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(DV) gyaku: Hamas and the Future of the Palestine Question





Hamas and the Future of the Palestine Question 
by gyaku
April 2, 2007

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Dr. Azzam Tamimi is founder of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London and author of "Hamas: Unwritten Chapters" (2006). He was a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies of Kyoto University for six months from April 1st to September 30, 2004, and later a visiting fellow at the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University for three months, from January 1st to March 31, 2006. On March 11 of this year, he spoke at a small colloquium in Tokyo organized by the NIHU Program Islamic Area Studies, University of Tokyo Unit, on the historical roots of Hamas, its internal structure and political objectives, and the factors that led to its rise to power within Palestinian society in recent years. The following is a transcript of his lecture, tentatively titled "Hamas and the Future of the Palestine Question" by organizers of the event (originally posted at 

Azzam Tamimi: Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me and I'm really delighted to be here again in Tokyo. 

Actually the very reason I was asked to write the book, when I was approached by the publisher in 2003, there were already signs that Hamas was climbing up the ladder of power and authority within Palestinian communities, not only inside Palestine but even in the Diaspora. There are a number reasons for this, and they are the same reasons that led to Hamas' success in the election slightly more than a year ago, when it decided to participate and it was given a chance to participate. 

The story of Hamas is a story of the Palestinian endurance, with what happened to them as a result of the Zionist project. It is interesting to note that both Hamas and Fatah, who are today rivals, and who have been competing since the beginning of last year have clashed and killed one another, both originally came from the same womb, the womb of the Islamic movement in Palestine, the Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun or the Muslim Brotherhood. The founders of Fatah, in 1957, most of them -- perhaps apart from one or two individuals, including Yasser Arafat -- all the others were, or had been, members of the Al-Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, and they came out of the movement and decided to form Fatah because they were unhappy that the movement was not resisting Israeli occupation. And remember when we say 1957, Israel was still in the areas occupied in 1948, and the West Bank and Gaza had not yet been occupied. So the founders of Fatah wanted to liberate where Israel was existing. So this was the starting point. And actually most of them -- if not all -- were also Islamic in ideology, in the way they were brought up. Palestinian society traditionally was a very religious society anyway. 

We saw afterwards that the Fatah movement started undergoing a transformation, becoming increasingly secular, opening the door for all sorts of ideological groups to come in from the left to the right, and, because of regional as well as international factors, it changed course from being Islamic to being nationalist and secular. That, on its own, would not have mattered much had it not been for Fatah's leadership decision in the early '70s, especially after the bitter experiences in Jordan, and then in Lebanon, to opt for what they called the "phased solution" or "phased liberation" of Palestine, which preferred the movement to accept a two-state solution, in other words recognizing that Israel had the right to exist, provided the Palestinians were enabled to create a state next to it.

And that was the moment when the Palestinians were split into two. On the one hand there were those who were loyal to the original dream, the dream that this is our land, and we cannot recognize the legitimacy of the creation of a Zionist state on any part of it. On the other hand, a group seeking to convince the Palestinians that you simply cannot do it, you have to accept that there is a world order, there is a balance of power which is not in our favour, and we would be lucky to be given a state next to the state of Israel, and therefore this should be the way forward. 

Again, that, on its own, would not have ended the Fatah movement in the shape that we see it today, weakened, discredited, and on the brink of total break-up, had it not been for the fact that the assumption did not work, the assumption that was made originally that if we accept that Israel has the right to exist, we might end up with a state of our own. That didn't materialize, and because it did not materialize it backfired on them really heavily. 

This was compounded by the fact that the leadership of Fatah, for reasons of expediency, for reasons of maintaining control -- this was the policy of Yasser Arafat in particular -- became increasingly corrupt. Yasser Arafat as a person wasn't corrupt himself, but he corrupted others as part of his strategy of maintaining control, of maintaining his authority. And that led to Fatah, as a body, being so corrupt, and once you lose accountability and transparency, and you allow corruption to spread at any level, that's the end of it, the whole thing becomes rotten and it cannot be maintained, kept together. 

