Palestine: Hamas besieged

4 July 2006
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Israel's incursion into Gaza, the arrest of Hamas ministers and legislators, and the financial embargo on the Palestinians show that Israel, with the United States, mean to provoke the collapse of the Hamas-led government. This activity comes just as Hamas and Fatah seemed set to agree on national unity. From the West Bank and Gaza, Wendy Kristianasen traces the background to the current crisis.

This article was first published in Le Monde diplomatique (English language edition) June 2006.

“I’ve never seen a government put under such pressure: we’re
being squeezed out of existence. There’s no time to breathe
or think,” said Dr Aziz Dwaik in Ramallah. He is the speaker
of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and knows the
West well, having two MAs and a PhD from universities in the
United States. He continued: “If the West wants Hamas to
fail, OK. But it won’t serve international peace and
prosperity because it risks radicalising the Palestinians.
The region will pay the price.”

The cash is running out. Although the European Union promises
to resume aid, the economic siege by Israel and the West of
the Palestinian government, led by the Islamic Resistance
Movement (Hamas), has given rise to a serious situation in
the West Bank and Gaza. It is not unlike Iraq during the
years of embargo; thousands are short of cash, food,
medicines, and petrol, and hospitals have cancelled all but
emergency treatment.

US and Israeli determination to undermine the Hamas-led
government (voted into power in January in a transparent
election that the US had promoted) has caused tensions
between, on one side, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority
(PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas on the other.

Some 700 000 Palestinians depend on PA wages. The PLC
secretary general, Mahmoud Ramahi, said: “The number of PA
employees grew from 120 000 in 2000 to 167 000 in 2006”;
10 000 of them were hired in the last three months of the
previous government, intended to ensure Fatah’s electoral
victory. Of the PA’s US$ 1.8bn budget for 2005, US$ 790m came from
customs revenues from Israel, US$ 360m from internal taxes, and
the rest from international aid.

The PA employs 70 000 security forces, 40 000 teachers, and
9000 medical workers. “Teachers’ salaries account for a
third of the payroll,” said the deputy prime minister and
minister of education, Nasser Eddin al-Shaer, in Ramallah.
“Some of them haven’t been paid for nine months; it’s an
accumulated problem. There’s not a single dollar left in the
ministry. The private sector is suffering too. We can do
nothing without aid. People are already suffering. We don’t
know how long they’ll be patient. We face severe problems:
social and political unrest, strikes.”

The new government looks to the Arab/Muslim world for
support. Egypt and Jordan have kept their distance, fearful
of the impact of an Islamist-led government at home. Other
countries have promised help. The finance minister, Dr Omar
Abdel-Razeq, said: “US$ 35m from Algeria arrived before we took
office; US$ 10m from Russia will be spent on health. We’ve got
US$ 70m on deposit with the Arab League and US$ 50m coming from
Qatar, US$ 20m from Saudi Arabia, US$ 50m, maybe even US$ 100m, from
Iran, and US$ 50m from Libya. The problem is getting it in. The
banks are under pressure, especially in the US, not to
transfer funds.”

International donors require the new government to observe
three conditions: to denounce violence, recognise the state
of Israel, and agree to previous agreements signed between the
Palestinians and Israelis. But no demands have been made of
the Israelis. “It’s a wakeup call,” said a secular women’s
rights activist in Ramallah, Soraida Hussein. “We have to
reject Western interference. That means supporting Hamas.
People voted for them and we have to respect their wishes.”

Hamas has no time

A former minister from the Palestinian People’s
(ex-Communist) Party, Ghassan Khatib, echoed that view:
“People outside fail to see how hostile people feel to the
US. If the government falls, Hamas will get sympathy for its
punishment by the outside world. It would gain in strength
and legitimacy, and be the only winner. Does the US realise
this?” He warned: “If Hamas wants the PA to continue, it will
have to make dramatic concessions: Arafat had 20 years to
make his transition, Hamas has no time at all. On the other
hand, if it makes those concessions, it may lose part of its
own base.”

