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Hamas and the Quest for Middle East Peace


Realizing that there is no realistic prospect for peace between Israel and Palestine unless the Palestinian factions can unite behind one common negotiating position, the Egyptian government planned to host a conference at the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Shaikh today in an attempt to unite no fewer than 13 Palestinian factions.

The cleavage between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority on the West Bank and de facto Hamas control of Gaza, most observers would agree is the most difficult to bridge. The draft Egyptian plan sought to affect reconciliation between the two warring Palestinian factions by forming a Palestinian unity government, reforming the security services and the holding of early elections. Early indications initially pointed out that both sides were ready for such an intervention on the part of the Egyptians. Hamas under Ismail Haniya demonstrated their goodwill towards their political rivals by releasing 17 Fatah prisoners who had been imprisoned on the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile Fatah seemed to have also reciprocated this goodwill on the part of Hamas when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed his intelligence chief, Tawfiq al-Tirawi and replaced him with his deputy Brigadier Mohamed Zeeb Mansouri. Whilst there was no official explanation for this game of musical chairs, some have speculated this that was a key Hamas demand to affect reconciliation between the two factions. In the past, Hamas has repeatedly called on Abbas to remove Al-Tirawi for his strong opposition to its presence on the West Bank.

Both these developments were positive in that an environment conducive for reconciliation was being created. At the same time, however, there were also negative signals emanating from Hamas which pointed towards the hardening of attitudes amongst sectors within Hamas towards Fatah. In October, for instance, there were calls from Hamas for Abbas to step aside after his term officially ends on January 8. Next, Hamas expressed reservations on the Egyptian plan on two counts - provisions for the reform of the security services and is particularly averse to holding early elections. Finally, Hamas threatened to boycott the meeting. This resulted in Cairo "postponing" the talks.

To understand the reasons for the ambivalence of Hamas on reconciliation with Fatah we need to examine the internal political divisions within Hamas which resulted from its January, 2006 electoral victory over Fatah. In the process, Hamas took control of a political entity, the Palestinian Authority, which was the creation of the Oslo Accords that it rejected. As such Hamas' participation, let alone victory in the election signified a de facto recognition of Israel and a two-state peace deal that was the very basis of the Oslo Peace Accords. This de facto recognition of the state of Israel became more explicit with the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in June. Despite this, however, Hamas' hardliners like Mahmoud Zahar noted that Hamas would never recognize Israel.

Following their electoral victory, the contradictions within Hamas rapidly multiplied and then coalesced around three factions within the organization. The first one was led by Ismail Haniya, which realized that Hamas would need to be more pragmatic as a governing party than when it was in opposition. Here they took their cue from Hamas-controlled municipalities like Qalqilya which were compelled to develop working relationships with local Israeli municipalities if it wanted to ensure continuous water and electricity supplies to its inhabitants. Haniya's faction was also aware that the Palestinian Authority was heavily dependent upon aid from the United States and the European Union. Washington, alone, had spent more than US $1.7 billion to combat poverty, improve infrastructure and promote good governance in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Haniya's faction of Hamas realized that all governance entail compromise and therefore was prepared to affect a rapprochement with Fatah, Israel and the West. Ahmed Youssef, a senior political adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya sent a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice saying, "Many people make the mistake of presuming we have some ideological aversion to making peace. Quite the opposite, we have consistently offered dialogue with the US and the EU to try and resolve the very issues that you were trying to deal with in Annapolis." Youssef has also stated: "Hamas proposes a long-term truce during which the Israeli and Palestinian peoples can try to negotiate a lasting peace".

Haniya also wanted to reach a deal with Israel about Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas fighters in June 2006. This deal however was torpedoed by Khaled Meshal, the Head of Hamas' Politburo who lives in exile in Damascus. Meshal and the people close to him constitute the second faction within Hamas. Ideologically they stand between Haniya's pragmatic approach and the hardliners.

