Inside Gaza: the main players
|Wednesday, October 24,2007 06:26|
Hamas leaders have seemed genuinely surprised by their successes in recent years: they won the 2006 elections for the Palestinian legislative council and, earlier this year, when they attacked some of the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, the whole apparatus crumbled, leaving them in sole charge of the Gaza Strip.
While it remains the dominant force in Gaza, Hamas has discovered the limitations of power.
Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987. It created a network of charitable institutions, which endeared it to Palestinians, particularly when set against the perceived self-interest and corruption of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority after 1994.
It carried out its first suicide bombing in 1994 after the murder of 29 Palestinians by an Israeli in Hebron, and the tactic became its hallmark. While Hamas was the most effective militant group in its attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets, it has not carried out a suicide attack since 2004.
The dominant figure in Hamas was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a paraplegic teacher whom Israel assassinated in 2004. Hamas now does not have a clear leader: Mahmoud Zahar and Ismail Haniyeh seem to be the leading political figures in Gaza, while Ahmed Jaabari is the leader of its military wing, the Qassam Brigades; Khaled Mashal, based in Damascus, is also a powerful figure, representing the Palestinian diaspora and acting as a conduit for finance from Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Gulf states.
Hamas leaders say their current policy is to seek a ceasefire with Israel and negotiations for a national unity government with Fatah as a way of escaping the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Gaza. However, they add that if Fatah and Israel persist in ignoring their overtures, they will continue to hold on to Gaza.
The international community has largely ostracised Hamas for its failure explicitly to accept the right of the state of Israel to exist, though British officials maintained contacts during the kidnapping of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston.
The defeat of Fatah by Hamas in the January 2006 elections was a long-awaited reaction by Palestinians to the corruption and incompetence of their leadership: Fatah gained fewer votes (though only slightly) than Hamas not because of its popularity but rather because of self-interest, particularly on the part of the section of the population dependent on a wage from Palestinian Authority.
The incompetence and complacency among the Fatah leadership was demonstrated by its inability to organise its candidates to maximise its seats. As a result, what could have been a slim defeat for Fatah was a landslide for Hamas.
Fatah has always been closely identified with its charasmatic leader, Yasser Arafat. Palestinians sometimes wonder whether they would have been closer to achieving their national aspirations if more competent leaders, such as Khalil al Wazir (aka Abu Jihad), Fatah"s military commander, who was assassinated by Israel in 1988, had survived.
While Arafat was a very effective symbol of Palestinian nationalism, he was a poor state-builder. After the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel, which set up the Palestinian Authority in some areas of Gaza and the West Bank, Arafat created a bloated bureaucracy that was effective at creating wealth for his cadres but did little to improve the life of Palestinians.
Most of the suicide bombers originated in the northern West Bank, in the areas of Tulkarem and Jenin, but Islamic Jihad has its deepest roots in Gaza, where it is also associated with some large families.
Like Hamas, JIhad wants to see an Islamic state in historic Palestine, the area that was controlled by Britain until 1948. The main philosophical difference between the two groups is that Jihad, although it is a Sunni Muslim group, draws a greater degree of inspiration from the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.
In practical terms, Hamas has effectively accepted the Oslo agreements by running for election to the Palestinian Authority institutions the accords set up; Jihad has not.
In Gaza, there is a continuing alliance between Fatah and Islamic Jihad against Hamas, which has seen gunmen from both groups fighting the forces of latter. In the last week, there has been fighting between Jihad and Hamas in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.
The founder of Islamic Jihad, Fathi Shiqaqi, was assassinated in Malta in 1995. No one claimed responsibility. The current leader, Ramadan Abdullah al-Shallah, was educated at Durham University but is now based in Damascus; the leading political figures in Gaza are Mohammed al-Hindi and Khaled al-Batch.