Hamas Bides Its Time

Hamas is not interested in PA President Mahmoud Abbas's national unity initiative.

Demonstrators in Ramallah (photo credit: Ruben Salvador)
Demonstrators in Ramallah
(photo credit: Ruben Salvador)
FOR THE PAST FEW WEEKS, THE PALESTINIAN Authority has been engaging in a media campaign of unprecedented scope. The campaign slogan is: “End the Schism” and organized demonstrations, sit-in strikes, conferences by public institutions, dozens (if not hundreds) of newspaper articles, posters and protest marches have all been thrown into the fray.
All this activity is being called by spokesmen in Ramallah as “the [PA President] Mahmoud Abbas Initiative,” aimed at ending the split between the West Bank and Gaza. Why is now the time to end this division? As Munib al-Masri, the Nablus billionaire, who controls almost a third of the Palestinian economy, explains: “This is the only way to focus our efforts towards the creation of a Palestinian state.” This was the theme of an article that al-Masri wrote in the Jerusalem “Al-Quds” Arabic newspaper March 21.
“The people want unity” chanted the protesters in Ramallah, who recently camped in the central square of the city for a week-long sit in. There were similar protests in all the large cities in the West Bank. In every instance, they were organized by Fatah activists with the assistance of other factions. In some cases Hamas activists in the West Bank were invited to attend. Fatah supporters even staged a demonstration in Gaza, under the watchful eyes of Hamas police. On Palestinian television, one could see similar undertakings by Palestinian students abroad, in London and Rome.
The PA tried to create the impression that these Palestinian rallies were akin to the youth-led demonstrations in neighboring Arab countries. One of the Palestinian journalists explained in a radio broadcast that, in every opinion poll of the Palestinian public, it was found that 40 percent of the participants, mostly young adults, did not know how to answer the question which party or movement do they support – Fatah, Hamas, or left-wing groups? “These are the youths who do not have a clear political identity, but who participate in the demonstrations, and want unity,” asserted the journalist.
It is not certain that this is a convincing explanation since these are organized, unauthentic protests. It is obvious that the Palestinian rallies are vastly different from the demos in various Arab countries. While the protests in the Arab countries are against the regimes (the thread that runs through all the demonstrations in the Arab world is the protest against the state security apparatuses) – the Palestinian rallies were organized by the government in Ramallah, and are, as such, demos in support of Abbas’s unity initiative.
The dramatic pinnacle of the “End the Schism” campaign was supposed to be a well-publicized visit by Abbas to Gaza. Since the violent split five years ago, there has been no such visit. Practically every day in March you could hear announcements from official Palestinian spokesmen: “In the next few days, Abbas will be going to Gaza.” At least once, Ramallah announced that a preliminary security detail would be dispatched to Gaza to arrange the visit.
“What is the point of the visit?” Abbas was asked, to which he replied, “To establish a national unity government.” “Is it possible?” asked the journalists. “Of course, it’s possible, and I can set up a national unity government within minutes,” was Abbas’s reply (according to reports from Palestinian papers of March 24).
According to Abbas, the clear objective of this government would be to organize a general election for both the Palestinian parliament and the position of president in September.
September 2011 was supposed to be a significant date, as far as the Palestinians are concerned. During the month, the intention is to present a proposal to the UN General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. This is also the month during which PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad had promised, two years ago, to announce a Palestinian state. It is crystal clear that in the current reality, in which there are two governments, one on the West Bank and one in Gaza, it is difficult to discuss any kind of declaration of independence. In other words, without unity the sum total of Palestinian political plans are not worth much.
THE GREAT DIFFICULTY IS, OF COURSE, THE HAMAS response to the unity initiative. The response was an absolute negative. None of the Hamas leaders said this in so many words, since no Palestinian leader can oppose the calls for “national” unity. So what did they do? Some commentators (mainly Israeli) explained that the deterioration in the security situation on the Gaza border and the missiles attacks against Ashdod and Beersheba were initiated on order to stymie Abbas’s visit. The Hamas leadership declared that the missiles fired into Israel were launched by other militant groups – and that Hamas continues to uphold the cease-fire – but this claim was dismissed in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. “Hamas has complete control in Gaza, and there is no firing into Israel without Hamas’s consent.” said Israeli spokesmen.
