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talking politics

Hamas Encounters Reality

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E'LL eat za’atar leaves, weeds and salt, but we won’t be traitors and we won’t be humiliated!” So spoke Ismail Haniyeh, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, who is thought to be among the moderate leaders of Hamas. Before a crowd in the Gaza Strip on April 14, 2006, Haniyeh was responding to a decision by international donors to stop funding the Palestinian Authority (PA) because Hamas had won the election.

But Gaza isn’t Stalingrad. An opinion poll published ten days later by Khalil Shkaki did indeed show 47% of Palestinians backing Hamas and 39% the rival Fatah. But the poll also showed that the support for Hamas is not for its political positions. Quite the contrary. Three-quarters of the Hamas backers want negotiations with Israel. Moreover, they want Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and Israeli recognition of a Palestinian State in the Territories. In that case, why did they elect Hamas? Because they hated the corruption in Fatah. They weren't opting for Hamas politics, rather for Hamas purity. One is reminded of the correspondence between dancer Isadora Duncan and scrawny playwright George Bernard Shaw. Duncan proposed that they engender a child together. "Think of it!" she exclaimed. "With my body and your brains, what a wonder it would be!" "Yes," Shaw answered, "but what if it turns out to have my body and your brains?"

The Palestinian people got the Hamas politics, which brings international isolation and punishment. (As for purity, this remains to be seen, but the question may soon be irrelevant.) After six years of bloody Intifada, unemployment and poverty, it's doubtful whether the people can afford to go on supporting this group. Hamas's landslide victory reflected its lack of forethought. It was counting on a result that would make it a large minority in a government led by PA President Abu Mazen, who would continue to negotiate with Israel.

But reality played false with all involved. Now the Fatah leaders, headed by Abu Mazen, accuse the Hamas government of bringing on financial disaster. Not that the situation was idyllic before, but at least the Fatah-led government worked with the international community, using the miniscule salaries of the 150,000 PA employees (a third of the labor force) to purchase relative calm. The Hamas government attacks the international community for canceling its obligations to the PA; it ignores the fact that the donor nations committed themselves only on condition that the PA abide by its recognition of Israel and the Oslo Accords. If the new Palestinian regime isn't willing to recognize Israel, how can it expect money from the European Union? Or in the words of journalist Abed al-Rahman al-Rashed (Sharq al-Awsat, April 12): “Hamas made its decisions, entered the election campaign and asked to become the government. Yet it knew that the Palestinian government, lacking oil or an economy, lives from aid. It wants the aid, but at the same time it rejects the commitments which make the aid possible in the first place, aid on which the entire Palestinian political and financial regime is based.”

Hamas has tried to find alternative sources of aid in Iran and the Arab states. This hasn’t worked. The promised money amounts to $200 million at most, compared to $610 million withheld by the EU. Besides, Israel may be counted on to keep even these funds from entering.

Not a month has passed since Haniyeh was sworn in as PM, and from one day to the next it gets harder to see how his government can survive. Hamas cannot live in a bubble. If it wants to manage a state, it can’t retain the stance that it held as a militant opposition.

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RUE, Hamas never promised the voters a peace agreement with Israel. It promised an end to corruption and to the growing anarchy. Instead, it has entered the vortex of a war of all against all. The coffers are empty. The police from the Fatah days, still armed but unpaid, have taken to the streets. Amid all this, Hamas isn’t even able to convene as a government. Israel won’t let the legislators leave Gaza for Ramallah or vice-versa, so parliamentary sessions must be conducted by video camera before the eyes of the world. Transparency indeed!

The single toughest problem is the growing internal struggle between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah’s decision not to join Haniyeh’s government was a bad portent. It signifies a will to undermine the Hamas regime by opposing it in parliament – or worse, in the streets. One speaks today of two regimes. For instance, President Abu Mazen’s insistence on controlling the security forces moved Hamas to establish a force of its own. Jamal Abu Samhadana, head of the resistance committees (and among the first on Israel’s “most wanted” list) has been named to run the apparatus for enforcing order in Gaza. The appointment has sparked large protests from the side of Fatah, and it isn’t altogether clear, at this point, whether Hamas will back it up. We can say this: In the days when Abu Mazen controlled the legislature, Hamas made sure to direct its struggle toward Israel; it took care not to point its guns at Fatah or the security forces. In contrast, now that the tables have turned, the ousted Fatah people appear to have no such scruples – and they are quick on the trigger.

There is an additional difficulty impeding Hamas’s ability to govern. Differences of approach have appeared between its local leaders and those outside. The suicide bombing by an Islamic Jihadist in Tel Aviv on April 17 (the first since Hamas took power) got a lukewarm reception from the local Hamas leadership: “This is only a natural reaction to the deeds carried out by Israel.” Abu Mazen, for his part, called the act “repulsive.” This reaction drove Khaled Mashal into frenzy. Based in Damascus, Mashal heads the Hamas political wing. His hotheaded proclamations have both isolated Hamas internationally and fueled the internal struggle. In a speech on April 22, he behaved true to form: “Where’s the low point? That someone blows himself up in Tel Aviv? Or that PA leaders go feast and get drunk in the restaurants of Tel Aviv?” Then Mashal dropped a verbal bomb on Fatah: “We won’t let Israel’s helpers come to power on the Israeli-American carpet. Whoever wants to govern, let him take over by ballots in the ballot box. We won’t let it happen by a military coup.” These words moved Fatah supporters into the streets to clash with Hamas. Dozens were wounded.

As if all that were not enough, Hamas is caught in yet another complication. Because of its official hostility toward Israel, and because it won its public support by launching armed attacks, it is in no position to oppose the Jihad or other groups that continue to hit Israel with rockets or suicide bombings. In its view, the struggle against the Occupation is also legitimate when implemented by others. Now, however, this is not just a movement, rather it is a government tolerating attacks from within its jurisdiction. Israel can use this fact as a pretext for unrestrained reprisals. This month it maimed and killed dozens of innocent people in Gaza, including children.

The other militant organizations are cooking the same kind of broth for Hamas that it brewed for its Fatah colleagues in the nineties, during Oslo, when they were trying to stabilize the situation for the new PA.

Hamas, in short, has painted itself into a corner, and this fact has begun to percolate through its leaders’ heads.

Muhammad Younis, a reporter for Al Hayat in Ramallah, quotes a senior Hamas official (April 24): “We find ourselves facing two alternatives. Either we’ll ask some figure from outside to form a government of technocrats who aren’t affiliated with the movement, or we’ll go back to Square One. It looks like we’ll choose the latter. But the significance of this will be that Hamas won’t take part in the next elections and won’t recognize the result. We shall determine our priorities without connection to those of the PA – [this could mean] for example, cancellation of the cease fire and refusal to cooperate with the PA concerning problems like the deterioration in security.”

Hamas claims that even if it changed its stripes, becoming as docile as Abu Mazen, Israel would not provide the necessary conditions to create a sustainable sovereign state. This is doubtless true, but Hamas is using the point as an excuse. If it wants to advance the interests of the Palestinian people, it should stop playing rhetorical games (like talk of a thousand-year cease-fire). It should declare its readiness to negotiate with Israel on the basis of a complete end to the Occupation. Its leaders should stop venting fiery proclamations, which only help Israel to isolate the Palestinian people and to justify its violence. The Palestinians don’t need feel-good verbal fireworks. They need a period of political stability in order to strengthen their cohesiveness, their institutions and their economy.

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