Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 September 2006
Issue No. 811
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lamis Andoni

The bigger Palestinian picture

Even if Fatah were to bring down the Hamas government, the chains of past agreements with Israel bind and strangle the Palestinians, writes Lamis Andoni

The Hamas government is faced with unprecedented internal and international pressure to compromise, accepting UN resolutions and signed agreements with Israel or facing the wrath of an increasingly impoverished Palestinian population. There are few parties, if any, that are willing to lend Hamas a helping hand, due either to stunning resignation before the international political siege, or to an open desire to bring down the Islamist government.

Forming a national unity government has been repeatedly put forward as a possible way out of a Palestinian crisis spurred by the ongoing political and financial siege and festered by internal rivalries. The idea gained new momentum and new meaning in Fatah's Central Committee, which obviously believes that the Hamas-led government is ripe for political defeat.

The main argument for a national unity government is that it is a prerequisite to breaking the grip of the US/ Israeli-led siege and thus ending Palestinian political isolation. Yet despite talk of forming a national unity government, the two main Palestinian rival groups, Fatah and Hamas, are far from agreement. Fatah's proposal is widely -- and rightfully -- seen as a renewed attempt to wrest power from the Hamas government, while the Islamic resistance movement is too keen on proving that it has not failed.

Neither Fatah nor Hamas appears keen to enter into serious negotiations prompted by the deteriorating economic and living conditions for Palestinians strangled by Israel and suffocated by the international embargo against the democratically elected Hamas government. Yet the teachers' strike, to a large extent politically motivated, reflects serious popular discontent while workers in many other sectors have reached a point of despair having been denied wages for six months.

The US and Israel, with Arab government complicity, have managed to seal almost all financial channels to the Palestinians, placing the Hamas cabinet, already under serious assault by Israel, head to head with popular Palestinian angst. Most of the leadership of Fatah, meanwhile, and an increasing number of political forces across Palestine, are blaming Hamas for a "lack of flexibility in dealing with the international community".

Consequently, Hamas is facing growing internal pressure to either accommodate "international demands" or enter into a coalition government with Fatah and the other groups. The problem is that the Fatah leadership is trying to pose as "the wise savior" of an inexperienced Hamas government that dug itself "into a deep hole". This line of thinking, expressed in statements by several Fatah representatives, and more so aides of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is evidently designed at breaking Hamas and not at offering a helping hand.

Prime Minister Haniyeh's accusations that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee is conspiring against Hamas hold a lot of truth. Although united by different motivations, the PLO Executive Committee has joined Fatah's Central Committee in openly exploiting present Palestinian economic hardships to undermine the Hamas government.

The response by Saeb Erekat, that Hamas was trying to blame others for its crisis, is both disingenuous and evidence of a deliberate attempt to undermine the government. If anything, his statements underscored the absence of both collective responsibility as well as memory of popular discontent against Fatah corruption that brought Hamas into power in the first place.

"Some Fatah leaders and influential Palestinian Authority (PA) personalities want Hamas to declare defeat. There is no real interest in a partnership, but in a triumphant return", says one PLO official in touch with both parties. In the words of another PLO official, Fatah cannot fathom the fact that it is no longer the ruling party while Hamas is mainly concerned about the "success of Islamic rule".

But if Fatah, which still cannot take full responsibility for its defeat in last January's elections, has found an opportunity in outing Hamas, or at least subjugating it, the Islamist movement has the responsibility of making tough choices. What has transpired is that no Palestinian government can opt for both assuming power under the obligations of agreements with Israel and challenging the system that such agreements have brought into being. Late president Yasser Arafat was ostracised, besieged and driven to his death by challenging the system -- in spite of all of his political compromises.

Hamas is already discovering the limitations set on any Palestinian government set up within a system already confined by signed agreements with Israel. Popular elections notwithstanding, Hamas has found itself in a system totally dependent on Israel and international funding. The Oslo Accords may be buried under the rubble of demolished Palestinian homes, but its chains have survived, nurtured by Israel, Arab and Western governments.

It is no secret that some senior PLO emissaries have spared no time promising European leaders that they would save the Oslo induced "process" and subjugate Hamas. But even if a national unity government relatively acceptable to the world, and which could ease the siege on the Palestinians, were formed, Palestinians would still be faced with the challenge of finding a strategy that gets them out of a perpetual siege of agreements that undermine the core of Palestinian self-determination and their struggle for freedom.

For the time being, many parties are placing the burden at Hamas's door, but all Palestinians are facing an existential crisis that calls for strategic solutions and not short term diplomatic "breakthroughs". Hamas cannot be absolved of responsibility. In the short time it has been in power, the siege notwithstanding, it has managed to corner itself into factional thinking and attitudes. It has alienated many by insisting on a total change in the staff of the PA, and has allowed Fatah to drag it into factional rivalry. As a result, the exigencies of the movement's continuity in power have prevailed over finding means of creating national consensus.

Hamas could still win points with a disarrayed Fatah, especially that it was handed empty coffers by the outgoing, predominantly Fatah, government. But at the end of the day it has to answer tough questions on how to alleviate present suffering. A national unity government may soften the embargo but will not break the siege inherent in the signed agreements that establish the framework within which Hamas is obliged to exist and which solely and exclusively apply to one signatory -- the Palestinians.

Breaking the chains of past agreements is a collective task and not only that of Hamas. Breaking Hamas may bring the "international community back" but will not bring Palestinians any closer to liberty and independence.

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