From being a broad and diverse church, Fatah is fast becoming a brand name, a label of diminished utility invoked by politicians and militia offshoots alike to enhance their credibility. During the liberation struggle, the absence of a precise political agenda helped to hold Fatah together; post-Oslo and post-intifada, it is tearing Fatah apart.
Fatah fed on heroism but has lost virtually all its heroes. To Palestinians, Abu Jihad, Abu Iyad, Abu Yusuf, and Kamal Adwan are household names, their pictures hanging alongside Arafat’s in most Fatah offices and homes. Yet their relevance is rapidly fading. In 1970, Abu Ali Iyad, another Fatah hero from bygone years, coined a slogan days before he was killed: “We will die standing, but never kneel.” It inspired generations of Fatah militants, seeing them through for more than two decades. Today, one is hard-pressed to imagine a possible equivalent. “Let us build institutions for a democratic state,” somehow, does not have quite the same ring.
Four decades after its creation, Fatah lacks a plot it can follow. Hamas, meanwhile, is determined to write a new one. Like Fatah, Hamas was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to the Islamization of Arab societies. But whereas Fatah’s founders broke ranks with the Brotherhood leaders over their decision to engage in guerrilla warfare, Hamas’s future leaders concentrated on domestic matters, giving priority to the religious transformation of Palestinian society over an armed confrontation with Israel. Of the two, paradoxically, it is Fatah that has the more militaristic pedigree. And in the absence of a continuing armed struggle, it is Hamas that has something to fall back on.
Hamas was created in the early stages of the first Palestinian intifada between 1987 and 1993 in response to growing pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership to establish for itself a distinct, separate presence. Fatah already was dominant in the uprising, and the Brotherhood had fresh memories of another setback suffered in 1980 when some members broke ranks to create the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group and engage in violence against Israel.
From the outset, Hamas challenged the PLO, and principally Fatah, swiftly eclipsing all other PLO factions as its chief rival for domestic support. Even then, much of its activity was directed inward. Hamas gradually took up arms and launched attacks against Israelis, but its social and religious agenda was always of central importance. Hamas worked through mosques and Islamic societies and set up charitable institutions that, after the advent of the Palestinian Authority, proved less corrupt and more efficient than their official counterparts.
During the Oslo years, Hamas strived to balance its various and at times competing goals. Wanting neither to trigger intra-Palestinian strife nor to give up its struggle against Israel, Hamas remained outside the Authority; while it opposed the peace process it did not fight fellow Palestinians. It railed against the Jewish state while concentrating on religious and social work. It held to its goal of establishing an Islamic state throughout the land of Mandatory Palestine but made it clear it would not impose that goal on the Palestinian people, asserting that such a state would come into being only if a popular majority opted for it. It disparaged the Authority’s diplomatic strategy and argued that violence was necessary to achieve Palestinian goals, but it calibrated its armed attacks according to its assessment of the popular mood.
Initially focusing its operations against Israeli soldiers and settlers, it gradually extended them to include suicide attacks against civilians, yet consistently defended them as retaliation for Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians. In so doing, it could both proclaim its opposition to attacks against civilians and justify them as necessary to force Israel to abide by the same principle. Abu Mazen has challenged this position. But throughout, Hamas’s leaders remained confident that they ultimately would benefit from public disenchantment with Israeli–Palestinian negotiations. When that time came, Hamas would be in a position to play a new, more interesting, and more central political part. Events may have proved it right.
For Hamas, this is the time to come into its own. Vindicated by the breakdown of the peace process and the outbreak of the intifada, it can now join a new process, not one it has formerly opposed; it can give Abu Mazen a chance without giving the Oslo Accords approval; and it can join the Authority and other Palestinian institutions without endorsing their past policies. Hamas long advocated democratic elections to select Palestinian representatives, objecting only to the elections taking place under the aegis of the Oslo Accords. That objection is now moot. Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza expresses better than anything else the fact that Oslo is a thing of the past, that something novel is afoot. In Hamas’s eyes, the withdrawal confirms the view that armed resistance, not political compromise, produces results.
As Fatah confronts public discontent and internal dissent, Hamas, through its network of religious and social institutions, can claim a more cohesive organizational structure and grass-roots presence, giving it an opportunity to challenge the secular movement’s dominance. Entering the new situation from a position of relative strength, Hamas believes it can retain its independence while influencing the decisions of the PLO and Palestinian Authority as well as the religious character of Palestinian society. From its vantage point, the change is not all that radical: having operated outside mainstream Palestinian institutions without directly opposing them, it now aims to work within those institutions without formally sanctioning them.
