Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

Problem or solution?

Hamas, writes Hassan Nafaa*, could well turn out to be the latter

I am glad that I decided to call up Khaled Meshaal and congratulate him on Hamas's great victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. That phone call was not inspired by any political or ideological preference for one Palestinian faction over another but out of the conviction that this crucial and delicate moment demands a show of solidarity -- if only symbolically -- with those who have assumed the mantle of national and religious responsibility. With this victory the Palestinian cause, along with the causes of the entire Arab nation, has come to a crossroads that is both fraught with danger and full of opportunity. A look at the international reactions, especially in the West, is sufficient to realise that a powerful new storm is gathering on the horizon, ready to burst not over a particular political faction or trend but over us all. It is time to close ranks and prepare for all eventualities, including the possibility of war and upheaval throughout the region for the Hamas victory has come at a time of mounting Western pressure on the Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian fronts, and it is not perfectly possible that Western powers will seek to use the victory as an excuse to put temporarily deferred military schemes into operation.

Following Western reactions to the Hamas victory I was struck by an article by Daniel Pipes in the Canadian National Post of 27 January. Its headline, "The Hamas electoral victory: Democracy's bitter fruit", pretty much sums up the thrust of the article: the countries of the region are not ready for democracy and American pressure on their governments to democratise will only bring to power the West's most deadly enemies and confer legitimacy upon "terrorist" organisations. Nor is Pipes a lone voice. He epitomises a rising tide of opinion that wants the US administration to back off on spreading democracy in the region which brings to the fore, once again, the assumptions on which this policy was based in the first place.

Not long ago US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created a stir with her lecture at the American University in Cairo in which she posited the idea of "creative chaos". During the subsequent question- and-answer session some members of the audience attempted to caution her that rapid democratisation could produce a state of anarchy that might be exploited by Islamist groups to catapult themselves into power. She responded that despotism had bred the terrorism that struck the US on 11 September, that this situation could not persist and that the US preferred change, even if that led to a certain amount of chaos, the "creative chaos" from which conditions better than those that currently prevail would emerge.

As I wrote at the time, the theory acts as the façade for a hidden agenda. The US sees this part of the world as a mosaic of diverse nationalities, ethnicities, religions and cultures. If all these peoples were to determine their fate through the ballot box the map of the region would change, ultimately giving rise to a panoply of mutually antagonistic petty states with governments weakened by fragile ethnic and denominational power balances and, therefore, easy to manipulate from abroad. Certainly, from the perspective of US interests, this situation is preferable to the entralised, authoritarian Arab nationalist regimes that seem to be a hangover from the end of the Cold War and the bipolar order. Evidently, Hamas's electoral victory in the most volatile, conflict-ridden spot on the globe has put paid to the notion that the ballot box will "create chaos" that will bring change for the better from the standpoint of US interests. Palestine was supposed to be a proving ground for the American theory but look what happened. It wreaked havoc on the strategy of "creative chaos".

No wonder reactions, in the US in particular, have been so vehement. Washington has been trying everything to foment the conditions that would propel Lebanon, Syria and Iran into playing their part in the "creative chaos" that aims at re-ordering the eastern part of the Arab world. It wanted to calm the situation down in Palestine until the time was ripe for the Palestinians to play their part in the final act of the drama. Instead the Palestinians turned the plans upside-down, reminding all concerned that their cause is the original and central theme of the Middle East dilemma and that they have no intention of plating a walk on role in the American-Israeli show.

Now more than ever the US and Israel will be handling resistance in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and perhaps Iraq, as separate arenas in a single war they are determined to fight to the end and are convinced they will win. The pressures that will be exerted on Hamas, within the framework of the overall strategy of this war, will come from three directions: the international front, spearheaded by the US and the EU; the regional front led by US allies in the region that have relations with Israel, and the domestic Palestinian front, headed by those Palestinian parties that believe the Hamas victory foregrounds their own failures and will harm their interests in the short and long terms. The concerted pressures will push in one direction as they attempt to force Hamas to recognise Israel and then engage in a political process that will wreak the same kind of attrition on Hamas as the Oslo process did on Fatah.

There is no reason why Hamas should feel compelled to offer that recognition; indeed, it should hold out against doing so for as long as possible. The battle over which Hamas now presides is not Hamas's battle, is not the battle of fundamentalist or moderate Islam; rather, it is the battle of all freedom-loving peoples around the world. Furthermore, Hamas is not obliged to negotiate with Israel, nor is it in its interests to do so at present. This has nothing to do with Hamas's principles, such as its refusal to recognise or negotiate with Israel, or the demand -- the restoration of historic Palestine in full -- that Israel attributes to it.

