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A War Within a War

Hamas is locked in a complex struggle with Palestinian Authority for leadership

June 20, 2003|Avraham Sela

JERUSALEM -- To the outside world, Hamas is synonymous with murderous hostility to Israel, consecutive suicide bombings and religious militancy. Many people also know that Hamas is a powerful social and political movement, deeply rooted in Palestinian society, primarily among the destitute refugees.

But to understand Hamas and how to deal with it -- and most important, to know whether there can be a meaningful truce with the group in order to restart the region's long-stalled peace negotiations -- it is essential to understand the complex relationship between Hamas and the mainstream Palestinian leadership and the battle for hegemony that is underway. Hamas struggles not only against Israel but also against the secular national leadership represented by Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, and more specifically, the Palestinian Authority, whose prime minister is Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas' charter -- the group is ideologically committed to wage a holy war against Israel until the liberation of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean -- challenges the PLO and presents itself as an Islamic alternative to what it sees as a bankrupt and deviant national leadership.

In its competition for the political leadership of the Palestinian people, Hamas, in addition to providing social services and promoting the Islamization of the populace, has employed violence against Israel as a primary instrument to rally support among Palestinians.

In this context, violence against Israel has served Hamas well, giving it legitimacy among Palestinians and, therefore, a shield against Palestinian Authority attempts to eliminate it as a popular movement. Violence also elevated Hamas' political significance in the eyes of the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Israel. And, especially since the eruption of the Al Aqsa intifada in October 2000, Hamas' violence has drawn more youth to its military ranks.

Hamas has shown great sensitivity to the public's mood and expectations; it has calculated its policies in accordance with perceived costs and benefits to its constituency. As the Israeli military has systematically destroyed the Palestinian Authority's institutions, infrastructure and coercive capabilities, Hamas has gained increasing prestige on the Palestinian street with its violent suicide attacks on Israel.

Whether or not Hamas (and other opposition groups, both Islamic and non-Islamic) accepts a cease-fire is closely linked to the struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for the dominant position in Palestinian society. In recent weeks, Hamas has presented tough conditions for a cease-fire. It insists on a guaranteed end to Israel's attacks on Palestinians and the release of leading Palestinian prisoners, and it also demands guarantees for preserving its military power.

In the days ahead, Hamas' decision-making will be affected by two major factors.

First, although Israel failed to quell Palestinian violence in general and Hamas' suicide attacks in particular, there is clearly a growing sense of fatigue among Palestinians and a willingness to cut losses and seek other paths. Moreover, Hamas has recently been under heavy and continuous pressure from the Israeli military, which has targeted military echelons and political leaders, as demonstrated by the attempt on the life of Abdulaziz Rantisi.

The second factor is the international and regional effect of President Bush's involvement and his stated commitment to the "road map."

The cumulative effect of the U.S. presidential involvement, a new Palestinian government and strong Egyptian pressures on Hamas to accept a cease-fire has instilled in Hamas' leaders -- including those in the West Bank and Gaza -- the sense that this is a critical moment. Indeed, the top Hamas officials in Gaza have reportedly left the decision to the "inside" leaders, which is more than a sign of support for a cease-fire.

Understandably, for the last few months Hamas has been perceived as the main obstacle to a hudna, or indefinite truce, that would be a sine qua non for renewing the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic dialogue. Yet even if Hamas accepts a temporary cease-fire, it is doubtful that the parties could maintain it for a significant time without progress toward a broader settlement.

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have gone too far in their strife to be able to avoid the daily frictions and tit for tat of violence without a third party to separate them. Without a third-party replacement of the Israeli forces that currently occupy the Palestinian-inhabited territories, it is doubtful that piratic settlements and occasional violence will ever come to a halt.

Avraham Sela, a senior lecturer for Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University, is coauthor of "The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Coexistence" (Columbia University Press, 2000).

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