Vol. 4, No. 21
Examination of the new Hamas strategy to join the political process within the Palestinian Authority led many analysts to posit that the terrorist organization is undergoing a pragmatic shift, whereby it has renounced terrorism in exchange for participation in the beginnings of Palestinian democracy.
Yet senior Hamas leaders have emphasized that this new political approach does not alter its firm adherence to “resistance” and “jihad” as its main tools for liberating all territories of “historical Palestine.” From its standpoint, gaining political power will actually strengthen its ability to preserve its military forces (Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades) and resort to terrorism when circumstances are appropriate. Hamas leader Khalid Mashal refers to the current calm as a “rest for the warrior.”
Hamas has internalized the hard lessons of the experience of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria in the 1990s. The FIS won the parliamentary elections in December 1991, but lost all of its political achievements a month later when the regime outlawed the party and launched a crackdown against it. At this stage, Hamas is not interested in challenging PA rule, but nonetheless seeks to preserve its military wing to deter the PA from repeating the Algerian experience.
In order to pave the way to reach power, Hamas strategy first seeks to achieve international legitimacy. The policy of Mahmud Abbas provides a red carpet to Hamas to become an acceptable political partner, one that can no longer be ignored. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana implied in an interview in El Pais that if negotiations between Abbas and the Palestinian armed factions succeed, then the EU may reconsider its position regarding Hamas.
Joining the executive branch of the PA will give Hamas the authority to control the budget of several ministries and funnel funds to affiliated institutions. These include “charitable” societies which directly and indirectly support Hamas’s military wing and the spread of its radical Islamic ideology.
Abbas is exploiting the Bush effort to spread democracy by opening the door to radical Islamic elements. Palestinian election law does not disqualify terrorist organizations or racist movements. Israel will face greater difficulties in leading an international struggle against the financing of Hamas. The unwanted possible outcome may be the strengthening of Hamas and furthering the preconditions for eventual militant Islamic rule over the West Bank and Gaza.
The Goal: An Islamist Regime in All of Mandatory Palestine
Recent examination of Hamas’s new strategy to join the political process within the Palestinian Authority (PA) has led many researchers to posit that the terrorist organization is undergoing a pragmatic shift, whereby it has renounced terrorism in exchange for participation in the Palestinian democratic process.
Citing Hamas’s participation in Palestinian municipal elections and its acceptance of the temporary cease-fire with Israel, many believe that Hamas is ready to join the mainstream leadership of the PLO. However, this “new face” is based on recognition of hard lessons learned by radical Islamist groups elsewhere in the Middle East. In essence, Hamas has switched to a “phased plan” that prioritizes long-term political popularity over force against the Palestinian government. In the end, the goal is still the same – the establishment of an Islamist regime in the entire area of mandatory Palestine.
By exploiting the democratic process, Hamas is simply attempting to gain international legitimacy and recognition without actually changing any of its basic tenets or its militaristic approach toward Israel and the West.
Meanwhile, participation in Palestinian elections and the exploitation of Fatah’s weaknesses may allow Hamas to achieve the ultimate goal of its strategy: to reach power and change the PLO from within. In the near future, Israel will need to adopt a new strategy in dealing with Hamas since the organization is likely to continue its efforts to gain international recognition and legitimacy, while also rehabilitating its military infrastructure. Lack of a clear policy toward Hamas might lead to the tacit understanding that Israel accepts de facto the participation of Hamas in PA politics.
Hamas has recently put into play a new pragmatic political outline, understood by international politicians and commentators alike as an expression of Hamas’s ongoing transition from a jihadist movement to a political party. The major milestones in this context include Hamas’s acceptance of a temporary cease-fire with Israel, its participation in Palestinian municipal elections, its decision, for the first time, to take part in general elections to the Palestinian parliament, expected to be held on July 17, 2005, and its explicit readiness, however conditional, to join the PLO.
Factors Behind Hamas’s New Strategy
Hamas leaders and spokespersons have explained the pragmatic shift in the movement’s policy, which was approved after prolonged discussions at all organizational levels, from prisoners to the leadership abroad. According to Hamas, the main factors leading to this recent political change are as follows:
International and Regional Developments – President Bush’s campaign to encourage democratic reform in the Arab world and Arafat’s death have opened a new era in the PA under Mahmud Abbas, who is seeking to promote a Palestinian democracy with international support. Hamas has become convinced that Abbas is serious in his willingness to cooperate with it as a legitimate political organization, to integrate it into the Palestinian establishment, and to exclude any possibility of using the Palestinian security forces to crack down on the movement. Abbas’s decision to partially accept the Hamas demand to adopt a new system for elections and his declared commitment to respect the results was highly valued by the Hamas leadership and removed the last hurdle to their joining the political arena.
