Seven Questions: The State of Palestine

Since Hamas’s victory in January, the economy in the West Bank and Gaza has plummeted, and tensions are rising between the new ruling party and President Mahmoud Abbas. Ziad Abu Zayyad, former legislator and Palestinian Authority minister of state, spoke to FP about Hamas’s leaders, why they came to power, and the prospects for peace.

FOREIGN POLICY: When Hamas was elected to power, the United States and European Union cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, and Israel withheld taxes it had been collecting. Palestinian government workers haven’t been paid in more than three months. How bad is the economic situation right now?

Ziad Abu Zayyad: The situation is deteriorating. There are about 140,000 employees whose lives depend on their salaries. Things are very bad.

Withholding financial aid is making Hamas more popular [among the Palestinians]. The problem is not the salaries. The problem is the occupation. We see the Israeli occupation as the reason for all of our problems. Even if the United States and the other countries were to withdraw [and allow funds to flow], it would be seen as a victory for Hamas. Hamas will say, “We told you that we would defeat them.”

FP: The Palestinian interior minister recently announced the formation of a new security force, against President Mahmoud Abbas’s wishes. Is there an increasing division between those loyal to Hamas and those loyal to Fatah?

ZA: Hamas is not absorbing the fact that they are in government. Many of them are behaving as if they were still in the opposition. There are members of this new security force who are accustomed to violating the law of the Palestinian government. How can you take someone who was violating the rule of law and tell them that they are now in charge of enforcing the rule of law?

However, this is the first time that [an affiliate of] the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power through democratic means. It’s not a military coup, and it’s not a revolution. It’s elections. This is seen all over the Arab world as a big achievement for the Muslim Brothers. In order to remain in power, Hamas might try to show the outside world that they are statesmen and can handle the affairs of the Palestinian people. The question is whether they will become pragmatic in a reasonable period of time.

FP: Does Hamas have any friends in the international community?

ZA: Mahmoud Zahhar, the foreign minister, is very proud of his meetings in Tehran and Damascus. The Iranians want to show that they are supporting Hamas, but at the same time, they know that they have limits in this direction. They want their nuclear program, and they don’t want to go much further than that. Syria has its own problems with the United States and with other Western countries.

There are rumors about a Russian initiative that could help the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. We welcome any mediation. But if the Russians do anything, they will not do it because they are great friends of Hamas. They will do it because Russia is trying to play a role in the Middle East.

FP: The Arab League met in Beirut in 2002 and unanimously passed a peace initiative, in which Arab countries agreed to recognize the state of Israel if it withdrew from the occupied territories. Do you think Hamas would be willing to go along with the initiative?

ZA: [Hamas] made some statements, which were understood by some people that they were ready to accept the Arab Peace Initiative. But they did not say it [explicitly]. That is the problem with Hamas. If they want to make any change to their political platform, they should do it in language the whole world understands. If they want to take a step forward toward international legitimacy, they need to say clearly that they accept the Arab Peace Initiative.

FP: Now that Hamas is actually in power, will it become more moderate and statesmanlike as it gains experience in government?

ZA: There are some smart people in their leadership who are adapting very quickly. The problem with Hamas will be with their outside leaders. Sometimes there is lack of harmony between the leaders who speak on behalf of Hamas outside [the Palestinian territories] and those who are inside.

FP: The Israelis began erecting a security barrier alongside the West Bank four years ago to stop terrorist attacks. What kind of effect has it had on the Palestinians?

ZA: I live in Bethany and the wall goes through my property. We are really in a cage, in jail. We cannot go to Jerusalem because of the wall. We cannot even go down the road to Jericho. It’s a disaster. If you go there and you see how people are living, it’s horrible.

In spite of everything, there are some people who smuggle themselves to East Jerusalem or to Israel to seek work to support their families. When these people go to Israel, they always fear that they will be caught by the police. Then they will be arrested. They will pay fines and they will be taken to jail. They live under this fear. You don’t feel secure for your property, for your life, for your son, for your daughter. Ask yourself, what is terror? Terror is to make someone live under fear.

The failure of the peace process, the building of Jewish settlements, the confiscation of Palestinian lands, and building the wall—it was a major factor in Hamas’s victory. People hold Fatah responsible for all this mess. Fatah came to the Palestinian Authority, saying that the Oslo Accords would bring a state to the Palestinian people. We failed to deliver. So people told us, “Go to hell, we will vote for Hamas!”

FP: What’s the outlook for the Palestinians and for the peace process in the near future?

ZA: I’m afraid I don’t see much positive happening, but we live with the hope that something will. Maybe there are some contacts under the carpet between Hamas and some third parties trying to mediate with the Israeli government. Perhaps some European parties will try to play a role bridging Hamas and Israel. Nobody expects anything to be done by the United States, at least for the next year. The United States has the conflict in Iraq and the midterm elections in November. There is the crisis building with Iran. President Bush is in a very difficult situation, and his popularity is dropping. So we do not expect much from the United States.

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