Referendum could seal Palestinian government’s fate

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh knows how to call the faithful to prayer and preach power politics from the pulpit. In his zealous sermon, blaring out of the packed Izz-al-Din al-Qassam mosque in the sweltering June heat, he was alternately defiant and pious, taking a political stand and calling on God to defend it.

“I confirm to our people, to the Arab world and the entire world, we will not abandon our principles,” Haniyeh declared, his message reverberating over loudspeakers through the cinderblock warrens of the sprawling Nuseirat, Gaza Strip, refugee camp, long a stronghold of Hamas and its militants.

“There are some people pushing a strategy to make this government fail, and this strategy is actually making us stronger,” he insisted. Then he switched from politician to sheik, and the familiar ground of Islam. “We become strong by reading the holy Quran and calling on God, and we get support from God every time. It’s like a weapon. Calling on God is a great weapon.”

For Hamas, politics and religion go hand in hand. But theology can be rigid, and democracy demands compromise.

In the material world, Hamas’ leaders now face an existential crossroads in negotiations leading up to a referendum July 26 called for by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on a plan for a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel, carrying with it an implicit recognition of the Jewish state. Hamas has always rejected the idea.

The next few weeks may determine whether Haniyeh’s Hamas-led government can succeed in becoming what it claims to be – a democratic, Islamist government that can serve as a bridge between the West and more radical fundamentalist groups – or whether it will be outmaneuvered by Abbas, leaving it an embittered opposition that may again regress into violence against Israel.

For now the Hamas government is backed into a corner in an increasingly violent, deadly confrontation with Abbas. Just three months after it took power, its financial ammunition is low, its political options limited and its enemies myriad and growing. Hundreds of millions in international aid have been cut off by Western governments that consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and hunger deepens in the slums of the Gaza Strip.

An exasperated Haniyeh recently confided his frustration to a Palestinian legislator, who told the Chicago Tribune that the prime minister asked, “Why isn’t anything working?”

One step toward restoring the international aid would be to recognize Israel. But that would be nothing short of a revolutionary change for Hamas, a political movement that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that is a powerful force in Arab politics.

Abbas’ ultimatum, which many Hamas officials say is an attempted coup against a duly elected government, has increased turmoil in Gaza, and the violence spilled last week into the West Bank.

Members of a new Hamas-led police force clashed with security forces loyal to Abbas’ Fatah faction on June 12 in Rafah, and Fatah gunmen responded by briefly kidnapping a Hamas legislator and going on a rampage, shooting bullets at and setting fire to the buildings of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian legislative council and cabinet offices in Ramallah.

Gun battles between Hamas and Fatah supporters have killed more than a dozen Palestinians in recent weeks. There is a growing fear of civil war. Meanwhile, Israel has used airstrikes in targeted assassinations of militants, and its shells rain down regularly in response to the scores of rocket attacks from Gaza in recent months.

After an explosion killed seven members of one family on a Gaza beach June 9, Palestinians blamed Israel, prompting Hamas’ military wing to step up rocket attacks against the Jewish state and vow a resumption of suicide attacks after a 16-month truce.

Israel released an army report denying responsibility for the beach blast, but that claim was disputed by Human Rights Watch.

Hamas also is running out of money. The U.S. and other Western governments have cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority, saying the funds will be restored only when Hamas renounces violence, recognizes Israel and accepts all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Israel has stopped handing over tax and customs revenues it collects for the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian ministers have resorted to bringing in private donations from Arab and Muslim charities in suitcases. Most of the government’s 165,000 employees are not being paid.

“From the very first day, we felt that the United States, Israel and the international community wanted us to fall,” said Ghazi Hamid, spokesman for the cabinet and a senior adviser to Haniyeh. “They want to press us like a lemon, to squeeze the last drop.

“We feel that there is a comprehensive war against this government, and we will not fall or surrender,” he continued. “We are not a terrorist people. We want to live like you, like everyone in the world.”

Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a prominent Gaza psychiatrist who has advised Haniyeh on occasion but is politically independent, sees Hamas in a no-win situation. “I think Hamas trapped itself by going into the government. They were more powerful in the opposition or on the outside,” he observed one recent night, as gunfire between security forces erupted outside the walls of his Gaza City home and bullets ricocheted off his garden walls.

“I don’t think they will be able to recognize Israel, and the cornerstone of dealing with the politics of the region is Israel. And you have to deal with Israel if you want to deal with the United States,” Sarraj said.

The clock is ticking, and within Hamas agonizing decisions must be made. Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders in the Palestinian Authority, inside Israeli prisons, and in the movement’s external political leadership in Syria and Lebanon cannot or will not bend enough to satisfy Abbas.

While Haniyeh and others see Abbas’ proposal as worthy of further discussion, Haniyeh objects to Abbas putting “a gun to my head” with the referendum.

The Abbas strategy also is an attempt to seek a national consensus among all Palestinian factions to facilitate a return to negotiations with Israel.

The 18-point “prisoners’ document” was drafted by prominent Palestinians from Hamas, Fatah and other factions in Israeli jails. It calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. It also seeks the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to their former lands in Israel, the release of all Palestinian prisoners and negotiations with Israel conducted by Abbas.

By implication, that would mean recognition of Israel.

The document’s Hamas author and other Hamas prisoners have withdrawn their support for the plan, arguing that it has become politicized.

Israel has long opposed many of the provisions listed in the document, rejecting a complete withdrawal to the 1967 lines or the return of most refugees to its territory. It also wants to keep large settlement blocs in the West Bank and has annexed East Jerusalem.

