Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 November 2006
Issue No. 819
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

If ever a state

Talking to three influential figures in Fatah, Hamas and Jihad, Dina Ezzat is presented with visions for the resurrection of Palestine

Shuaibi; Dahlan; Al-Zahhar

In Ramallah and Gaza the case for "political Islam" -- meaning Hamas and/or Jihad -- is easily made by the average Palestinian under occupation/the Palestinian Authority.

The most objective Palestinian would safely argue that Ramallah is "Fatah land" while Gaza is the "land of Islamists: Hamas first and then Jihad".

From an academic point of view, this hypothesis might be easily defended. But on the tough roads of Ramallah and amid the slums of Gaza, the average Palestinian -- secular, Christian or indeed hard-core religious Muslim -- seems to be tired of the tried and failed Fatah thesis.

Mid-30s men who say they grew up believing in Fatah under former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are willing to admit that the tragic fall of their legendary hero disillusioned them about the entire Fatah scheme for Palestinian liberation. Arafat, they say, failed to deliver what he had promised: a Palestinian state -- even one within the borders of 1967. They say the brazen corruption of some key Fatah figures also managed to put them off the faction that once symbolised the struggle for liberation. With the exception of the jailed second Intifada figure Marwan Barghouti, the names of Fatah leaders are more often than not associated with pejorative qualifications -- with corruption being the most obvious.

"I cannot say that I am pro- Hamas. Actually, I always believed in Fatah," said one Palestinian who asked that his name be withheld for fear of being what he called persecuted by Fatah's once -- and some say still most -- influential security official, Mohamed Dahlan. "But what did Fatah do for me or for anyone else? Nothing.

"It makes sense now to give Hamas a chance. At least they are unlikely to be corrupt and unlike Jihad they are willing to give political talks a chance."

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in Gaza, Dahlan argued that for every one of those who speak against him and Fatah he can provide scores, both in the West Bank and Gaza, who are willing to defend the case of Fatah against that of political Islam.

In Gaza, too, Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahhar and Khedre Habib, member of the political command of Jihad, told the Weekly that the whole Fatah discourse had proved to be a failure in the long and continuing history of the Palestinian struggle.

The issues at stake for Fatah, Hamas and Jihad, argued Azmi Shuaibi, general coordinator of the Ramallah-based Coalition for Accountability and Integrity, are not quite the same. For Fatah, Shuaibi said, the issue is one of international acceptance (he suggests also of status), realistic gains and doable deals. However, he added that for Hamas and Jihad it is an issue of championing the Palestinian cause that has been compromised by Fatah, Arab countries and the rest of the world.

The rise of public support for the case of political Islam as demonstrated by the elections that brought Hamas to office, Shuaibi argued, was tested by the siege imposed on the entire Palestinian people as a result of this choice. However, he hastened to add that the Israeli war on Lebanon provided groups affiliated to political Islam, especially the widely popular Hamas, with a stronger stand.

"Today, the Islamic movement has an opportunity to offer itself as the alternative in view of the handicapped nationalist movement that failed to provide what it promised would be reasonable and realistic answers," Shuaibi said.

The Israeli war on Lebanon provided a clear picture of what is really at play in the region: an Israeli government terrified by the growing Middle Eastern influence of Iran, the ultimate embodiment of political Islam; Arab regimes more preoccupied with their own internal affairs than with the threats to Arab strategic interests; and an international order that has long overlooked Arab rights and is working to reshape the region in line with what is described by many as imperial interests.

The result of the war, in Shuaibi's view, is not just about what many see as a victory for Hizbullah but about two detrimental factors for two Fatah projects: the eradication of Israel's strategic power of deterrence and the ultimate exposure of the weakness of Arab regimes.

For Hamas and Jihad, despite their current disagreement on the decision of the first to join the political game, the victory of Hizbullah was more than an asset to political Islam, said Shuaibi. "It was about the fact that both Israel and the US realised they have to deal with a strong Iran," that might be more associated with Hizbullah, and to a lesser extent with Jihad, than with Hamas.

The growing rise of political Islam, says Shuaibi, became almost inevitable. And the unbridgeable gap between Egypt and Syria that led to the failure of the collective Arab regime to support the initiative proposed by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa to reset the rules of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian- Israeli game, served the inevitable choice of political Islam. This was especially true in Palestine where Hamas has shown unique pragmatism on issues related to the potential of a long-term truce with Israel, the establishment of a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967 and the tacit acknowledgment of agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

"It's true that Hamas surprised itself by its victory in the legislative Palestinian elections but now it is acting with a clear awareness that it has a serious test on the regional as well as the national front that it must pass," Shuaibi said.