At the Gaza City office of the Palestinian prime minister,
Ismail Haniya, the tension was palpable. His political
adviser, Ahmad Youssef, had been worried about Haniya’s
safety (Fatah-controlled Preventive Security had denied him
access on a road it controls, forcing his car to take a dirt
sidetrack). Haniya smiled his way through a media circus:
cameras flashed as he posed before the huge photograph of the
al-Aqsa mosque hung behind his desk, displayed gold jewellery
that had been donated as gifts by Palestinian families to
help the government, and made a phone call to Romano Prodi in
Italy to congratulate him on his electoral victory.

Aside, he spoke with circumspection: “We will respect the
Palestinian-Israeli agreements if they are in the Palestinian
interest.” The Arab states’ initiative at the 2002 Arab
summit in Beirut, based on the coexistence of two states,
Palestine and Israel, “has many positive attributes. If we
have reservations, we will express them when Israel agrees to

Is his government ready to accept all the United Nations
resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

“We are ready to deal with them and take them seriously, if
they are in the Palestinian interest and if Israel accepts
them too.” Would that include resolution 242? “If the
Israelis withdraw, OK, we’ll deal with that reality; but this
unilateral policy which does not take us into account, or
Mahmoud Abbas before us, isn’t a peaceful or just solution.”

Dr Abdel-Razeq went further: “We’ll have to see what Israel
offers first; then I can’t see any problem in negotiation.
But it can’t be done through the media. If Israel withdraws
unilaterally and an independent Palestinian state comes into
being, then we would have no problem negotiating a truce, or
even a two-state solution, so long as the conditions are
right. That means complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders,
including Jerusalem, dismantling the settlements and the
separation wall, allowing the return of the refugees and
their compensation, as well as compensation for the
sufferings of our people under the occupation. It’s about
recognising realities.”

The mild-mannered Abdel-Razeq was in prison during the
electoral campaign, and was released conditionally to take up
his post. A hearing is due soon. Of the 74 Hamas deputies,
only one has not been in prison. Parliament sits and
committees work from two separate buildings, one in Ramallah,
the other in Gaza City. A video link allows the elected
representatives of the two regions to communicate with each
other: the Israeli authorities forbid most of them from
crossing the 50 miles that separate the territories, leaving
them in worsening isolation.

In Gaza, the government spokesman, Ghazi Hamed, elaborated:
“We’ve told the Europeans we’re ready for political
compromise. But the West has to stop putting its conditions
on us. Because what guarantees are they giving us? And how
can we accept agreements that Israel rejects? We are
absolutely clear: if Israel accepts resolution 242, no
problem, we’ll accept it too. But Israel ought to make the
first step because we don’t have any land to give: the only
thing we have to give is security.”

A clean pair of hands

The Palestinians voted for Hamas because it offered clean
hands, not tarnished with corruption, and had a strong social
base and good record in local government. Also because
Fatah’s strategy had failed. The head of the Palestinian
Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, Raja Sourani, said: “As an
organisation Hamas is number one, the rest are number 10.
People gave them the benefit of the doubt because they’re
just ordinary people. The reality is that the occupation is
still there: it decides the colour of our underwear, the
medicine we give our children. We’re suffocating. Israel
called Arafat the godfather of terrorism and put him under
siege; then Abu Mazen came and they didn’t even talk to him.
Now we’re being punished for expressing our free will and
electing Hamas. So what’s new? We were already declared an
enemy. What’s happening now, though, is a call for Bin

The independent PLC member, Rawya Shawa (a rare unveiled
woman in Gaza, who comes from one of the oldest Palestinian
families) said: “I was against Fatah because it was dragging
our society backwards. That’s why everyone voted for Hamas. I
will support them as long as they get rid of the corruption.
For a conservative Muslim society like ours, Hamas isn’t a
problem or even a change. They’re not going for a
Khomeini-style state.”

That idea was confirmed in Ramallah by the secular Khaleda
Jarrar, a PLC member from the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine: “The problem isn’t Hamas but Fatah.
In the last parliament it proposed backward reforms, such as
a penal law with Islam as the reference and a maximum of six
months punishment for honour killings.” The new minister for
women’s affairs, Dr Mariam Saleh, who is an expert in Islamic
law and a PLC member for Hamas, agreed: “We need social
reform: equal job opportunities for women and reform of the
family code and inheritance laws.”

