Hamas flexes its muscles

In embittered Fatah circles, rumors abound that Hamas is in secret negotiations with Israel to take over the West Bank.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal 300 (R) (photo credit: Reuters / Stringer)
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal 300 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters / Stringer)
There’s a great deal of talk these days concerning a “reconciliation” between Hamas and Fatah. In December, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) allowed Hamas to celebrate its 25th anniversary in the West Bank; last Friday Hamas permitted a rally in Gaza city to commemorate Fatah’s “launch of the revolution” 48 years ago. Buoyed up by recent self-proclaimed “successes” on both sides (Hamas has deluded itself into believing it won a great victory in the recent Operation Pillar of Defense while the PA regards its recent vote in the UN General Assembly as tantamount to achieving a sovereign Palestinian state), there is now much loose talk of “moving forward towards unity,” in the words of Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.
However, the underlying truth is that Hamas and Fatah are irreconcilable, for Hamas is concerned above all with outflanking Fatah in the battle for Palestinian hearts and minds.  It refuses to accept Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate president of the PA, refuses to endorse the PA’s policy of seeking to establish a sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and refuses to even acknowledge Israel’s existence.  So it is unlikely that current efforts at reconciliation will achieve anything more than the many previous abortive attempts.
On the contrary, in the past few months, peculiar rumors concerning Hamas have been circulating. These were sparked shortly after the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won Egypt’s parliamentary elections with its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, topping the poll for president. Hamas, founded in 1987 during the first intifada, was an offshoot of the Egyptian MB, set up with the specific aim of establishing an Islamic state in the whole of the area that is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The overwhelming success of the Brotherhood in what is arguably the leading nation in the Arab World − and Gaza’s next door neighbour to boot – came as a golden opportunity for Hamas’ leadership.
Accordingly, in July 2012, shortly after Morsi took over as Egypt’s president, Arab newspapers like Al-Arabiya and Al-Hayat reported a meeting between Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and President Morsi. According to the reports, the subject of their discussion was the possibility of Hamas issuing a unilateral declaration of independence − in short, breaking away from the PA and establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in the Gaza strip, possibly under the benign overlordship of an MB Egyptian government. Khaled Mesmar, head of the Political Committee at the Palestinian National Council, was reported at the time as saying, “Hamas is trying to garner as much support as possible for the idea of secession, especially among several Arab regimes.”
Clearly the proposal – if indeed it was set forth in the terms reported − was not to President Morsi’s liking, for no such move followed. However, subsequent events further strengthened Hamas to a degree that the leadership could not have foreseen back in July, and may have led to renewed efforts in that direction.
Emboldened by the MB’s success in Egypt, and also by the growing confidence of jihadists elsewhere as a result of the Arab Spring, Hamas began stepping up its rocket attacks on Israeli civilian targets. Israel’s reaction, in the form of Operation Pillar of Defense, gave Hamas the opportunity to stand for eight days at the centre of the world stage, representing the so-called “Palestinian armed struggle”.  As a result, Hamas greatly enhanced its standing in Arab popular opinion. 
Riding the crest of this popular acclaim, the latest story to surface concerning Hamas is in the form of a statement made in the last days of 2012 by senior Hamas official, Musa Abu Marzouk - the likely candidate to replace Khaled Mashaal as head of the organization.  A frustrated Abu Mazen had been reported as saying that if there was no progress in the peace process, he “call Netanyahu on the phone and tell him, ‘Sit in the chair instead of me, take the keys, and you will be responsible for the Palestinian Authority’.” Abu Marzouk riposted thus: “Why does Abbas want to hand the keys over to Netanyahu?  Why not hand it over to Hamas?”  Hamas’s record, he asserted, is “qualified it to run the West Bank successfully.”
Fatah officials are reported to have reacted angrily. Jamal Muheisen, a member of the Fatah Central Council, claimed that Hamas was renewing its pursuit of a unilateral declaration of independence for Gaza, although now, he asserted, Hamas had turned from seeking to do so under Egyptian auspices, and was conducting secret negotiations with Israel–with US approval—aimed at establishing an Islamic emirate in the Gaza strip.  The West Bank, claimed Muheisen, was to be left as isolated pockets of Palestinians separated by the Israeli settlements.
So the rumored claim, with its hallmarks of paranoid fears by an embattled Fatah, seems to be that Israel is prepared to allow the Gaza strip to become an extreme Islamist Palestinian state in its own right, and for Hamas to take over from the PA as the ruling authority in Palestinian-occupied West Bank areas, provided they leave all Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria under Israeli control.
The whole story seems wildly improbable: Beginning with the notion of secret Israel-Hamas negotiations and ending with the even more unlikely concept of an Israel-approved takeover by Hamas of areas of the West Bank.  Hamas’s objective, its very raison d’être, is undisguised – the elimination of Israel, and the establishment of an Islamist Palestine “from the river to the sea.” To permit Hamas to assume control of parts of Judea and Samaria would indeed amount to Israel clutching a viper to its bosom.
This, surely, is one rumor too far.  
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog A Mid-East Journal (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)