But Hamas’s negative attitude was also discernible in a number of other events. For example, when it was announced in Ramallah that a preliminary security detail was being dispatched to Gaza, ahead of Abbas’s visit, the Hamas spokesman’s response was: “We in Gaza will prepare the visit and see to the security arrangements ourselves; there is no need for any security preparation on your part.”
The situation was then clear: while Abbas wants to quickly form a national unity government, as groundwork for holding elections, Hamas wants a lengthy period of serious dialogue to discuss the fundamental political bones of contention; what will be the attitude to the Oslo Accords with Israel, and recognition of Israel, which Hamas opposes? In any case, say Hamas officials in Damascus and Beirut, “we previously tried a national unity government [in 2006] and it didn’t work out, so there is no need to repeat the mistake.”
Hamas is also aware of the fact that one of Abbas’s demands is that the new Palestinian unity government will control the security apparatuses in the Gaza strip, the border crossings and government funding.
They [Hamas] will not accept that. Hamas has, in Gaza, its own security organizations, police and military (the Izadin al-Qassam brigades) and under no circumstances will they agree to disarm and come under the auspices of officers from Fatah. These are the same Fatah officers who coordinate with the Americans (the system set up by General Keith Dayton) and with Israeli security forces. There is no chance that Hamas will agree to such security arrangements.
Abbas and heads of the PA in Ramallah are well aware of this fact. They know full well that there is no chance that Hamas will agree to any sort of “End the Schism” initiative. If so, why are they still, [ostensibly] trying? The reason is obvious: this is a political media trick. Not exactly a bluff – but a campaign aimed at proving to Palestinian (and maybe to all of pan-Arab) public opinion that the party responsible for derailing the unity train is Hamas – to prove to all that the blame for the fact that a Palestinian state will not be created this fall lies squarely on Hamas’s shoulders.
Hamas leadership is waiting and watching to see what will happen in the surrounding Arab states in the coming months.
Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a veteran wellorganized movement, whose center is in Egypt and which has branches in all of the Arab nations. For years, the Brotherhood has stood at the forefront of the opposition to the various Arab regimes.
With revolutionary tremors still rattling the Arab world, a change in the status of the Brotherhood may be imminent. “The Islamic movement in Egypt has been pushed from the sidelines into center stage, and Egypt will return to its leadership of the Arab world,” wrote (on the Palestinian news site, Maan) Ahmed Yousef, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government, claiming that there is a real chance that in the new Egyptian regime, the Muslim Brotherhood will be a part of the administration.
It is clear to Yousef that if there are dramatic developments in the government in Arab nations, starting with Egypt – then the attitude to the Palestinian quagmire will change. The reason for this change, according to Yousef, will be that democratic forms of government are dependent upon the people, and such governments would be more attentive to public opinion and “the word on the street,” which is supportive of the Palestinian cause.
For years there have been voices in the Arab world who claimed that the peace agreements that Jordan and Egypt signed with Israel were peace agreements between leaders – and not peace agreements between nations. And what will happen to these agreements, now that the old-guard leaders in Egypt have disappeared? With this in the background, Hamas leaders wish to bide their time, and to see exactly what the upheavals in neighboring countries – in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and in more distant lands – will bring.
They expect a significant weakening of the PA in Ramallah, as their political and financial situation worsens. The Mubarak regime in Egypt, which was Abbas’s main political backer, is gone. In addition, the financial aid received in Ramallah, which originates from the Arab nations, is drying up. For example, Saudi Arabia, the main donor has recently agreed to allocate 130 billion dollars, to be handed out to Saudi citizens, in what basically amounts to a gargantuan bribe to the masses, so they will not join their rebellious brothers in the adjacent countries. A similar tactic can be found in many of the Gulf emirates, who are spending inordinate amounts of money to stay in power. In Prime Minister Fayyad’s office there is grave anxiety, for it is quite obvious that most of these Arab nations will not have money left to give the Palestinians.
The weakness of the PA in Ramallah will create, as far as Hamas is concerned, a more comfortable starting point for deliberations about national unity – and subsequently it is worthwhile to wait.
Abbas’s energetic campaign for unity is so far unsuccessful. He has not made a big impression on the Palestinian public, Israel or the other players involved.