US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent visit to the region may have weakened the reformist Palestinian government of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and undermined its ability to confront Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups, as Israel and the United States demand.
Israel and the US have repeatedly stated that disarming Hamas is imperative for the new Palestinian government. In light of Powell’s visit, Hamas officials, hard-liners as well as moderates, are now urging Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to think carefully before yielding to Israeli-American dictates.
“I don’t think that the present Palestinian government would have the effrontery to ask the resistance groups to drop their arms and end the resistance,” said Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza. He added defiantly, “We shall not hand over a single firearm. We shall not commit suicide. We shall not be sitting ducks for Israel’s death squads.”
Like other Palestinian resistance leaders, Al-Zahar urged the Palestinian premier to be responsible first and foremost to the Palestinian people.
This is the message the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian resistance groups will communicate to Abu Mazen when they meet in Gaza. The meeting is likely to take place next week following the prime minister’s scheduled talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
However, since it is unlikely that Abu Mazen will make any more progress with Sharon than did Powell, the Palestinian leader may again find himself in a weak bargaining position vis-é-vis resistance leaders. This does not mean, however, that Israel and the United States will reduce their pressure on him to crack down on “terror” groups.
During his visits to Israel, Jericho, Cairo and Jordan, Powell highlighted the Palestinian government’s “obligations” to fight what he termed terrorist organisations while failing to mention Israel’s role in ending the conflict. The US’s blatant bias for Israel’s right-wing government, which was criticised by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, will make it difficult if not impossible for Abu Mazen to do the job expected of him.
First of all, Israeli forces will almost certainly continue killing Palestinians and destroying Palestinian homes and property. With the US presidential elections approaching next year, the Bush administration will be in no position to exert meaningful pressure on Israel to make significant moves to end the crisis, such as withdrawing forces from Palestinian areas to their positions prior to the outbreak of the current Intifada.
In addition, there is a strong element of hypocrisy in the US-Israeli demands of Abu Mazen to take concrete steps to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Indeed, it is preposterous to expect Abu Mazen’s government to succeed where the mighty Israeli army hasn’t despite Israel’s use of massive repression and collective punishment. Israel understands this but nevertheless insists that Abu Mazen deliver the impossible.
Israel may be calculating that sustained pressure on Abu Mazen’s government will increase tension within Palestinian society, which would further weaken the Palestinians and better position Israel to impose its dictates on them.
However, this is unlikely to happen for several reasons. The Palestinian political arena now has many centres of power, unlike during the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), when a power struggle between the PA and Hamas raised the spectre of civil war. Since civil war did not break out then, it is even more unlikely that inter-Palestinian fighting will take place now.
More important, Yasser Arafat remains the leader of Fatah, of which the vast bulk of Palestinian security forces are made and would be reconstructed. This means that Abu Mazen’s government would have only limited ability to launch a sustained campaign against Hamas, even if it wanted to.
Finally, Hamas is as careful as ever to avoid a confrontation with the PA. This week, Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin reiterated the movement’s long-standing position against internal fighting among Palestinians.
Fatah and other organisations encompassed under the PLO umbrella have affirmed the same position, forming what amounts to a Palestinian consensus against the prospect of civil war, words most Palestinians don’t like to hear or use.
Hamas and Fatah, the two most popular and powerful political resistance groups operating in the occupied territories, are not leaving things to chance. The two groups are expected to resume discussions soon either in Gaza or Cairo with the sponsorship of the Egyptian government. The talks will likely focus on achieving a cease-fire with the Israeli occupation army.
Hamas will certainly demand, and Fatah is likely to agree, that any cease-fire on the part of the resistance groups would have to be reciprocated by similar Israeli action, including Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas and the erstwhile PA-run autonomous enclaves.
This stance is backed by Egypt and tacitly supported by the European Union, as expressed earlier this week by Maher and EU security and foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, during their joint press conference in Cairo on 11 May.
If Fatah and Hamas reach such an agreement, the ball will be in Israel’s court. This is what many Palestinians hope for.