Now just to cut the story short, this is exactly what we ended up with when, toward the end of the '90s, it became clear that Oslo was not delivering, that the Peace Process started on the assumption that the Americans will use their leverage, the world will intervene on our behalf, because we have accepted Israel's right to exist, and will give us a state -- that didn't work. Then the second Intifada started in September 2000, anger started showing from within Fatah itself, Fatah no longer became one group, then when Yasser Arafat died, or disappeared from the scene altogether, Fatah no longer had a single leadership that could control it. 

Now all the while, as I explained in my book, all the while, since 1988, less than a year following the birth of Hamas in December 1987, whenever Hamas came under pressure from the Israelis, whenever it was cracked down upon, whenever it was challenged by any misfortune, whether by the Israelis or by some of the Arab countries, as happened in Jordan -- and there are two chapters in the book about what happened in Jordan, leading to the expulsion of Hamas altogether -- every single one of these impediments, of these difficulties, actually strengthened Hamas rather than weakened it. The whole philosophy of the book is about this: how, whenever Hamas was hit on the head, it became stronger, more stubborn, more determined, more popular, and, in the eyes of an increasing number of Palestinians, more credible. 

We saw exactly the same thing happen over the past year. Since Hamas won in the election, the world community, led by the United States of America, aided by the European Union, decided that the winners in the election -- although there was acknowledgement that the election was fair -- the winners would not be recognized and dealt with until they accepted a certain set of conditions, which became later on known as the conditions of the Quartet. Three conditions: that Hamas had to recognize the state of Israel, that Hamas had to renounce violence and disarm, that Hamas had to honour all the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO. 

Now we know that that decision by the Americans was a very short-sighted decision because it did not really weaken Hamas. On the contrary, when Hamas said: "We don't give a damn about your conditions!", as far as the Palestinians were concerned, it became more heroic. Because what the Americans, or what the world community, wanted Hamas to do is concede in exactly the same way as Fatah before conceded, as if they were telling the Palestinians to test Hamas -- it was like a test. Had Hamas made any concessions, probably it would have lost rather than gained in the eyes of the Palestinians.

And then, in March, when Hamas formed its government, it invited Fatah, and Mahmoud Abbas, to come and join in. The United States of America threatened Fatah that whoever participates, whoever joins Hamas in a national unity government will be put on the terrorist list. Because again one of the means of pressuring Hamas was to say to it, okay you go and do it on your own, we are not going to join you, we are not going to participate with you. And nobody participated, even the DFLP [Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine], which came close to participating, eventually declined because of the threats which arrived at their doorstep. 

That didn't work and Hamas formed the government on its own, and then we saw a series of events unfold. Measures adopted on the ground by Fatah, like industrial strikes by Fatah-led trade unions here and there -- that didn't work. That didn't work primarily because the people did not really co-operate with the industrial strikes. They saw this as part of the plot against Hamas, and rather than collaborate and cripple their government, we saw civil society move -- this again is a very interesting phenomenon that is worthy of study on its own -- civil society institutions, NGOs, private individuals, move together in order to pressure the teachers, and especially the head teachers, because it was the head teachers who closed schools, to pressure them to open schools. And when the teachers refused to open schools, and refused to allow children into the schools, we saw alternative places opened for the children to be given their lessons for the period of the strike. 

Actually it was a strike in which a lot of force was used, and intimidation. Schoolchildren arriving at school sometimes were fired at, not to kill or shoot or wound, but to intimidate. Teachers were threatened also, etc., that didn't work. Hamas, through its own efforts, managed to collect hundreds of millions of dollars from Arab and Muslim countries. They tried to smuggle the money in, sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they did not succeed. And we saw the Israelis and the forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas collaborate together in order to prevent the money from coming in, although it was greatly needed money. The people needed it. 

But again the loss of funds was compensated by the phenomenon of social solidarity. Although social solidarity existed among the Palestinians for many years, we saw, during the past year, some innovative practices in order to compensate for the loss of revenues, of funds. People came together to help each other. 