Bitter enemies in most respects, Hamas and Prime Minister Sharon have an important feature in common. Neither believes in the possibility of a permanent Israeli–Palestinian settlement at this time and both favor a long-term interim agreement. Hamas’s conception of such an agreement hardly matches the prime minister’s: it wants Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories in return for a decades-long truce, or hudna, designed to regulate the two peoples’ coexistence while their historic conflict endures. Hamas would not recognize Israel at that point, or relinquish its goal of an Islamic state from the Jordan River to the sea. But it would leave it to the Palestinian people, through a democratic process, to decide what to do. Sharon’s outlook and receding prospects of a final settlement in the near future provide one layer of assurance to Hamas; Abu Mazen’s pledge to submit any final settlement agreement to a popular referendum provides another. All of these considerations help to explain why Hamas is now prepared to join Palestinian political institutions it long shunned.
Abu Mazen’s way is not Hamas’s, but from Hamas’s perspective it is not wholly inconsistent either. The Islamist organization figures it stands to gain from more transparent, democratic Palestinian institutions, and that is a centerpiece of Abu Mazen’s program. Although the Islamist organization may not have the desire or the ability to talk to the US and sit down with Israelis, it is not innately opposed to either, and in its earlier years in fact engaged with both.
The cease-fire also comes at an opportune time as Palestinians are weary of conflict and Hamas would risk alienating them by pursuing armed attacks. Moreover, Israel’s military operations exacted a heavy cost. From the outset, Hamas’s leadership operated as a group, with decisions made by consensus among members of the Political Bureau in exile, such as Musa Abu Marzuq and Khaled Mashal; members of the Gaza Strip Steering Committee, such as Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, Abd-al-Aziz Rantissi, Ismail Haniyya, and Mahmoud Zahhar; members of the West Bank leadership, including Hassan Yussef; the important and influential prison leadership; and the organization’s military wing, known as the Qassam Brigades. Still, by killing Yassin and Rantissi, Israel deprived Hamas of its most recognized figures; by killing many others, it deprived Hamas of some of its capacity to carry out operations.
For Hamas, joining Palestinian institutions is an insurance policy. It can provide protection from Israel, whose raids against the Islamists would be harder to justify once Hamas has become part of the Authority. It can lessen international pressure, exacerbated by the September 11 attacks and the worldwide backlash against so-called Islamic terrorism. And it can lessen threats from Palestinian security forces. In the past, Arafat provided a relative sense of security. He could be confrontational with Hamas but he always stopped short of all-out conflict. With Arafat gone, integration within mainstream Palestinian institutions has become more attractive to Hamas, for his outsized presence crowded out competing political groups. But it also has become more urgent, for Arafat’s insistence on national unity shielded Hamas members from a real crackdown by Palestinian security forces.
Abu Mazen’s efforts to include Hamas are, in some respects, a curious move coming at a curious time. Instead of a power base, Abu Mazen has inherited in Fatah a flaccid, fragmented, and confused organization whose principal assets are its past glory and the memory of its deceased leadership. The benefits of his strategy toward Israel are yet to be demonstrated and popular impatience is growing. Elections for the Palestinian Authority’s legislature are scheduled for July. Why did Abu Mazen choose this moment to open the system up to the Islamist movement?
Israelis and Americans, fearing the impact of a strong Islamist presence and convinced that Abu Mazen cannot succeed without eventually clashing with Hamas, have questioned his approach. They are not alone. From within Fatah’s ranks, grumblings can be heard: Abu Mazen is said to be endangering Fatah, gambling with its supremacy, and preparing the way for an Islamist takeover. In some quarters, he is being likened to the former Algerian president Chadli Benjedid, the hapless leader who legalized the Islamic Salvation Front, allowed it to participate in elections, and brought it to the brink of power when it prevailed in the first round of parliamentary elections in 1992. The Algerian military then canceled the second round of elections and forced the president to resign. Chadli’s fate is now cited, at times as reminder, at others as prediction, occasionally perhaps even as wish.
Abu Mazen has a different view. Bringing Hamas into the Palestinian Authority can, he believes, change Hamas, change Fatah, and, as importantly, change the way Palestinians view politics.
Fatah cadres reproach the President for what they fear will be a poor showing in the legislative elections, but that is accusing him of something for which they have only themselves to blame. Even as it attempts to save itself, Fatah is displaying the reasons why it is in such jeopardy in the first place. It is contemplating a decision to postpone the elections, raising exaggerated fears of a Hamas triumph, and pleading for financial support from alarmed Western governments. Yet delaying elections would confirm that Fatah is prepared to hold on to power, not compete for it, while pumping funds into a Fatah organization that is viewed as wasteful is an unlikely way to repair its tarnished reputation. Financial resources are essential, but Hamas does not owe its success to money any more than Fatah can attribute its decline to a lack of it. Instead, if Fatah has to fight for votes and then deal with a strong Islamist parliamentary presence, its leaders would be encouraged to work harder for popular support, close ranks, discipline their militias, articulate a national agenda, act more transparently, and control runaway personal ambitions.