This hardline faction is led by former foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar, head of the military wing, Ahmad Jabari, and former Interior Minister Said Siyam. This faction is pressing for an escalation of aggression against both Fatah and Israel. Reliant as it is on Iranian funding, this faction is independent of both Haniya and Meshal. According to some, this hardline faction is now in control of Hamas. Indeed some news reports suggest that Haniya controls, at most, no more than 30 percent of Hamas' fighting forces -- even among his own Executive Force!

For third parties, like Egypt, attempting to negotiate peace it makes it extremely difficult to grasp which faction of Hamas to speak to. Given the Iranian influence over the ascendant Hamas faction; it might mean that intra-Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian prospects for peace may also be linked to issues like the Iran nuclear debate and sanctions against Tehran. Under these circumstances, it is understandable why Hamas was reluctant to enter the Sharm-el-Shaikh talks brokered by Egypt. After all, they do not speak with one voice and the growing polarization between the different Hamas factions will merely increase.

But this is only one reason for the reluctance on the part of Hamas to participate in the talks. There is another more pressing reason why Hamas would prefer not to have early elections and this relates, in particular, to developments in the West Bank under Fatah's leadership. Following their electoral defeat, Fatah engaged in a period of critical introspection. It realized that for peace to be sustainable it would need to provide positive benefits to ordinary Palestinians. In this regard, consider the following statistics:

  • 74 to 83% of Palestinians live below the poverty line

  • Unemployment reached 23,6% in 2007compared to 14,1% in 2000 and 11,8% in 1999

  • The average hourly pay of a semi-skilled Palestinian worker was less than $ 1,50, compared to $9,81 in Israel

In other words, peace needs to provide jobs, clinics, and food security to the ordinary Palestinian. To this effect, the Paris conference of mid-December 2007 got a number of donors to pledge $7,5 billion for state-building and humanitarian aid to Palestine. This money is essential for the success of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's three-year plan to reform the government, build new institutions and develop the economy, particularly in the areas of planning and construction, education, transportation and health. Fayyad's economic reform has also included the implementation of generous tax cuts to businesses from 20% down to 15%. As a result, certain Palestinian business sectors in the West Bank have started to slowly recover. As a result, Palestinian confidence in Fatah's ability to govern is slowly being restored. "I believe the country is on the right track and I feel very optimistic for the future," said Bassim Khoury, Chairman of the Palestinian Federation of Industries in Ramallah and General Manager of Pharmacare PLC, the third largest Palestinian Pharmaceutical Company. In other words, at a time when Hamas under the control of the hardliners continue to define themselves by what they are against, Fatah is defining themselves by what they are for.

These then represent the real reasons for Hamas' boycott of the Egyptian-brokered talks. Whilst they make sense for Hamas' as an organization, they make little sense for Palestinians. A united Palestinian position is imperative if the peace process is to move forward. Hamas owes it to all Palestinians to put their house in order and to end the incessant factionalism. Hamas owes it to all Palestinians to then continue a dialogue with all Palestinian factions to develop a common action plan to realize the dream of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.

Hussein Solomon

Professor Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Sciences, where he is also Director of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS). Currently he is also Nelson Mandela Chair in African Studies at Jawahrlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. Originally published in Bulletin #74/2008 of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) of the University of Pretoria. Reproduced by permission.

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Replies: 2 comments

Hussein Solomon's analysis is verbose and misleading. Hamas never acknowledged Israel and no amount of obfuscation alters that fact. Shalit was not "captured" by Hamas "fighters". Shalit was kidnapped by jihadist terrorists: he is a hostage. A terrorist organisation has no legal right to capture anyone. Hostage taking to exchange for prisoners legally held by a state violates human rights law.

Posted by Paul Winter @ 11/11/2008 01:42 PM CST

In response to your comment, Paul Winters, is the collective punishment imposed by Israel on the Gazan Palestinians not also in violation of international law? Both sides need to be examined objectively here if we are to move forward and progress toward peace.

Posted by Britney @ 11/16/2008 09:14 AM CST

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