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DAMASCUS - Anyone who has watched the performance of Hamas or followed its
rhetoric since its founding in Palestine in the late 1980s realizes that the
Islamic group has greatly matured over the past 20 years.
Originally, Hamas shunned everything related to the Oslo Peace Agreement signed
by Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, claiming that by accepting United
Nations resolutions Arafat was offering de facto recognition of Israel. The
founding charter of Hamas refused to recognize the Jewish state and promised to
eradicate it completely, thereby restoring all of Palestine of 1948.
It refused to hold government or parliamentary office in the Palestinian
National Authority (PNA) that was born out of the Oslo Agreement and waged a
bloody war against Israel during the
second intifada that broke out 10 years ago, in September 2000. It also refused
to recognize any US role in the Middle East. Today, 22 years after its
founding, Hamas is taking a long hard look at its history, learning from both
its successes and mistakes to chart a new course for the party and its top
Things began to change in 2006, when Hamas decided to run for the first
post-Arafat parliament in the Palestinian territories - a product of the Oslo
Agreement. By agreeing to hold office in an institution created by the peace
process, Hamas was actually recognizing the Oslo Accords. In its campaign,
although Hamas called for maintaining the armed struggle against Israel, it did
not call for the establishment of an Islamic state in Palestine, as stated in
its 1988 charter, "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam
will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."
Hamas foreign minister Mahmud al-Zahhar made it clear, "There is no place for
the state of Israel on this land," but meanwhile, Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad
Yassin had accepted a long-term truce, or hudna, with Israel, if the
latter agreed to return to the 1967 border and grant the "right of return" to
Palestinian refugees in the diaspora. In January 2004, that offer was
reinstated by Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi, a senior commander of Hamas, who called
for "phased liberation of land" before being assassinated by Israel three
months later, in April.
Let us take a closer look at the details. Hamas boycotted the January 2005
election of President Mahmud Abbas, but did participate in the municipal
elections of May 2005, taking strongholds like Rafah in the Gaza Strip and
Qaliqiyah in the West Bank, with a sweeping majority. In the parliamentary
elections of 2006, it took 42.9% of the votes and 74 of the 132 seats after
presenting the electorate with a "List of Change and Reform".
Hamas hoped to be given a chance to prove its merit and rule the Palestinian
territories, offering a 10-year truce to Israel in return for complete
withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. It did not call
for liberation of all of Palestine - realizing that politics is the art of the
possible and that such a demand would fall on deaf ears in the international
Rather than invest in the newfound policy of Hamas, the international community
boycotted the Palestinian territories to punish the Palestinians for voting for
Hamas, imposing sanctions at the urging of the George W Bush White House, in
May 2006. This led hardliners within Hamas to call off any moderation, claiming
that Israel only understands the language of force, and advocate a return to
what Hamas knew best: leading an armed uprising against Israel.
The mainstream leaders of Hamas, however, clearly wanted to be recognized as
statesmen, rather than simply guerilla warriors. The scenario they had in mind
was that of Arafat himself, who after years of work in the Palestinian
underground, rose to become an elected president in the 1990s, bent on
providing jobs, paying salaries, attracting investment and bringing both
security and normalcy to the Palestinian territories.
What really mattered, the leaders of Hamas soon realized, were better schools
for the Palestinians, finer and cheaper hospitals and higher living standards
for the citizens of the West Bank and Gaza. Rooting out corruption and cranking
out more PhD students at Palestinian universities became more pressing to them
than waging an underground battle against Israel.
A few months back, Ismail Haniyya, the prime minister of the Hamas-led
government in Gaza, announced that he welcomed the positive momentum brought to
the region by US President Barack Obama. He was willing to give Obama the
benefit of the doubt should the latter apply needed pressure on Israel to end
the siege of Gaza. Gone were the days of Hamas refusing to accept any US role
in the Middle East.
Last week, Hamas released detained British journalist Paul Martin, much to the
relief of the British government, from jail in Gaza. This showed that Hamas
could solve problems in the Middle East, reminding of how a few years back it
had helped release BBC anchor Alan Johnston from captivity in Gaza. Hamas also
recently announced that it was willing to accept the Arab Peace Initiative,
proposed at the Beirut summit of 2002, which recognized Israel by the 1967
borders. Also seemingly gone were the days of Hamas refusing any peace deal not
based on the liberation of all of Palestine.
There are a multitude of reasons why Hamas has changed attitude, while
maintaining nevertheless, its original dream of liberating Palestine. One is a
desire to come to power in the Palestinian territories - an ambition shared by
political parties throughout history.
It happened to Fatah in 1993, when Arafat realized that armed combat alone
would never succeed in liberating Palestine or bringing him to power in the
Palestinian territories. Another reason why Hamas has softened its policy is
the amount of destruction and bloodshed imposed on Gaza since the war of
2008-2009. Although it outlived the Gaza war, Hamas realized that people under
its jurisdiction were suffering unbearable conditions and that it had to
elevate their living standards - fast. If softening its policies was the price
for easing suffering in Gaza, then this was a price Hamas was willing to pay.
A third reason why Hamas is changing fast is yet another realization, being how
different its natural surrounding is to that of Hezbollah, which has the luxury
of maintaining a hard line policy, and yet, co-sharing power with pro-Western
elements in Lebanese politics.
First, co-sharing power with Fatah is clearly not possible in the Palestinian
territories, despite all attempts at doing just that since 2006. Second, while
Hezbollah is sheltered by the geographic proximity of Syria, Hamas is
neighbored by a very hostile Egyptian government, which far from offering
support, makes life all the more difficult for the Gazans.
While Hezbollah also makes use of the rugged terrain of south Lebanon, fighting
from the caves and mountains, Hamas cannot do that in flat Gaza, being an easy
target for Israeli warplanes. Additionally, Hezbollah takes its security very
seriously and has made sure that under no circumstances do the Israelis get the
chance to infiltrate the Hezbollah community.
Clearly from the results of 2006, Israel has no information on the whereabouts
of heavyweight Hezbollah commanders. Otherwise it would have gunned them down,
as it has been doing with Hamas leaders since the 1990s.
Within the Palestinian territories, hunger has people by the throat, making it
very easy for Israel to send out an army of spies and informers to buy off
those in dire need for money. Because of this, Israel has managed to strike
down scores of Hamas officials like its founder Ahmad Yassin, Rantisi, and was
suspected of playing a part in the death of Arafat himself in 2004.
In January it managed to assassinate Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, another Hamas
heavyweight, in Dubai, and last weekend arrested the founder of Hamas in
Ramallah, Maher Udda. A few weeks ago, the son of Sheikh Hasan Youssef, a top
Hamas founder, came out to announce that he had been working with Israeli
intelligence Mossad since the 1990s, and had since moved to the US and
converted to Christianity.
The information he provided apparently saved the life of Israeli President
Shimon Peres and led to the arrest of influential Palestinians like Marwan
Barghouti. Such a case is unheard of in Hezbollah circles, showing just how
difficult it is for Hamas to digest a reality: because of poverty, Israel has
infiltrated Palestinian society in dramatically sophisticated ways. Poverty on
the streets, an indifferent international community, all topped with a desire
to rule, explain why Hamas is wiser in 2010 than ever before.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward magazine.