Hamas solved its previous ideological difficulty in joining the PA by arguing that the Oslo agreement is no longer valid because of the achievements of the armed intifada, Israel’s “constant violations” of the agreement, and the understanding that the mechanism of Oslo does not fit the current political situation.1
Gaining Political Power – Encouraged by its outstanding achievements in the first phase of municipal elections in December 2004 and flattered by consecutive polls forecasting similar success in the upcoming legislative elections, Hamas sees its participation in the political system as a golden opportunity to translate its broad popular support into political assets. In Bethlehem, Hamas even combined forces with Christians in a joint list to oppose Fatah in the municipal elections.2
For Hamas, the current period is the most appropriate time to benefit from its advantages over its main rival – the Fatah movement – which is undergoing a severe organizational crisis due to tensions between the Old Guard (the traditional leadership) and the Young Guard (reformists and militants). Hamas, as opposed to Fatah, stresses coherence, a clear message, and efficient organization. Hamas leader Mahmud al-Zahar expressed the movement’s self-confidence when he did not rule out the possibility of winning the elections and even leading the next government.3
“Defending the Resistance” – Senior Hamas leaders emphasized that the new political approach does not affect the movement’s firm adherence to “resistance” and “jihad” as the main tools for liberating all territories of “historical Palestine.” Moreover, from their standpoint, gaining political power will actually further strengthen Hamas, enabling it to preserve its military forces (Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades) and resort to terror when circumstances are appropriate.4 Hamas’s apparent pragmatism has allowed Abbas to put the ball in Israel’s court and refocus international attention on the Israeli occupation instead of Palestinian terror as an obstacle to peace.5
Changing the PLO from Within – In the Cairo declaration of March 17, 2005, which concluded intensive discussions between the Palestinian factions, Hamas agreed “to establish a committee, comprised of senior representatives of all organizations, in order to formulate agreed-upon principles regarding the PLO.”6 Even though Hamas recognized the PLO as the “sole and legitimate” representative of the Palestinian people, this cautious arrangement reflects Hamas’s reluctance to join it unconditionally. The new agreed-upon mechanism is meant to change the foundations of the PLO and its source of legitimacy from within. Hence, Hamas’s unequivocal demands focus primarily on changing the political platform of the PLO and its national covenant by adopting anew the principles of “resistance” and “armed struggle.” In addition, Hamas seeks to reactivate the PLO establishment outside Palestine in a way that will quickly facilitate new elections to the Palestinian National Committee (PNC – the PLO’s supreme institute). Winning the elections to the PNC may mark Hamas’s historic takeover of the Palestinian national movement.7
A Long-Term, Phased Plan Inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood
The Hamas road to power, or “the Green Revolution” (the Hamas flag is green), is based on a long-term, phased plan inspired by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. This doctrine eschews using force against the government and gives priority to “da’awa” (Islamic propagation) as a means of gradually expanding Hamas’s popularity and influence until it gains enough political power to rule in an Islamic regime.
It seems that Hamas has internalized the hard lessons of the experience of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria in the 1990s. The FIS won the parliamentary elections in December 1991, but lost all of its political achievements a month later when the regime outlawed the party and launched a crackdown against it, beginning a long and ferocious civil war. Unlike the FIS, Hamas leaders are communicating a calming message, directed at the PA as well as Israel and the international community. According to this strategy, Hamas is not interested (at least at this stage) in challenging PA rule, but rather seeks to take part in the political process and cooperate with the PA.8 On the other hand, Hamas regards its strong military wing as a vital shield, necessary for deterring the PA from trying to repeat the Algerian experience.9
Hamas’s consent to a temporary cease-fire (tahdi’a – calm) also characterizes its strategy. Hamas has, in fact, ceased terrorist attacks inside Israel since the tahdi’a was officially declared. However, its interpretation of the meaning of the cease-fire differs completely from Israel’s understandings and demands. Hamas regards it as a mutually obligatory cease-fire and thus seeks to undermine Israel’s claim to be defending itself against terror.
As Hamas views it, such a stance reflects the “position of strength” the Palestinians have gained through “armed resistance” in forcing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria that is not conditioned on any Palestinian concession. Hamas denies Israel’s claim of a mutual cease-fire and therefore named it a tahdi’a, signifying only a “temporary or conditional cease-fire” with “escape clauses.” Hamas made it clear that terror would likely be renewed if Israel fails to meet Hamas demands, including the release of all prisoners, halting construction in the settlements, and abstaining from any activities which interfere with basic Palestinian interests (such as those involving the status of Jerusalem, the security fence, etc.). Hamas leader Khalid Mashal referred to the cease-fire as a “rest for the warrior,” one which serves the paramount interest of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to reorganize and rebuild their capabilities, after they had been severely degraded by the Israel Defense Forces.10
Hamas Seeks International Legitimacy
The main goal of the Hamas strategy is, thus, to pave the way to reach power. Achieving international legitimacy is an essential move toward this goal. Hamas is aware of its limits and understands the importance of the international community in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its new, pragmatic policy is also designated to convince the EU that Hamas is a constructive political power and therefore should be struck from the EU blacklist of terrorist organizations. Khalid Mashal has argued that only an intertwined policy based on ideological determination and gaining political dominance will eventually force the EU to recognize Hamas as a legitimate partner.11 Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported in early March that France and Spain were working together diplomatically to remove Hamas from the EU terrorist blacklist.12 EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also implied in an interview in El Pais that if negotiations between Abbas and the Palestinian factions succeed, then the EU may reconsider its position regarding Hamas.13
The political developments in the Palestinian arena present complicated challenges for Israel, the most important of which is the possibility of Hamas gaining international legitimacy. Under the guise of democracy, Abbas’s policy rolls out a red carpet for Hamas to become an acceptable political partner, one that can no longer be ignored. The PA municipal elections last December elevated Hamas senior operatives to the position of mayors, and Abbas himself appointed Hamas businessman Mazen Sonoqrot to serve as minister of national economy. Sonoqrot was the chairman of the Hamas holding company Beit al-Mal when it was designated by Israel and the U.S. as a terrorist organization (in 1997 and 2001 respectively).14
Israel will in all likelihood have to reassess its policy toward Hamas after the parliamentary elections, which most probably will be marked by the emergence of Hamas as a significant political power. This challenge may be even more problematic if Hamas takes part in Palestinian government.
