Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Support for Hamas from the Palestinian public, far from falling off, is on the rise.

hamas women 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
hamas women 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
After democratic elections, governments often enjoy a honeymoon period. For the first few months, their own people and the international community give them some breathing room, time to get their own house in order, and generally the benefit of the doubt. Not so with the Hamas government elected by the Palestinians on January 26. Since that fateful day which saw yet another in a series of apparently endless trump cards played in the poker game which is Middle East politics, the band of home-grown militants which constitutes the Hamas leadership in the "territories" has seen the flame beneath their caldron turned to "high" by everyone who stands to lose from their startling political ascension. First Israel announced it was ceasing its monthly transfer of tax revenues - a provision of the 1994 Paris Protocols - to the newly controlled PA. It then began a largely effective international economic boycott of the Hamas-led PA, which saw the United States and European Union - by far the PA's largest donors - vow not to fund the Palestinian government until the now well-known three conditions were met by Hamas: recognition of Israel; a disbanding of its militant wing; and the adherence of all previously signed international accords. Even Arab countries like Qatar and Iran have been unable to donate money pledged to the Palestinians because international financial institutions are afraid to defy an American directive to refrain from transferring money to the PA. The effects of that boycott are already rippling through Palestinian society. With its coffers empty due to the dried-up funding and its own economic mismanagement, Hamas has been unable to pay the 152,000 PA civil servants (among them 50,000 armed security personnel) upon whom over 1 million Palestinians are directly dependent for their livelihood. According to a report released by the United Nations on Sunday, if the economic boycott continues, poverty and unemployment will dramatically rise in the territories in 2006, even if, as Israel and the international community say, direct humanitarian aide to the Palestinians is increased in order to prevent exactly that. As if international isolation were not a rude enough welcome for Hamas, events of the last week show the group's problems are not limited to the "Zionist-Crusader" axis other well-known Islamic militants recently railed about. Their attempts to wrestle control of the PA security forces having failed, Hamas was twice scorned by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas when he vetoed their appointment of Jamal Abu Samhadanah, the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees and the No. 2 on Israel's Most Wanted List, to head a new security branch. For months, even before the Palestinian elections, the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah was at a fever pitch. Thus, it was no surprise that Abbas's veto led to a war of words between Ramallah and Damascus, where Hamas chief-in-exile Khaled Mashal called Abbas "a traitor" for "serving the Zionist entity" and the PA chairman properly returned the compliment, accusing Mashal of being "a civil war monger." All the while, the Gaza leadership was caught in between and left to mop up the practical ramifications of the verbal spat - in this case 40 Palestinians wounded in Fatah-Hamas clashes during an incident which prominent Palestinians said could be the first salvo in a soon-to-come civil conflict. "Neither camp wants to give into the reality," said Eyad Sarraj, a Gaza psychiatrist who was an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team at the 2000 Camp David Summit. "Hamas is so obsessed with power now, and Fatah cannot deal with the defeat of election day. It's going to escalate and lead to chaos and anarchy and confrontation between the two sides." When matters looked like they couldn't get any worse, on Tuesday Jordan announced that the Hamas cell members it arrested last week for weapons-smuggling were on orders from the leadership in Damascus to attack public figures in the Hashemite Kingdom. Whether the charge is true or not is anyone's guess, but the message from Jordan was clear: The leadership of the country with the largest Palestinian population had also cast its dye against Hamas. GIVEN THE results of Hamas's political rule to date, leaders of Israel, the international community and Fatah should probably all be kicking back this weekend in the late-April sun with their legs up on a lawn chair, a glass of lemonade in hand, and a big grin across their faces. For, despite proclamations from PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh that the Palestinian people would "make do with eating olives and salt" before Hamas "[goes] back on its principles," it would seem to be clear that the unrelenting pressure brought to bear upon the terrorists-cum-national leaders is moving the situation toward a collapse of the Hamas regime only a month after it first coalesced. Except for one problem. Support for Hamas from the Palestinian public, far from falling off, is on the rise. According to the latest poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Hamas's popular support is up to 47 percent among Palestinians in the territories, while Fatah's has fallen to 37%. By contrast, the popular vote totals of the Palestinian elections in January gave Fatah and its allies around 55% and Hamas and its allies around 45%. Though the poll was conducted on the eve of the Hamas government's swearing-in, those surveyed, the poll's authors said, expected economic and political support to fall from the PA immediately after the government was formed. In essence, Palestinians knew what they were getting themselves into and yet public "support for Hamas has never been as high as it is today," the authors wrote. The results, said Basem Ezbidi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, show whom the Palestinians blame for the deteriorating conditions inside the West Bank and Gaza. "Everybody knows Hamas is under siege and not able to deliver money. It's indicative of the support on the part of the population, because Hamas is being perceived as an illegitimate terror group [by the international community] even though it came to power through democracy," Ezbidi said. "The people are sticking more and more to the conviction that this kind of intransigence by the outside world means Hamas deserves more sympathy than the other way around. This government was not provided even a chance to perform." Sympathy aside, it is important not to gloss over the power that Fatah - by virtue of Abbas's presidency of the PA and chairmanship of the Palestine Liberation Organization - retains in Ramallah. Nor should the lengths Fatah will go to assume that power - and Hamas to hold onto it - be taken lightly. The struggle between them escalated this week with the announcement that Hamas established and already used a special internal security force it formed in the wake of Sunday's clashes. The move, said Israeli Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Shalom Harari, who served in the territories for 20 years and was a senior adviser to the IDF on Palestinian affairs, is part of a Muslim Brotherhood - of which Hamas is the main Palestinian representative - strategy to establish parallel security forces to those of Abbas. "The Muslim Brotherhood has the parliament, and they want to conquer the PA. Fatah is blockading them in the governing systems - money, weapons, media and passages to the outside," Harari said. The desire of Hamas to penetrate those areas, he explained, has exacerbated the conflict between the Islamists in Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the secularists in Fatah, the PFLP and other Palestinian factions. As a result, he predicted, the potential for armed conflict between the sides "has grown by around 30% since Hamas took control of the PA." THE DETERIORATING humanitarian situation, increasing likelihood of Palestinian civil conflict and rising popular support for Hamas is what Israel is now facing - partly, perhaps, as a result of its policy regarding its sworn enemy. This begs the question: Is it really worth pursuing the collapse of the Hamas-led PA? When Israel's no-contact, no-funding policy regarding Hamas was formed, it came in the wake of Hamas's stunning electoral victory and the sudden loss of former prime minister Ariel Sharon's firm hand on the Israeli wheel. Three months and a national election later, it is time the new government - once it is sworn in - figures out what it is trying to achieve where Hamas is concerned, said Gidi Grinstein, the founder and president of the Re'ut think tank in Tel Aviv. "Israel must decide what it wants beyond the knee-jerk, gut reaction that we have to this entity that denies our right to exist," Grinstein said. A Hamas in power is one that so far has not engaged in terror and is also one that allows Israel the leverage it needs to sell Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's convergence plan to the international community, he said. "If the government is serious about convergence, then the most important thing for us is to have on the other side an address to which we can transfer power, responsibility and territory, because a total breakdown of the PA and civil war may undermine it," said Grinstein, who was a member of former prime minister Ehud Barak's negotiating team at Camp David. "Probably avoiding the humanitarian crisis and the downfall of the PA should be a higher priority than Hamas accepting the three demands." But keeping the screws tight on Hamas does have its advantages, according to Shalem Center Senior Fellow Yossi Klein Halevi. So long as the terror group is busy trying to figure out how it will cut pay checks to PA workers and managing a conflict with Fatah, "its focus is not on killing Israelis," he said. Additionally, the argument that a Palestinian civil conflict would "spill over," bringing more violence to Israel, is one Halevi rejects, along with the notion that Hamas is observing a cease-fire. "Whatever they are not doing now is because of what we're not letting them do - there's no restraint," he said. As for the potential downfall of the Hamas government, it is important to remember what came before Hamas, he said. "We should be wary of the sudden Israeli enthusiasm for Fatah. I hope we're not going to forget all that we learned over the last five years about Fatah, just because Hamas looks even worse."