The invisible enemy

There are no Hamas institutions left in J'lem. Yet the Islamist presence is not far from the surface.

East Jerusalem Arabs vote (photo credit: Channel 1 [file])
East Jerusalem Arabs vote
(photo credit: Channel 1 [file])
There are few signs of Hamas activity on the streets of east Jerusalem; the walls are bare of Hamas graffiti, key-holders with photos of the late Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin are not sold here and bearded men with green Hamas caps do not stroll down bustling Salah a-Din or Omar al-Khattab streets. Hamas has never had a strong visible presence in the city - even during last year's Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections - because the organization is officially banned by Israel. And now, since Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, east Jerusalem, like West Bank cities, seems almost Hamas-free. Almost all of Hamas's leaders, including the red-bearded Muhammad Abu-Tir, are in jail, and its institutions, headquarters and offices in the city were closed long ago. "Fatah has grown much stronger during the past three to four weeks everywhere in the West Bank, [as well as] east Jerusalem. People who were unsure of their position before, those who were 'sitting on the fence,' now know exactly what they want: Fatah," explains Muhammad al-Khalili, a resident of Silwan, as he sips coffee and watches Al-Jazeera evening news with friends at a cafe on Salah a-Din Street. "Now, even though Fatah hasn't changed all that much during the past 18 months, people would still rather support it than Hamas," says Khaled, one of the group of friends. "The Islamists [Hamas] are seen as blood-spillers, responsible for killing many innocent people. What happened in Gaza can never happen here in the West Bank, especially in east Jerusalem." But these men have always supported Fatah or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and never expected Hamas to take over Gaza or win the parliamentary elections in 2006. Abd al-Kader al-Hakem, the Fatah spokesman in the Jerusalem area, is not at all sure that the Gaza coup won't be repeated in the West Bank. Talking to In Jerusalem, Hakem expresses his concerns that Hamas has plans in the area. "We are dealing with treacherous murderers here. Their goal is to take over Palestine, this is what they want," he says. "I'm sure that they are working hard to expand their influence here in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and we all have to be ready for the next round of violence, because it could really happen." Though Hamas's ultimate goal is to gain sovereignty over Jerusalem, in the short term the organization aims to recruit terrorists in the area, to gain control of the Temple Mount and to increase its grassroots support. Only a few days after the coup in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, the dismissed PA prime minister, vowed to "avenge Jerusalem," implying that the battle over the city was just beginning. A few days later, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) arrested 11 Hamas members in the capital, 10 of them holders of blue ID cards (which grant them Jerusalem residency status), for planning military operations. DURING THE past few years Israel has not expressed alarm at the growing influence and activity of Hamas in east Jerusalem. And it seems that today, despite the appearance of calm and quiet in the West Bank, Hamas is not about to stop building and rebuilding infrastructure in the area, specifically in east Jerusalem. The Hamas representative in east Jerusalem, Jamil Hamame of the Islamic Bloc, challenges the Fatah spokesman's suspicions. "What happened in Gaza wasn't a plot, and we aren't preparing a plot in the West Bank. As for our activity in east Jerusalem, it doesn't matter if one office of ours is closed or not. The whole city is occupied, and everybody is living under occupation, Fatah and Hamas," says Hamame. "Today there is no place for fitna [civil war] if we are planning to free the occupied city." "First of all, Jerusalem is symbolic. It's the primary goal of Hamas and its first priority, while Palestine is just a neighborhood around Jerusalem," says Tel Aviv University political science professor Shaul Mishal, author of The Palestinian Hamas. "For them it's a bargaining chip in their struggle against Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas]. Their goal, just like the goal of the Islamic Movement in Israel, is to turn Jerusalem and Al-Aksa into the focal point of the conflict. And it's only natural that while Hamas is experiencing some problems, domestic or foreign, it will try to display its symbolic presence in the city, either by meddling in Temple Mount affairs or other activity." The Jerusalem Post recently reported that the Shin Bet had foiled Hamas attempts to gain control of the Temple Mount and recruit new Israeli-Arab operatives in east Jerusalem. According to the Shin Bet, over