I think the very last ploy used in order to force Hamas to comply was throwing it into a military conflict. That was a very ugly chapter. Hamas tried, to the best of its ability, to resist this, but eventually it had to decide whether it wanted to protect its project or not. Its entire project had been under threat and that's why we saw, unfortunately, clashes in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed or wounded. And despite the fact that these were unprecedented in the history of the Palestinians, it seems to me that they were inevitable. What happened during those clashes and the outcome of those clashes is what gave the way to Mecca. So when we talk about the Mecca meeting, one of the main reasons why the Saudis succeeded in what the Syrians had failed, the Egyptians had failed, is the fact that Fatah was on the brink of total collapse. 

I think the propagandists miscalculated, and they miscalculated miserably. They thought that because the Americans promised money, and arms, and training, that they could take Hamas on. But Hamas actually was quite prepared, the majority of the people stood by Hamas, and there were several segments within Fatah that stood aside and did not participate in the clashes, they did not want to be part of that. There was a very interesting report, I was reading last night, you might want to access if you wish, an article written by someone named [Mohammad] Yaghi, a Palestinian, for the Washington Institute. It's on the Washington Institute's homepage. And I think he is also an editor at the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper, but he is a visiting fellow in Washington, with the Washington Institute. And I find the sequence of events he documents in his piece quite valuable. Actually I am relying on it in writing the epilogue for my American edition of the book, because the American publisher has asked me to write another chapter, to cover the period from when I stopped in July, until today.

Now it's very interesting here to note that the national unity government, which was opposed by the Americans in March and in which Mahmoud Abbas did not want to participate, suddenly became an international requirement in August, immediately after the cease-fire between Hizbollah and Israel. If you recall, it was around the 14th of August, I think it was on the 14th of August, that both Israel and Hizbollah -- or the Lebanese government -- accepted Resolution 1701. And then as if the world's attention once again came back to Palestine -- because that was the very last sentence in the last chapter of my book, I mention that now the world's attention has moved to Lebanon, because that was the time when the Israelis invaded Lebanon. But after the 14th of August, attention came back to Palestine, and we saw Tony Blair, as soon as he came back from his summer holiday, we saw him prepare for a visit to the Middle-East, and he stood in Ramallah, next to Mahmoud Abbas, saying: it's about time the Palestinians form a national unity government that is acceptable to the international community and that is capable of bringing down the sanctions. 

And that showed the dilemma in which Western leaders found themselves. It was a real dilemma. They imposed the sanctions and the sanctions didn't work. According to the UN Human Rights Council the situation in Palestine deteriorated massively and the sanctions did not in any way adversely affect Hamas, though they affected the population. So there was concern. Public opinion in Europe, and to some extent in the United States of America, was becoming curious about this, because of the human toll. Again, the situation in Iraq might have also had a role to play in this, because Iraq became a very difficult scene, a quagmire, and the United States government wanted Tony Blair to handle Palestine, see what he could do. That's why he went twice, in September and then again in December, trying to do something. 

But while there was talk about a national unity government, it was a conditional national unity government, and still that government had to comply with the conditions of the quartet. Now Mahmoud Abbas, again in a mood of miscalculation, thought that probably Hamas would, at one stage or another, comply with the conditions in exchange for participating. So he wholeheartedly adopted the European and American view that the national unity government had to be acceptable to the world community. And actually that backfired because in the minds of many Palestinians, they started asking questions: "Is it going to be a Palestinian government? A sovereign government? Chosen by the Palestinians, for the Palestinians? Or is it going to be something which is designed to please and appease?" Hamas did not budge, it maintained its position. 

The Syrians tried hard -- I was in Damascus soon after Mahmoud Abbas made his visit there, and I met Khaled Mashal and several Hamas leaders preparing for that extra chapter required by the American publisher. And I was told, by Khaled Mashal himself, that the Syrian government was so keen on having Hamas accept what has become known as the Arab initiative, which was actually a Saudi initiative, which means recognizing Israel -- that, in exchange for a Palestinian state, you recognize Israel's right to exist -- and Khaled Mashal, when Mahmoud Abbas was in Damascus, had a meeting with the Foreign Minister of Syria, then with the Vice President, and then with the President, who said to him: it would be a great help to us, to you, and to everybody if you were just to say that you accept the Arab initiative. But Khaled Mashal was very clear, he said there is a red line, we cannot cross it, we can never accept Israel's right to exist. 