The prospect of Hamas’s political integration within the PLO and the Authority has generated many anxieties. Some fear that it will take control of Gaza or even the Palestinian Authority as a whole; that it will tie Abu Mazen’s hands; or that it will be in a position to upset the diplomatic process through insisting on more uncompromising positions. None of these concerns can be wholly dismissed. But all reflect only a partial reading of the Islamist organization.
Hamas appears to be growing, but it has a natural ceiling in the limited numbers of Palestinians that will back its hard-core Islamist positions. As the early May local elections illustrate, Fatah remains dominant even as Hamas thrives. Most Palestinians still oppose the Islamists’ outlook; their support for Hamas in polls or local elections is less a measure of the appeal of its Islamist program than of popular attitudes toward the peace process, the Palestinian Authority, and social and economic conditions. Change those, and Hamas’s appeal will diminish. Unblemished by the exercise of power, untainted in the eyes of Palestinian voters, Hamas is likely to do relatively well in the first elections. But should Abu Mazen have his way, should Israel and the US cooperate in improving conditions on the ground and providing political hope for the future, its luster is likely to dim by the time the next elections come around.
Besides, Hamas has neither plans for immediate rule nor answers to the basic questions that governance would entail. It has denounced negotiations with Israel, yet realizes that they are essential for gaining territory and improving Palestinian daily life. The US refuses to deal with it, yet Hamas understands that much can be achieved with American political and economic involvement. Should it assume power, an international backlash is likely to occur and Palestinian living conditions are virtually certain to suffer. Hamas does not wish to be blamed for either.
Political responsibility is not what it is after, at least for now, for another simple reason: so long as Hamas is out of power, Palestinians will be grateful for every social service it brings them; once in power, Palestinians will resent it for every social service it does not provide. It will not want to be blamed in the event Abu Mazen fails, and will let him exercise power until he does. Hamas will likely be an active ally when it comes to the politics of institutional reform and transparency; it will also be a constant irritant when it comes to the politics of peace. Hamas is attuned to opposition politics, not to political accountability. It sees every advantage in the unconventional political arrangement first practiced in Lebanon by Hezbollah: operating both as part of the governing institutions and parallel to them; not endorsing their decisions but being implicitly bound by them; denouncing official actions while also benefiting from them.
From the Palestinian president’s perspective, if Hamas is going to remain in the opposition it will be better to bring it inside Palestinian institutions than leave it out. Abu Mazen harbors few illusions that Hamas will soon agree with his own perspectives on the undesirability of the use of violence, long-term coexistence with a Jewish state, or the policies of an independent Palestine. But once Hamas joins the PLO and the Palestinian Legislative Council, he calculates that it will see things differently and will have to comply even with majority decisions it opposes.
Hamas may want the luxury of participating without endorsing all decisions, but it cannot participate without abiding by them. That is the logic that Arafat, with Abu Mazen at his side, used to deal successfully with the radical PLO factions that first rejected the two-state solution and then denounced the Oslo Accords before being cajoled into accepting both. It is the logic Abu Mazen hopes to extend to Hamas to persuade it to relinquish the use of violence and, gradually, integrate its armed wing into the Authority’s security services. For now, Hamas believes in the deterrent power of its military capacity with regard not only to Israel but also a Fatah-dominated Authority. Abu Mazen hopes that, given adequate time, as well as guarantees from the Authority and sufficient pressure from the Palestinian public, Hamas will allow its pragmatism to work out new and different policies. Hamas may sponsor suicide bombers, but it is not suicidal.
To those who criticize Abu Mazen’s approach as naive, his response is to ask for a credible alternative. The status quo allows Hamas both to function outside a system from which it benefits and to discredit any political arrangement with Israel without having to propose a substitute. It further deprives outsiders of any ability to influence the debate between hard-line and pragmatic wings within the organization. For the Palestinian president, shunning Hamas also means putting his current strategy at perpetual risk of an armed attack. Once Hamas is brought into the legislature and the PLO, he believes, he can more confidently rely on Hamas’s commitment to implement the cease-fire and on its discipline in enforcing it. There is irony here: for Abu Mazen, dealing with Hamas has been much less complicated in this respect than dealing with Fatah.
