When Osama bin Laden evoked the Palestinian cause in his widely viewed statement October 7, he split Palestinians between those who appreciated the support and those who were horrified by the association. At the same time, the new world “coalition against terror” has deployed the Palestinian Authority (PA) to smother the embers of Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. This PA suppression is destined to either end the uprising — or make it much more unpredictable and lethal.

Immediately after the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Yasser Arafat knew what was required of him. He swiftly called a ceasefire and did all in his power to assure its implementation. He visited devastated Rafah for the first time since the start of the uprising. There he heard requests for relief from the Israeli military hardware surrounding Rafah on all sides, and the economic hardship of the Israeli closure on the Gaza Strip. “Anything you want,” Arafat reportedly told local leaders. “Just give this ceasefire a chance.”

Days later, US pressure finally brokered a meeting between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. That meeting sealed a several-step plan toward substantive negotiations: Israel was to lift its economic siege, while Palestinians would return to security coordination with Israel.

Testing Muddy Waters

For the most part, the Palestinian side of the plan worked. Once again Arafat demonstrated that in most places in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he was still able to rally his security services. In Beit Jala and Rafah, where Fatah militants proved more resistant to the ceasefire demand, Arafat ordered a change in the local governing bodies.

Arafat’s will held, despite Israel’s foot-dragging on lifting the closure and heavy Israeli raids that took the lives of some 20 Palestinians in two weeks. Perhaps most significant were reports that the Islamic resistance movement Hamas had quietly agreed to stand down. Spokespeople denied a decision, but the fact was that Hamas did not carry out a single strike after the attacks on the United States — until October 2, 2001.

On that evening, two young Palestinians broke through the security perimeter of Alei Sinai settlement in the northern Gaza Strip, shooting to death two young Israelis, including a soldier, before being killed themselves. With this attack inside the Occupied Territories, Hamas seemed to be testing the muddy waters. Would it be allowed to continue certain kinds of operations?

“This settlement is not populated by civilians,” said Hamas spokesperson Mahmoud Zahar, making his case. “They are settlers carrying weapons. We have the right to attack the soldiers and what they call armed civilians, in addition to all of the Zionist people on our occupied land.” But the PA condemned the operation. “President Arafat has issued clear instructions that should be honored by everybody regardless of his affiliations,” negotiator Hasan Asfour told Abu Dhabi satellite TV. “Any offender should be treated according to Palestinian law.” On October 7, Hamas and Islamic Jihad told al-Ayyam newspaper that Palestinian security services had arrested Abbas Sayyed, 36, a Tulkarm Hamas official, and Anas Shreiteh, 23, a Nablus Jihad activist. Others were interrogated and detained.

No Going Back

Still, Hamas leaders were not convinced that the PA would return to brutal crackdowns on the opposition. The night of the arrests, Ghazi Hamad, editor of Hamas newspaper al-Risala, explained: “There is a kind of open dialogue. No one is ready to defeat the other or to put the knife in the back of the other. Arafat is not ready now to carry out collective arrests against Hamas and Hamas is not ready now to exert more pressure or to put the Authority in the corner. If you ask if this has deep roots or not, if with a new political agreement there will be a new crackdown or a gap between Hamas and the Authority, this will depend on the position of both of them. Will we go back to the past where some think to destroy the others? [The answer is] no.”

Hamad said that Hamas calculations were based on four factors. First, he evoked long-standing Hamas policy never to take up arms against the PA, even if that means enduring detention and repression. Because many Fatah activists were opposed to a renewal of Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation, Hamad believed it would be difficult to implement the kind of mass political arrests that prevailed in the pre-intifada period. That same night in Rafah, a Fatah member had pointed out the blackened police station and intelligence offices where Palestinians rioted in opposition to the meeting between Arafat and Peres. “The police didn’t do anything,” he shrugged. “What could they do?” Third, he cited the “more open-minded” worldview of Hamas, as compared with Islamic Jihad, for example.

