Bassam Jarrar, a leading Islamist thinker in the Occupied Territories, is a teacher of Islamic studies at UNRWA’s Teacher Training Center in Ramallah in the West Bank and a member of the board of trustees of the Union of Islamic Scholars. He was among the 415 Palestinians expelled by Israel in December 1992 for alleged membership in the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.
There have been two prevailing views on the role of Hamas in the coming period. For some, it is in the vanguard of a “rejectionist” Palestinian bloc bent on wrecking the PLO-Israeli Declaration of Principles, while others believe the renewed political legitimacy and economic sustenance autonomy will supposedly confer on the PLO will marginalize groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
One would do better to listen to what Islamist leaders are actually saying, and to analyze events on the ground. Since Oslo, Hamas representatives have repeatedly said that they do not want conflict with the nascent Palestinian Authority, but their peace will come with a price — namely, influence on the social and cultural fronts via the schools, mosques and law.
This interview was conducted in March. Since then, events have demonstrated that Palestinian Islamists are fully cognizant of the new realities raised by self-rule, and for the politics it augurs. In April, Hamas offered a “ceasefire with the occupation” if Israel withdrew to its 1967 borders, dismantled all settlements and permitted international observers to be stationed along the Green Line. One week later, Hamas’ and Fatah’s military wings in Gaza signed a pact outlawing all violence between them and placing a moratorium on the vexing issue of collaborator killings. And in May, leading Hamas figures let it be known that they were considering the idea of an “Islamist political party” and that the “resistance to occupation” need not be by “armed struggle alone,” but also by “words, opinions and unifying the people.” People here regard these moves as extremely important, not just because they imply Hamas’ de facto recognition of Israel, but equally because they suggest Hamas’ metamorphosis from a socio-military movement into the loyal political opposition of the new Palestinian polity. What Hamas will want in return for this compromise is currently the subject of a fierce debate within Palestinian Islamism. Jarrar, an informed and significant voice in that movement, here spells out some key aspects of Palestinian political struggle in the new era.
How would you characterize the Islamists’ attitude toward the interim period of Palestinian self-rule, particularly their relations with the new Palestinian Authority? You said recently that because the Islamist movement will form the “main opposition” to self-rule, “this will lead to interaction with the transitional authority.” What do you mean?
Although the Islamic movement rejects the Declaration of Principles, it has no interest in defeating it by force. It views its role as one of trying to convince Palestinians of the agreement’s shortcomings, and of dealing with its negative aspects on both the Arab and Islamic levels. But it does not seek confrontation with the transitional authority, because confrontations will not promote these objectives.
Dialogue, however, depends ultimately on the attitude of the authority. If elections for the Palestinian municipalities and professional associations are held in a democratic way, then this will promote a rapprochement between the opposition and the authority. If the opposition is denied its democratic rights, there will be tension.
Similarly, in the field of education, if the new school authorities try to falsify certain aspects of Palestinian history, there will be conflicts. Islamists want a curriculum that is based on Arab and Islamic civilization, not one that is adulterated by foreign influences. I am talking here of the cultural curriculum rather that the scientific curriculum. If, on the other hand, the authorities take cognizance of these concerns, then again, there is room for reconciliation.
Finally, there is the issue of personal status [family] law. This is particularly important for Islamists because in most Arab countries this is explicitly based on shari‘a law. It is not necessary for me here to say what I think the personal status law should be. This is a matter for the Palestinian ‘ulama’. But if the authorities deal with the law in a subjective way, this could lead to violations of the shari’a and so to infringements of our human rights as Muslims. We are not against innovation (ijtihad) in law, but we cannot compromise on rights that are guaranteed by the shari‘a.
If there were cooperation over issues like these, wouldn’t the Islamists be participating in self-rule?
No. There is a distinction between the Islamists’ attitude toward the transitional authority and its attitude toward the peace process. “Interaction” refers to the relationships that the Islamists want to obtain between the Palestinian groups during the transitional period. Let me repeat: they have no interest in fighting the Palestinian Authority. They do, however, have an interest in fighting the Israeli occupation. Were, say, the Islamists to stand in the self-rule election, this distinction would be lost and would create confusion among their supporters.
