Palestinian reconciliation and the rising power of Hamas and Islamic Jihad: An Iranian windfall
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi
Palestinian Reconciliation Talks Continuing
Representatives of the Fatah and Hamas movements are continuing to talk at both senior and junior levels in an attempt to translate the reconciliation agreement, signed between the sides on April 23, 2014, into a series of operative steps. These primarily involve integrating Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO institutions, setting up a unity government, and preparing for new parliamentary and presidential elections. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and the emir of Qatar in Doha on May 6. Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmed is expected to come to Gaza for continued reconciliation talks, and discussions are also being held in joint committees.
The following are the main points of the agreements that are emerging on various issues:
Setting up a technocrat government: By the end of May, the new government is to be composed of ministers who are not identified with any political party. Its main tasks will be managing daily affairs in the West Bank and Gaza, synchronizing the activities of ministries of a government that currently is divided between Ramallah and Gaza, preparing for parliamentary and presidential elections, implementing the terms of the reconciliation agreement (including putting a halt to "political arrests" and arranging for the employment of those public-sector workers hired since the summer of 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza in a violent overthrow), rehabilitating Gaza, and assuming control of the Rafiah crossing that links Gaza and Egypt. The Palestinian government will have no authority over relations with Israel.
Reforming the PLO institutions: This will begin with integrating Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives into the Palestinian National Council, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, and the PLO Executive Committee. A joint committee of all the Palestinian organizations will begin formulating the constitution of the state of Palestine. The PLO will have sole authority to conduct political negotiations with Israel.
Ending security coordination with Israel: The deputy leader of Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzouk, claimed an agreement had been reached with the PA on "canceling the security coordination with Israel, maintaining the rifle and the armed struggle."
Freeing all Hamas prisoners: Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhari said that in the framework of the reconciliation agreement, the PA had promised to free all detainees regardless of their political affiliation and activity. The names of the prisoners slated for release have been transferred to the heads of the Palestinian security mechanisms; pardons will be demanded for those who were given jail sentences.
The two sides have already started enacting a series of confidence-building measures. The most notable was the granting of permission for the Hamas-government newspaper Falestin to be distributed in the West Bank, and for the PA newspapers Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Al-Ayyam, and Al-Quds to be distributed in Gaza.
The PA has rejected the demand that Hamas must accept the Quartet principles (renouncing terror, recognizing Israel, and recognizing the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO and the PA) before being allowed into the government or the PLO institutions. A senior Palestinian official told the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that Abbas, in his meeting with U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice on April 8, voiced his objection to setting conditions for Hamas. Al-Hayat quoted the official's words on the content of Abbas' conversation with Rice:
The positions Abbas presented to Rice are consistent with statements he made in an interview to the Al-Awda TV channel, which also were broadcast on the PA's official channel. Abbas said:
Abbas goes even further in the positions he takes. Not only does he not require Hamas to renounce violence and terror, he vehemently claims that Hamas is not a terror organization. Abbas' consent to integrating Islamic Jihad into the PLO implies he does not regard it as a terror group either.
At an April 5 conference in Ramallah on the "resistance strategy," Saeb Erekat, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and head of the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel, said, "I declare to all the world, in the name of President Abu Mazen and of the [PLO] Executive Committee, that the Hamas movement is a Palestinian movement, and that it has not been and will not be a terror organization."
Erekat reiterated this claim in an April 27 interview to the Israeli Ynet site, saying, "We [the PA] do not regard Hamas as a terror organization" but rather as a "political organization." In another interview to the Al-Shams radio station on May 8, Erekat said, "Hamas is a political and not a terrorist movement."
Senior Hamas officials make clear that the organization does not intend to recognize Israel or accept the Quartet principles. Abu Marzouk said in a conversation with journalists on May 4, "We will never recognize [Israel] and there is no place for recognition of the Zionist entity." He added that the Palestinian organizations had reached agreement on an interim stage in which a Palestinian state will be established on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital and without recognizing the "Zionist entity."
As for the Quartet principles, Abu Marzouk said Hamas rejects them because they "detract from the rights of the Palestinian people." He asserted, "We rejected in the past and we continue to reject any conditions that detract from Palestinian rights. Hamas will remain faithful to the refugees' right of return [to Israel] and to the liberation [of all of Palestine]." Abu Marzouk also said that in the PLO-Hamas reconciliation talks, "we did not discuss the weapons of the Al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas' military wing]...and no one demands to discuss them since this is a national weaponry that serves the struggle."
In words spoken in Khaled Mashaal's name during a lecture at a May 11 conference of the International Union of Muslim Scholars in Doha, Qatar, Osama Hamdan, a member of Hamas' political bureau, said the Arabs and Muslims must be roused to wage war for the liberation of Palestine, since Palestinian rights will only be restored by force. Hamdan added that the Palestinians must resume their original national endeavor, that of liberation and return, which aims to liberate the Palestinian lands conquered in 1948.
Hamas' adherence to the path of jihad and terror is also evident in an animated film produced by the public relations department of the Al-Qassam Brigades in connection with Israel's sixty-sixth Independence Day. The film calls on all Jews living in the territory of Palestine to leave the land quickly or incur the fate of execution, that is, genocide.
