Palestinian Affairs: Shades of terror

Hudna - from Hamas? What's behind the Islamist movement's initiative?

Hamas gunmen 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hamas gunmen 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The latest hudna [temporary truce] initiative launched by some Hamas representatives is seen as a direct result of the two-year-old economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip and Israeli threats to invade the area or target leaders of the Islamist movement in response to rocket attacks on Israel. In a month's time, Hamas will mark the second anniversary of its victory in the Palestinian Authority parliamentary election. But the Islamist movement has little reason to celebrate. The only major achievement that Hamas can talk about is the fact that it has survived in power in spite of the immense pressure from the international community and recurring military blows from Israel. As far as some Hamas leaders are concerned, there is no underestimating the significance of this achievement. Their theory is that in the long-run Hamas will prevail because its rivals and enemies are both inconsistent and less patient. Boasted a top Hamas official in Gaza City this week, "For two years we have been under attack from almost the entire world, including main superpowers, but it's not working. They have failed to bring down Hamas because Hamas is not only a government or an institution. Rather, Hamas is in the hearts of the majority of the Palestinians who continue to support us and are willing to make huge sacrifices." The talk about Hamas's "steadfastness" in the face of the huge pressure doesn't seem to provide consolation to many residents of the Gaza Strip who have long been feeling the heat beneath their feet. "Many people here admire Hamas for staying in power and refusing to succumb despite the pressure and threats," said a Palestinian editor living in Gaza City. "But many people are also beginning to complain about the bad economy and the fact that we are living in a big prison. They are beginning to realize that perhaps Hamas should make some kind of a sacrifice by softening its positions." Hamas leaders are also beginning to feel the heat, and that's why some of them are now openly talking about the need to do something "for the sake of the higher national interests of the Palestinian people." Hamas leaders are also said to be worried about the billions of dollars that the recent Paris donors' conference promised to pour on Mahmoud Abbas's authority. Their major fear is the money will be used by Abbas and his Fatah lieutenants to buy loyalty among the Palestinians and undermine Hamas's rule. A cease-fire with Israel, these Hamas leaders argue, is not only in the interest of the Palestinians, but of Hamas as well. Hamas's leaders are said to have been in a panic following the recent killings of top Islamic Jihad operatives by the IDF. The Palestinian media has also been highlighting statements made by some Israeli politicians and columnists who called for eliminating Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders in retaliation for the rocket attacks on Israel. While it's true that these reports have sent many Hamas leaders and activists into hiding, they have also prompted the Hamas leadership to issue a new initiative for a truce with Israel. As a former Hamas sympathizer put it this week, "Ismail Haniyeh cares more about looking neat and wearing a nice suit than becoming a shaheed [martyr]. He and most of the Hamas leaders are afraid for their lives and don't want to join [slain Hamas leaders] Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi." Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has also joined the bandwagon of those seeking a hudna with Israel. But Mashaal is facing a serious dilemma. On the one hand, his allies in Damascus and Teheran don't want Hamas to strike any deal with Israel. On the other hand, many Arab countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are continuing to exert pressure on Mashaal to agree to a cease-fire with Israel and reconciliation with Abbas's Fatah faction. The divisions in the Arab world have also split Hamas into camps - one that openly advocates a hudna and sounds relatively pragmatic, and another that remains as defiant as ever and wants to continue the fight against Israel regardless of the price. The first camp is led by Haniyeh and Mashaal; the second is headed by Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siam. Hamas's armed wing, Izaddin al-Kassam, appears to be somewhere in the middle. The commanders of the group have also been issuing contradictory statements regarding a cease-fire with Israel. However, there is no doubt that at the end of the day most Hamas representatives would welcome a lull in the fighting. Hamas needs some breathing space to consolidate its grip on Gaza and prevent a total collapse of civil and security institutions there. Hamas is unable to provide full services to the public when its leaders are too busy moving from one hiding place to another. Each time Hamas hears about Israeli threats to launch a massive operation inside Gaza, its leaders rush to Cairo and Riyadh to ask for a hudna. The Egyptians and Saudis, according to sources close to Hamas, have both been pleading with the US to persuade Israel to refrain from such an operation. Egypt and Saudi Arabia's main fear is that an Israeli invasion of Gaza would trigger massive street protests through Arab and Islamic capitals, thus jeopardizing their "moderate" regimes. Apart from the divisions in Hamas, the Islamist movement is also concerned about its credibility among the Arab and Muslim masses once it agrees to a hudna with Israel. That's why Hamas is insisting on a mutual, not unilateral, truce. Hamas wants to send a message that the truce was reached because both parties wanted it and not because Hamas was too weak and vulnerable. But the crucial question that needs to be addressed is whether Hamas would be able to enforce a truce with Israel, given the fact that Islamic Jihad and other armed groups [in addition to Syria and Iran] are completely opposed to the idea. Hamas will face much criticism in the Arab and Islamic world when and if its security forces try to stop a Palestinian from launching a rocket at Sderot or any other Israeli community. Hamas can ask Abbas about the reactions when he once tried to stop the rockets. The result was that he was condemned as a traitor working for Israel and the CIA. Undoubtedly, many Hamas supporters don't want to be placed in the same position. Perhaps Hamas is sincere about reaching a hudna, but it wants to be portrayed as the winner. Hamas wants a hudna according to its terms and conditions, one that wouldn't make the movement appear as if it has finally surrendered.