of Judea and Samaria would indeed amount to Israel clutching a viper to its bosom.

This, surely, is one rumour too far.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 6 January 2013:

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