Everywhere in Gaza, anti-Fatah sentiment was high. I went to
see the Fatah minister for prisoners in the last government,
Sufian Abu-Zeida, in his home by the Jabalya refugee camp.
Would Fatah use this breathing space to reform and resolve
its internal differences? “Unfortunately, I think not.”

The pounding of Israeli artillery was loud there, close to
the sandy wasteland from which Fatah and Islamic Jihad
militia fire their Qassam rockets at Israel. Most miss their
target. The incessant and disproportionate Israeli riposte
lands mainly in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahya, which straddle
the road from the northerly Erez checkpoint to Israel. Not
far away, in al-Sudaniya, in the villa of Khaled al-Yazji, a
former Arafat aide and deputy minister of the interior under
Abbas, an explosion shattered the calm. His cell phone rang
briefly: the explosion had been a plane or drone and no child
was missing.

Conversation resumed. “I have not left Fatah: it’s an open
buffet. A small group have failed us. It’s time for them to
go. Fatah is incapable of reforming the PLO institutions, so
now it’s up to Hamas to take over.”

Hamas might like to see an end to violence, especially the
attacks from Gaza which Hamas officials admit privately are
pointless, even an embarrassment. Hamas has strictly adhered
to a tahdia (period of calm) for more than a year.1 Jamil
Hilal, who is a sociologist and independent member of the
Palestinian National Council (PNC), said: “Hamas now needs to
define what it means by resistance, particularly suicide
bombings, and against whom.” Eleven people were killed and
more than 60 injured in Tel Aviv on 18 April in the worst
suicide attack since August 2004.

Abbas denounced the attack as “disgusting”, but the Hamas
spokesman, Sami Abu-Zuhri, said on BBC television: “It was an
act of self-defence […] a natural response to Israeli
aggression […] [the Palestinians would] continue their
resistance but against the military and settlers.”

Two days later, in Gaza, I asked Abu-Zuhri why he had not
said that Islamic Jihad, rather than Hamas, had been
responsible for the attack, and that Hamas was holding to the
ceasefire? “We felt it was inappropriate to say that we
actually support calm.” Hamas has not formally renounced

An integral part of the PA

But the movement has come a long way from its armed struggle
to win back all of Palestine. It took years for the movement
to enter the political arena, which meant recognising the PA,
itself created by the Oslo accord that Hamas had called the
“sale of Palestine”. The debate was made harder by the
isolation of the scattered leaderships: in Gaza, where the
movement began at the start of the first intifada and which
still claims supremacy, in the West Bank; and outside, in
Amman, then in Damascus. The election victory, which the
movement neither expected nor was prepared for, then forced
it to become an integral part of the PA.

In local government Hamas has been pragmatic. It insists that
it will not impose its vision of an Islamic society on the
Palestinians. Though its precise direction remains unclear as
yet, it sees itself as a new democratic model for the states
of the region and is conscious that, if elections were held
in the Arab countries, Islamists would sweep to power in
Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere.

Haniya, a moderate, was the West Bank’s choice of leader over
the more experienced but harder-line Dr Mahmoud Zahhar, now
the Palestinian foreign minister. Haniya, 43, who still lives
modestly in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City where he was
born, is one of the younger generation of Hamas political
leaders. Zahhar is the only survivor of the Israeli targeted
assassinations that removed the first echelon of leaders:
Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, Abdelaziz Rantisi, Ismael Abu Shenab.

Hamas as a movement still maintains its clandestine
structure, but now it also has a public and political role in
which increasing numbers of its members have taken up
official positions. The outside political bureau, headed by
Khaled Meshal, speaks for, and to, Palestinians throughout
their diaspora: separate bases, inside and outside, and
different constituencies that allow the movement a certain
latitude in its discourse. It has not ruled out amending its
charter or negotiating with Israel on the basis of the 1967
lines; what it may, in future, rule in is less clear.