Abbas presents the Palestinian state as a foregone conclusion based on the 1988 declaration of independence, the UN General Assembly resolution recognizing Palestine as a nonmember observer state, and the joining of international organizations and conventions. As Abbas told Al-Awda, "We can say that the birth certificate [of the state of Palestine] is secure and valid, and that the Palestinian people have a state in the United Nations."
Abbas rejected the possibility of withdrawing the "state of Palestine's" appeal to join fifteen international organizations and conventions. He warned that if Israel did not agree to resume the negotiations, and took punitive measures, "we will go on to join the rest of the international organizations, and by the way that does not mean 48 organizations, that is, 48 organizations and conventions, but over 700 or 800 [organizations] that we are entitled to join."
As basic conditions for renewing the talks with Israel, Abbas demands that Israel free the thirty Israeli Arab prisoners who were convicted of terror activities before 1993, completely halt all building in the settlements, and agree to finalize within three months the borders between Israel and Palestine; only then can the other issues related to a permanent settlement be discussed.
Assessment and Implications
There are different factors behind the decision of the Fatah and Hamas leaders to launch yet another reconciliation bid. The most important of these is apparently Abbas' resolve to act unilaterally in the global arena so as to inject practical content into the General Assembly resolution on Palestine as a nonmember observer state, and upgrade Palestine's status to that of a recognized state entitled to full sovereignty within the 1967 lines, while also demanding additional rights in Israeli territory.
This strategy creates a common core of interests for Fatah and Hamas. Abbas, who is leader of Fatah, head of the PLO, president of the state of Palestine, and chairman of the PA, needs Hamas' cooperation to make it appear that the government of the PA exists in Gaza as well. With the PA striving for international recognition, this is of supreme importance.
The Hamas leadership regards Abbas' strategy as a historic opportunity, and just as it backed him when he sought General Assembly recognition of Palestine in 2012, today Hamas will not oppose any diplomatic move aimed at upgrading Palestine's status. The political moves do not involve any political concession to Israel; they do involve the forceful attainment of Palestinian rights without any political quid pro quo, thereby fortifying the Palestinian stance in the uncompromising struggle against Israel.
The reconciliation also serves Hamas in two strategic ways. First, it affords Hamas international legitimacy as an actor helping Abbas and the PA, who, in turn, have become Hamas' main defense attorneys in the international arena, characterizing Hamas as a "political" organization and opposing its definition as a terror organization.
Hamas is clearly pleased with the international stamp of approval it expects to attain with Abbas' help. Abu Marzouk does not think the West will shun the Palestinian unity government. "The West has an interest in not blowing up the region, and I believe it will continue [to hold contacts] with the national [government of] technocrats, as it appeared to us when the reconciliation was welcomed [in the West]." In other words, the threat of regional terror is a crucial political asset through which one can obtain the West's de facto recognition of a terror organization.
Second, the entry ticket Abbas is providing Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO, without these organizations changing their platform and renouncing terror, enables them to compete for control of the PLO institutions and, through elections, to take the helm of the Palestinian national movement. Elections for the Palestinian National Council are supposed to be held in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian diaspora (excluding Israel and Jordan). In the 2006 parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas won an overwhelming majority. The Palestinian leadership in the diaspora has, traditionally, been critical of negotiations of Israel and supportive of Hamas' path of struggle. Thus Hamas sees a historic opportunity to upgrade its current status as the government of Gaza and is competing to become the exclusive representative of the Palestinian people both in Palestine and the diaspora. Abbas, in Hamas' view, is nothing but a means to that exalted end.
By repeatedly defying the United States, and being prepared to integrate Islamic Jihad as well into the PLO, and possibly also other Islamic terror organizations, Abbas is signaling that he is no longer in the American camp. Instead he is adopting positions of the rejectionist camp and seeking closer ties with Iran, ally of Hamas and patron of Islamic Jihad. An indication of that was the visit by Fatah Central Committee member Jibril Rajoub to Tehran at the end of January. Attempting to prepare the ground for a visit by Abbas himself to Iran, Rajoub brought a message from Abbas to the Iranian leadership and said the PA wanted to improve ties with Tehran. Indeed, Abbas systematically avoids condemning Iran or the Syrian regime for their cooperation in the Syrian civil war, in which over 150,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
In sum, the Palestinian Authority has launched a diplomatic war against Israel complemented by the continued use of terror at varying levels of intensity. The main goal of this campaign is to secure, via unilateral measures, international recognition of the PA's demand for Palestinian sovereignty and independence in all of the 1967 territories as an interim stage toward pressing further demands, most of all the demand for the "return" to Israel of millions of Palestinian "refugees" and their descendants. This is indeed the essence of the Phased Plan ratified by the PLO in 1974, which has now reached an advanced stage of implementation in cooperation with the other Palestinian terror organizations.
Israel is in a trap. Accepting the Palestinian conditions and capitulating to international pressure will likely lead to the rise of a hostile Palestinian state ruled by the Islamic terror organizations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad at the forefront, a state that is an extension of Iran. Moreover, should Israel be compelled to withdraw from the Jordan Valley, regional Islamist forces will feel empowered to seek the destabilization of the Hashemite regime in Jordan, once Palestinian independence is attained.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd.