In March 2005, Hamas, the largest Islamist party in Palestine, joined its main secular rival Fatah and 11 other Palestinian organizations in endorsing a document that seemed to embody the greatest harmony achieved within the Palestinian national movement in almost two decades. By the terms of the Cairo Declaration, Hamas agreed to “maintain an atmosphere of calm”—halt attacks on Israel—for the rest of the year, participate in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for July and commence discussions about joining the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In the eyes of many, the Islamist party had not come so close to reconciliation with Fatah since it emerged as a political force in the late 1980s, and certainly not since Fatah became the dominant party within the Palestinian Authority (PA) created in 1994. “This is a turning point for the region,” said top PA negotiator Nabil Abu Rideina of the Cairo Declaration.
In July, Hamas and PA police forces squared off in armed clashes in Gaza that left two dead and scores wounded in the worst intra-Palestinian violence since the second intifada erupted in the fall of 2000, and arguably since November 1994, when the PA police shot dead 14 Palestinians during a Hamas demonstration outside Gaza’s Palestine mosque.
What brought about the fall from concord in Cairo to confrontation in Gaza? Was it, as PA Civil Affairs Minister Muhammad Dahlan alleged, an attempted coup by Hamas ahead of Israel’s ongoing withdrawal of settlers from Gaza? Or did it happen, as Hamas Gaza spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri claimed, because “some officials” in the PA, “serving foreign agendas,” were “seizing the moment to attack Hamas”? Or were the clashes—as so often in Gaza—the combustion of miscalculated maneuvers on both sides?
The answers lie in the strategic turn undertaken by Hamas in the last year. Once the fiercest opponent of the 1993-1994 Oslo agreements—or of any final peace deal that would recognize Israel—Hamas now publicly accepts that it, too, would negotiate with the Jewish state. Once dismissive of PA elections as the illegitimate child of Oslo, Hamas now plans to participate in legislative contests slated for the coming winter. Paradoxically, these convergences in strategic outlook between Hamas and the PA are the reason why the July battles in Gaza could be harbingers of struggles to come.
The New Order
The militants of Hamas were latecomers to the intifada that broke out on September 29, 2000. For four months, the temper, tactics and imagery of the revolt were dictated largely by Fatah, especially by its vanguard tanzim “organization” led by the now imprisoned Marwan Barghouthi. Hamas only fully entered the fray with the February 2001 election of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s prime minister and in response to his vow to bring security to his people “within 100 days.” Though its military wing had mounted a few attacks inside Israel before Sharon took office, it was afterward that Hamas, with a nod from the tanzim, took the qualitative turn to suicide bombings in Israel as the uprising’s signature and most lethal weapon.
For PA officials, Hamas’ aim was clear: “to replace the PA and PLO as the dominant force in Palestinian nationalism.” This ambition was evinced by Hamas’ participation in the National and Islamic Forces (an umbrella grouping made up of all the Palestinian factions, PLO and otherwise) while spurning all offers to join the PA. It also showed in the Islamist party’s “horizontal” and increasingly autonomous relations with semi-official Fatah militias like the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank.
But no official aim was declared. If there was an organizational goal for Hamas, it was implied to be to forge a “new national movement” out of the debris of the old. If there was a strategy, it seemed to be the “resistance only” path charted by Hizballah in south Lebanon. If there was a political objective, it appeared to be to effect a compelled, non-negotiated Israeli retreat from part or all of the Occupied Territories, again with south Lebanon as the model. “The intifada is about forcing Israel’s withdrawal from the 1967 territories,rdquo; said Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, then the Hamas political leader in Gaza, in October 2002. “But that doesn’t mean the Arab-Israeli conflict will be over.”
What is beyond question is that these opaque policies were successful in winning Palestinians’ support for the Islamist party. According to surveys by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, one of the most reliable polling organizations in the Occupied Territories, Hamas increased its popularity by 60 percent in the first three years of the intifada, emerging as a power equal to Fatah in parts of the West Bank and outstripping it in Gaza.
Hamas owed the rise not only to the armed resistance its fighters put up against Israel, the collapse of PA police forces and divisions in Fatah sown by Israel’s West Bank and Gaza invasions, and the visceral appeal of its “reprisal” suicide attacks inside Israel. As important was the extensive array of charitable and welfare services that stood in stark contrast to the inefficiency and collapse of the PA ministries. The result, by late 2002, was less a party in opposition to the PA and Fatah than an independent national force bent on establishing “a political, social and military alternative to the existing Palestinian order,” in the words of former PA Culture Minister Ziad Abu Amr.
The issue was what to do with such power. Would Hamas seek the creation of a “new PLO” or a rapprochement with the existing one? Party leaders chose accommodation. There were three reasons compelling them to do so.
Tempering the Resistance
The first reason was the new regional order born of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that came in their wake. As one European diplomat with extensive contact with the Palestinian Islamists acknowledged: “Hamas, like Syria, feels the cold wind coming from Baghdad and the new licenses granted to the ‘war on terror.’” Hamas was especially concerned that its national-religious struggle against Israel not be tarred with the same brush as the global jihadist agenda espoused by al-Qaeda and its spinoffs. In June 2003, two months after the invasion of Iraq, Hamas agreed to a unilateral Palestinian ceasefire with the short-lived government of then Palestinian Prime Minister (now President) Mahmoud Abbas. Unlike the five previous ceasefires, this one had the seal not only of the Hamas leadership in Gaza and prisoners in Israeli jails but also of the leadership in the diaspora.
Nor did any part of the leadership abandon the truce, despite an Israeli arrest campaign that netted some 300 Hamas men in the West Bank. The ceasefire was blown away by a bus bombing in West Jerusalem executed on August 19, 2003 by a rogue Hamas cell from Hebron (an operation the Hamas leadership was forced to disown and denounce). The leadership formally disavowed the truce two days later after Israel’s assassination in Gaza of political leader Ismail Abu Shanab, Hamas’ main architect of the ceasefire.
The second reason was the unprecedented assault Israel unleashed on the movement following the truce. In seven months, Israel killed Hamas’ main military commander in Gaza, Ibrahim Maqadmeh, Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Rantisi, his successor in Gaza. Israel also tried to assassinate Muhammad Dayf, head of Hamas’ military arm, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and Mahmoud Zahhar, now Hamas’ most senior political leader in the Strip. The Israelis sent clear signals to Hamas officials in Damascus like Khalid Mishaal and Musa Abu Marzuq that they too were fair game. In the final stage, sound intelligence, helicopter gunships and death squads proved thorough at wiping out what remained of Hamas’ West Bank military cadre.
The assault was steeled by political and financial sanction. In August 2003, after the Jerusalem bus bombing, the PA froze the bank accounts of Islamic charities in Gaza, as did Britain and the US in their domains. Israeli authorities moved against the “northern stream” of Hamas’ sister Islamic movement in Israel, sequestering funds and jailing the charismatic leader Raed Salah. There was also regional ostracism. According to one Egyptian intelligence official, by 2005 Hamas’ funding from Arab and Islamic states, with the exception of Iran, had all but dried up. In September 2003, the European Union put the whole of Hamas (rather than just its military wing) on its “terrorism” blacklist, a huge political setback for a movement that has striven to be recognized internationally as an authentic Palestinian party, and a further crimp on its fundraising abilities.
The third reason was Ariel Sharon’s decision in February 2004 that, in the absence of a Palestinian “peace partner,” Israel would withdraw unilaterally from settlements in Gaza and the northern tip of the West Bank. Publicly, Hamas claims the “flight” as a victory for its strategy of armed resistance. Privately, many in the movement understood that disengagement offered an exit from a “war” that had not only brought overpowering Israeli retaliation but was also wrecking Hamas’ own aspiration to legitimacy and leadership. Disengagement supplied the long-awaited moment when Hamas could cash in the kudos it had earned from resistance and welfare and convert them into political and institutional capital.
The Strategic Turn
Yassin presented the new platform in the weeks before his assassination on March 22, 2004. It consisted of three positions that, taken together, constituted a strategic turn in the movement’s theory and practice. The first plank was the understanding that Hamas would hold its fire for the duration of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and four northern West Bank settlements, on the condition that the withdrawal is complete (including from the crossing on the Egyptian border). Hamas reaffirmed this pledge in discussions with Abbas in August 2005 on the eve of the withdrawal, and has honored it to date.
The second plank was that, until the withdrawal commenced (or at least until the decision to withdraw was seen to be genuinely irreversible), Hamas would escalate armed resistance in Gaza while curtailing suicide attacks in Israel. This essentially is what occurred in period preceding the Cairo Declaration and subsequently whenever Hamas deemed Israel to be in gross violation of the truce or the PA in breach of understandings reached in Cairo. Usually in concert with other Palestinian militia, Hamas launched high-profile attacks on army outposts and settlements in Gaza and/or rained mortars on Israeli border towns.
The purpose of these escalations was political. They reinforced the regional and Palestinian perception that Israel is leaving Gaza under duress rather than by choice. They demonstrated that Hamas remains a formidable military foe that no domestic or foreign power can quell. They also strengthened Hamas’ hand in its “dialogue” with the PA.
One result of this strategy has been Abbas’ tacit admission that the matter of Hamas’ disarmament will not be broached until after the PA parliamentary elections, now set for January 21, 2006. Another is the acknowledgement by the PA’s new and influential foreign minister, Nasser al-Kidwa, that “dismantling the armed groups is not on the table as long as the occupation exists.”
The third, and most significant, part of Yassin’s new platform stated that Hamas would strive to reach a power-sharing agreement with the PA in any post-withdrawal Palestinian government. In Cairo, this idea boiled down to three prescriptions: a “formula for decision making” pending the parliamentary elections, both in relation to maintaining calm during the withdrawal and in the administration of areas evacuated by Israel in the aftermath; the establishment of a national cross-factional committee mandated to reactivate and redefine PLO institutions to enable Hamas’ “proportional” participation within them; and a commitment by Hamas to participate in all PA elections and on the basis of its representation there to become an integral part of the Palestinian political system, including the PLO’s National Council and executive committee.
Hamas’ new line has already borne fruit, both sweet and bitter. In Palestinian local government elections in Gaza and the West Bank in December 2004, January and May, Hamas lists won an estimated 60 percent of all seats and clear majorities in 30 percent of all councils. The greatest prize was the West Bank town of Qalqilya, where Hamas’ “Change and Reform” slate took all 15 positions, a victory seen as a protest not only against Fatah’s history of mismanagement but also against Fatah’s powerlessness to prevent the encirclement of the town on all sides by Israel’s wall. Predictably, these successes have posed a “dilemma” for US and European diplomats, who champion “Arab democracy” on the one hand but are compelled to ostracize the main Palestinian beneficiary of democracy on the other.
The local elections were the first quasi-national ballot in the Occupied Territories since the PA parliamentary elections in January 1996, which were boycotted by Hamas in protest of the Oslo accords. The results confirmed two realities long in the making: Hamas is ready to vie for political power within the PA, and Hamas can now compete with Fatah throughout the Occupied Territories, including West Bank towns like Qalqilya that had been Fatah strongholds.
But Hamas’ 2005 electoral triumphs proved an accomplishment too far for Fatah and other regional powers, including the US. Advised by Egypt—and aided by Abbas’ vacillation—the Fatah-controlled parliament tarried so long over changes to the PA Basic and Election Laws that the date set in Cairo for holding a new parliamentary poll, July 17, lapsed.
An Egyptian intelligence official summed up the argument for delay with unusual frankness. “We advocate postponing the elections until December 2005 (sic),” he said in May. “This will allow the PA to benefit from the achievement of the disengagement, manage an orderly disposal of the [settlement] assets in Gaza and put an end to the existing chaos. The public will then support the Authority against Hamas.”
Fatah’s reformist deputies agreed, but they also had another motive. They wanted the parliamentary elections delayed not only until after the disengagement but also after the Fatah General Conference that was originally scheduled for August. At the conference, it was believed, a new leadership would be elected. The “old guard” leadership, most of whom lived in exile before the creation of the PA, “would be thanked for its contribution to the cause and told goodbye,” predicted Fatah deputy Qaddura Faris. The old guard responded by postponing the party congress until after the “new” parliamentary elections.
Hamas bore these maneuvers with gritted teeth. Others elicited outright protest. In June, PA local courts annulled the results of three Gaza local elections—in Rafah, Beit Lahia and Bureij—where Hamas lists had won or thought they had won majorities. Nor was there any real effort made by the PA leadership to set up national committees for reactivating the PLO or overseeing the withdrawal. The only “power sharing” was a pro forma offer in which Hamas was invited to join a “national unity” government—“and be blamed like Fatah for the corruption,” as Abu Zuhri spat in response. Zahhar accused the PA of reneging on every commitment undertaken in Cairo and warned publicly that Hamas had “lost faith” in Abbas.