Foreign Minister and Hamas member Al-Zahhar is willing to acknowledge the growing impact of external factors on internal Palestinian politics and the fate of the entire Palestinian struggle for statehood.

In those terms he sees the current internal impasse of Palestinian politics as a regional and international affair rather than internal one. "The current internal Palestinian situation is not about an internal battle; it is about a battle between Palestinian rights that Hamas is determined to defend and Israel and the US" who, they say, are trying to reduce the Palestinian question to one of salaries.

Speaking to the Weekly from his office in the Palestinian Foreign Ministry partly reduced to rubble by Israeli air strikes a few months ago, Al-Zahhar sounded convinced that the choice of Hamas to pursue the parallel tracks of politics and resistance is the way forward towards the establishment of a Palestinian state where all Palestinians, including millions of refugees, can find shelter and where the historic injustice sustained by the Palestinian people is rectified.

For Al-Zahhar, it is only a matter of time before Palestine is resurrected from the ashes of Israeli aggression and for that matter Fatah failures. "We are only a few decades away," he said.

The harsh attack on Hamas, Al-Zahhar argued, is only a clear indication that Israelis, and indeed Americans, understand what Hamas believes in -- that the Palestinian struggle will sooner or later establish a Palestinian state that he says Israel will fight everything to prevent.

The economic siege to block salaries of Palestinian civil servants with all its consequent deterioration of public services, what Al-Zahhar calls the "instigated" strikes, the "orchestrated" security clashes and the manoeuvres to hamper the formation of a national unity government, are all part of the attack on Hamas. He said the fact that the attack has to be so aggressive was testimony to the success of Hamas in its pursuit of legitimate Palestinian rights. But Hamas, he stressed, has enough strength and enough support, despite the results of some polls showing declining popularity, to pass the test.

Hamas, Al-Zahhar said, is working to win more regional supporters. Egypt, he insisted, is an asset that Hamas can never undermine. Despite his not so secret disappointment with the level of support extended by Cairo, Al-Zahhar insisted that Hamas and its government are not prepared to confuse their confrontation with Israel and the US with an artificial quarrel with Egypt "irrespective of some of the statements that are totally incompatible with the historic stances of Egypt in supporting Palestinian rights".

Al-Zahhar also sounds keen to bypass any misunderstandings, or for that matter political disagreements, with other Arab capitals especially influential Riyadh and neighbouring Amman. To serve this purpose, Al-Zahhar refrains from criticising the Arab Peace Initiative that many Arab countries, including the secretariat of the Arab League, have urged Hamas to approve. "We were told that this initiative aims at keeping the ceiling of the Arab stance on the Palestinian question at a certain level but we have not seen this initiative working and we do not think it can work simply because the initiative expects Israel to give and Israel will not," Al-Zahhar said. As such, the Arab Peace Initiative, he feared, might be reduced to a mere umbrella for Israel's right to have a say on what Palestinians are entitled to get.

"But why should we argue over the Arab Peace Initiative? We do not need to do so at all because the fact of the matter is that this initiative was not really and fully accepted neither by the US nor by Israel," Al-Zahhar said.

In line with the Hamas doctrine, Al-Zahhar did not want to exaggerate the impact of "international legitimacy". But he did not exaggerate his scorn for the role of the international community in suffocating his people. He seemed willing to take some steps to meet Arab countries somewhere in the middle of the road if they wished to do so as well. However, this reconciliatory approach seems difficult to follow through.

"The trouble is that what we have to offer cannot be sold to the West," Al-Zahhar said. This, he added, was the reason behind the failure of the Qatari initiative to reconcile the stances of Fatah and Hamas which managed to somewhat close the gap between the conflicting factions but was vetoed by Washington.

"Then we had an option to either stick to our path or buy into what the West wants to offer us. The trouble is that what the West is offering is not good enough for our people. It was tried and it failed. This is why we were elected into power, to bring change," he said.

Among the changes that Al-Zahhar wants is the composition of the PLO, quite ineffective for over a decade, to allow for a fair representation of Hamas.

But whether this reconstruction of the PLO is granted, Al-Zahhar said, Hamas is determined to continue its struggle, both at the political and resistance fronts, towards attaining Palestinian rights. In doing so, he said, Hamas is supported by the Palestinians who would never "prioritise their salaries over land".

"It's only a matter of time. All independence movements were forced to struggle for years yet they never gave up on their target of liberation. The struggle for liberty that [Ahmed] Orabi started in Egypt in the 1800s was only completed [with the British withdrawal from Egypt] in 1954. The same applies to Libya, Algeria and other Arab countries under occupation," Al-Zahhar said. And while acknowledging the difference between the European colonisation of Arab count Al-Zahhar ries in the 1800s and the unique case of the creation of Israel on Palestinian territories and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the rest of the Palestinian territories, Al-Zahhar still believes that such a difference is no reason to think that Palestine will not gain independence, too -- one day. Hamas is committed to bringing about that day, he said. "Hamas enjoys the necessary legitimacy for this."