For now the priorities are the international boycott and
internal tensions between Hamas and Fatah. An obstacle to an
effective cohabitation is the failure of Hamas’s attempts to
join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). For, if
Hamas is not a member of the PLO, all PLC members are still
by right members of the Palestinian National Council (PNC),
the PLO’s supreme organ. This means that Hamas has 10 per cent of the
PNC without being a member of it. Hamas long contested the
PLO’s claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the
Palestinian people but, in last year’s Cairo Declaration
agreed by all the Palestinian political groups,2 it
finally agreed to recognise the PLO, although it claims 40 per cent
of the seats of the PNC.

Is Hamas ready to make the move that it promised in order to
reform the PLO? Haniya said: “We are more than ready; we’re
waiting for the PLO to move.”

Dr Ziad Abu-Amr, who was a former minister and is now an
independent MP and a likely foreign minister in any national
unity government, describes himself as “a third voice”. In
his Gaza office and through the din of the shelling, he
expressed surprise at the position of the new government: “It
is ironic that Hamas, as a movement, recognised the PLO as
sole legitimate representative but that, as the Palestinian
government, it has not done so. Normally a government is more
moderate than a party.”

He spoke of the failure to form a national unity government,
which could have averted the present crisis: “The sticking
point was Hamas’s political programme. It would have conceded
important posts as long as its programme wasn’t torpedoed.
When it talks about power-sharing, it means something that
won’t take away its decision-making power. Hamas is
ambitious. It wants to introduce something authentic and felt
it would be demeaning to join the decadent nationalists. And
then with its electoral victory it didn’t feel the need.” For
Abu-Amr, this is another irony for “it could have compromised
far more easily now with its big majority.”

The crisis deepens

There was a first sign of friction with Abbas’s assumption of
control of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt at the
request of the Europeans. The Haniya team accepted the move
but were outraged at how it was done: “We read it in the
papers,” said one Hamas official. Another source of tension
emerged in April with interior minister Said Siam’s decision
to appoint a new 3000-strong force to back up the police and
security. The force was to be made up of different militia
under Jamal Abu Samhadana, a commander of the Popular
Resistance Committees wanted by the Israelis. Abbas
immediately overruled this as “illegal and unconstitutional”.
However, the force started work on 17 May.

In Gaza, the interior ministry spokesman, Khaled Abu Hilal,
flanked by armed militia, said: “This is a national
programme. Look at me, I resigned as spokesman for the
Al-Aqsa Brigades3 to become a Fatah spokesman for a Hamas
minister. My wife is Hamas, my brother-in-law is PFLP. But
we’re all against corruption.” He said the force “would start
by recovering public land in Gaza grabbed in the present
anarchy and lawlessness. We’re also enlisting support from
the big families and clans and mukhtars (local mayors) to
help confiscate illegal weapons. We want to rebuild our
society ruined by the occupation, and also by some within

Tensions rose still further when Khaled Meshaal accused the
Palestinian president and his aides of plotting with Israel
and the US to undermine the government.4 Fatah supporters
took to the streets and there were clashes in two Gaza
universities, with some 40 wounded. Abbas cancelled planned
military parades by Fatah militia. On 23 April, Fatah gunmen
stormed the Hamas-controlled municipal building in Nablus and
the Gaza office of the health minister, Bassem Naim, who had
announced a US$ 2m cut in the monthly health budget.

Talking to me in Ramallah, two ministers unambiguously
distanced the government from the movement. Al-Shaer said:
“We must be clear. Hamas definitely has to have people
talking for the movement abroad. But here we are talking
about internal dialogue. There is no need for Khaled Mishal.
He does not represent the government.” Abdel-Razeq
elaborated: “The Mishal statement was misused; Mishal was
talking about a group of people. But it was not the right
time to say it and some of the things he said were

Throughout May there were inter-factional violence and armed
attacks between Hamas and Fatah camps: 10 died. Attempts to
restore internal unity increased. The government agreed to
integrate the controversial new force under Abu Samhadana
into the existing security structure, and on 25 May
temporarily withdrew the force from the streets of Gaza. That
day a national dialogue began in Gaza and Ramallah, linked by
video conferencing, to work out a joint Palestinian political
platform. The dialogue included all the Palestinian political
groups as well as members of civil society, notably
businessmen and academics.