Crisis became confrontation following a suicide attack claimed by Islamic Jihad in the Israeli town of Netanya on July 12, killing five, and retaliatory Israeli assassinations that killed eight Palestinians, seven of them Hamas men. PA police forces—including armored personnel carriers—moved against Hamas guerrillas firing mortars in Gaza, but conspicuously not against the Islamic Jihad, al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades or Popular Resistance Committee militiamen who were doing the same. Hamas forces on the ground saw the PA deployment as a preemptive move to disarm them. They reacted massively, storming PA police stations, barricading refugee camps and mounting military patrols in northern Gaza. Fitna, or civil strife, briefly flared.
Hamas’ intention was to give a demonstration that its power was at least as great as that of the PA, not to pull off a putsch. But the Islamist party miscalculated in even this limited objective. Hamas’ muscle flexing rallied Palestinians squarely behind Abbas’ leadership, particularly his denunciation of “useless” mortar attacks and “factions who attempt to impose their agendas on the PA.”
For the first time in a long time, it was Abbas and Fatah—and not the Islamists—who had tapped into the popular will. A week after the clashes flared, Fatah and Hamas were reconciled on the basis of understandings no different, no better and no less ambiguous than those agreed upon in Cairo.
Will these understandings hold? Most Palestinian analysts believe Hamas will be true to its word on maintaining calm for “the rest of 2005.” Three events could rupture the calm, however, either during the withdrawal or in the aftermath. One is a rigorous return by Israel to its assassination policy. “Hamas will not start a confrontation,” comments Abu Zuhri. “But, in the face of massive Israeli aggression, neither will we wait for a ’collective’ PA response any more than would Fatah.”
Another would be a “provocativerdquo; Jewish attack on Palestinians to stymie the disengagement, especially on or near Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. The third possible source of disruption would be a PA decision to renege again on the electoral process drawn up in Cairo and now reestablished in Gaza. One of the motives behind Hamas’ martial displays in Gaza is to convey that such a move would be unacceptable.
But what does Hamas want from the electoral process? It does not seek leadership, at least not yet. It seeks hegemony. Hamas quietly accepts that the current balance of power in Palestinian society is accurately reflected in polls showing Fatah with around 40 percent of all parliamentary seats and Hamas with around 30 percent, with the balance being held by independents and other factions. Translated into the outcome of elections, these numbers would not make Hamas the dominant force in Palestinian politics. They could, however, make it the hegemonic force in a majority bloc or a “blocking majority” against Fatah.
But to what end? Sheikh Ahmad Hajj Ali is a member of Hamas’ Shura Council, the supreme decision-making body in the organization. He sketches a future in which a new Hamas, domestic in thrust, consensual in aim, international in reach, emerges gradually from the old one: “Our aim is governance and one can only govern through the institutions of government. If we are the minority in Parliament, we will monitor the ministers on the basis of their performance, not on the basis of their political affiliation. If we are a majority, we will not monopolize power like Fatah. We will share power in a national coalition, a government that represents all the Palestinian people.”
The sheikh continues: “But in all cases our priority now is to address the internal Palestinian situation rather than the confrontation with Israel. We would negotiate with Israel since that is the power that usurped our rights. If negotiations fail, we will call on the world to intervene. If this fails, we will go back to resistance. But if Israel were to agree with our internationally recognized rights—including the refugees’ right of return—the Shura Council would seriously consider recognizing Israel in the interests of world peace.”
That recognition would be new. It is also inevitable, at least if Hamas wants to be the dominant vehicle for Palestinian nationalism and rid itself of the stigma of rejectionism in the eyes of the world. Slowly, painstakingly, but inexorably, Hamas is moving away from its traditional notion that Palestine is an Islamic waqf “from the river to the sea” and even the idea of a long-term armistice (hudna) that would accept the “1967 territories” as a Palestinian proto-state until the forces of Islam are strong enough to recover Palestine “as a whole.” Rather, Hamas is signaling that it accepts Israel as a political reality today and is intimating that it would accept a final agreement with Israel “according to the parameters of the  Madrid conference and UN resolutions,” says Palestinian analyst Khaled Hroub, an authority on the Islamist party.
Such an agreement with Israel, of course, is what Abbas says he seeks. Herein lies the reason why Hamas-PA relations are so tense and why the situation in Gaza is potentially explosive. The struggle between the PA and Hamas is no longer about the disengagement’s significance: it is “the day of victory and the beginning of a new era that was achieved with the blood of our martyrs,” say both Muhammad Dahlan and Mahmoud Zahhar. The struggle is about who will claim the political and electoral franchise from disengagement and who will win the right to lead the Palestinians in the next phase. Will it be Abbas and Dahlan and their strategies of diplomacy and governance? Or will it be Hamas and its legacy of resistance?