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Can Militants Make Peace?

11 minute read
Simon Robinson/Ramallah

He is an expert at plotting attacks against Israel. But now the chain-smoking Hamas military commander is trying to map out a different sort of plan: how to govern the Palestinians. The operative, a veteran of 16 years fighting Israel, met in the West Bank with other Hamas officials last week to celebrate the militant Islamic party’s remarkable victory in Palestinian legislative elections and to figure out what in the world to do next. Dozens of meetings like that took place across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and even in Damascus, where Hamas has an office. Hamas leaders–suddenly thrust into the political realm–discussed their new concerns. What are the group’s legislative priorities? Should its military commanders assume control of Palestinian security services like the police force? Should Hamas consider negotiations with Israel? “People should realize that we have an essential job: protecting Palestinians from Israeli arrogance and aggression,” says the military man, who declined to be named because he is on the run from Israeli authorities. “We want them to recognize the Palestinian people as a partner in this land.”

That land was rocked last week by what Palestinians are calling the “earthquake.” Hamas, the militant organization identified as a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union, won 76 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian parliament, trouncing the ruling Fatah party, which had dominated Palestinian politics for more than four decades. Fatah Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who had warned against holding the elections, handed in his resignation as soon as the landslide became apparent. Although Fatah’s moderate leader Mahmoud Abbas (popularly known as Abu Mazen) will stay on for now as President, he must find a way to work with a legislature controlled by a party whose commitment to Israel’s destruction is a cornerstone of its charter. But before that, the Palestinian people–and observers all over the world–have to readjust to last week’s stunning results. “Unprecedented not only in the history of the Palestinian people but in the Arab world,” says Ziad Abu Amr, a political scientist at Birzeit University and an independent member of the Palestinian legislature. “This is the first time an Islamic party has won such a landslide. It changes everything.”

The result certainly is causing a rethinking in the U.S. and Israel. President George W. Bush, who often talks of his hope that democracy will sweep the Middle East, applauded the fact that Palestinians had spoken at the ballot box, and he said the results were a wake-up call for the Fatah leadership. But he also said the vote did nothing to change the U.S. position that Hamas is a terrorist organization. If it wants to deal with the U.S., he said, Hamas must recognize Israel and renounce violence. “I don’t see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform,” Bush said.

And the earthquake shook Israelis just as hard as it did Palestinians. Coming so soon after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon slipped into a coma and in the middle of Israel’s own election campaign, the Hamas victory “has people sweating,” a senior Israeli security official told TIME. “We had a plan for every eventuality in the Middle East except for this one.” Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would not negotiate with a Palestinian government “if even part of it is an armed terrorist organization calling for Israel’s destruction.” The leader of the right-wing Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, who trails Olmert in the polls before Israel’s elections in late March and describes the Gaza Strip and West Bank as “Hamastan,” called for economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority.

Virtually no one foresaw Hamas’ surge. Pre-election polls generally gave Hamas, which was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, about a third of the vote. But when election day dawned, voters leaped at the chance to rid themselves of the incompetent and corrupt Fatah. “It’s not that we love Hamas, but we didn’t want Fatah anymore,” says Samer Bafrawi, 26, a West Bank restaurateur. “It’s a bad organization”–bad enough that he voted for the Islamists even though he says he is “not really religious at all.” It was Hamas’ commitment to welfare and social services that ultimately proved appealing. “We like Hamas’ thinking that all Palestinians should be the same and not with a few people driving big cars and living in huge houses. This is what we voted for.” Hamas also benefited from a slick and professional campaign. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas officials went from house to house explaining the party’s policies. By contrast, “Fatah leaders were busy holding rallies with luxury cars,” says Zakarya Ba’aloush, a disgruntled former Fatah security official.

But is Hamas ready to rule? Under the strong-arm regime of Yasser Arafat, the Fatah-dominated parliament was mostly a rubber stamp. A Hamas-controlled legislature is likely to wield much more power, severely restricting Abbas’ ability to make decisions independently. That may lead to battles over the control of state agencies.

Despite the scale of the victory, Hamas quickly approached Fatah with the idea of forming a coalition. Hamas insiders say they were drawn to the notion because joining forces would allow Hamas to concentrate on social concerns like education and health care while leaving to Fatah delicate issues like dealing with Israel. But the defeated Fatah concluded that it would rather be the opposition than a junior partner in a unity government–a decision that leaves Hamas to go it alone. “Hamas always expected to be part of a coalition,” says political scientist Abu Amr. “But they’re on their own, and that makes the hurdles they face even greater.”

