Even moderate Palestinians agree Hamas is winning leadership battle

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 5, 2012 

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Members of Hamas youth movement march as part of Hamas activities to mark the upcoming 25 anniversary of its foundation in the Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip


— The U.N. recognition of Palestine as a nonmember observer state should have been one of the Palestinian Authority government’s greatest achievements. But hours after the historic vote last week, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad publically concluded, “Hamas delivered. . . . Hamas has won.”

Speaking at a movie screening of a documentary focused on his efforts to build a civil society, Fayyad acknowledged that his Fatah Party’s commitment to nonviolence had achieved little.

“The Palestinian Authority stands for a nonviolent path to freedom. We have not been able to deliver; it was Hamas that was able to deliver,” he said. “We need to be honest with ourselves."

The startling words from one of Fatah’s most prominent leaders highlighted what many Palestinian officials have been whispering for years: Hamas’ star is on the rise.

Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister in the Gaza Strip, said Palestinians already were convinced that Hamas’ policy of armed struggle was more effective than the policies promoted by the Western-backed Fatah movement.

“The most important fact that has emerged from this is Hamas’ ability to convince all Palestinians of our way," Zahar said. “We gave Fatah a full opportunity to implement its way, and it failed."

Hamas was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement. At the time, Palestinians were engaged in a months-long uprising against Israeli authorities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The most prominent Palestinian group was Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and its Fatah political wing.

In the next few years, the PLO would negotiate an accord with the Israelis that allowed Arafat to settle in the West Bank, at the head of the Palestinian Authority, with expectations that a permanent peace agreement soon would be worked out. That never happened, however, and Arafat, isolated in his compound in Ramallah, died in 2004 from a mysterious illness that’s never been diagnosed.

In the meantime, Hamas, which refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, rose in prominence, winning a majority of seats in Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. A power-sharing agreement with Fatah lasted briefly, but Hamas forces wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah loyalists in 2007. It’s ruled the coastal territory ever since.

“Hamas created its own state in Gaza, and as a result, its status rose not only among Palestinians but across the Arab world,” a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official said in a news briefing earlier this year. The official can’t be further indentified under the conditions of the briefing. “Israel is very worried about Hamas’ newfound support across the Arab world.”

In December 2008 Israel launched a punishing offensive in the Gaza Strip, which some Israeli leaders argued should have been aimed at “eliminating Hamas.”

“It was a great mistake not to go further in Gaza and eliminate Hamas,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said.

In the years since, Hamas’ key alliances have moved from Syria and Iran to Egypt and the Persian Gulf countries, said Rafael Frankel, a professor at Georgetown University who teaches a course on the conflict between Israel and Hamas and Hezbollah.

“Hamas made one really truly fateful decision, which was to side with the Syrian people against the Assad regime,” Frankel said. “In the end they made the right decision and are now reaping the benefit.”

Last December, senior Hamas leaders confirmed that they’d begun moving their base of operations out of Syria, where they’d been headquartered since 1999. Citing growing unrest in Syria, Hamas has since spoken out openly against Syrian President Bashar Assad and called the ongoing violence in Syria a “massacre.”

The break from Syria also meant a distancing from their alliance with Iran. As the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt, Hamas had a natural friend and ally on the border with the Gaza Strip, Frankel said.

“Hamas self-identifies as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. So it’s natural for their support base to be there,” Frankel said. “Their success right now is based on the fact that the Islamists are rising across the region, and Hamas by virtue of that is rising with the tide.”

In the West Bank, where Hamas still hides many of its activities and faces constant crackdowns by Israeli and Palestinian security officials, many think that Hamas could easily secure a wide majority in future elections.

“There is no doubt, if you walk through the Palestinian street, that they want Hamas to lead them,” said a Hamas organizer in the West Bank city of Hebron who asked not to be quoted by name in order to protect his identity. “No matter how often Israel or the Palestinian thugs from Fatah arrest us, our numbers continue to grow.”

Hebron, with its proximity to southern Israel and Gaza, has always been a bastion of support for Hamas, but officials there said recent developments had made the movement popular even among moderates.

“What does Fatah accomplish? Nothing. What does Hamas accomplish? Everything the people demand,” the organizer said.

He listed as one such accomplishment the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Gaza militants held until Israel agreed to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for his return. Another: the ability to fire rockets from Gaza that struck near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the most recent battle with Israel.

“For each rocket that hit at central Israel, we won the support of another million people,” he said, admitting that the number “could be inaccurate.”

“We brought Israel to its knees,” the organizer said, crediting Israel’s willingness to negotiate a cease-fire to the rocket threat to central Israel, where 40 percent of Israelis live.

Some Israelis agree. “Is this a gift for Hamas?” asked an editorial about the cease-fire in one of Israel’s most prominent daily newspapers, Yediot Ahronot.

Only a few weeks later, Israel lashed out at Fatah’s West Bank government over its new status before the United Nations with a series of punishing measures, including the announcement of plans for new settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“What is the final lesson here? Reward Hamas with a cease-fire and punish Fatah for an internationally supported initiative at the U.N.? Israel needs to question its endgame,” one European diplomat said in a news briefing. Under the briefing’s rules, the diplomat couldn’t be identified further. “If you didn’t know better, you’d say Israel was supporting Hamas.”

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf

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