Joining the executive branch of the PA will also give Hamas the authority to control the budget of several ministries and funnel funds to Hamas-affiliated institutions. These include charitable societies, which directly and indirectly support Hamas’s military wing and the spread of its radical Islamic ideology. Financial support designated for the PA might also eventually find its way into Hamas hands.
Moreover, Israeli cooperation with a PA government that included Hamas ministers is likely to be interpreted internationally as de facto Israeli recognition of Hamas. Israel may face great difficulty in leading the war against Palestinian terrorism and Hamas’s plans for a financial jihad after Hamas wins ministerial positions through a democratic process.
Implications for the Future
Looking forward, the main implications of the present political situation within the PA and Hamas’s new political pragmatism are as follows:
With its decision to join the political process, Hamas has actually launched a campaign to challenge PA rule. Since Abbas’s rise to power, Hamas has actually managed to take control of the Palestinian street. It is exploiting the current crisis in Fatah and the PLO’s need to support Abbas’s conciliatory approach toward Israel in order to spearhead a militant and nationalistic alternative. In the period following the Cairo agreement, Hamas has taken Fatah’s place in organizing nationwide protests and rallies in memory of “martyrs” and has been leading the struggle against allowing Jews to enter the Temple Mount.
Hamas has accepted, de facto, the PLO’s 1974 concept of a phased plan designed to bring about the destruction of Israel. In 2002, Sheik Ahmad Yassin gave the Islamic justification for adopting this path; now it has become practical.
At this stage, Hamas is concentrating on rehabilitating the movement’s infrastructure, which was damaged by Israel during the intifada, and gaining more political power. Hamas may emerge as the big winner in the upcoming parliamentary elections in July 2005. Whatever the results, Hamas will probably gain European recognition as a legitimate political player.
The Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, scheduled to begin on July 20, may occupy the agenda of the Palestinian elections on July 17. It will probably serve primarily the interests of Hamas, whose strategy of “armed struggle” is seen by the majority of Palestinians as forcing Israel to withdraw unilaterally and, in effect, unconditionally from Palestinian territories.
The lack of a clear Israeli policy regarding the participation of Hamas in the legislative elections might be understood as an acceptance by Israel of Hamas as an eligible partner. At the very least, it suggests indifference regarding the possibility of unfreezing relations between the EU and Hamas.
Abbas’s policy exploits the Bush effort to spread democracy by opening the door for radical Islamic elements to enter the executive branch, thus absolving them from their involvement in terror during the last four and a half years. Palestinian election law contains no legal barriers to disqualify terrorist organizations, racist parties, or fascist movements. The unwanted possible outcome of this in the long run may be the establishment of militant Islamic rule in the West Bank and Gaza.
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3. Okaz (Saudi Arabia), 27 March 2005.
4. http://www.palestine-info.info/arabic/palestoday/dailynews/2005/apr05/6_4/details5.htm#1; http://www.palestine-info.info/arabic/palestoday/dailynews/2005/apr05/1_4/details.htm#1
8. http://www.palestine-info.info/arabic/hamas/hewar/2005/ghazal.htm; http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/C41D6A56-3843-49EF-9485-55F91DBE9B99.htm? wbc_purpose=basic_current_current_current_Current
10. On Hamas and the PA’s outlook regarding the cease-fire, see Jonathan D. Halevi, “The Palestinian ‘Temporary Cease-Fire’: Israel’s Political Risks and Opportunities with the Sharm el-Sheikh Summit between Prime Minister Sharon and Chairman Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen),” Jerusalem Issue Brief 4-16, 7 February 2005; http://www.jcpa.org/brief/brief004-16.htm
12. Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 6 March 2005.
13. Al-Hayat al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), 25 February 2005.
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Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Halevi is a researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam, and a founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. He is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the IDF.
This essay was prepared for the Jerusalem Project for Democracy in the Middle East (JPDME) as part of its sponsorship of the Knesset Forum on the Middle East. A version of this essay originally appeared on April 11, 2005, on the JPDME website: www.JPDME.org.