Vol. 3, No. 14 January 7, 2004
There is growing evidence that Fatah, the Palestinian faction that today dominates the PLO, may not remain the power center of Palestinian politics in the post-Arafat era. Hamas is preparing itself to inherit the Palestinian Authority.
At the Cairo talks in December 2003, for the first time, Hamas openly and confidently challenged the basic Palestinian view that the PLO is the sole and exclusive representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas demanded partnership status in the adoption of all decisions. It also used the Cairo talks in order to achieve recognition from Egypt and other Arab states. In this spirit, it insisted that the U.S. remove it from the list of recognized terrorist organizations.
The erosion in the PLO’s standing was accelerated by the establishment of the supreme coordinating framework known as the “National and Islamic Forces” at the onset of the intifada, with Arafat’s approval. This body has become the PLO’s rival, since it is the sole body that includes all the Islamic organizations and secular groups.
Hamas has established its own “army” in the Gaza Strip as a source of power and strength in opposition to the Palestinian Authority, in the understanding that the force that controls the Strip is the one that will actually succeed the Palestinian Authority.
Any scenarios for the future that do not take into account the possibility of a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian political system are seriously deficient.
Who Will Inherit the Palestinian Authority in the Post-Arafat Era?
There is no question that there is a crisis of leadership in the Palestinian political system as it approaches the post-Arafat era. The struggle for succession has already begun, even while Yassir Arafat still controls the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah. Some in the international community foresee a new generation of Fatah leaders, some of whom have been involved in recent back-channel peace initiatives, coming forward and replacing the old revolutionary guard that established the PLO in the 1960s. Yet there is growing evidence that Fatah may not remain the power center of Palestinian politics. From current indications it appears that Hamas is preparing itself to inherit the Palestinian Authority. Any scenario projected for the future that does not take this into account will be seriously flawed.
At the Herzliya conference in December 2003, a team of researchers and security personnel (former and current), lead by Dr. Shmuel Bar, presented a special report analyzing the political situation in the areas of the Palestinian Authority and possible scenarios for the post-Arafat era. The report emphasized the gradual decline of the generation associated with the old Fatah leadership, epitomized by Arafat’s expected disappearance, and the increased strength of the younger generation in Fatah, together with the continued empowerment of Hamas as an alternative to the existing government.
The prevailing assessment among the members of the team was that “ultimately the Palestinians will succeed in installing a new leadership which, while representing the political front, will not have actual control over Palestinian areas.” In other words, the regional division of power inside the PA is confirmed: “The process of the division of the Palestinian Authority into regions of control will be accelerated, and a new strata of regional leaders will emerge who will confer legitimacy to the new leadership.”1
The central presumptions and assessments of the research team relate to the disintegration of the Palestinian governmental system, a process that has intensified during the last three years of armed violence that was initiated by the Palestinian Authority in September 2000. The most important development, however, extends beyond the weakening of the Palestinian Authority both politically and militarily in the wake of the conflict with Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization, the source of authority for the Palestinian Authority itself, now confronts the gravest challenge to its position since the beginning of the 1980s. This challenge is the result of a change in the balance of power in the Palestinian political map due to the increasing entrenchment of the Islamic stream headed by the Hamas, that has systematically encroached on the power of the nationalist stream, headed by the Fatah movement.
Hamas’ Challenge to the PLO at the Cairo Talks
The latest round of talks among the Palestinian factions in Cairo (at the beginning of December 2003) focused on an attempt to conclude an agreement on a ceasefire (hudna) with Israel. These talks failed, thus exposing the depth of the crisis on the Palestinian political front. For the first time, the Hamas movement openly and confidently challenged the basic Palestinian view that the PLO is the sole and exclusive representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas unabashedly demanded partnership status in the adoption of all decisions in a manner reflecting its political strength, thus undermining the current political status quo. According to Hamas, the PLO is no longer the appropriate organizational framework for leading the continued Palestinian struggle. Hamas believes a new, unified, Palestinian leadership (emergency, temporary, or permanent) should be established to replace the PLO as the supreme source of authority for the Palestinian people.2
Already in 2002, in an internal Hamas memorandum captured by Israel, Khaled Mashaal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, noted that senior officials in Cairo were giving a Hamas delegation a reception that was “grander than in the past.”3 The Hamas memorandum assessed that the Egyptians understood that the Palestinian Authority was weak and Palestinian support for the PA was “waning.” It contains a distinct tone of a growing sense of power among the Hamas leadership as it seeks to fill the power vacuum left by Fatah.
