Hamas in Wonderland


Hamas has never been so intensely courted as in the weeks leading up to the Aqaba Summit (June 4, 2003). The Road Map requires an initial calm. In this respect the militant Islamic group is crucial. The Palestinian Authority (PA), under Abu Mazen, has made it clear that for internal reasons, it cannot dismantle Hamas by force. The latter must be a willing partner. In its hands alone lies the answer to the riddle: can 33 months of Intifada give way to a new attempt at diplomacy?

The Bush Administration pushed for a cease fire (hudna, in Arabic). Bogged down in Iraq, it needs a quick Middle Eastern accomplishment to pave the way toward the re-election of George W. next year. The Egyptians, wary of instability in the region, want to see the PA as a stable, solid regime, capable of keeping Hamas under control. The PA itself views the Road Map as its final chance to survive as a national leadership.

One party at Aqaba saw the Road Map as premature. Ariel Sharon was disappointed with the Americans. All too easily, in his view, they had permitted Abu Mazen to skip a step he regards as crucial: the destruction of the “terrorist infrastructure”, or in other words, the arrest of those on his wanted list and the confiscation of weapons (common household items in the Territories today). The consequence of such a crackdown would be a Palestinian civil war. Until the PA undergoes this test, claim senior Israeli officials, it will not be able to rule é not, at least, in the manner that Israel has in mind: taking orders from Tel Aviv. As for the hudna, Israeli leaders think Hamas is buying time to rebuild.

Where, however, does Hamas stand? Has it really emerged on top for the moment, as many commentators believe? Does it hold the key to an agreement? The answer is No. The weakness of one factor (the PA) does not entail the strength of another (Hamas).

The fact is, Hamas is caught in a contradiction. It depends on the people’s backing, which it gets because it traumatizes the Israelis. The trauma, however, brings terrible vengeance back on the heads of the Palestinians: re-conquest and oppression that the people cannot long bear. In saying this, I do not wish to play down Israel’s direct responsibility for the present dark period in Palestinian history. I merely point out that Hamas, while preening itself as a “liberation force,” is far from that; it is merely a “vengeance force”, moving between political expediency and apocalyptic fantasy. Its action has a boomerang effect on the Palestinian people, which till now has given it life.

Misreading the map

Hamas is not monolithic. Its more moderate members focus on the Occupied Territories, aiming to transform them into an Islamic state. The extremists favor ousting the Jews from Israel as well. Interviewed in the Arabic media, Hamas members often wiggle between these positions.

The second Intifada broke out in response to the debacle of Oslo, following the failure at Camp David. Hamas didn’t start it, rather Fatah. It was not a rejection of any and all diplomatic alternatives. Its aim was not the expulsion of the last Jew. Hamas, however, viewed things otherwise. It transformed the second Intifada (and with it the Palestinian people) into a testing ground for its own program. By its reservoir of suicide bombers, it escalated the conflict out of all proportion to the people’s capacity for absorbing punishment. To its profit, however, each Israeli counter-strike increased the hatred for the Occupation, thus stoking the fires on which the movement thrives. Its leaders believe that an army of kamikazes can shatter Israeli society, and the Jews will withdraw from the Middle East as they did, three years ago, from southern Lebanon.

The truth is far from that. Israelis have indeed absorbed heavy losses in life, and their economy is in trouble. Most would like a diplomatic solution é but not at any price. When Ariel Sharon accepted the Road Map, this was not the result of internal pressure. Pressure came, rather, from the Americans and Europeans. If the matter were up to Israel alone, it would prefer to continue crushing Hamas for the sake of a future arrangement with the new PA. As for the comparison with southern Lebanon, Israel’s establishment never regarded that fake “security zone” as a real strategic asset. The case of the West Bank (not Gaza) is different. Out of it, most Israelis believe, could develop a threat to their country’s existence. That is one reason why so few objected when their army re-entered in April 2002.

The wishful thinking of the Hamas leaders distorts their assessment of reality. Abed al-Aziz Rantisi, among their most extreme, gave an interview to al-Jazeera on April 5, 2001 é seven months into the Intifada and one year before the Israeli re-conquest. The interviewer sought his opinion on the new Israeli Prime Minister. “The election of Sharon,” said Rantisi, “expresses the longing of the Zionist people for someone who can save it from the Intifada, which has placed it under siege, threatens its existence, and creates a new reality for the Palestinian people, quite different from the grim one of former times.” In the same interview, Rantisi says, “It is the duty of the Palestinian people to topple Sharon, because Sharon is the last card in the hands of the Zionist entity, which has entered a period of retreat.”

Reality proved this prophecy false. Sharon won re-election by a landslide in 2003. It was Arafat, rather, who was forced (officially, at least) by Israeli pressure to retreat from the public arena.