According to Hamad, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are quite “worried” about Israeli pressure to put the two groups on the list of terrorist organizations targeted by the US-led coalition. While he notes that the Israeli military was unable to eradicate Hamas even when it occupied every inch of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a concerted world effort to shut down Hamas and Jihad financial and charitable institutions could hurt the factions considerably. Further, Hamad explained, the cost of US pressure in this direction would ravage Palestinian political relationships. “This recommendation would be very, very difficult for Arafat to accept because it will split Palestinian society,” Hamad avowed. “Is he ready to crack down on Palestinian society, to crack down on Palestinian unity? Arafat needs Hamas and Islamic Jihad to support him against the Israeli occupation.”

Fears and Sensitivities

That was the world before October 8. On that day, over 1,000 demonstrators, most of them students, set out from the Islamic University to protest the previous night’s US bombing of Afghanistan. Five hundred meters from the university, Palestinian police in riot gear met the crowd. The students threw rocks, while the police fired tear gas and live ammunition. At least three were killed. It was the first time since November 1994, when 14 were killed at the Palestine Mosque, that Palestinian police had opened fire with live ammunition on a Hamas-led rally. Police orders, apparently, had come from the highest level of the PA.

Still, the Hamas leadership responded mildly. Mahmoud Zahar defended the demonstrators, but then smoothed over the suggestion of internal dispute. “Why is it important to get a license, if the demonstration was under control until it was attacked? Yesterday’s incidents reflect a split in the Palestinian position,” he admitted. “It has had some effect, but this can be overcome by an effective investigative committee that points to the perpetrators.” For the most part, it appears that the Hamas leadership — in part fearful of becoming a world target, in part sensitive to the PA’s dilemma — will not allow itself to become the source of intra-Palestinian friction by physically challenging the Authority or carrying out dramatic attacks inside Israel. Who then will guide the persistent desire of the Palestinian people to resist militarily the Israeli occupation?

Public Relations

On October 7, the first night of the US strikes on Afghanistan, bin Laden held forth in a way designed to play on Palestinian and Arab emotions. “I swear by Almighty God who raised the heavens without pillars that neither the United States nor he who lives in the United States will enjoy security before we can see it as a reality in Palestine.”

The PA seemed torn in its response, and did not issue an official statement on the matter. “We should not be an excuse for anybody,” Minister of Planning Nabil Shaath told al-Jazeera. “We are a just cause. We do not want to bear the responsibility of connecting our cause with bin Laden’s acts [sic] in the United States.” Clearly, Palestinian officials did not want to make the mistake of 1990, when Palestinians backed Iraq in the Gulf war, losing diplomatic support and funding from the Gulf and Arab states. The Palestinian leadership was also acutely aware of the significant public relations damage done by footage of Palestinians celebrating the attacks in the US. In the ensuing days, the PA bent over backwards to squelch pro-bin Laden or even anti-American demonstrations. Since September 11, the tapes and film of foreign and local reporters witnessing such unrest have been confiscated more often than previously.

The secular Fatah-based reaction to bin Laden was one of distaste. These statements did not question bin Laden’s guilt nor the American campaign against the Taliban, and downplayed Palestinian anti-American sentiment. They also blamed sentiment in this direction upon Hamas provocateurs. “When Osama bin Laden realizes that he should tie his anti-American or anti-Western attitudes and acts of terror with the Palestinian issue, he wants to give it legitimacy,” said Bethlehem University professor Manuel Hassassian. “And since people are helpless in the region, of course they become irrational in their behavior. So they fell into the trap that bin Laden is another hope for them. The Muslims who went into the street [in Gaza City] were basically Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others. Those who were on the street represented what we call the political opposition. To Arafat, that’s number one, because they are aware of Arafat’s policy…as far as the ceasefire. So it was very normal for any government to go to the streets and to quell the riot.” (In fact, Hamas has issued no communique concerning bin Laden’s statement, and like the PA came out opposed to “violence against innocent civilians” regarding the New York and Washington attacks. The Hamas leadership has not exploited the opportunity at hand.)