Thus, from the position of a political body that was not part of the PLO and which competed with Fatah, Hamas has emerged as a key player in the Palestinian leadership, exercising “veto power” over all key decisions, and demanding the lion’s share of the Palestinian leadership, while presenting itself as a possible alternative to the existing Palestinian leadership.
This was the basis for Hamas’ rejection of the Palestinian Authority’s request, raised in the Cairo hudna deliberations, for authorization to negotiate with Israel regarding a ceasefire. Inter alia, Hamas claimed that the Palestinian Authority no longer functions as an effective government in view of the current political and military situation. As a tactical step, Hamas did not categorically reject the option of joining the PLO. Instead, it posited impossible conditions for such a move, the most important of which was the conducting of new elections for PLO institutions, and the adoption of an amendment to the organization’s charter in the spirit of the Hamas movement’s principles, i.e., rejection of the path of negotiations and advocacy of continued armed struggle for the liberation of Palestine.4
It is noteworthy that during the December 2003 hudna talks, Hamas made demands that demonstrate its self-image as a future player in the international politics of the Middle East:5
- Removal of Hamas from the U.S. and European Union lists of recognized international terrorist organizations
- Permission for Hamas to operate overseas
- Cessation of all international measures against Hamas charity groups abroad
- Recognition of Hamas as the main power center in the Palestinian arena
The decision of a member of the Hamas political bureau, Mohammed Nazal, to call for U.S.-Hamas contacts in January 2004 is indicative of how Hamas sees its new international role.6
The “National and Islamic Forces” as a Rival to the PLO
The erosion in the PLO’s standing was further accelerated by the establishment of the supreme coordinating framework known as the “National and Islamic Forces” at the onset of the intifada, with Arafat’s approval. This body, comprising the 13 most important Palestinian factions, had its own command structure and insignia. In the West Bank it was led by Marwan Barghouti. Over time it has become the PLO’s rival as the source of legitimacy, since it is the sole body that confers equal representation (one representative for each organization) and includes all the Islamic organizations and secular groups. The frequently changing fortunes of the intifada necessitated the adoption of decisions at a national level (on policies governing attacks, responses to Israeli action, international pressure, friction between the organizations, etc.) and converted the “National and Islamic Forces” into an accepted and legitimate framework for deliberation on fundamental issues.
The foremost achievement of the “National and Islamic Forces” was its formulation of the “Gaza Document” in August 2002, stipulating guidelines for the reorganization of the Palestinian civil structure, and which still serves as the basis for factional deliberations today. The document determined the basis for a settlement as:
- full withdrawal to the 1967 borders and exercise of the right of return;
- the legitimacy of continued armed struggle for the realization of Palestinian rights;
- the urgent need to establish a temporary “United National Leadership” to “strengthen the source of united authority” in the adoption of decisions;
- ongoing activity and struggle until the holding of general and “democratic” elections to the Palestinian institutions.7
How Hamas Has Strengthened Its Standing
Hamas is attempting to strengthen its standing within the Palestinian public as a legitimate contender for power in the following arenas:
- A renewed emphasis on Hamas’ connection to its forerunner, the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to gain a “softer” Islamic image. For example, the Egyptian political establishment has reached a modus vivendi with the Muslim Brotherhood in that country, which would allow Hamas to gain increased regional acceptance if it invoked these roots.8
- Presentation of a political program in competition with that of the Palestinian Authority, based on a readiness to accept the principle of “stages” for the solution of the Palestinian problem (similar to the PLO’s “stages” program adopted in 1974) and to agree to the establishment of a temporary Palestinian state within the pre-1967 territory.9
- Continued social and public activity (Daawa) competing with the Palestinian Authority in the provision of services to the public. Hamas was the first to organize an assistance package and donations to families whose houses were damaged by the IDF in Rafiah. Hamas went even further on Christmas Eve 2003 when movement activists dressed up as Santa Claus distributed presents to Christian children in Bethlehem.10