Let us return to the interview of 2001: Rantisi was asked about the possibility that Sharon might re-conquer the West Bank and Gaza. He doubted whether that was possible. If it occurred nonetheless, he said, Israel would face a widespread popular resistance that would teach it a lesson it would never forget.

On this point too, the Hamas leader proved no prophet. When it entered the Territories one year after the interview, the IDF faced little resistance, except in Jenin.

Hamas’s blindness to the balance of forces has already brought catastrophe on its people. There are signs that the people has begun to lose faith in its way. For example, Rantisi’s wife felt compelled to go on television recently to declare what an honor it would be if her son Muhammad (now a medical student in Iraq) were to blow himself up for the cause: this é after the PA leaked a taped conversation, ten years old, in which she had declined the sacrifice.

The Aqaba Summit offers another example, showing how Hamas leaders misread the situation. On the eve of Abu Mazen’s journey to meet with Bush and Sharon, the Palestinian factions were putting the final touches on the hudna. In his speech at the Summit, Abu Mazen condemned terrorism and vowed to end the armed Intifada. In response, Hamas backed away from the hudna. Rantisi came out publicly against the Summit. Abu Mazen, he claimed, spoke with forked tongue, saying one thing to the Americans and another to the Palestinian groups. He called for continuing resistance. Now if Rantisi had been in the underground, in a state with defensible borders, one might understand his bravado in challenging the Summit participants, especially the US, Europe and Egypt. The fact that he lives above ground, however, in the heart of Gaza, makes one wonder if the man has any common sense. The day after his statement, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile into his car, wounding him lightly, wounding a son more severely, and killing two passers-by: a Palestinian woman and her child. Israel announced that it saw no difference between a political leadership that called for attacks and the attackers themselves. In the following days, it escalated its air strikes against Hamas leaders, killing several é and nearby civilians as well.

Israel sought to convey, both to the PA and to Hamas, that it was taking its gloves off. On June 14, 2003, shortly after the attempt on Rantisi’s life, al-Jazeera interviewed him. He was asked: “You’ve shown that you know how to mount resistance, now isn’t it time to translate your status, as a leading resistance organization, into political fruits? Isn’t it time, that is, for a diplomatic initiative of one kind or another?” Rantisi replied: “There is no place for a hudna. The Palestinian people has no choice but to reject the life of humiliation being offered it.” The path of negotiation, he explained, had failed with the Oslo Accords. The only remaining alternative was to return to the writings of Muhammad, who said: “Those most hostile to the believers are the Jews.” “The Koran shows us,” said Rantisi, “the truth concerning the sort of people who talk about peace while planning, in fact, the opposite. They’ll take advantage of the hudna to go on building settlements.”

For the sake of “national unity”

The hudna did finally get signed on June 30 by the main Palestinian factions. Israel, to be sure, does not officially recognize it, because from its point of view the sole relevant agreement is the one between itself and the PA. In deference to American pressures, however, it has agreed to accept, for the present, Abu Mazen’s approach: the imposition of calm by means of an internal Palestinian accord.

The latter is formulated in very odd fashion. It is not a unified document, in which Fatah and Hamas find common ground. Instead, each side gives different reasons for taking a three-month break from fighting. Fatah accepts the cease fire, it says, in order to advance its people’s national aims, among which it includes the creation of an independent Palestinian state in all the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, as well as the refugees’ right of return. It mentions the importance of national unity and its respect for the part that Egypt has played. The Hamas formulation is cloudy and convoluted. It agrees to the cease-fire, it says, “because it wishes to unify Palestinian ranks at this dangerous hour, and to preserve the national unity achieved by the Intifada, as a contribution to the national Palestinian dialogue that is now taking shape, and with the aim of blocking the enemy and sharpening our legitimate right to carry on resistance against the Occupation as a strategic choice, until the Zionist Occupation comes to an end in our land, and until we achieve all our legitimate national rights.”

We have before us, then, two proclamations: on the one hand, that of Fatah, aimed toward the international community, in which it voices its desire to continue with the diplomatic approach; on the other hand, that of Hamas, preoccupied with internal needs and vowing to continue the fighting.

Why, then, did Hamas agree to the hudna? The answer is complex.

On the immediate practical level, after the conquest of Iraq, Hamas is caught in pincer-like pressures coming from all its supporters, most notably Saudi Arabia. It is unwilling to stand alone on the battlements, drawing all the fire. Hamas also reasons that like the Oslo Accords, the Road Map will come to naught, and then it will be able to pluck, once more, the political fruits of the failure. Why then should it exhaust its forces now?

