What to do about the rise of Hamas

Most Palestinians want a negotiated peace with Israel, so Abbas should move swiftly to change the dynamics of the stalemate.

hamas rally hebron 298.8 (photo credit: AP)
hamas rally hebron 298.8
(photo credit: AP)
The rise of Hamas in the municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza is a clear sign of the political trends in Palestine and a warning light to moderate forces there of what may happen on election day, January 25, 2006. Many analysts have been saying that the rise of Hamas is not necessarily a reflection of the Palestinian public's desertion from moderation and a desire for a negotiated agreement with Israel. It is a reflection of the chaos and the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and of Fatah, and a protest vote against the corruption which has been so much connected to the Fatah movement. Hamas presents a position of political cleanliness to the Palestinian public, along with a clear record of worrying about the poor and providing effective public services in the areas of health, education and welfare. Furthermore, Hamas has definitively claimed ownership of the narrative of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza which was brought about, in the opinion of the public, as a result of the continued armed struggle and "resistance." Israel's unilateralism and determination not to negotiate and engage President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority has strengthened the claims of Hamas and weakened Abbas and his authority which was already severely crippled by five years of the intifada and Israeli actions that demolished the infrastructures of Palestinian Authority governing bodies and institutions. It appears that the overwhelming support that Ariel Sharon and his Kadima party are winning in Israel is based on the public's assumption that Sharon will continue the unilateral disengagement in the West Bank and most if not all of the settlements east of the separation barrier will be dismantled in the coming years under Sharon. This belief is based on assumptions that negate the statements that Sharon has himself made. In a strange way, the Israeli public is backing Sharon based on its assumption that Sharon is lying and that he will continue withdrawing unilaterally from the West Bank. Ironically the public will support additional unilateral steps by Sharon leading to withdrawals behind the barrier despite the fact that opinion polls in Israel consistently point to the strong desire of the Israeli public to see a negotiated process with the Palestinians leading to a permanent status peace agreement. The public, however, is still not convinced that there is a Palestinian partner for this. If Hamas takes the PA parliamentary elections, then this conclusion, at least for the coming years, will be most definitely true. PALESTINIANS would not reject more unilateral steps by Israel that lead to further settlement dismantlement and Israeli territorial withdrawals, but they are concerned that those future unilateral moves by Israel in the West Bank will not lead to Palestinian statehood in acceptable and viable borders, or that Israel will not allow the Palestinians to control the vacated areas - which is the case in the areas from which Israel removed settlements in the north-west West Bank. Israel still maintains full security control in those areas. Palestinians who are anxious to return to the negotiating table on permanent status are concerned that additional unilateral acts will bring about an increase of terrorism and Israeli repression as a result of renewed Palestinian violence. With just over a month before Palestinian parliamentary elections, the PA and the leading moderate forces there must take some new strategic actions that would increase their chances of being elected and, at the same time, increase the possibilities of a negotiated political process - which is what the majority of Palestinians desire. IN EARLY May 1999 there was a threat by Yasser Arafat of what the international community then called "UDI" - unilateral declaration of independence. At that time, Israel and the international community, led by the United States, convinced Arafat that the negative repercussions of UDI would be a death blow to Palestinian aspirations. Today, however, the situation is quite different and UDI by Abbas, if done correctly, might be the appropriate response to Israeli unilateralism and to the stalemate in the chances of a negotiated process. The scenario would play out like this: Abbas would re-issue the Palestinian Declaration of Independence - first issued in November 1988, this time explicitly spelling out the dimensions of the Palestinian state. Abbas would declare that the State of Palestine includes the territories of the West Bank, Gaza and that Palestinian east Jerusalem is the capital of the state. Abbas would declare that God and no one else holds sovereignty over the Haram al- Sharif/Temple Mount and that the government of Palestine would administrate and control the mount in the name of Islam. Furthermore, he would state that in respect to Jewish claims regarding the holiness of the mount and the remains of the Temple below, the Palestinian government would guarantee not to undertake any excavations or building on the site that might disturb those remains. The Palestinian president would declare that the Palestinian state would take control of any and all territories vacated by Israel. Abbas would call on all Palestinian refugees to come home. Abbas would declare that a Palestinian constitution guaranteeing freedom and democracy would be issued and mandated by the parliament within six months. He would state unequivocally that the Palestinian state intends to live in peace with all of its neighbors, first and foremost with Israel. The Palestinian state would apply for full membership in the United Nations and would request the support of Israel, the United States and the European Union to back this request. Abbas would end his declaration by calling on the Israeli government, after elections in Israel, to enter into negotiations on all outstanding issues between them. If the Abbas declaration was backed by Fatah and other moderate forces in Palestine, I believe it would change the dynamics of the current trends in Palestine to support Hamas. The Palestinian UDI would give the upper hand and the higher moral ground to the Palestinian Authority and would provide the Palestinian public with a new positive agenda to rally behind. There will be those who will attack him primarily on the assumption that this call is the virtual end of the demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their original homes inside of Israel. Abbas, however, could also declare that this issue will be resolved once and for all at the negotiating table. Those negotiations would take place at the level of state-to-state backed by the entire international community. Abbas must do something to turn the trend back in favor of moderation and negotiations. He clearly cannot depend on Israel to lend any support. Ariel Sharon has written off Abbas as a potential partner who can deliver. A strategy following the scenario above would once again put Abbas in the driver's seat and would demonstrate to the Palestinian people, the international community and to Israel that he is a leader and a statesman and that what he is offering to his people and to Israel is the best opportunity for real peace that has come around ever. It would also be, perhaps, the only thing that he can do today to ensure a victory for the forces of moderation, including himself, in Palestine. The writer is co-chair of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research & Information.