Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 March 2005
Issue No. 735
Front Page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The third PLO

Amira Howeidy listens in as Hamas leader Khaled Meshal explains the significance of the Cairo Declaration

The calm before the storm?

After handing over Jericho last week, on Tuesday Israel completed its security handover of the West Bank city of Tulkarm to the Palestinians. Yet the fact that Israeli occupation forces have withdrawn from two Palestinian cities has excited little comment in the Arab world. Not only is life outside these two cities extremely harsh for Palestinians, such symbolic gestures fade in comparison with developments announced last week in Cairo.

After a fruitless two-and-a-half years of dialogue between Palestinian factions, sponsored by Egypt, representatives from across the Palestinian political spectrum finally agreed on the fundamental principles that will determine the future of the Palestinian people. The six-point Cairo Declaration, issued on 17 March, restated Palestinian "constants" -- including the right of the Palestinian people to resist the Israeli occupation and the right of approximately five million refugees to return to their homes and property.

The Cairo Declaration also agreed to extend the "atmosphere of calm", conditional on Israeli "adherence" to "stopping all forms of aggression against our land and the Palestinian people, no matter where they are". It noted that continuing construction of settlements and of the Apartheid Wall, and the Judaisation of East Jerusalem, remain "explosive issues".

On the domestic front the Cairo Declaration agreed to radical political reform, with both Hamas and Jihad entering the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian Intelligence, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas co-chaired the meeting and endorsed the declaration, which means that the declaration states both Egypt's and the Palestinian Authority's official positions. How this can be squared with statements from both sides referring to "terrorism" and hinting at compromising the right of return only time will tell.

Washington and Tel Aviv gave cold but approving nods to the results of the Cairo meeting. This might seem to involve a contradiction but doesn't. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is desperate for any form of cease-fire, even a conditional "atmosphere of calm" or whatever else the Islamic resistance factions want to call it.

Anything to get out of Gaza.

Israel remains divided over Sharon's disengagement plan, with the public mood best described in Haaretz' s Monday editorial as "Palestinian pride, Israeli capitulation". All through the peace process, wrote Haaretz's Danny Rubinstein, "and all the while that Israel was ruled by the slogan, 'Let the IDF win', Sharon never once mentioned or alluded to the need to withdraw from Gaza. It took the suicide bombers, the rockets and the mortars to persuade him." The suicide bombers and rockets of Hamas and Jihad, that is -- two groups that have now announced their willingness to fully engage in the Palestinian political arena while keeping the "resistance" option firmly open.

So are the Palestinians forging a second PLO?

"It's a third PLO," says Hamas Politburo Chief Khaled Meshal.

The 'first' PLO was formed in 1964. When in 1968 the powerful Fatah faction began to gradually take over the organisation a 'second' PLO emerged. Now Fatah's long monopoly of the organisation is coming to an end, hence Meshal's contention that the PLO is entering its third reincarnation.

In a three-hour long roundtable discussion at Al-Ahram on Saturday Meshal said his movement wants to "put an end to the monopoly on decision making and widespread corruption within the Palestinian Authority". Hamas, he said, has agreed to a conditional "calm" till the end of 2005 to consolidate "as many gains as possible".

One such gain is winning international support and showing that the "problem lies in the Israeli occupation". Hamas also wants to revive the PLO and push for the release of 8,000 Palestinian prisoners.

"There is not one Palestinian house that doesn't have an imprisoned family member. We want to reduce the suffering of the Palestinian people. We've been struggling continuously for four and a half years [during the Intifada]," he noted.

So is the Intifada over?

Meshal will not go quite that far.

"There are waves of struggle," he said carefully, "and the Intifada is by far the greatest wave and it deserves to be properly invested."

He does, however, concede that "these are very difficult times". Hamas will not, though, "be cornered into accepting what's on the table. We do not lack options. We are like the skillful merchant who invests what he has for the greatest gains."

In an indirect reference to Arab regimes Meshal said that it has been shown repeatedly that "succumbing to US demands only leads to more demands. Their demands are endless". Hamas, he insists, has "managed to push Israel to understand that the military option is useless. Sharon resorted to the disengagement plan because he lost faith in the military option".

Meshal underlined the three-pronged approach Hamas will most likely promote as its electoral platform in the July elections. It is based on maintaining the resistance as long as there is Israeli occupation and pursuing a national agenda "based on the collective participation of Palestinian forces" alongside a socio- economic developmental project.

But Sharon too, will seek maximum gains from the current calm. "Once he's out of Gaza... it is not too farfetched to suppose he will declare Abbas an obstacle to peace then poison him like Arafat," said Meshal.

A year after Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Al- Rantissi, Hamas, almost everyone agrees, is stronger than ever.

"We resist and we get killed because we are forced to," says Meshal. "Does any occupation end without pressure?" Today Sharon is being forced to leave Gaza, "tomorrow he will be forced to leave the West Bank".

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