These rhetorical efforts aimed to put Palestinians on the right side of a line drawn in the sand. If, as George W. Bush put it, “You are either with us or with the terrorists,” the official line was that Palestinians are with the United States. Subsequently, Arafat thanked Bush for his announcement that the US administration supported a Palestinian state. The PA is counting on the US, once it finishes with its war, to get around to their grievances against Israel.

A Psychic Pull?

But there is another view of bin Laden, one much more popular and much less welcome to Western ears. This view contends first that bin Laden could not have carried out the attacks in the US (there are a good many ideas of who might have). Bin Laden’s mention of the Palestinian cause is proof that the cause is just and that the US has now commenced a “crusade” against Islam and Arabs. Not surprisingly, this view is not secular, although not necessarily devout.

“When the Taliban asked for evidence and said that they would try him [bin Laden], why didn’t [Bush] agree? We have past experiences with the lies of America,” says Sheikh Bassam Jarrar. “The Arab and Islamic worlds realize that the dictatorships present today exist because of the support and intervention of Western regimes. This is why there was no sympathy among these people for what happened in America. Even if people said they were against the strikes, this was just talk,” promises Jarrar, sitting in the library of his publishing house in al-Bireh.

While Jarrar’s view that Palestinians feel no sympathy at all for Americans runs to the extreme, so does the over-empathy projected by the Palestinian Authority. For Palestinians, the position with the greater psychic pull of truth is Jarrar’s. So long abandoned by the West, the Palestinian public is not suddenly enchanted now. As al-Hayat al-Jadida editor Hafiz al-Barghouthi noted, this tension is a battle of perspective that could prove fatal to the Palestinian cause. Not so long ago, he reminded his readers on October 9, leftist Palestinians supported the communist regime in Kabul, while right-wing Palestinians fought alongside the US-backed mujahideen. “[R]ight now, we are divided among ourselves between bin Laden and Bush. We commenced fighting against each other assuming that some of us would gain God’s heaven and the others would gain the heaven of the US. But what is hidden from view in both cases is an American hell in this world and the hell of God after death if we do not stop this internal dispute.”

Fault Lines

It is not surprising that the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and the US “war on terrorism,” bring into opposition Palestinian worldviews. How may those worldviews play out in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? The PA is placing its bets on the US. That decision means doing everything possible to instill calm in the territories. It also means convincing or willing Hamas, Islamic Jihad and now the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to keep their counsel. After the PFLP assassinated Israeli minister Rehavam Ze’evi on October 17, the PA tried to stave off unprecedented Israeli military incursions and international condemnation by banning all “brigades” — a seeming reference to armed cadres outside the security services — and arresting tens of PFLP activists. The crackdown in the works seems unparalleled in scope and style, and undertaken despite the fury of the Israeli military assault after the Ze’evi assassination.

But the majority of Palestinians still want the intifada to continue. The majority of Palestinians still do not trust the United States. Seventy-six percent of Palestinians still oppose Arab and Palestinian participation in the US coalition. [1] Will these ideas simply disappear, if the leadership does not act on them? Or will this be the juncture from which grows a much less predictable and more responsive form of resistance? In recent years, it was Hamas that maintained the resistance while the PA bargained with Israel. “There is no doubt that the unchanging nature of the occupation, even if there is a transformation in its form or open manifestation, will give rise to successive movements if Hamas should cease to perform the function of resistance or cease to exist,” Khaled Hroub wrote of the roots of Hamas. While a successive movement need not be born from any specific faction, frustrations with the current leadership in Palestine might be the propellant.


[1] Figures from a Birzeit University Developmental Studies Program poll. Others of note: only seven percent of Palestinians think the US attacks on Afghanistan are justified and 64 percent think the attacks on the US were inconsistent with Islamic law. Still, most Palestinians say their conflict is with the US government, not Americans. More results can be found at www.birzeit.edu/dsp/surv5/results.html.

How to cite this article:

Charmaine Seitz "Hamas Stands Down?," Middle East Report 221 (Winter 2001).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This