by Iqbal Siddiqui (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 2, Safar, 1426)
One feature of Palestinian politics for the last 15 years or so, since the first intifada, has been the increasing political importance of Hamas, the main Islamic movement in Palestine, despite the entrenched political positions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the main representative of the Palestinian people on the international stage, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the main civil authority in Palestine since 1992. Hamas has demonstrated its political understanding and maturity not only in its firm stance towards the Israelis, but in its determination to avoid internecine conflict with other Palestinian groups, even when it was attacked by PA forces acting at the behest of the Israeli occupation forces.
The results of this political maturity, also seen when Hamas declined to run any presidential candidate against Mahmoud Abbas in the elections that followed the death of Yasser Arafat, were seen in Cairo last month. Hamas rose smoothly to its natural, leading position within the Palestinian movement at a meeting of the Palestinian national dialogue, in which representatives of Palestinians groups discussed the position they should take in response to Israel’s attempts to impose a political settlement on the Palestinian resistance.
The national dialogue, which process has been running for two and half years, in a series of meetings hosted by Egypt, long established as the US’s closest ally in the Arab world and the closest Arab state to the Israelis, was originally designed to persuade Palestinians to accept the peace process and a negotiated end to their resistance to Israeli occupation. In accordance with this long-term strategy, Egypt and Abbas were hoping at this meeting to persuade Palestinian groups to adopt an open-ended ceasefire, as demanded by the Israelis, and a redefinition of the strategic aim of the Palestinian struggle as the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and a “just and agreed solution to the refugee problem on the bases of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and the Beirut Arab summit resolution”; in other words an agreement to use the Palestinian right of return as a negotiating chip to gain concessions from the Israelis in other areas.
Both these aims were foiled by Hamas and other groups at the meeting, resulting instead in a commitment to maintain the present conditional and limited cessation of operations, a clear restatement of the Palestinians’ right to armed resistance, and the reaffirmation of the traditional objectives of the Palestinian struggle. The fact that Egypt and Abbas were forced to give in to Hamas on these points is a clear acknowledgement of Hamas’s standing among the Palestinian people, and a disappointment to both Israel and the US.
On the ceasefire, the Cairo Declaration, agreed on March 17, states that: “Those gathered [here] agree to a programme for 2005 centred on a commitment to maintain the atmosphere of calm (“tadhiya”) in return for an Israeli commitment to stop all forms of aggression against our land and the Palestinian people, wherever they may be, and the release of political prisoners.”
On the aim of the Palestinian struggle, clause one of the Declaration states: “Those gathered [here] confirm their adherence to Palestinian principles, without any qualification, and the right of the Palestinian people to resistance in order to end the occupation, establish a Palestinian state with full sovereignty with Jerusalem as its capital, and the guaranteeing of the right of return of refugees to their homes and properties.”
The declaration then went on to give a clear warning to the Israelis, given their past record of ignoring their promises and obligations, as well as current developments: “Continued settlement, construction of the wall and the Judaisation of Jerusalem are issues liable to explode the calm”; in other words, to push the Palestinians back to the option of armed resistance.
Little surprise, then, that the Cairo Declaration got only a lukewarm welcome in Tel Aviv and Washington, who had been hoping that Abbas would deliver major concessions before the Israelis were committed to anything,. Ariel Sharon described the declaration as “a positive first step” but went on to repeat the established Israeli position that “for there to be process in peace efforts, terrorist organizations cannot continue to exist as armed groups.”
Washington’s only response came from a state department spokesman, Adam Ereli, who said that the declaration did not go as far as the US wanted as it failed to “tackle the root cause of all this, which is the acceptance of violence to solve a problem.”
The endorsement of the Declaration by Mahmoud Abbas and Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence, representing the Egyptian government, is also significant, for it binds them to a strategy that they did not want to follow. Of course they will continue to try to lead the Palestinians down another path, more acceptable to Washington and Tel Aviv, but the Cairo Declaration is nonetheless a significant affirmation of the goals of the Palestinian struggle, which it will now be all the harder for Cairo and Abbas to surrender.
The second part of the Cairo Declaration is arguably even more significant for the future direction of the Palestinian struggle, for it covers Hamas’s agreement to join the PLO and so work through Palestine’s established political institutions.
In the past Hamas has regarded the PLO as little more than a vehicle for Arafat and the Fatah movement, and has preferred to deal with it from outside. However, the PLO’s established position as the dominant Palestinian political organization gives it a particular role in Palestinian politics, and Arafat’s death has broken Fatah’s political monopoly.
Hamas’s objective in joining the PLO is to redirect its established institutional power for the service of the Palestinian cause and people, rather than of Arafat and his clique. This will be a radical change in the PLO’s direction. Little surprise, then, that commentators have spoken of Hamas forging a “third PLO”, the first being the PLO as it was originally established in 1964 and the second the PLO as dominated by Fatah from 1968 onwards. The PLO has always served as a forum in which various Palestinian groups could work together, albeit under Arafat’s domination. Hamas has a proven record of working with other Palestinian groups, and its success in setting the tone of the Cairo Declaration shows that it is capable of leading them.
Apart from being the Palestinians’ leading military resistance group, Hamas has also long been a major voice in Palestinian politics. It has been particularly critical of the internal corruption of the PLO and the PA, as well as their methods of dealing with the Israelis, and has offered the Palestinian people an alternative direction from outside the formal institutions of political power in Palestine. Before the Cairo talks began, Hamas had already declared its intention to take part in the parliamentary elections due this summer. It won a massive victory in the elections in Ghazzah earlier this year, and is expected to do well in the West Bank as well.
Speaking in Cairo outside the formal talks, Khalid Misha’al, leader of Hamas’s politburo, outlined Hamas’s approach, saying that it hopes to use the PLO’s structures to end the monopoly on decision-making and the widespread corruption within the Palestinian Authority, to persuade Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, to rally international support against Israel’s plans, and to pursue a socio-economic development programme designed to make life better for the Palestinians.
Asked about the al-Aqsa Intifada, Misha’al denied that it was over, saying that in Ghazzah, and politically, the Palestinians are now harvesting the benefits of the four and a half years of Palestinian sacrifice. He said that the Declaration allowed for a period of “calm” during 2005, after which the Palestinians would assess the progress that had been made and how best to move forward.
Having killed Shaikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantissi, and celebrated the death of Arafat, the last thing Israel and the US can have expected was that Hamas would emerge politically much stronger. How they will react remains to be seen, but under Hamas leadership, the Palestinians may well prove better able to defend their rights and interests than ever before.