A confrontational approach would carry greater peril. Hamas has become an integral part of society, with deep social and cultural roots and the loyalty of a sizable portion of Palestinians. Any attempt to forcefully disarm the organization while the Israeli occupation persists would provoke strong resistance, almost inevitably trigger a civil conflict, and be widely opposed—and not by Hamas sympathizers alone. Prime Minister Sharon, who can count on far superior military and institutional power, is going out of his way to avoid a direct conflict with the settlers, who represent a far smaller constituency. Besides, how can one ask of the Palestinian Authority what Israel, with all its might, proved incapable of achieving during the four bloody years of the intifada?
There is turmoil on the Palestinian political scene and out of it has come hyperbole and misconception. Fatah’s decline has variously been belittled as the result of a temporary conflict between generations or it has been overstated as the prelude to Hamas’s inexorable triumph. Hamas’s ascent has led to exaggerated fears of an Islamist takeover coupled with inflated concerns that it will thwart the Palestinian president’s plans. In turn, Abu Mazen’s decision to bring Hamas into Palestinian institutions has been criticized as naive, dangerous, or both.
There is indeed a problem with Palestinian politics today. But the core of the problem concerns the identity of the two principal Palestinian organizations, not a conflict between young reformers and old diehards. And it is best dealt with by bringing more forces into the political mainstream, not by excluding them in the name of a putative Islamist threat.
Established as a direct rival to the PLO, at odds from the start with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas is on the verge of joining both. The move may make sense, but it will require deft explanation to Hamas’s supporters to reconcile them with differing policies and practices of the past, and skillful politicking to overcome internal resistance and dissent. For Hamas, political integration is an experiment that unquestionably has appeal, but also has risks, and for which it has had little time to prepare. This was not an easy decision for it to make. Its leaders in the territories, including Zahhar, Hanniyya, and Yussef, were more supportive of joining the Authority, those in exile initially less so; the balance was arguably tipped by its militants held in Israeli jails.
Founded to lead the Palestinian people to liberation, Fatah for its part has lost its raison d’être before fulfilling its basic purpose. It is nearly impossible today to describe what it stands for, whom it represents, and what distinguishes it from the PA. That has left a hole at the center of Palestinian politics of which Hamas’s rise is only one consequence.
The parliamentary elections will not only be a direct competition between Fatah and Hamas. Many Palestinians will vote on the basis of family and clan, with political programs having only tangential influence. Where the two organizations will face off, it will in many instances be a filtered, indirect rivalry. Because they worry about how they may be perceived (Hamas as too extremist, Fatah as overly complacent and opportunist), both will seek to recruit independent, respectable candidates or make alliances with them.
Still, the relationship between Fatah and Hamas is one of the more interesting subplots of the election and one that bears directly on the future of Israeli–Palestinian relations. Integrating Hamas and revamping Fatah are prerequisites if Abu Mazen is to achieve any successful diplomatic strategy. Maintaining the cease-fire entails securing the Islamists’ consent, which in turn means giving them an appropriate place in the political system. And negotiating thornier political issues with Israel necessitates a broad consensus around a platform that enjoys legitimacy and widespread support.
None of this will be possible without resolving, or at least finding a way around, the central contradiction that has bedeviled the Palestinian national movement since the early 1990s. How can it build state institutions while still under occupation? And how can it resist occupation while in the process of peaceful state-building? Over the years, that contradiction benefited Hamas and consumed Fatah, whose institution-builders became unscrupulous and whose rebels lost their way. In the distinctive manner in which he combines current conviction and earlier roots, Abu Mazen faithfully reflects this predicament. Appalled by the prevailing chaos, he appears to have adopted a decidedly statist agenda, convinced that reform, building institutions, and establishing the rule of law are essential for the Palestinians’ own sake. But one does not easily forget decades spent as a militant for national rights, and in this Abu Mazen remains a quintessentially liberation-minded leader who worries about the easy allure of economic prosper-ity, diplomatic recognition, and mini-statehood in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
Among Fatah leaders, Abu Mazen, because of his own history, is one of the last to be genuinely torn by this dilemma, aware of the inherent tension between state-building and liberation, worried that to privilege one could spell the demise of the other, and still searching for ways to accommodate the two. Convinced that a permanent, negotiated resolution of the conflict is possible, he is deadly serious about forsaking violence and building a more transparent, rule-bound society. But when Israeli officials portray him as close to Arafat in his political objectives, they are referring to this other aspect of his thinking. They worry about his background in the Fatah of old, his national liberation outlook, and his ties to Palestinian refugees. Abu Mazen is aware of this suspicion. He understands it. And he does not very much mind.
—May 11, 2005