This is not what Dahlan, one of the more well- known and well-connected Palestinian negotiators, believes. Speaking from Gaza, where the signs of intrinsic poverty are accentuated by months of international economic deprivation, Dahlan argued that Hamas was leading the Palestinian people into unprecedented hunger, not unmatched political resolve.

"Hamas has failed to deliver its electoral promise -- let alone promises of liberation. Some things are easier said than done," Dahlan, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said.

In his analysis, the Hamas government has failed to protect the resistance fighters who are being liquidated every day by the endless incursions of the Israeli army. Hamas has also been unable to improve the living standards of the Palestinian people -- rather the opposite has happened; and Hamas has failed to persuade the world, Israel included, to improve the terms of the agreements signed with the Palestinian government under Fatah.

"Worse, the Palestinian economy is being totally undermined not just by the international siege but also by security and political instability that has pushed investors out of Palestinian territories and has consequently created an unprecedented case of unemployment. People are living in despair under this government," Dahlan said.

"Moreover, Palestinian-Arab relations have been going through endless crises," Dahlan stated. He did not only attribute this to the stance adopted by Hamas on the Arab Peace Initiative but also to what he said was the overall uncooperative attitude by the Hamas government towards Arab efforts to support Palestinians on internal and external fronts. Of course, Dahlan added, in just a few months Hamas had inflicted unprecedented damage to the Palestinian case in the eyes of the world that had under the "realistic" rule of Fatah, sympathised with Palestinian rights.

One of the most controversial names in Fatah, Dahlan was not willing to outright call Hamas a narrow Islamist movement incapable of assuming power. However, he was willing to criticise the tendency of top Hamas figures in Gaza, especially Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah, for taking political and economic stands based on Friday prayers. "Sermons and statements made in mosques are not the way to approach problems or Palestinian statehood," he said.

During his tenure, Dahlan was known by friends and foes alike to be an exceptionally shrewd negotiator who might give Israelis much (or as some would say too much) flexibility but would make sure to swap this for something, sooner or later. It was this quality and his ruthlessness in administering security affairs, supporters and critics agree, which won him the heart and mind of Arafat during the last few years of the Palestinian leader.

The average Palestinian would argue that Dahlan was not the only second generation of Fatah leaders who mastered the qualities of shrewdness, ruthlessness and manoeuvrability. In a way, Dahlan agrees. It is necessary for those who want to play the game of politics in this age to be able to speak the language the world -- especially those who are in control of the Palestinian fate in the US and Israel -- can understand. This is why, he added, despite the criticism launched against it, Fatah is more apt than Hamas to deliver statehood even if it does not cover all the territories of historic Palestine.

"Hamas thought that the mere fact that they were elected was good enough reason for everybody to deal with it. This has simply proved wrong," Dahlan said. The world would only deal with a Palestinian government or leadership that is attuned to the norms of international legitimacy. "This is how things work. It is very easy to make big statements but what counts are not the statements but the ability to deliver the promises made," Dahlan said. He claimed Hamas has not been very good with honouring its promises.

"Arafat was under siege. He was under siege for close to three years. However, Palestinians were not denied their salaries and their means of living. This is the point that our brothers in Hamas refuse to see. They have become so obsessed with being in office that they refuse to see what their presence in office has caused to the Palestinian people," Dahlan said.

Dahlan is not at all interested in the argument made by Al-Zahhar on prioritising liberty over food. He immediately shrugs off this talk as hollow clichés. "A hungry people cannot rise and get freedom. The will of a hungry people is simply crushed."

Dahlan dismisses the Hamas argument that the previous Fatah government failed to provide Palestinians either a good life or liberty or both. "It is simply absurd to suggest this. The living standards have never been as low as they are under Hamas. And the political project initiated with the Oslo agreement -- on the basis of which the Palestinians elected Yasser Arafat -- was going well in delivering statehood until the operations conducted by Hamas," Dahlan said.

Is Dahlan not adopting the Israeli narrative that it is Islamist fundamentalists that have undermined the national Palestinian march towards statehood? And after all, what kind of state was Fatah able to deliver out of segregated pieces of land and condensed refugee camps that Israel would have been in the end more than willing to dump on any cooperating Palestinian government? Indeed, has Fatah not been rendered ineffective by its endless fractional feuds (the Fatah central committee was forced to cancel a scheduled meeting in the Jordanian capital Amman on 16 October only hours before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas entered the meeting room)?