A starting point for such an agreement is a broad new
declaration drawn up in Hadarim prison on 11 May by
imprisoned leaders of Palestinian factions, including Islamic
Jihad, and signed by both a senior Hamas leader, Sheikh Abdel
Halek Natshe, and Fatah’s charismatic West Bank leader,
Marwan Barghouti. The National Reconciliation document
implies acceptance of an independent state on all the land
occupied in 1967, the right of return, and the freeing of
detainees; it confines resistance to the territories occupied
in 1967, and urges the speeding up of PLO reform and the
formation of a national unity government.

Acceptance of the plan as a unified Palestinian strategic
position could provide the key to unlocking international
funds and defusing the crisis; it could also provide a
timetable for Hamas’s integration into the PLO. In a surprise
move, Abbas issued an ultimatum: a national dialogue
committee, chaired by himself and agreed by all factions
except Islamic Jihad, was to endorse the prisoners’ plan
within 10 days. If that failed, he would put it to a
referendum this summer.

Could Hamas accept such an ultimatum? Though it accepts most
of the plan’s provisions, it has yet to accept the plan in
its entirety. Haniya responded with caution: the plan was
constructive but any agreement would not be an alternative to
the government’s political programme. As for a referendum,
the government would study its legality. The diplomatic
language sought to minimise disagreements within Hamas
provoked by the ultimatum and to avert a referendum that
would likely win approval.5 Agreement became more urgent
when, on 30 May, thousands took to the streets of Ramallah in
a Fatah-led protest by the PA Employees Union, whose members
have not been paid for three months. The 6 June deadline
passed without endorsement of the plan.

If agreement can yet be reached, could this signal power
sharing within the PA that would avert its collapse?
Abdel-Razeq said: “Cooperation between this government and
the president could eventually lead to a national unity
government if we can all find common ground, be patient, and
compromise on ideology. Then we might be able to take more
flexible stands. Hamas cannot do that by itself. We need a
way out.”

That would be the preferred exit scenario. But will Hamas or
Fatah be prepared to make the concessions needed for a
coalition? Professor George Giacamen, a founder of Muwatin
(citizen), a Palestinian think tank on democracy based in
Ramallah, thought not. “Neither side is ready to do it.” His
preferred solution would be a government of technocrats,
possibly initiated by action by teachers (there are 40 000,
equally distributed between Fatah and Hamas). A more likely
outcome could be some halfway step towards national unity,
with Hamas conceding certain ministries, including finance.
And what if that fails? “We would resign honourably,” said
Ghazi Hamed.

As Abdel-Razeq pointed out: “If the government falls you’d
still have a strong Hamas and the PLC and the occupation, but
the political system would collapse.” Technically, Israel
would be required to re-administer the Palestinian

This possibility has renewed debate about the role of the PA.
Some ask what is its purpose, other than to pay salaries, if
the political process on which it was founded has ceased?
Hamas, however, will not go away.


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  1. Hamas announced a first explicit ceasefire (hudna) on 29 June 2003; this broke down on 19 August 2003. It then focused on actions against the military until, on 18 March 2005, it agreed to the present period of calm.
  2. Declaration by 13 Palestinian factions, 17 March 2005. For an informed view of the declaration, see Graham Usher, "The calm before the storm?", Al-Ahram Weekly, Cairo, no 735, 24-30 March 2005.
  3. The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades form an armed militia connected to Fatah; they were created soon after the outbreak of the 2000 intifada and are made up mostly of the Tanzim, a militant Fatah youth group. The Brigades have made armed attacks against military and civilians, and are on the "terrorist" list.
  4. Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem, 23 April 2006.
  5. According to a Near East Consulting poll, 79.9 per cent of Palestinians inside the territories support the plan; their main concerns were ending the security chaos in Gaza (45.7 per cent) and solving poverty and unemployment (18.1 per cent).

Published 4 July 2006

Original in English
First published in Le Monde diplomatique (English language edition) 6/2006

© Wendy Kristianasen / Le Monde diplomatique (English language edition) / Eurozine


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