There is little reason to think the Hamas victory will lead anytime soon to discussions with Israel. For one thing, Israel says it won’t talk to Hamas until the group disarms, recognizes Israel and commits itself to peace. That’s a long way from Hamas’ current position. Party officials describe the Oslo accords, negotiated in the early 1990s and languishing ever since, as dead. They say Hamas will never sell out Palestinians’ rights, as they believe Fatah did. “As long as we are under occupation, then resistance is our right,” Hamas’ Syria-based political leader Khaled Mashaal told reporters in Damascus last Saturday. But there may be some wiggle room. A few Hamas officials hinted before the election that the party could negotiate with Israel under the right circumstances. “We are not against the Jews. We are against occupation and oppression,” Sheik Mohammed Abu Tir, an influential Hamas official, told TIME a week before the vote. The Hamas military commander who spoke with TIME also suggests that the party may be willing to bow to reality: “There are facts on the ground that we cannot close our eyes to. We are not going to tear up all the agreements” that have been negotiated.

That said, there hasn’t been a lot of progress lately in the quest for peace. Abbas and the Fatah-dominated parliament were too weak to force radical groups like Hamas to lay down their weapons–a prerequisite for further talks. Israel under Sharon, meanwhile, had decided to go it alone, a policy that Olmert is expected to continue. Absent any breakthrough, Israel is likely to make some further withdrawals from the West Bank and then, perhaps, establish its borders unilaterally. That could force Hamas’ hand. “What is going to force them to change their stance is the fact that if they don’t participate in the negotiation process, the Israelis are going to make all the decisions, and they will find they’ve painted themselves into a corner,” says Marina Ottaway of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The obligations of governing “may force Hamas to come to grips with reality and abandon this dream world they are in, that Israel is somehow going to be eliminated and disappear from the face of the earth.” If Hamas can make that leap, Israel will find Hamas a tougher but more credible negotiating partner than Arafat ever was.

For many Hamas officials, however, dealing with Israel isn’t so critical as focusing on domestic issues like fighting graft and getting a grip on the many Palestinian security organizations. “The international community wants to know what Hamas thinks about Israel and the U.S., but Hamas wants to work to its own timetable,” says Abdul Sattar Kasim, a political scientist at An-Najah National University in Nablus. “They want to build a new Palestinian society. They’re not going to talk about the road map. They’re going to talk about the rights of Palestinian refugees. They’re not going to talk about the security of Israel. They’re going to talk about Palestinian security.”

Not that dealing with domestic issues will be easy. To deliver on its promise to improve security, Hamas will have to rein in the myriad paramilitary groups that Fatah and Arafat set up. Confrontations seem inevitable. “The problem is not in carrying arms but in misusing them,” says the Hamas military commander. “We will use an iron fist against those who misuse their weapons.” The situation is even more volatile because Fatah members blame Abbas for the party’s poor election showing. Thousands of angry Fatah supporters demonstrated late last week to call for his resignation, and Fatah gunmen stormed the Palestinian parliament. Isolated and weak, the President could probably do little to stop internecine violence if it broke out. “He’s trying to pretend he can walk on water,” says an aide to Abbas. “But he has problems everywhere he looks.”

The thorniest problem may be Hamas’ legacy as a terrorist organization. Israeli officials estimate that Hamas has been responsible for scores of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of people. That complicates how Israel and the West may interact with a new Palestinian government. Under the Oslo accords, Israel has sent regular payments to the Palestinian Authority for the taxes and customs it collects on Palestinian goods. That money, as much as $50 million a month, helps pay Palestinian teachers, nurses and other government workers. But under Israeli law, it’s illegal to give money to a terrorist organization. Once the Hamas-led government is sworn in, Israel is likely to stop the payments “or come up with some way of not dealing directly with them,” according to the Israeli security official. “We need time to come up with some guidelines.”

The U.S., similarly, could face legal problems if it continues to give money to the Palestinian Authority. U.S. laws bar giving aid to supporters of terrorism. Even if Hamas were to renounce terrorism, it could take months, if not years, to meet the laws’ requirements that it show it has truly changed its ways. In the short term, the flow of U.S. humanitarian aid to Palestinians will probably be disrupted. “We’re going to have to review all aspects of our aid program,” says Sean McCormack, spokesman for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

If the U.S. does come up with a way to keep the money flowing, it may try to use that to force Hamas to adapt. “If Hamas wants to be in a position to govern, it is going to have to depend on the outside world,” says former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. “They’re going to try to fuzz the issue and say, ‘We’ll just deal with internal needs and let Abu Mazen and others deal with Israel and the international bodies,'” says Ross. “But Hamas is going to have to make some choices. They’re going to be faced with some dilemmas, and I don’t think anybody should make it easier for them.”

Hamas and Israel are sure to watch each other with a mixture of curiosity and fear in the coming weeks. Is it possible they could spot an issue to work on together and open an avenue toward peace? “Israel says it won’t negotiate with us, but it negotiated with the P.L.O.,” says the Hamas military commander hopefully. Says an Israeli military intelligence officer: “Fatah was incompetent. They had their chance, and they failed. Now Hamas has responsibilities, and it has to show it deserves them.” After the earthquake, the future of Middle East peace depends on it.

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