This item is available on the Middle East Forum website, at http://www.meforum.org/article/516
The Challenge of Hamas to Fatah
By Jonathan Schanzer
The international press lavished attention on the Fatah-Hamas summit held in Cairo in mid-November 2002. According to reports, Fatah (the leading faction backing Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority) and Hamas (the leading Islamist opposition) were going to hammer out their differences over many sensitive issues. In particular, Fatah sought to persuade Hamas to desist from suicide bombings and attacks on civilians in Israel. Palestinian officials reported "not a lot of significant progress." The two factions were scheduled to reconvene in mid-December, but the summit was postponed three times due to the obstinacy of Hamas.
Fatah and Hamas finally met again in Cairo in late January, 2003. However, the talks were clouded by the participation of no less than ten other factions, including hard-line groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The deliberations broke up without progress.
These talks were a new low point for the Palestinian Authority (PA), now reduced to pleading with rival groups to respect its own strategy. The summit was more evidence that two years of violence have turned the PA into one faction among many. While the economy plummets and political instability mounts, Fatah and Hamas have been battling in the streets for primacy. Against this backdrop, the motivations of these two groups for meeting in Cairo were clear. Fatah attended the Cairo talks in a desperate attempt to reign in its political foe. Hamas, for its part, is on the offensive, consolidating its strength, continuing its campaign of violence, and disrupting efforts towards a cease-fire.
Interestingly, the relations between Fatah and Hamas have always been tumultuous. The two groups have a long history of attempting to undermine one another. Indeed, the Fatah-Hamas conflict is looming as the next "struggle for Palestine"—the outcome of which is far from certain.
The history of Hamas-Fatah relations begins with the eruption of the first intifada on December 8, 1987. This grassroots uprising against Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza was initially led by a broad spectrum of Palestinian political factions. Yasir Arafat's Fatah organization—a guerrilla group active since 1964, based successively in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia (after 1982)—quickly brought these factions under its control and created the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU). This underground organization printed leaflets, or bayanat, which ordered strikes and demonstrations.
Within two months of the uprising, in January 1988, Fatah and the UNLU met their greatest challenge. Members of the Muslim Brethren created an umbrella organization called Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Movement of the Islamic Resistance), forming the Arabic acronym HAMAS (meaning "zeal" in Arabic). Its creation was the work of the younger cadres of the Muslim Brethren, who thus challenged the more pragmatic leadership of the movement. It was obligatory, they claimed, to wage jihad against Israel. Almost immediately, Hamas began to challenge Fatah, which the Islamist group saw as trying to "dominate control of the uprising." The first bayan bearing Hamas's name appeared on February 11, 1988. For the rest of the intifada, both organizations competed for the hearts and minds of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians by distributing leaflets and offering conflicting guidance about ideology, demonstrations, and civil strikes. In this way, both Fatah and Hamas sought to claim credit for inspiring and guiding the uprising.
Arafat, for his part, used the first intifada to advance his standing as an international leader of the Palestinian people. He did this in 1988 by accepting United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly resolution 181 during an emergency meeting of the Palestine National Council. The resolution, dating from November 1947, called for a partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Acceptance of the resolution amounted to a tacit recognition of Israel. Israel and the West saw this as an opening for peace talks and began working to that end immediately. Arafat responded by urging a peace conference based upon U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, each of which called for Israel to withdraw from territories conquered in 1967. Within two weeks, at least fifty-five states recognized Palestine's independence, thereby making the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—and by default, its prime component, Fatah—an instant, makeshift government.
It became apparent that Hamas and Fatah now had competing strategies. Fatah sought to create a proto-state to be recognized by the international community. Its strategy was to demonstrate its pragmatism to the world. Hamas, for its part, sought to gain power on the ground through a steadfast rejection of all negotiations leading to a two-state solution. The result was that Arafat and his Fatah faction were now stronger on the international level, but they lost credibility among some Palestinians who saw Fatah's implicit recognition of Israel as a sign of weakness.
Further, Arafat and Fatah's failure to oust Israel from any part of the territories by armed struggle was interpreted by some Palestinians as the inevitable outcome of the weakness of their secular and nationalist ideology. Thus, political scientist Mark Tessler notes, "Hamas extended its influence in both the West Bank and Gaza during 1988 and became an important voice giving direction to the uprising, second only to that of the UNLU."
On August 18, 1988, Hamas published its own "covenant," a document of thirty-six articles calling for a synthesis of Islamism and Palestinian nationalism. It envisioned Palestine as a state run according to the shari‘a (Islamic law) and declared that when "enemies usurp some Islamic lands, jihad becomes a duty binding on all Muslims." Further, it stated that Palestinians should not cede one inch of land because Palestine is waqf, an inalienable religious endowment entrusted to the Muslims by God.
By the end of 1988, some analysts speculated that Hamas was on the verge of replacing Fatah and the PLO as the leading power in the territories. As political scientist Glenn Robinson wrote, "certain events contributed to the perception that Hamas had emerged—or was on the verge of emerging—as the dominant factor in the occupied territories. … leading one commentator to suggest that 'if really free elections were held in the [occupied] territories, the fundamentalists would win more seats than the PLO.'"
Hamas's ideology, a synthesis of asceticism and nationalism, clearly spoke to an increasingly broad segment of the Palestinians. As its popularity rose, Hamas pressured women to dress modestly and attacked stores selling liquor. Activists clashed with leftists and killed those suspected of collaborating with Israel. Hamas also took credit for six attacks against Israelis in 1989, including kidnappings, stabbings, and shootings.
Meanwhile, Hamas grew bolder in its attempts to delegitimize Fatah. In January 1989, a leaflet published jointly by Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine called for an alternative to the PLO's leadership of the UNLU.
By May 1989, Hamas's surging popularity and unprecedented violence prompted Israeli security to arrest hundreds of its activists and militants. Israel declared Hamas an illegal organization on September 28, 1989. According to Israeli political scientists Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela, the arrests created a "vacuum that opened in the senior- and middle-level leadership." As a result, Hamas was forced to restructure its leadership so that arrests and assassinations would not debilitate the movement. Israeli terrorism expert Boaz Ganor also confirms that "the institutionalizing stage came in 1989, during which the movement worked on strengthening its infrastructure while establishing low-level ranks of command on the regional level."
That Hamas clashed with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) only improved its standing among the Palestinian people. Thus, wrote Israeli journalists Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari, "Hamas had become a factor to be reckoned with. … It had built an impressive infrastructure and held the power to ease or impede progress toward a political solution." This was made clear in 1990 when Hamas and the PLO leadership, at the behest of Yasir Arafat himself, met in Amman, Jordan, to discuss a cessation of the ongoing leaflet war and to invite Hamas to join the Palestinian National Council (PNC).
Despite this and other attempts at rapprochement, tensions remained high, marked by a continued war of words and sporadic violence. By 1991, the competing strategies of Fatah and Hamas came into sharp relief. Arafat attempted to consolidate his position as the international leader of the Palestinians when he authorized a West Bank-Gaza delegation to join the Jordanian delegation to the Madrid Conference for peace with Israel. Hamas, for its part, vigorously attacked this as a "conference of selling the land." That year, Hamas formed its military wing, the ‘Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade (named after a famous Islamist killed by the British in 1935), whose deadly attacks brought Hamas increased notoriety.
During May and June of 1991, notes Boaz Ganor, "the rivalry between the two organizations was marked by violence—using live weapons at times—mainly in Nablus. Such conflicts were renewed at the end of 1991 and the beginning of 1992." In the summer and fall of 1992, Hamas-Fatah tensions again boiled over, leading to more violent clashes for control of the streets.
The Impact of Oslo
After Israel and the PLO agreed to a basis for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, they signed a declaration of principles (Oslo I) on September 13, 1993. Hamas steadfastly opposed the agreement and likened it to sacrilege.
Internally, however, Hamas was divided regarding its own strategy towards the offspring of the Oslo accords, the PA. Some felt it incumbent upon Hamas to join the PA and not miss an opportunity to build a Palestinian state. But in the end, Hamas declared that it would not take part in the new institutions of the PA. Hamas joined the Damascus-based "Democratic and Islamic National Front"—including the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), PFLP-General Command, and five smaller rejectionist groups—dedicated to thwarting the Oslo agreement. In this way, Hamas had come to define itself increasingly by its opposition to the Oslo accords.
In1993, the group restated its vow to carry out terrorist attacks and called for boycotts and mass demonstrations. Hamas launched its first successful suicide bombings against Israeli civilians the following year. In the fall of 1994, shortly after the PA assumed control of Gaza under the Oslo accords, sixteen people died and 200 were wounded in clashes between Hamas and the PA near the Palestine mosque in Gaza. In the wake of subsequent Hamas suicide bombings, Israel and the United States called upon Arafat to crack down on Hamas as a precondition for future negotiations. PA officials met Hamas representatives in Cairo in 1995 to persuade Hamas to join the PA, reduce violence, and back peace—a call Hamas rejected. Soon thereafter, in March 1996, after four Hamas suicide bombings killed fifty-seven people, PA security, with the aid of Israeli and U.S. intelligence, jailed hundreds of Hamas operatives.
On January 20, 1996, the PA held its first elections for the presidency and the Palestinian Legislative Council. The quandary that Hamas faced in 1994 presented itself again: should Hamas grant legitimacy to the PA, a product of the Oslo accords, or refrain from joining the political system? In the end, Hamas again snubbed Fatah and the PA, deciding not to take part in the elections. However, several members ran independently and won. Many observers felt that had Hamas fully participated, its candidates might have won a string of victories.
After the Wye Plantation accords in October 1998, Hamas curtailed its activity. Some claim that Hamas's low profile was intended to facilitate the continuation of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rule and, implicitly, to undermine the PA's relations with Israel. Israeli terrorism expert Reuven Paz, however, asserts that Hamas did try to continue its campaign of violence but was stymied by the security efforts of the PA.
In the summer of 1999, after a 10-month hiatus, Hamas initiated a rash of shootings and ambushes in the West Bank. Hamas, wrote Israeli terrorism expert Ely Karmon, had little to lose, since the PA continued to jail hundreds of Hamas activists without charge or trial.
At the start of the Palestinian insurrection in September 2000, Arafat released many detained Hamas operatives and actually cooperated with Hamas on military operations. The "National and Islamic Forces," a thirteen-member coalition comprised of Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, was even formed for coordination between the groups. Hamas, however, soon ratcheted up its operations independently and once again emerged as a threatening opposition. One media report noted "concerns among senior PA officials over the possibility that Hamas [was] trying to reap political capital among traditionally-minded Palestinians." Arafat, in an attempt to consolidate his own power, reportedly offered Hamas an alliance in January 2001 but was again rebuffed. In June, Hamas also rejected Arafat's offer to join a new Palestinian cabinet.
By August 2001, a Palestinian poll reported that Fatah's popularity in the PA had declined sharply to 26 percent, while an unprecedented 27 percent supported Hamas. Inter-factional tensions ensued, with intermittent reports of violence. In September, Hamas leaders chided Marwan Barghuti, commander of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Brigades (now on trial in Israel), leading to an exchange of public barbs between the two groups. And in October, when a Hamas operative killed Col. Rajah Abu Lihyah of PA security, clashes led to the deaths of five persons. PA security subsequently moved against Hamas in Gaza, declared an emergency, and cancelled Ramadan holidays for security personnel.
Why did Hamas persist in its refusal to come to terms with Fatah, to forge the equivalent of Israel's "national unity" government? According to documents recently seized in Gaza by the IDF, Hamas recognizes Fatah's current weakness, and its confidence has grown to the point where it sees itself as one of "the influential forces in the Arab-Zionist equation." In these documents, Hamas notes that the PA has "collapsed, its infrastructure has been destroyed, and it suffers rifts and divisions … in short, the PA has been dismantled and must be reassembled according to new conditions." Those "new conditions" have persuaded Hamas that it can legitimately claim a place of primacy in any new order, and that it has nothing to gain by legitimizing the PA.
Hamas also seems to have realized that its violence not only demoralizes Israel but also undermines the PA. Every time Hamas attacks an Israeli target, either inside Israel proper or in the Palestinian territories, the attack elicits an Israeli reprisal—against the PA. Israel does sometimes resort to "targeted killings" and manhunts of Hamas operatives. But it just as often retaliates against PA infrastructure (e.g., police stations, government buildings, Arafat's compound in Ramallah). Israeli retaliation, in the aggregate, has actually weakened the PA (and its Fatah tributary) more than Hamas.
To put it another way, Hamas is able to kill two birds with one stone. By attacking Israel, it boosts its popularity with Palestinians, and it elicits an Israeli retaliation that, in most instances, damages the PA and possibly paves the way to Fatah's disintegration. Given these tangible rewards for terror, Hamas has no reason to desist.
It then should come as no surprise that the various "dialogues" between Fatah and Hamas have yielded little or nothing in the way of reducing terror. In fact, the only cumulative effect of these talks has been to legitimize Hamas still further, through Egyptian sponsorship of the talks. The Israeli Ha'aretz daily notes that "the Europeans, the Americans, and the Egyptians all treated the Islamic groups as the de facto equal of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority."
As the PA crumbles, Fatah is in a quagmire. It can try to garner international support by renouncing violence (as it did in the past), or it can adopt the Hamas strategy of winning Palestinian support through violence. International support was clearly Fatah's ticket to power in the late 1980s. But violence and rejectionism are a proven strategy for success at home. Hamas's steady popularity in the Palestinian territories is a testament to that.
Arafat, until now, has made no choice. He has called for both "martyrdom" and a "just peace" with Israel. The result is that without leadership, the Palestinians are in utter disarray. Indeed, they are further away from achieving statehood than they were when the violence began. Thus, Arafat is now grasping at the straw of a proposal by the quartet (the United States, U.N., European Union, and Russia), known as a "roadmap" for peace, promising a de facto Palestinian state next year, with final borders to be set by 2005. For this "roadmap" to be implemented, however, the quartet has stipulated an initial period of calm on the ground. It was this stipulation that led Fatah to make an overture to Hamas, asking that it halt suicide bombings for three months. The overture effectively recognized that Hamas had achieved a veto over Palestinian strategy. Notes Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Amr, "Hamas can play the role of the spoiler" and a "factor for instability."
The Cairo talks of November 8-12 were designed, among other things, to ease the rising tensions between the two groups. Egypt also sought to broker a deal whereby Hamas would end attacks on Israeli civilians for three months, provided Israel halted political assassinations (targeting Hamas members). The plan was to translate a cease-fire into a full-scale reconciliation.
Initially, the talks were to take place between Khalid Mash‘al, head of Hamas's politburo, and Mahmud ‘Abbas (Abu Mazin), Fatah's number two. In the end, Arafat lowered the profile of his delegation when he sent Zakaria al-Agha, a member of the PLO executive committee. Hamas, in turn, yanked Mash‘al and sent a lesser figure, Musa Abu Marzuq. This jockeying was but one more sign of festering animosity between the two groups.
Not surprisingly, the talks failed to produce a result. On November 21, Hamas carried out a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus, killing eleven persons and wounding fifty others. Back in Gaza, tensions between Fatah and Hamas reached new heights; clashes between them led to the deaths of a man and his five-year-old child. Fatah responded by burning a press office linked to Hamas and fired gunshots at the homes of two Hamas leaders. A leaflet released on December 10 warned Hamas: "anyone who wants to challenge [Fatah], his end will be in our hands, never mind who he is." Days later, the PA minister of supplies, Abu ‘Ali Shahin, stated that "Hamas is concocting problems with Fatah in the Gaza Strip to weaken and marginalize the PA so it would replace the authority. … [Hamas] wants to show its power and attain recognition."
