What Hamas Could (Not) Deliver In the Uprising

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Overview: 

Had the July Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David resulted in a meaningful solution for the Palestinians, Hamas might have found itself marginalized, at least for the immediate term. Instead, the talks collapsed and the parties went back to square one. Hamas hoped that such a collapse would (re)generate Palestinian support for its alternative to negotiations-resistance until liberation-fortified last May by Hezbollah’s success in southern Lebanon. Hamas planned to encourage and provide leadership for a wide-scale national resistance effort to counter Israel if the Palestinian state was declared on September 13. Indeed, such resistance has occurred, despite the fact that the declaration of a Palestinian state was once again postponed. Hamas’s role in the subsequent intifada, however, is far more marginal than the movement had hoped.

Although the intifada matched perfectly what Hamas wanted, it has exposed a mix of realities, not all of which are favorable to the movement. In the light of this intifada, Hamas is once again faced with the formidable question of whether or not it can really deliver a meaningful alternative in a Palestinian space totally occupied by the Palestinian Authority (PA), and within a regional and international environment that religiously embraces the Oslo agreements.

A Marginalized Hamas:

The first of four key realities to confront Hamas as a result of this uprising is that the PA not only controls the peace process, but is also capable of participating in a resistance project, which Hamas believed was an exclusive enterprise of their movement. The leading force of the current intifada is Fatah, the PA’s de facto party, and not Hamas. Fatah’s armed groups and street leaders do not hesitate to highlight this fact.

Other factors are also in play: Fatah outnumbers the armed cells of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and has the privilege of security backup from the PA. Overnight, Hamas and other opposition factions faced the loss of their monopoly over the call for armed resistance. Moreover, when such a call became reality in a national resistance movement, it was hijacked by the PA. The PA employed the mass media, mainly the national television that falls under its full control, to steer the intifada and amass support for the now combined PA and grassroots project. In brief, the PA took the lead in the intifada, and Hamas and others could only follow.

Crackdown on Hamas:

The second dynamic that was exposed overtly by the intifada is the efficiency of the continuous PA crackdowns on Hamas over the past few years. The suffering Hamas encountered as a result continues to surface as the intifada persists. The wounded movement could not respond effectively to calls from the public to strike back, nor could it hide its accumulated losses any longer. This reality demonstrates the success of the security coordination between Israel, the PA, the CIA, and sometimes Jordan against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. After years of sophisticated joint work targeting military leaders by assassination or detention, dismantling their cells, infiltrating their structures by collaborators, applying heavy surveillance, destroying the social infrastructure surrounding them, and other tactics, Hamas’s military wing was turned into a paralyzed lion. The infrequent, small-scale attacks that Hamas has launched recently are minor in comparison to their activities between 1994 and 1996.

One of the ironies of the PA-Hamas rivalry is that some PA officials cynically (and privately) criticize Hamas’s “restraint” from carrying out armed attacks against Israel at this needy time. In response, Hamas activists quickly and publicly point out that it was the PA that compromised them. Some Hamas figures try to disguise their movement’s weakened ability to carry out armed attacks by saying that their current policy is a conscious decision intended to deprive Israel from using the casualties of attacks in the diplomatic battle. Yet in truth, Hamas cannot deliver now because it was badly hit. Since the PA’s inception in 1994, a significant success has been its fight against Hamas.

Limits on Outside Support:

The third factor observed in recent months is the limitation on transforming outside support into political gains for Palestinians, a frustrating reality considering Hamas’s central idea about the role of Arab and Islamic support. This factor represents for Hamas and for Palestinians at large the worst of all realities.

Despite the scale of popular support in many Arab and Muslim countries, little materialized on the ground. All the gatherings of volunteer groups, charity organizations, and political party coalitions have hardly touched the course of events in Palestine. The stark dichotomy between the strong and sentimental popular support in the street, and the carefully calculated statements at the top level of Arab and Muslim diplomacy, reveals the degree of the impermeability of Arab and Muslim regimes to their public.

Perhaps there is one concrete message the Arab and Muslim street has sent to the engineers of the peace process: Any sustainable formula regarding Palestine should take into account the bottled up anger in those societies, especially regarding Jerusalem. Any imposition of a solution, even if the Palestinian leadership accepts it, should pass a minimum threshold of Arab and Muslim acceptance. If not, looming anger, frustration, and the deep sense of humiliation experienced by the public will provide the fertile soil for future wars, not peace, in the region.

Opposition Groups:

A re-emerging fourth issue is the weakness of other Palestinian opposition factions. Hamas has always tried, without great success, to build credible relationships with primarily secular factions that oppose the PA. Since the 1991 Madrid Conference, the collective goal was to challenge the Palestine Liberation Organization’s peace option. A fragile alliance came to life that year and since then has been modified several times. Hamas and other factions contented themselves simply with the warmth of their agreement to verbally condemn the Oslo track and its derivatives.

Hamas now faces the fact that it is impossible for it to continue hiding behind the fragile opposition coalition as long as no practical alternative is presented by this coalition. Hamas is the major force in the opposition, and for a while it put forth a serious effort to bring this opposition to its feet. At junctures where stakes are high, however, Hamas finds itself on its own. This intifada is no exception.

A Shifting Approach:

Against this onslaught of realities, the pragmatic voices from within Hamas press the movement to adopt an alternative. They contend that during the final status negotiations, sooner or later Hamas’s aim must be to exert continuous pressure on the PA to limit its expected concessions by manipulating the street. If Hamas simply isolates itself, does not closely follow the details of the negotiations, and remains content in carrying out scattered armed explosions here and there as an expression of its posture of rejection, it will not present anything new that will affect the core of the events.

The larger issues that fill the agenda of the final status negotiations will decide the destiny of Palestine and the Palestinians in the coming years. If the Palestinian public does not put forth effective opposition, these issues will be decided in a manner that will not be in Palestinian interests.

The public is frightened of the response to armed attacks by Hamas, and it is hesitant to become involved in broad opposition out of fear of falling between the anvil of Hamas’s operations and the fierce repressive hammer of the Palestinian and Israeli authorities. Accordingly, engaging the Palestinian public-as well as the communities in exile and other supporters-in an effective manner requires a new discourse and new policies. The great achievement of the current intifada lies exactly at this point: involving the wider public in the political and confrontational effort at a national level, while exerting pressure on the PA to not submit further concessions to Israel. Although Hamas is not a primary leader of this intifada, its ideas of resistance play a crucial role.

Mr. Khaled Hroub is the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Institute for Palestine Studies: 2000).

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