Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Crucial Decision for Future of Palestine: Will Hamas Emerge as Political Party or Underground Opposition?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Crucial Decision for Future of Palestine: Will Hamas Emerge as Political Party or Underground Opposition?

Article excerpt

A Crucial Decision for Future of Palestine: Will Hamas Emerge as Political Party Or Underground Opposition?

By Stephen J. Sosebee

The Sept. 18 armed clash between Hamas gunmen and Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip is both the seemingly inevitable confrontation between President Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority and the Islamic rejectionist groups, and an indication that Hamas leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to control their military units. While Hamas political and spiritual leaders have expressed a willingness to wait and allow the Oslo Accord to self-destruct, the Izzadin al-Qassem rank and file continue to initiate military attacks against Israelis from within the new autonomous Palestinian areas of Gaza and Jericho.

Since the Israeli military withdrawal from the main population centers in the Gaza Strip, the two Islamic rejectionist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have ambushed and killed more than a dozen Israeli soldiers and settlers in Gaza. While this is hardly a new development--both were conducting "armed struggle" in Gaza before the Israeli withdrawal--the death of a Palestinian policeman in a clash with Hamas personnel in Rafah has pushed President Arafat into a position that he clearly hoped to avoid.

"Palestinian soldiers are forced to arrest Palestinian fighters for attacking Israeli settlers and soldiers on Palestinian soil," says Ahmed Abu Romana in Khan Younis. "There is no way for Arafat to benefit from this, as people still are not convinced that the agreement is in their best interests."

After Arafat signed his agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Washington on Sept. 13, 1993, Hamas leaders held that the Palestinian people soon would turn away from Arafat's leadership. However, as Arafat consolidated his support in Gaza this summer, Hamas attacks on Israeli targets increased significantly.

"Much of their frustration was the result of losing support in the streets and within the new ruling Palestinian authority," explains Saud Jibril, a Palestinian journalist in Gaza. "The Oslo Accord has strengthened Arafat for now in Gaza and Hamas feels threatened that this situation will continue."

In a poll conducted a day before the clashes at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza, which left two Palestinian civilians and an Israeli soldier dead and more than 188 persons injured, the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found that more than 60 percent of Palestinians in Gaza "welcomed" the Cairo agreement. Meanwhile, 36.4 percent of Gazans responded that the Cairo agreement had "increased their support for the PLO," while only 15.8 percent in Gaza said their support had declined. Nearly 40 percent of Gazans also indicated support for Arafat's Fatah faction, while only 13.5 percent supported Hamas, the second largest Palestinian group. Nearly three-fourths of all Gazan respondents supported "implementing the self-rule experience in the rest of the West Bank."

"The Oslo Accord has strengthened Arafat for now."

Hamas contends that the current street support for the Oslo/Cairo agreements will not last. "The Oslo Accord will destroy itself in due time," says Muhsen Abu Aita, a Hamas leader in Gaza. Hamas did not initially work to destroy it, as it did not want to be blamed for its failure, he says. "This doesn't mean that Hamas will accept an observer role; Hamas will work to reinforce its principles and positions."

Throughout the summer, Arafat, who had returned in July to live in Palestine for the first time since 1967, enjoyed relatively strong popular support. While Gazans now enjoy life without Israeli soldiers shooting people and nightly curfews, Gaza's economic and social conditions continue to challenge Arafat's efforts. Unemployment in the Gaza Strip is estimated at 58 percent and rubbish still litters the streets.

"Without the funds promised by the international community, Arafat's honeymoon in Gaza will be short lived," predicts Ahmed Hassan, a political economist at the Islamic University. …

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