The Region: Hamas is in for the long run

Palestinian Islamists are ahead of schedule, so they can afford to be patient.

barry rubin column 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin column 88
(photo credit: )
We are starting to see how the contending Palestinian groups are dealing with the Hamas takeover of the government. Hamas does not expect to change everything overnight. After all, its members often say that 20 years will be needed to wipe out Israel. Since it believes its goal and methods have divine sanction, it is not too concerned with the time needed, international opinion, or any sufferings this plan inflicts on Palestinians. What it is trying to do now is establish hegemony over the Palestinian movement in a way that will ensure Hamas is the permanent leader. Since Hamas's campaign is ahead of schedule - it did not expect to do so well in the election - this can proceed in a step-by-step fashion. Nor does Hamas really worry about winning the next vote, which might never be held or, at least, like the previous "four-year term" of parliament, take 10 years to happen. A key aspect of Hamas's strategy is ensuring that the educational system raises a generation that will reject any peace or compromise with Israel, extol terrorism and vote Hamas. Hamas knows that its effort faces two barriers. First, while its program of destroying Israel and using terrorism is popular, Islamization is far less supported by the Palestinian majority. At the same time, even the smallest improvements in government performance and reduced corruption can be used to show that Hamas is superior to Fatah. Islamist measures, then, should advance gradually and mostly via local councils. The priority will be on the anti-Israel struggle, virtually outlawing moderation and enthroning the Hamas perspective of a long-term, life-or-death struggle in which no real compromise is possible. Hamas wants to make itself leader of the whole people and of the "national" cause rather than just of an Islamist party, parallel in a way to how Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese Communists achieved similar outcomes. Since there is basically no political difference between Hamas and Fatah except for Islamism, this should not be too difficult. BUT HAMAS'S second big problem is more serious: the institutional competition with Fatah. How is Hamas going to form a government and get control of the mechanisms of power - money, jobs and guns - without triggering a civil war with Fatah? For example, the firing of any Fatah supporter from any job, and certainly the overstuffed security forces, could set off a major crisis. Here, too, Hamas will have to tread carefully. And, again, the best approach is to focus on what unites Palestinians, i.e., hating and wanting to attack Israel. Other reasons why Hamas is going to continue with a very hard line include a personal competition for power in which militancy is the greatest asset, and a "terrorism race" in which Hamas and Fatah battle to see who can stage the most successful attacks. Prediction: a shadowy Islamist group which consists of Hamas people, but lets Hamas deny responsibility, will emerge to claim "credit" for attacking Israel. Hamas leaders will continue to make very extreme statements in Arabic. Recent examples from Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar include: "Those who built their structure on the basis of the Koran... cannot budge because of promises from America or a dollar from Europe," or "Our program is to liberate Palestine, all of Palestine." AT THE SAME time, though, Hamas will try to create an illusion of moderation among foreigners. Its current "moderate" plan states that if Israel concedes everything - withdraws from all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, while letting all Palestinian refugees come to live in Israel - Hamas will not attack Israel until it decides to do so, but it reserves the right to commit genocide against Israel. And even this offer does not mean Hamas would make any effort to stop others - Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas people - from staging terror attacks during this time. Or, in Zahar's words: "Anyone who thinks the [period of] calm means giving in, is mistaken. The calm is in preparation for a new round of resistance and victory." As for previous Palestinian commitments, Zahar explains that Hamas is entering parliament "to eliminate any traces" of the Oslo Accords. This means that all previous concessions made by Israel have evoked no reciprocal steps from the Palestinians. Fatah, for its part, also has a multi-layered strategy, but it is in far worse shape. The election defeat has solved none of its problems. All the establishment leaders are still in place, the bitter factional strife is completely unresolved, and Fatah is stuck with a weak, discredited Mahmoud Abbas as its standard-bearer. Mahmoud Abbas can still, however, be put up as a moderate face, a way to attract international money and support. The message is, simply: "Hamas is the bad guys; we are the good guys." Some last-minute attempts have been made to ensure that Abbas still controls the media and can appoint a court that might veto what the Hamas-dominated parliament passes. But the main two elements of Fatah strategy remain terrorism and patronage. Fatah will fight desperately to hold onto jobs and money, with the implicit threat of a civil war if its interests are neglected. At the same time its gunmen will try to launch attacks on Israel to prove it is the superior fighter. Nevertheless, Fatah leaders are still living in a dream world, having no sense of how to organize and compete politically. Without control of the budget and government agencies how well will Fatah hold onto its supporters? I would put my money on Hamas to emerge victorious in this battle while also setting back hopes for peace, for resolving the conflict, and for creating a Palestinian state for many decades. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.