What, precisely, is the Israel that Hamas is supposed to recognise and negotiate with? Is it the de facto state that is currently occupying Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian territories? Or is it the Jewish state with the internationally recognised right to exist within set boundaries, as set out in the General Assembly partition resolution of 1947? Or is it the Israel whose borders are defined as those that existed just before the 1967 War? No one should be expected to recognise something so vague. Moreover, for a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people to recognise Israel at present can only mean one thing: the acceptance of everything Israel claims to be its right, including establishing settlements on any spot in historic Palestine and building a separating wall the highest judicial authority in the world regards as illegal.

Contrary to many whose opinions I respect, notably Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, I do not think that Hamas is better off in opposition. But I do think it is in the highest interests of Palestinians and Arabs that Hamas forms and leads a government representative of all Palestinian factions. The risks are great, but no greater than the risks Hamas has faced up to now.

The Palestinians' handling of their struggle against Israel began to flounder from the moment the Oslo accord was signed. The agreement, which lacked a clause explicitly calling for a halt to Israeli settlement activity, was so divisive that the Palestinian cause became a cart drawn by two horses pulling in opposite directions. With the failure of Oslo and the arrival of Hamas to power there is new hope that the Palestinians will be able to form a unified strategy. Then, regardless of which horse is in the lead, they will pull in the same direction, towards liberation. This should be the aspiration and aim of every true Palestinian, every true Arab nationalist, every true Muslim and Christian, indeed, every noble-minded person in the world. Of all the people in the world the Palestinian people, today, are the most vulnerable to the tyranny of the US- Zionist alliance and the foremost target of that alliance's political, military and propaganda machine. It is the duty of all advocates of human rights not to abandon the Palestinians and thwart their resolve on the grounds that they chose their representatives badly but to stand by their side and help them move forward.

If the international community wants to transform this highly volatile part of the world it must reconcile itself to certain principles. Firstly, it must respect the democratically made choices of the Palestinian people and deal with their representatives fairly and without prejudice. Secondly, it must take whatever actions necessary to compel the relevant agencies in the UN to impose a comprehensive settlement to the Middle East conflict on all parties, in accordance with the provisions of international law and the principles of international legitimacy. At this stage negotiations -- presuming they could be resumed -- will not produce a just settlement given the disparity in power between the parties. Moreover the UN, in allowing the parties to negotiate within the framework of principles different to those laid out with Resolution 242, is largely to blame for the current impasse. The most constructive action the Security Council could take at this juncture is to invoke Article 7 of the UN Charter in order to produce a new resolution that would reformulate 242 in light of all pertinent UN resolutions and then stipulate a deadline for implementing the provisions of the new resolution, after which appropriate measures would be taken against those parties that obstruct or refuse to implement the resolution.

The Security Council could impose Resolution 242 as the basis for a viable and immediately implementable settlement by compelling the concerned parties to choose between two solutions: that the Security Council issue an official interpretation of 242 in the form of a new resolution that clarifies that what is intended by the phrase "secure and recognised boundaries" are the boundaries of 4 June 1967 and that "a just solution to the refugee problem" is one based on the full text of the General Assembly resolution 194. In application, the new resolution would oblige Israel to withdraw to the stipulated boundaries and to allow those Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their native towns and village to do so and to pay compensation to the remainder.

Or that the Security Council adopt General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 for the partition of Palestine and regard the borders defined therein as the final borders of the Palestinian and Jewish states. In this case the 1949 Resolution becomes irrelevant, because it was issued after the partition resolution and because the refugees would be returning to a Palestinian state that had already been defined and recognised in accordance with the principles of international legitimacy.

The ball is now in the Israeli and Security Council's courts and there are actions they must take before asking Hamas to commit itself to anything. To insist that Hamas recognise Israel simply so that Israel might agree to negotiate with Hamas is not a solution. Israel will only drag out negotiations for another 50 years. If, on the other hand, the Security Council does what it should do and Hamas then refuses to accept its terms, then it will be everyone's right to blame Hamas and point to it as the problem. Until such a time we can only hope that Hamas is the solution!

* The writer is professor of Political Science at Cairo University.

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