Everyone wants democracy in the Middle East except when it comes to Palestine, divided since 2007 between Fatah (nominally in charge in the West Bank), and Hamas (designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and many other countries, in charge of Gaza). The Arab Awakening and changing political alignments brought Egypt into the act last May, when it pressed Hamas and Fatah to reconcile. For months afterward the effort stalled, in part because of intense pressure on Fatah from the United States, Israel and others not to make a deal with Hamas until it renounced its official policy of violent destruction of Israel.
While Fatah had then been the reluctant partner to reconciliation, it became clear to me in a recent trip to Gaza that the equation has changed: Fatah is eager to make a deal and Hamas is playing hard to get. Why?
Hamas is stronger now, Fatah is relatively weaker and both are ready to defy the United States and Israel. “The US told [Palestinian Authority president and Fatah leader] Abu Mazen to choose between the US and Hamas. But he now knows there is no hope that Israel will give him anything in the years to come,” said Huda Naim Naim, a member of the Hamas politburo and the Palestinian Legislative Council.
“Hamas is stronger now due to Bibi [Netanyahu], and in the wake of the Shalit deal, is more popular,” said Fatah official Husam Zomlot, referring to the Israeli prime minister’s hard line in negotiations and the recent agreement to exchange some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. According to most of the people I spoke to, both sides, for their separate reasons, have signaled that they are ready to accept the results of elections, win or lose.
The most difficult and contentious unification issue is the integration of security forces—neither side wants to turn over its guns to the other. But Hamas has also raised new “price tags,” such as the location of a unity government, which some officials suggested should be based in Gaza and not in Ramallah, which would significantly empower Hamas.
Since the shootout between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, when Hamas seized power in Gaza after many months of clashes between the two factions following Hamas’s January 2006 victory in parliamentary elections, Fatah officials have rarely, until quite recently, come to Gaza. One recent visitor, Zomlot, was pleasantly surprised that he had been in Gaza for a week and Hamas had not stormed his offices. “They are now using soft power because they want to show good will,” hetold me, adding, “They have implanted fear for so long that the people know the consequences of opposing them—they know that if they oppose Hamas, they will be crushed.”
There’s another reason Gaza is attractive as a base: Fatah officials based in Ramallah can’t go abroad or come home without Israel’s approval (which Israel usually gives, but still). Hamas officials in Gaza, however, can now go to Egypt pretty easily whether Israel likes it or not and, from there, to any country in the world that will let them in (which remains a problem “because Hamas is on a blacklist,” said Naim, who was waiting for permission to travel to Tunisia). In light of the Arab Awakening and the probable entry of Islamists into many Arab governments, Hamasniks expect to be on fewer blacklists. “For Hamas, reconciliation will legalize its past, normalize it and give it protection. The US will speak to the [Muslim] Brotherhood [in Egypt], and once Hamas is in the Parliament, the US will speak to Hamas too,” said Omar Shaban of the Gaza-based think tank PalThink, who is attempting to form a secular democratic party in Gaza.
Being able to travel is tantalizing to the Hamas officials I spoke to. “I remember the day—before ’67—when I used to be able to take a train from Cairo to Gaza. It was cheap—90 piasters. People used to go by car. Maybe that day will come again,” said Mahmoud al-Zahhar, a co-founder of Hamas and a current politburo member.
“In two or three years, we will be able to drive from Gaza to Morocco. The era of the Arab people has started. We speak the same language, we are the same religion,” said Mohammad Al-Agha, Hamas minister of agriculture. Economically, also, the Gaza base presents opportunities. “The West Bank is linked only to Israel, whereas Gaza has managed to cut its cord with Israel and re-establish itself with other markets,” said Fatah’s Zomlot.
Some officials from Fatah and Hamas alike implied that in a reconciliation deal, the Palestinian Authority itself should be dissolved—something Israel’s government itself might deliver if it continues to withhold the transfer of customs revenues. Fatah official Amal Tawofeeq Hamd, deputy secretary of the Revolutionary Council of the PLO, is no Hamas fan; she has often warned that power was corrupting its founding principles. But even she was harshly critical of the Palestinian Authority. “The PA failed in its task to serve the political project,” she said, “so what use is there for the PA?” While all parties are treating the idea of dissolving the PA as mere polemic for now, it would not be good for Israel should it actually occur; who then would administer the Palestinian areas of the West Bank? But there’s no getting around the fact that the PA’s power has waned. Even Abu Mazen’s recent attempt to reverse the decline with his
campaign for statehood at the UN has produced few concrete results so far, and it has brought only derision from Hamas. “It is farcical to declare a state when you are under occupation,” said Yahya Moussa a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Worse news: Reconciliation will not bring abolition of the militias, those who fire rockets into Israel (including Qassam, the armed wing of Hamas, as well as Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah, which has been quiescent for some time).
While many Hamas officials say they are committed to a mutual ceasefire and are, to some extent, now restraining Islamic Jihad and others, they believe they drove Israel out of Gaza in 2005 and 2009 on account of their armed resistance, and there is no possibility that Qassam will now be banned. “It will take a long time to deal with these militias. After elections, security forces need to be unified but…armed resistance [remains] a strategic option,” said even the Western-oriented Fatah official Zomlot.
I told Zahhar, a former hardliner and a now proponent of reconciliation and elections, “If you say ‘Hamas’ to most Americans, they will not think the beautiful Islam you describe; they will think: rockets and killing civilians.” He responded, “We tried all peaceful methods and we failed. Egyptians and Libyans and Tunisians will not accept the status quo, and neither will we. When we use violence, they say, ‘Stop and we will negotiate.’ Then we stop, but they don’t negotiate. They keep killing us.” (During the two weeks I was in the region, eight rockets were fired into southern Israel from Gaza, causing injury to one foreign worker, and, according to a UN report, Israeli airstrikes and shelling launched in response to the firing of rockets killed five Palestinians in Gaza, of whom two were civilians, with fifteen others injured.)
And I asked Hamas official Moussa, “How can you succeed with arms against Israel? Isn’t nonviolence the only way to win your struggle against an adversary that is so strong?” Heanswered, “If everyone comes at the elephant with pins, the elephant will die. Nonviolence can work in an internal struggle but not a national liberation struggle against guns and tanks.” Is this merely the public-consumption version? Maybe. Close observers like veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin claim that in the recent round of Fatah-Hamas talks in Cairo, Hamas agreed to accept the Fatah formulation “nonviolent popular resistance against Israel” rather than active violent aggression—but Hamas denies it. And yet Moussa, who calls himself an “internal critic of Hamas,” said, “I believe in saving the Jews, not destroying them, with one state in which everyone would live together in equality and dignity.”
Hamas’s commitment to armed struggle is lip service for at least some of its senior leadership. A cease-fire of sorts is holding for now, and challengers from Islamic Jihad and others are being restrained. But, like Fatah in the West Bank, Hamas is going to have to see some results from its policing of the border if it is to be encouraged to do more of it. Israeli and US opposition to reconciliation is counterproductive.