And if you remember, Mahmoud Abbas met Khaled Mashal in front of the cabinet, but actually there was no real agreement, and they said they were going to continue the negotiations. 

Whatever stage of the negotiations they reached, they stumbled once again before the same obstacle, and that is whether this government was going to be acceptable to America or not. The Americans had to accept it. It became like a joke. Within Hamas circles, they say whenever we had a discussion, immediately afterwards, Mahmoud Abbas would go on his phone, would call his contacts in the United States of America, and tell them what has been achieved, or what can be achieved, and whether this is acceptable or whether this is not acceptable. 

I think the turning point was the recent clashes in January and early February. It became very clear that Fatah was going to lose beyond salvage. 

Now there are a number of theories as to how the Saudi Initiative came to be. There is one theory that the Saudis could not have done it without an American green light, because they are allies and they usually co-ordinate with the Americans, especially as Prince Bandar bin Sultan reports directly to President Bush, he's a very close friend to President Bush and the Bush family. 

The second theory is that actually the Saudis did not mean it, they just threw a word and appealed to the Palestinians, to both sides, to stop killing each other and to talk, and well, if you like, come here, in Mecca, next to the sacred house of God, in this sanctuary, in an atmosphere of spirituality. Both sides said thank you very much for the gesture, and then later on someone said "we accept the invitation", and then as part of the proposition, the other side said, well we accept the invitation too, and the Saudis found themselves compelled to bring them and hold the meeting. 

A third theory is that the Saudis saw a golden opportunity in the predicament of the Palestinians and in the failure of the Egyptians and the Syrians to do something, because the Syrians and the Egyptians had been trying something. And then the Saudis thought that if they made use of this opportunity, they might be able to reduce the Iranian influence on the Palestinians because the Saudis believe that the Iranians have a lot of influence on Hamas. Which is totally false, it's untrue: the Iranians never really had an influence on Hamas. They have a lot of influence on Islamic jihad, but none whatsoever on Hamas. But nevertheless the Saudis were under the illusion that that influence existed and they felt that an opportunity was opened before them. 

The meeting was held, and the Saudis took it very seriously. Now some of the leaked reports from the meetings in Mecca suggest that the Saudis pressured Mahmoud Abbas in particular, and told him that he had everything to lose if he did not accept, and that's how it ended. We are not really sure that this has happened, but you get all sorts of rumours when people hold secret meetings, and it takes a while for the full picture to become clear. But what we know today is that Fatah is the one that really made the real concession. As far as Hamas is concerned, no concessions at all, probably just procedural concessions. 

Actually Mahmoud Abbas, in December, was offered a much better deal by Hamas, which he turned down. The deal in Mecca was much better for Hamas than for Fatah. In December, he could have accepted a deal as a result of which the national unity government would have had a Prime Minister who wasn't part of Hamas, and who would have had a cabinet in which not a single member was of Hamas, because Hamas had agreed to this, and Mustafa al-Barghouti, he was the mediator, he was shuffling between Ramallah and Damascus. But Mahmoud Abbas, again as I explained to you earlier, had his idea that the Americans must accept whatever comes out of the negotiations and the Americans said first Hamas has to accept the conditions of the Quartet. 

Now in Mecca, the national unity government they agreed on is one that has Ismail Haniyeh as the Prime Minister, and Ismail Haniyeh, incidentally, became a lot more popular over the past few months than ever before. And if you spoke about Ismail Haniyeh a year ago, or even six months ago, he was just another Hamas guy, but today, because of what happened, because of the attempt to assassinate him -- the alleged attempt to assassinate him, we are not really sure whether it was an assassination attempt or some sort of a clash between the two sides -- and also because of the circumstances of the past two or three months, Ismail Haniyeh became very popular. The polls conducted in Gaza, in particular, all came out suggesting that the Palestinians would accept no other Prime Minister. 