Firstly, from the Islamists’ point of view, participation in self-rule gives legitimacy to the peace process. Supposing the Islamists won the election. They would then be in the position of negotiating with the Israelis on the basis of the Oslo accords. They would have to recognize the legitimacy of the agreement even though they reject it! For this reason the Islamists distinguish between elections for the municipalities and associations, etc., where they would participate, and elections for the autonomy born of the Declaration, where they wouldn’t.
Secondly, and especially after [the massacre in] Hebron, the Islamists believe that the present atmosphere in the occupied territories is hardly conducive to democracy. Palestinians thus feel obliged to participate in the autonomy for the negative reason of wanting to be rid of this atmosphere. They are like a man in a tunnel: He is given a “choice” to leave the tunnel or wait for the train to kill him. Of course, he will leave, but this is hardly independence.
Thirdly, should the Islamists participate in self-rule elections, then naturally their supporters would vote for them. In effect 90 percent of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would then become involved in the autonomy in some way, lending the Declaration a credibility it otherwise would not have.
I still don’t see how the Islamists can wield legislative influence without participation in the self-rule institutions. It is not going to be professional associations or the municipalities that will draw up school curricula or law….
But the transitional authority will have to take cognizance of what the associations and municipalities are saying — if, that is, it wants to build an atmosphere of genuine national consensus during the interim period.
Under what conditions would the Islamist movement, and particularly Hamas, agree to a cessation of the armed struggle against Israel? For example, last October, Hamas’ spiritual guide, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is reported to have said that if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, then Hamas would be prepared to declare a ceasefire with it.
Yes, he did say that. But remember, for Hamas the 1967 borders are no more legitimate than the“borders” of Gaza and Jericho, so it would be a ceasefire and not peace, and certainly not a recognition of Israel. In my opinion, to speculate now about what would be the possible conditions of an armistice with Israel is futile. In any case, the only possible ceasefire would be one declared unilaterally by the Islamists. It certainly won’t arise out of negotiations with the Israelis. The Islamic movement refuses, and has always refused, to be hemmed in by conditions dictated by the enemy. It will cease the armed struggle when it sees it to be in its best interest to do so. In other words, it will take the initiative.
The same logic applies to the Islamic movement’s relations with the transitional authority or the PLO. While they don’t seek conflict with the authority, this doesn’t mean that the PLO has the right to lay down conditions about, say, Hamas’ military operations against the occupation. This is a decision solely for Hamas.
Now for sure, the main bone of contention between the Islamists and the PLO is likely to be this issue of armed struggle during the transitional period. And if, for instance, Hamas launched an attack against settlers or soldiers in Ramallah or Gaza during the autonomy, this would undoubtedly cause problems for the PLO leadership. But what if Hamas were to hit targets in Tel Aviv or the Israeli embassy in Cairo? What has the PLO to do with the protection of Tel Aviv or Cairo?
Does the Islamist movement want to reform the PLO or does it want to stand as a political alternative to it?
The Islamic movement is very concerned about the current state of the PLO. For example, after Oslo, some Palestinian factions sought the disintegration of the PLO. The Islamists, however, insisted on the preservation of the PLO. The PLO has a long history of struggle and therefore of legitimacy in Palestinian eyes, and there is currently no real alternative to it. Thus it would not be in the Palestinian interest — including the interest of Palestinian Islamists — to have it fall apart.
The Islamic movement’s position is quite clear: It wants a national dialogue between all national and Islamic forces based on democratic reform of the PLO and its decision-making structures. If, however, the PLO disintegrates because of the catastrophic political decisions its leadership has made — specifically, its acceptance of Oslo — then this is due to those decisions. The blame cannot be laid at the door of the Islamists. But if it does disintegrate, this does not mean that there is a political vacuum. The Islamic movement is there because it exists independently of the PLO, and is an integral part of Palestinian political culture.