A few days later, Hamas spokesman Usama Hamdan defiantly declared, "we are not ready to be ordered to stop the resistance." The following week, Hamas founder Ahmad Yasin held a rally of some 30,000 Hamas supporters at a soccer stadium in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold. There, he insisted that "jihad will continue," despite the talks with Fatah.
At the start of 2003, talks between the two factions were again postponed, after Egypt failed to broker an agreement on the starting point: a halt on terror attacks against Israelis. In an interview with Yasin published on January 10, the Hamas leader stated that one reason Hamas had rejected a ceasefire was the inconsistency of Fatah. He noted that "the PA itself supports the jihad activities and the suicide attacks, whilst at the same time it requests us to put a stop to them."
In the following weeks, Egypt's attempts to bring the two sides together sputtered. On January 22, Hamas announced that it would not attend the talks in Cairo, "because not all Palestinian factions were invited." The following day, Palestinian officials stated that the talks would include no less than twelve Palestinian factions. Yet despite Fatah's apparent capitulation to this demand of Hamas, the Hamas political leader in Gaza, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Rantisi, stated Hamas would "not agree to any project or document demanding an end to resistance." At the end of the day, the initiative collapsed; a Hamas leader announced that "other Palestinian players are responsible for the failure of the talks, due to their insistence on imposing their opinions on all the Palestinian factions." Fatah, for its part, criticized Hamas in the Palestinian media for not helping "the national interest of the Palestinian people."
In sum, Hamas remained defiant, despite the combined pressures of the PA and Egypt. This once-irresistible combination could no longer dictate terms to Hamas, which seems determined to follow its own strategy of escalation.
What are the prospects that Hamas might emerge from this struggle as the dominant factor in Palestinian politics?
It almost happened once before. During the first intifada, Fatah's weakness only strengthened Hamas. In fact, were it not for the Israeli and international recognition that Oslo brought to Arafat—followed by increased foreign aid, security training, and political clout—Fatah might have been eclipsed by its Islamist rivals. It was Arafat's decision to adopt policies of relative pragmatism that saved Fatah from its own demise.
When Fatah rejected diplomacy in September 2000 and chose to support the violence of the so-called Al-Aqsa intifada, the group regressed to its weakened position of the late 1980s. Now there are no powerful outside parties eager to salvage Arafat or Fatah, leaving the PA without any hope of international intervention to save it from the consequences of Arafat's strategic errors. Further disintegration of the PA is almost a foregone conclusion.
Should the PA eventually collapse, Hamas knows full well that it has much of the infrastructure needed to step in as a viable alternative. Mahmud Zahar, a political officer of Hamas, notes that his faction is now "absolutely" prepared to take over leadership of the Palestinians, "politically, financially [and] socially." It is a credible claim: Hamas has always generated its grassroots constituency by creating a social infrastructure, which functions as a quasi-government. This includes hospitals, clinics, libraries, seminaries, orphanages, schools, and more. Indeed, it now has an advantage over Fatah and the PA, which have squandered millions of dollars in aid since 1993, and have come up short in providing crucial social services. Should the PA collapse, Hamas may seize the opportunity to co-opt some of the PA infrastructure and combine it with its Islamist social services network already in place. Zahar also notes that "with respect to an army, we can create one with all capabilities."
The only measure that might block Hamas's continued rise is a thorough, far-reaching and even drastic reform of the PA. Only a completely transparent central authority can compete with the claims of Hamas. Without that reform, the scenario of a Hamas eclipse of the PA will become more likely, perhaps setting the stage for an even more comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian confrontation in the years ahead.
 Agence France-Presse (AFP), Dec. 10, 2002.
This item is available on the Middle East Forum website, at http://www.meforum.org/article/516
Copyright 2003-2006 : DiscoverTheNetwork.org