Hamas Harms Palestinians

Hamas Must Stand Down

By Osama Al Sharif, osama@mediaarabia.com, February 13, 2008

Hamas, the staunchly anti-Israel Islamist movement, which has been governing Gaza ever since its bloody showdown last June with the PNA, is looking increasingly like a spent force. It is not that the Palestinian National Authority has scored any meaningful gains in its peace negotiations with Israel since these talks were resumed in Annapolis last November. Nor is it a result of Israeli sanctions against the enclave that has left more than 1.5 million Palestinians without access to basic needs such as gasoline, food and medicine.

Hamas is slowly turning into a liability for all Palestinians; playing into the hands of its enemies and putting its own political interests above those of its besieged people. It is true that the Islamist party and its allies won a majority in the Legislative Council elections two years ago, and accordingly formed a government. And it is no secret that the United States, Israel and Europe, in addition to many Arab countries, colluded to defeat that government even though it was a product of a fair and free elections.

And one could sympathize with claims that the coup that Hamas carried out in the summer of last year came to pre-empt a certain conspiracy by a Fatah leader, Mohammad Dahlan, and the CIA to topple the movement and create a new power system in Gaza Strip. Certainly, the decision by the Arab League to investigate the circumstances surrounding the events of that summer was never carried through. Culpability is not definite and Israeli stalking of the movement’s representatives, including the arrest of most of the Hamas deputies in the Legislature and the killing of key activists, may justify some of its actions.

But today Hamas has lost the moral high ground, and its intransigence to keep control of Gaza at any cost is dangerous, if not suicidal. The chasm between the PNA and the Hamas leadership has widened to reach critical levels. Few could find excuses for the militant movement’s decision to raise the ante with Israel and provoke a series of reactions that could include a complete invasion and reoccupation of Gaza.

The breach in the border fence separating Gaza from Egypt has served to highlight the extent of the humanitarian crisis that is now overwhelming the strip. But Hamas has rejected offers to reopen the international crossing points in accordance with signed agreements and treaties. Its insistence that it should have full control over its side of the border was doomed, especially by the Egyptians, who were taken off guard in the first few days of the incursion.

For a while it appeared that the PNA and Egypt could actually come to an accord over the management of the common border, without infringing on third-party agreements. Such a breakthrough could have left Israel out in the cold and it would have allowed Gazans to end their dependency on the Jewish state. Hamas failed to see the bigger picture. As a result, the Egyptians sealed off the borders and relations with Cairo turned sour.

Gaza represents a huge challenge for all parties concerned. At one point, Saudi Arabia tried to mediate reconciliation between Hamas and the PNA. The Makkah agreement was short-lived and one would be presumptuous to blame Hamas only for that result.

The PNA has made its position clear, even though it is under US and Israeli pressure not to make peace with Hamas. The Islamist movement has put forward some tough demands and few believe that President Mahmoud Abbas has the will or the power to meet them.

But Hamas, which made a crucial decision to contest the general elections in January 2006, must think of the endgame rather than of scoring immediate gains against the PNA and its backers. The somber reality is that Israel continues to occupy all of the West Bank and is using the Gaza stalemate as an excuse to deny the PNA any gains under the peace talks.

In addition, the Hamas leadership, both in Gaza and in Damascus, should not celebrate the fact that, according to a recent poll, PNA’s popularity was slipping while the Islamist movement’s has risen by few percentage points. Salam Fayad’s government in the West Bank may have come under pressure but not because of the rhetoric and actions of Hamas in Gaza. If anything, the physical and political separation between the strip and the West Bank has created two distant realities within the Palestinian public.

Aside from the Saudi initiative to help bring Hamas and the PNA closer, there are no mediation efforts in place. The Egyptians tried to use the Gaza siege and the border incident to initiate dialogue between the two sides but this effort has been stonewalled.

The suicide attack in Dimona last week and the firing of missiles from Gaza on southern Israeli towns may appease public opinion in the Palestinian territories, but it will also play as a catalyst for Israel’s hard-liners to launch a major invasion of strip. Hamas has claimed responsibility for the attacks and by doing so it is putting the Gaza enclave as a target for more Israeli reprisals.

Hamas must decide if it is acting as a government for all Palestinians or at least the Gazans, as some of its leaders have claimed, or as a militant group dedicated to fighting Israel. If it is the first choice, then it must show that it is concerned with the fate of its citizens who are enduring a huge humanitarian ordeal. If they choose the latter, then they must part ways with political grandstanding and accept to hand over responsibility for the welfare of Gaza to the PNA.

A deal is still possible between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but the leadership of the Islamist movement must realize that they can do little to help ease the plight of their people, fight Israel and maintain relations with their Arab allies and friends — all at the same time.

The choice is a difficult one, but the fate of 1.5 million Palestinians rests in the hands of the Hamas leadership. They made their point in June last year and now it is better to stand down and take the side of their own people.

— Osama Al Sharif is a veteran publisher and journalist based in Jordan.

Source: Arab News

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