As Hamas joins the mainstream the landscape of inter-Palestinian politics and the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict will change, writes Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank
The Palestinian Islamic resistance group, Hamas, and its junior sister, the Islamic Jihad, have decided in principle to join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
The historic decision, brought to fruition after prolonged internal deliberations, is expected to have far-reaching ramifications on Palestinian politics and inter-Palestinian relations, especially between the two largest political movements, the Islamist Hamas and nationalist Fatah. The decision could lead to much-needed national unity vis-ˆ- vis Israel, and as such is likely to affect significantly the "peace process", especially in the long run.
A restructured and reformed PLO, where Hamas and its Islamist and other allies are predominant -- or at least full participants -- would effectively augur a new era in Palestinian political life. Hamas leaders say the movement always wanted to join the PLO and was only repulsed by the insolence of the PLO leadership. "Our decision to participate in the PLO is not new. It is a long-standing and clear decision," Mahmoud Al-Zahhar told reporters in Gaza this week.
While analysts may wonder why this present moment is ripe, Hamas itself believes the time opportune for at least three reasons.
First, Hamas feels it is strong enough and confident enough now to join the PLO not as a spoiler or an "onerous newcomer", as the movement was once portrayed by PLO factions, but a welcome and full partner, even a potential savior. Gone, it seems, are the days when Yasser Arafat himself labelled Hamas the "Palestinian Ankata", referring to the Zulu-led South African movement that opposed the National African Congress led by Nelson Mandela.
Indeed, Hamas's vanguard role in the Palestinian Intifada against Israeli occupation and its election gains in Gaza and the West Bank more than qualified the movement to join the PLO, an organisation that has been dominated, since its creation in the mid-1960s, by Fatah.
Second, Hamas leaders both at home and in the Diaspora have come to realise that only through joining the PLO, the main Palestinian national decision-making body, will the movement move from the "factional sphere" to the "national arena".
Hamas, despite its successes and preeminence in the Intifada, has had until now little impact on the formulation of the general national policies affecting the Palestinian people. Hence it is hoped that membership in the PLO will enable the movement to translate its standing in the Palestinian street into proportionate political influence.
Third, the PLO is the "sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people", both at home and in the Diaspora, and Hamas wants to see its influence -- and ideology -- extend to Palestinian refugees, not through the "back door" of Palestinian and regional politics, but in a legitimate, orderly and institutionalised manner. This can only be done through membership of the PLO.
This is not to say that Hamas's reasons for joining the PLO are purely self-centred. Indeed, according to Al-Zahhar, one of the main factors contributing to Hamas's decision is a growing concern within the movement that the PLO, and therefore the PA, are not strong enough, or reliable enough, to be entrusted "alone" with the national cause. "I can tell you that one of the main reasons for joining the PLO is to prevent it from conceding to Israel on paramount national issues," said Al-Zahhar in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly on Tuesday.
When asked if he thought that the inclusion of Hamas into the PLO would radicalise the organisation and consequently make a peace settlement with Israel even more unlikely, Al-Zahhar pointed out that Hamas, and the bulk of Palestinians, do not believe anyway that "peace is around the corner".
"We are convinced that Israel is only using the so-called peace process as a rubric for consolidating its occupation and colonisation in the West Bank," Al-Zahhar said. "What is happening now," he continued, "and what will go on for many years to come, is not a real political process. It is actually no more than public relations and crisis management; the Americans know it, the Zionists know it and even the PA knows it."
Al-Zahhar further argued that President Bush's vision for a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel was a deception. "Bush speaks about a viable Palestinian state and at the same time he has told Sharon that he can keep half of the West Bank in the context of any final status agreement. What kind of state is he talking about?"
Reading into Al-Zahhar's words, it is clear that Hamas is seeking to redirect and reorient the PLO, making it into a long-lasting structure of resistance on the ground, and that a real peace settlement with Israel, even one meeting the most minimal of Palestinian expectations, is not in the offing anytime soon.
Some Palestinian intellectuals believe that a Hamas-influenced PLO will be more determined to withstand international, including Arab, pressures to compromise on such cardinal issues as Jerusalem, the refugees and Jewish colonies in the West Bank. "Hamas will influence and be influenced, but I do believe that the inclusion of Hamas will make the PLO more meticulous about safeguarding Palestinian rights," opined Ali Jerbawi, former head of the Palestinian elections committee.
On the other hand, according to Jerbawi, a reassertion of fundamental rights by a "new PLO" holding fast to Palestinian national aspirations would drive Israel to continue creating "facts on the ground", until it reaches an uncertain point where it would tell the Palestinians, "What you see is what you get."
It is beyond doubt that Israel is greatly dismayed by Hamas's decision to join the PLO. Israel had made tremendous efforts to demonise Hamas in the eyes of the world, an effort that led eventually to the blacklisting of the movement as a terrorist group in both the United States and Europe. A rehabilitation of the movement via inclusion into the PLO is simply incompatible with Israeli interests.
According to Israeli military commentator Ze'ev Shef, Israel is likely to refuse to negotiate with a Hamas-dominated PLO, not so much because Hamas does not recognise Israel but rather because the new PLO would adopt a stricter line towards final status issues. Israel's problem would not be Hamas but an evolving Palestinian national consensus over raised minimum requirements for peace in the region.
Sadly one thing is certain: not to be out- manoeuvred, Israel will doubtless use the inclusion of Hamas into the PLO as pretext and justification for prolonging its occupation and colonisation of the Palestinian homeland. (see an interview with Mohamed Ghazal, a key political leader of Hamas in the West Bank, p.8)