the past few years Hamas has invested millions of shekels in Jerusalem charities and religious institutions, as well as in construction on the Temple Mount. Officials saw the attempted Hamas takeover of the Temple Mount as a "strategic" move aimed at bolstering the group's standing in the Palestinian territories and throughout the Muslim world. Dr. Bernard Sabella, the Christian Palestinian Legislative Council member from east Jerusalem, says that although Hamas does have some presence in the city, it's found mainly in the villages, and not in the Old City or Sheikh Jarrah area. "Hamas was able to create a social network - a very successful one - by supporting the needy, and those who lost their jobs as a result of the separation wall, which disconnected many east Jerusalem neighborhoods from each other." Still, Sabella says, "Hamas is not as strong here as in Gaza, and I believe that the Gaza scenario will not be repeated in the West Bank." At the same time, warns Sabella, if reforms in Fatah are not undertaken soon, support for Hamas will soon increase. "Fatah is divided; there is no one central command, and no discipline. What we need today is a unified code of behavior, as we already have a capable leadership ," he says. "Along with the secularists, the nationalists need to work on touching base with the masses." SOME EAST Jerusalemites believe that despite the appearance of victory in the West Bank, Fatah has lost the battle. "Now Fatah is eager to play games with Israelis, so that they can get money - we do not even hear from them anymore about the core issues, about things that are important to us. What about the separation wall, the roadblocks in the West Bank? What about the prisoners? The Israelis will release 250 men, but they are only Fatah men, while we have thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad warriors in jail," says Jaber, a Hamas supporter from Abu Tor. According to Jaber, support for Hamas in some areas of Jerusalem such as Abu Tor, Silwan and Semiramis, hasn't diminished in the past month. "We know the truth about what happened in Gaza, we know all about Muhammad Dahlan's death squads and the chaos they produced. You see, today Gaza can breathe again, there are no shootings, no killings, it's all quiet. Hamas people will never harm their own flesh and blood, only the traitors, those who worked with Israelis," he says. There is a Hamas flag in Jaber's house, but he would never display it openly. "I do not want to end up like Muhammad Abu-Tir, you know," he murmurs. There is no doubt that Hamas has a significant presence in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem specifically, or about the organization's intention to continue its activities there. However, some experts say that locally Hamas operates differently than it does in the Gaza Strip. "There is less violence and fewer displays of power [locally] than in Gaza, and there is a tradition of moderate rather than fundamentalist Islam in the West Bank. Gaza was always poorer, its population underprivileged. In the West Bank, especially in Jerusalem, the situation is different," explains Mishal. "In the future we can expect that the two parties, Fatah and Hamas, will merge into one... If that happens, we will definitely see more Hamas influence, but a significantly moderate stream, not a jihadi one," he says. "However," Mishal continues, "if it doesn't happen, and the expectations from Fatah are not fulfilled, the daily reality of the Palestinians and their living conditions will continue to worsen, and the prognosis will be very grim. "There are also many other factors, which we cannot predict today, but that could also affect the situation. [These factors include] modern weapons of mass destruction being brought to the West Bank and al-Qaida trying to infiltrate in the area," says Mishal. Mishal's words echo the warnings of Amos Gil, director of Ir Amim, an organization that promotes Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in Jerusalem. Gil says that the capital could become the next location for a Hamas takeover if the situation in east Jerusalem does not change economically, socially and politically. In the meantime, it seems that while Fatah blames itself for an inability to carry out the necessary reforms, Israeli human rights organizations blame their government, and the only player that is not pointing a finger is Hamas. Fatah spokesman al-Hakem believes the only way to prevent a Hamas takeover in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is to bolster Fatah. "If we want to prevent Hamas from taking over the West Bank and Jerusalem, we need not just words, but actions and weapons - otherwise we will all be in trouble." Seven years ago, former PA chairman Yasser Arafat was chanting the catchy rhythm "Al-Quds rayihin shuhada bil malayin" (millions of martyrs are marching towards Jerusalem). Today it is Hamas that remains best positioned to carry on Arafat's struggle.