And as a result, in Mecca, it was accepted by both sides that Ismail Haniyeh would be the Prime Minister, Hamas would have nine portfolios occupied by its own members, Fatah would have six, and then three portfolios would go to independents: the Finance Ministry to Salam Fayyad, who is a person preferred by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Americans because he is a technocrat, he is a professional financial person; the Foreign Ministry would go to Ziad Abu Amr; and the Interior Ministry would go to an independent person who would be named by Hamas, but approved by Fatah. And until yesterday they hadn't yet agreed. We are waiting, in the coming hours, to see who will be the Interior Minister. All other things have been resolved, apart from naming the Interior Minister. 

This is a sticking problem simply because it's not just the person, it's what will happen to the various security bodies that belong to Mahmoud Abbas, or to the Fatah organization. Because the Mecca agreement stipulates that there will be a national security council under which all security apparatuses will come, including the executive force that was formed by Hamas, including the preventive force, and the presidential guard, all the police and whatever militias that exist, all will be supervised by one national security council that is going to be under the authority of the Interior Minister. 

Now it's very clear from what is seen -- but before that Hamas also, in my view -- that, since the Mecca agreement, Hamas has been reaping its fruits. Khaled Mashal has lead a senior delegation to Egypt, then to Moscow, then to Tehran, and he is likely to go to Venezuela, and probably will go to South Africa. There are some other places as well where he would like to go. Ah he went to Malaysia as well, he was in Kuala Lumpur. On the diplomatic front, the Mecca agreement has been a great success for Hamas. 

It's very clear that more countries in the world, including in Europe -- we had France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, there are signs also from Italy and Spain -- that once the national unity government is formed, these countries would immediately end the sanctions from their side. There are some people who are skeptical. I attended the annual conference of the Club de Monaco about a week ago or ten days ago (the Club de Monaco consists of senior former diplomats and former politicians from around the world) and there were some people who were skeptical that these countries, on their own, can't bring the sanctions to an end. Because if the United States of America is not convinced, the banking system will not co-operate. Banks in the region cannot release the funds until the United States of America gives the go-ahead, the green light. 

This is the situation. I think Hamas has emerged much stronger, much more authentic, much more credible, and it is clear that no-one can deal with the Palestinian issue nowadays without taking into consideration Hamas' position. Even Tony Blair -- I'm trying to remember the date, it was on the same day I was travelling actually to Monaco for the conference that I read, in the Financial Times, that Tony Blair was saying that once the national unity government is formed, we have no option but to deal with Hamas. So if this comes from Tony Blair, who was leading the Europeans in opposing any transaction with Hamas, then we are seeing a major change in world politics vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue. 

The Israelis have not yet shown any signs of accepting the new reality, although in private discussions there are people who are interested in what Hamas proposed many years ago and continues to assert is its bottom line, the so-called "long-term truce", or the Hudna. Because if Hamas cannot recognize the right of Israel to exist, but at the same time, does recognize that there is a reality that it has to work with, the only way forward for Israel and Hamas to work together is actually through a long-term truce, or a Hudna. And that is something I discuss in my book in detail in a chapter and a half, nearly. The history as well as the dynamics of such a prospect, if it is ever given a chance to take place. 

Now Khaled Mashal, in his article in the Guardian a couple weeks ago, and again, if you haven't read it, I urge you to, you can find it in the Guardian, it's on the website, gave another signal. He did not mention the Hudna, or the truce, but he mentioned, for the first time, coming from such a high-ranking Hamas official, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. That implicitly means next to Israel. And that's what was agreed on in the Mecca agreement, the Mecca deal. The Palestinians would settle for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, without Hamas committing itself to recognizing Israel de jure. So it's as if we are talking about a de facto recognition, but not a de jure recognition. 

I think this is the general picture. Probably if I stop here, I can be reminded of points -- there are obviously points that I haven't covered.

gyaku is a media project based in Japan.

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