Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Hamas factor

Palestinian factions have been holding intensive meetings to formulate a joint command that would run Gaza if and when the Israeli army leaves, Khaled Amayreh reports

Palestinian consultations to create a joint, inter-factional command that would take over in Gaza following an Israeli withdrawal opened last Saturday. The meetings assumed a special significance as Hamas expressed its willingness to join any post-occupation governing authority, depending on the nature and extent of the Israeli withdrawal.

Hamas's representative to the talks, Said Siyam, told reporters the movement would play a constructive role in cementing national unity and enabling the Palestinian people to realise their hopes. "We have been partners in blood and I see no reason why we won't or can't be partners in the post-occupation governance of Gaza," he said, referring to other Palestinian groups present at the meetings.

However Khaled Al-Batash of the Islamic Jihad group thought it was too early to talk about "post-occupation arrangements in Gaza -- as if the end of the occupation was around the corner. We have to wait and see. The whole thing could turn out to be hoax, and [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon can't be trusted anyway."

Al-Batash urged caution as Israeli officials, including Sharon, have indicated that Israel would retain absolute control over Gaza's borders and border- crossings, skies and shores after the purported withdrawal.

This prompted even more dovish Palestinian figures, such as former Palestinian Authority (PA) official Yasser Abed Rabbo, to cast doubt on the entire Gaza withdrawal plan. "He is not really talking about withdrawing from Gaza. He is talking, rather, about caging Gaza inside a big jail," he said. "Sharon is vague about the withdrawal from Gaza, but he is quite clear about the prize he expects to receive in return for the withdrawal even before it is carried out; that is why we should be careful in how we deal with this sensitive issue," Abed Rabbo said during an interview with Al- Jazeera TV on Sunday.

On the other hand, the leaders and representatives of the various Palestinian factions described their meetings in Gaza as "positive and constructive". They agreed that elections were the right and ultimate means to choose the leadership in Gaza and that any post-occupation governing body ought to be temporary pending the organisation of such elections.

The factions also reportedly reached a general consensus on the basic elements of a national Palestinian plan, based on a document agreed through Egyptian mediation in August. The main outlines of that document include the demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967, a preservation of the Right of Return in accordance with UN Resolution 194, the creation of a Palestinian state, holding fair and free elections and upholding the rule of law.

Meanwhile, the PA may face problems relating to the growing inter- factional consensus in Gaza, especially with the inclusion of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. On the one hand, PA leader Yasser Arafat told the Ramallah-based newspaper Al-Ayyam on 6 April that he would welcome the incorporation of Hamas into the Palestinian political system and its institutions. However, it seems that Arafat -- indeed, the entire PA -- may not be able to incorporate Hamas and Islamic Jihad without causing the wrath of the United States, which keeps demanding that the PA dismantle popular resistance movements in Gaza.

This US stance was conveyed to the PA leadership earlier this week during a visit by an American delegation headed by Deputy-Secretary of State William Burns to Jericho. Burns reportedly told Palestinian officials that American involvement in the reconstruction efforts in Gaza was conditional upon the PA meeting two conditions: namely, dismantling Hamas, and capturing a number of Palestinians who last year ambushed three American embassy officials in northern Gaza.

The US State Department on 6 April publicly warned the PA against including Hamas in a future Palestinian government, arguing that Hamas is a "terrorist" organisation. In seeking to face up to this dilemma, the PA government is trying to get Hamas to "modify" its overall stance and adopt a more peace-minded approach towards the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

In many ways, the question is not so much whether Hamas will soften its views and methods, but rather whether Israel will honour its promises. For now what remains clear is that Hamas, as well as other Palestinian resistance factions, will not accept anything less than a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in return for joining the peace process, either directly or indirectly.

It seems likely that as long as Sharon remains at the helm of Israeli politics, there is little to no chance that Israel will agree to these conditions.

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