- The establishment of the “Hamas Army” in the Gaza Strip as a source of power and strength in opposition to the Palestinian Authority, and as a legitimate national military force protecting the borders of PA territory. Already Hamas is copying the relationship of Hizballah to the Lebanese government as it fashions its approach to the Palestinian Authority. But while Hizballah, representing Lebanese Shiites, could never replace the regime in Beirut, which represents all religious factions, Hamas could replace the Palestinian Authority, which is based on a Palestinian Sunni Muslim leadership.11
- Hamas has concentrated its activities in the Gaza Strip in the understanding that the political force that controls the Strip is the one that will actually succeed the Palestinian Authority.12
The strengthening of Hamas and its challenge to the Palestinian Authority has occurred against the background of a number of important developments:
- The Fatah movement, which currently leads the PLO, is in a state of chronic internal crisis, one of the gravest in its history, and one which may actually lead to a split. Its main problems are: loss of direction against the background of the failure of the Oslo process, an ideological impasse, lack of popular support due to the PLO’s identification as the ruling party and as part of a corrupt governmental network, Arafat’s divide-and-rule policy which crippled the authority of the old leadership and forestalled the emergence of any new leadership with legitimacy – both inside the territories and outside, the distancing of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades from the political leadership of the movement, and the adoption of a political line closer to that of Hamas.13
- Many regard the Palestinian Authority as nothing more than an employment bureau that has gradually lost its authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian public. The Palestinian security frameworks are weak and have difficulty enforcing their authority over armed militias who rule by force of arms over various localities in the Palestinian Authority (Jenin, Nablus, Rafiah, some of the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, and elsewhere).14
- Arafat’s weakness, his isolation, and increasing criticism within Fatah of his political behavior will all impact on the post-Arafat period. Arafat’s descent from the political stage, without an organized mechanism for the smooth transfer of Palestinian governance (apart from a temporary period during which the chairman of the parliament is to serve as the “Rais”), is liable to lead to governmental chaos and domination by radical factors in different regions.15
Can Fatah Reform Itself?
Against the background of the Hamas challenge to the existing order, there is growing interest within Fatah in the prompt implementation of internal systemic reforms (elections to the movement’s institutions) and the conducting of elections to the legislative council and the presidency, as listed in the second stage of the implementation of the “roadmap.”16 The goal is the rehabilitation of the movement and the prevention of a split, accompanied by the renewal of public legitimacy for the Palestinian Authority as an essential element in the preservation of the dominance of Fatah as the governing party, and in order to guarantee a smooth transfer of power, without dangerous upheavals, in the post-Arafat era. The political atmosphere in the region (including Iraq) and the economic situation in the Palestinian Authority are liable to have conclusive ramifications in the formulation of Palestinian public opinion in the next elections.
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5. al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 22, 2003.
6. “Hamas ‘Contacts’ with U.S. Officials,” The Australian, January 6, 2004; http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,8333016%255E1702,00.html
12. The Hamas leaders no longer conceal their striving to be the dominant power and their confidence in Hamas’ capability to achieve this goal. Abd Al-Aziz Rantisi, a senior Hamas leader, said in an interview (November 2003): “I emphasize that the Hamas movement will strive to take control of the (Palestinian) regime through legitimate means…after the liberation of the homeland is accomplished.” http://www.ezzedeen.net/Chat/htm/2003/hawar11_11_03.htm
14. http://www.nfc.co.il/archive/003-D-4323-00.html?tag=8-17-05 http://fateh-org.org/baker/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=45
16. See Abd Al-Aziz Shaheen’s interview on reforms in the Fatah movement in al-Hayat al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), December 29, 2003.
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Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Halevi is a researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam. His previous writings include “Al-Qaeda’s Intellectual Legacy: New Radical Islamic Thinking Justifying the Genocide of Infidels,” Jerusalem Viewpoints #508 (December 1, 2003), “Who is Taking Credit for Attacks on the U.S. Army in Western Iraq? Al-Jama’a al-Salafiya al-Mujahida,” Jerusalem Issue Brief #3-3 (August 5, 2003), and “Understanding the Breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations,” Jerusalem Viewpoints #486 (September 15, 2002). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the IDF.