For its part, the Hamas charter reads that Israel “will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it.” The covenant also says that “the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf (trust) consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day. … It, or any part of it, should not be given up.”

That leaves little wiggle room for Hamas. The question is whether its leaders can bend their doctrine enough to stay in power or whether their devout rigidity will cause the government to fall, potentially plunging the Palestinian territories into more conflict, chaos and civil war.

The biggest threat to Hamas may be the challenge from Abbas. If voters approve Abbas’ proposal, as polls suggest they will, it could strengthen Abbas’ hand to the point where he could pressure Hamas leaders to agree to his terms or face the prospect that their government might be dissolved.

“The Hamas point is that they won the elections and now they should be allowed to govern. But we differ with them politically and we want to take it to the referendum,” said Saeb Erekat, an adviser to Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator.

“We said to them: ballots and not bullets. And if they say `no’ to the referendum, that means all their talk about democracy is just words.”

Erekat expressed doubt that Hamas leaders will be able to agree, given the constraints of their charter and Islamic ideology.

In the wider world, Hamas portrays itself as a model of success. It is among the first Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups to win power in a democratic election and sees itself as an example of the growing political influence of Islam and a model for other Islamists.

Sarraj, the psychiatrist, holds a view often heard in Gaza and the West Bank that the United States, Israel and the international community are missing an opportunity to deal with Hamas not as terrorists but as a moderate Islamic fundamentalist group. Such negotiations, he contends, could offer a chance at rapprochement between the West and radical Muslim groups that embody the global awakening of Islamic fervor.

“If America wants to know about the Muslim world, you should open channels and listen and talk to the people,” he said. “But if you keep isolating them, Hamas will break up into splinter groups and one of them will link up with al-Qaida and will be attacking in the U.S.”

Hamas officials also warn that if their government falls, it could spur a violent reaction from more radical groups in the region against Israel, moderate Arab governments, perhaps even America.

But U.S. officials and other diplomats are skeptical. “We don’t buy that (Hamas leaders) are moderates,” said one Western diplomat who requested anonymity. “The way it seems to us is they say these moderate things to entrench themselves and to hold on to power. Our argument is not that if they fail those things will come true, but that if they succeed here those threats will come true.”

In the West, Hamas is seen mainly as a terrorist organization of suicide bombers and Muslim extremists. Its military wing has launched the largest number of suicide attacks on Israelis, and some of the bloodiest, since the 1990s.

But Hamas for years has run a network of charities, social services, clinics, mosques and schools that has made it very popular in Gaza’s poorest neighborhoods. The group’s success in January’s parliamentary elections, winning 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, surprised even Hamas, whose leaders had expected to do well but not to govern.

The U.S.-led sanctions now threaten to erode support for Hamas. Yet here in the sand-swept streets and cramped refugee camps of Gaza, where donkey carts share the road with new sport utility vehicles, the affection of its followers is still palpable. Supporters of Hamas embrace the group for its record of faith, charity, incorruptibility and resistance to Israel. Though support for Hamas has declined since April – by 13 percentage points in one recent survey – polls show it is still strong and rivals the support of Fatah.

Palestinian society is overwhelmingly Muslim, and many are comfortable supporting an Islamic group. That is especially true in the Gaza Strip, where people have turned to their faith in order to endure a crushing cycle of poverty and violence. The halting of foreign aid has fostered resentment here toward the United States, Israel and other governments supporting the sanctions.

This is home turf for Haniyeh, 43, who was born in the Shati refugee camp to refugees driven from their village in the 1948 war with Israel, and grew up there. He is known as a moderate within the movement and calls for unity among the factions. His support in many areas goes beyond the political to the personal; on the streets, people refer to him familiarly as Abu Abed, the father of Abed.

Unlike the previous Fatah-led government, which was perceived as corrupt, enriched by power and distant from the masses, Hamas is seen as honest, pious and disciplined, and part of the Arab street. Haniyeh is trying to tap that support now.

He calls the referendum illegal, wants Abbas to continue negotiating for a solution and begs for unity and patience in his regular Friday sermons and other public events. He has vowed that Palestinians will “eat olive oil and zaatar” (a blend of herbs) rather than bow to the cutoff of aid and international demands.

Haniyeh and Abbas have met several times but have not reached a compromise. Should they agree on a national agenda based on the prisoners’ document, Abbas has said he will cancel the referendum.

The recent spasm of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, including the mounting toll of Palestinian civilian casualties, could refocus Palestinians on fighting Israel, and some observers wonder whether Hamas may use the struggle to forestall the referendum.

The pressure of the referendum has brought criticism from other factions who call it a power play by Abbas and his Fatah faction.

“I can’t imagine we are doing this to ourselves,” said Khuzam Badran, 25, a secretary in the information department at the Palestinian legislative council in Ramallah, in response to her offices being shot up in last week’s violence.

“There is a lot of anger here among Palestinians, and I’m afraid for the future, of what is coming,” added Badran, a supporter of Fatah who backs Abbas’ call for a referendum but doesn’t think Hamas should be pressured into recognizing Israel “because this is a state of occupation.”

Whether Hamas can refuse to do that indefinitely, and still hold on to power, remains to be seen.

“In the end, Hamas is a religious organization,” observed a Western diplomat in Israel who spoke on condition that he not be named. “What we’re asking is not so much a change as a conversion. It’s a bigger request that will be more difficult than a political one.

“If they cooperate, we’re asking them to stop being Hamas.”

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