Dahlan answered, "all of this is simply not true." Fatah's problems, he claimed, are exaggerated by the media and its political foes. "What Fatah was willing to deliver was what could have been realistically delivered", he said. And the fact that Arafat encountered serious problems with the Americans during his talks with Ehud Barak in Camp David in 2000 is testimony that Dahlan used to defend Fatah against accusations that it would have settled for just anything.

Dahlan admitted that Fatah cannot deliver what Hamas promises but he insisted that neither could Hamas. In fact, he said, when put to the test Fatah could deliver something on the ground while Hamas can not.

"They say they are pursuing the road of resistance and I am asking them, what resistance are they talking about? Firing a rocket here and there, prompting an aggressive Israeli incursion into Palestinian territories that is causing serious causalities and destroying houses and agricultural land," Dahlan said in answering his question.

"Then they say that they are pursuing development. And I ask them, how can they realise development when isolated from the entire world?

"Hamas's statements should be judged by results on the ground, where it has achieved nothing, and as such we are asking Hamas to abandon the government for a while and allow for a technocratic government to step in and put the Palestinian house back in order," Dahlan said.

Jihad leader Habib also wants Hamas to abandon the government but for a totally different reason. "The Palestinian struggle would only be settled through resistance, long-term resistance," Habib said.

"Hamas is a resistance movement, the biggest resistance movement in Palestine, and should have stayed as such. Going to the government did not help Hamas or the Palestinian people with the struggle towards independence -- rather the opposite," Habib told the Weekly at a time of intense Fatah-Hamas friction.

In office, Habib argued, Hamas is being drained by pointless political manoeuvres. And such political give-and-take, he added, has never delivered anything in the case of Israel. "South Lebanon was liberated through resistance. Gaza [despite all what is being said] was partially liberated due to the operations of resistance movements," Habib said.

The viability of the quest for a political presence along the lines of resistance operations is only one of several differences between Hamas and Jihad. However, they are not in disagreement over the rationale behind the economic sanctions imposed on the Palestinian people since the election of Hamas.

"This is about political blackmail," Habib said. He added, "the world wants to coerce the Palestinian people and Hamas into accepting the [Israeli/American-tailored] conditions of the Quartet."

Habib is convinced that neither Israel nor the Quartet are willing to give the Palestinians even the barest minimum of rights. "If they wanted to, they had Yasser Arafat who was playing their game. But they gave him almost nothing."

Moreover, Habib argued, the current internal Palestinian crisis serves only the interests of Israel. On the one hand, the Palestinians are busy arguing amongst themselves while Israel is lobbying the world for its own agenda and the Palestinian people are made to believe that it is Hamas that has begotten them hunger and poverty.

"This whole crisis does not serve the interests of the Palestinian people or the role that Hamas has to play. This is why Jihad has always believed that pursuing elections will drag us into an unnecessary internal battle," Habib said.

Habib seemed to be particularly worried that somehow the presence of Hamas in office gives tacit legitimacy to the Oslo project which Jihad perceives as the root of evil against the national Palestinian march towards independence.

Hamas, he said, did not need to put itself in a position where it must worry about issues such as recognising Israel or dealing with agreements signed between the Fatah government with the "Zionist entity".

This is a waste of time and energy on the part of Hamas which needs to get back to its role as a leading resistance movement as soon as possible.

"We should not lose sight of the real target. Israel is an artificial entity that was superimposed on this region, on our Palestinian land... Sooner or later there will come a day when this situation will be rectified. After all, it is after the darkest moments that light comes in," Habib said.

Is it not absurd to talk about the elimination of Israel? And how could any group of resistance, no matter the financial and political support it might be accorded, defeat, even partially, one of the strongest armies in the world, one suspected of having in its possession no less than 200 nuclear warheads?

For Habib these are all defeatist questions. Worse, they are questions that reveal, as he says, a crucial failure to learn anything from history. History, Habib said, teaches a very important lesson: that the elements of power and weakness are ever changing. "One day the Soviet Union was a world nuclear power. Look at what is left of the Soviet Union today. And remember that the Crusaders occupied this land for over 90 years," he argued.

"We are not at all suggesting that we can win our generations-long battle against Israel with a knockout punch. But we know for a fact that we can accumulate small victories here and there until the ultimate victory is ours. We just have to keep the flame of the struggle burning and one day, despite the wall Israel is building, the nuclear weapons it has and the support it has from the US, we will have a Palestinian state."

In Gaza and Ramallah many Palestinians are so depressed by Israeli coercion and Arab defeatism that even dreaming of a Palestinian state, in any form, can be difficult.

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