These tactical considerations are marginal, however. In attempting to understand Hamas, we must keep a basic fact in mind, one so simple it is often overlooked. By its very nature, Hamas cannot replace the PA. It cannot, that is, become the governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza, for the simple reason that no such authority can survive, given the present balance of forces, except through accommodation with Israel. In the absence of such accommodation, Israel will re-conquer the Territories, dismantling the said authority é as it did in April 2002.

Hamas cannot, of course, reach an accommodation with Israel except by ceasing to be Hamas. As long as a State of Israel exists beside the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas requires someone else, e.g. the PA, to be in charge. Within the framework thus provided, it carries out its own operations. When the PA opts to negotiate with America and Israel, Hamas finds itself in a kind of limbo: it opposes the direction the PA is taking, but it cannot and will not itself assume power.

We can understand, in this light, why the second Intifada provided Hamas with the brief illusion of a Golden Age. Its dilemma appeared resolved: Fatah, the popular force behind the PA, had chosen its path of resistance and martyrdom.

The al-Jazeera interview of April 2001 shows the prevarication. Much time was devoted to the future relations of Hamas with the PA. The interviewer, Ahmed Mansour, on pressing Rantisi, elicited the admission that, in fact, Hamas wants “the establishment of a new Palestinian leadership, whose goal will be, after the collapse of negotiations, to stand united against the Zionist enemy. The method of struggle will be martyrdom.” Mansour pressed further: Would this new leadership replace the PA?

Rantisi: “The PA will take part in this leadership, of course.”

Mansour: “But the PA is already in power. It doesn’t need you!”

Rantisi: “If the suffering continues, the people will likely turn to other leadership options.”

Mansour: “And then you’ll be able to replace the PA!”

The idea, stressed Rantisi, is to establish a common leadership and go to elections. There the people will decide whether to continue on the path of “resistance” or the path of “concessions”. Hamas will be willing to participate only in a leadership that chooses the path of resistance.

Two years later in 2003, interviewed again by al-Jazeera, Rantisi amended this position: “We, my dear brother, will not take part in any government whatsoever. We are in the phase of national liberation. How can we establish a government in the midst of Occupation? The phase is one of resistance, it’s the phase of the gun. It is upon us to make this clear: the enemy will need to pay for his crimes or escape from Palestine as he did from southern Lebanon.”

Thus Hamas wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to have the PA in charge of the Territories during the “phase of the gun,” but it wants to carry on resistance as if there were no PA. The negotiations toward the hudna forced it to make a choice é join the PA in the cease-fire or break from it altogether. In this light, we can understand the curious, backhanded fashion in which Hamas signed on. It attempted to worm out of its dilemma by introducing a new principle into the Palestinian struggle: unity of forces as an end in itself. Here Fatah and the PA have chosen the way of negotiations, which in the view of Hamas means surrender, yet Hamas continues to shelter under the PA umbrella. It is quite acceptable for a guerrilla organization to enter a hudna, provided that its program remains clear. It is quite another matter, however, when the hudna belongs to a Road Map that contradicts its program.

There is also an element of cold cash. Hamas knows where its money comes from. In the interview of April 2001, Mansour asked Rantisi whether Hamas intended to export the resistance, taking anti-American actions abroad é since the US is Israel’s main supporter. He answered quite plainly: “We have a firm position, God willing, to concentrate our resistance in Palestine. Our program lays down the principle that we do not want to hurt any Arab country, and American interests are to be found in most of the Arab states. For our part, we have no interest, at the moment, in waging war on America, because our campaign is directed against the Zionist enemy.”

Thus Hamas is unwilling to replace the failed PA or to topple Arab dictatorships. It doesn’t want to harm or weaken America. Its sole case is with the Zionist enemy, as if this existed in isolation, without the support of foreign might.

If the Road Map fails (as this issue’s editorial predicts), Hamas will likely remain in the limbo it has occupied since its founding: a “spoiler” organization, unwilling and unable to assume real power, bringing misery upon its constituents.

On the other hand, if the Road Map succeeds é or to the degree that it does é Hamas will either have to give up its independent military existence or face the civil war it abhors.

Conspicuous by its absence is a leftist alternative, which would openly challenge the governing authority and oppose the course of surrender, seeking allies elsewhere than in the corrupt Arab regimes or the United States.

In the absence of this alternative, the chief loser is the Palestinian people, caught between two unacceptable choices: the way of surrender or the cult of blood.

Blurb: Hamas, while preening itself as a “liberation force,” is far from that; it is merely a “vengeance force”, moving between political expediency and apocalyptic fantasy.

Blurbs: By its reservoir of suicide bombers, Hamas escalated the conflict out of all proportion to the people’s capacity for absorbing punishment.

Roni Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge magazine.