Hamas Rising from the Ashes
"Hamas Rising from the Ashes"
By: The Economist
Date: November 1, 2003
Source: The Economist.
About the Author: The Economist is a weekly magazine based in London featuring world news and analysis. By tradition, articles written by staff writers and editors appear in the Economist with editorial backing, but without individual author attribution.
Between 1987 and 1993, Palestinians protested Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza through violence and civil unrest, a series of actions called the Intifada, or popular uprising. The Intifada ended in September 1993 as Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn and promised to bring an end to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis by signing the Oslo Agreement. The Intifada and the failure of the agreement not only left the region in continued unrest, but also created conflict within Palestinian leadership.
The Intifada began as a spontaneous demonstration by rock throwing youths but later, under the leadership of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, became increasingly more violent. Hamas, which means zeal, gained its popular support through its well-funded social actions, not just the violent actions against Israel during the Intifada. Grown out of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas sponsored the building of schools and hospitals, and ran other charitable and religious organizations. Through this work, Hamas established itself in Palestinian society.
During the Intifada, Yasir Arafat and other leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) lived in exile. Israel wanted to give Palestinians an alternative to supporting the PLO and as a result, permitted Islamic groups to take control of civil institutions such as schools and health clinics. This allowed Islamic fundamentalism, promoted by the charity work of Hamas, to spread throughout the region. The PLO, a largely secular organization, tried to remotely control the extremist groups during the Intifada and eventually, with the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, brought the unrest to a pause. Although the violence of the Intifada led by local extremists brought the Israelis to the negotiating table, the PLO acquired their political power from its success.
At its beginning, Palestinians widely supported the Oslo Agreement as it held the hope for an end to Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the establishment of an open and democratic system of self-government. Support for violent protests declined sharply. As a condition of the agreement, exiled PLO leaders returned and established the Palestinian Authority (PA). In 1996, after the partial Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory, national elections established the Palestinian Authority as a political power.
By 2000, however, the peace process initiated by the Oslo Agreement had stalled and economic and living conditions for the Palestinians continued to deteriorate. Although the agreement had held the promise to end the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, Jewish settlements continued to expand and Palestinians were disappointed by the status of Palestinian democracy due to poor performance and charges of corruption. This perceived failure on the part of the Palestinian Authority once again created a vacuum of power that members of groups like Hamas sought to fill. The second Intifada, led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, began and marked not only the struggle for independence from Israel, but also marked the struggles between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
It looks like the photograph of a bombed-out city in the Second World War. A 200-yard-wide swathe of gouged mud, crushed stone, and blasted skeletons of houses now defines the Gaza Strip's southern border with Egypt. It was once Block L of the Yebna refugee camp in the town of Rafah. Last month, the Israeli army destroyed 150 homes there to unearth arms-smuggling tunnels. Palestinians say it was the final act to "cleanse" them from an area that has long been one of the hottest front lines in their long war with Israel.
It stirs the most ominous of memories. "In 1948, the Israelis transferred us to the West Bank and Gaza. Now they're transferring us to places within the West Bank and Gaza," shrugs a Palestinian mother of seven whose house is now a pile of pulverised concrete covered by a carpet.
She is one of nearly 2,000 Palestinians displaced by this and two other recent Israeli incursions into Rafah. For relief the homeless turn mainly to two organisations. One is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is responsible for Palestinian refugees. The other is the al-Salah Islamic Society, whose funds were frozen by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in August for its alleged links with the Islamist Hamas movement.
UNRWA is desperately seeking rented accommodation for the displaced in a town that already has 5,000 homeless due to earlier Israeli incursions, and where secure land on which to house them is dwindling. Al-Salah volunteers are busy doling out cash, blankets, and food. The PA, by contrast, is palpable by its absence. When its housing minister, Abdel Rahman Hamad, visited Rafah last week, he was confronted by locals outraged by the PA's inability to provide the barest of services.
Al-Salah admits that the freeze on funds has hindered its work. Employees go without salaries and recipients cannot cash cheques. But the charity struggles on. Its headquarters in Rafah is crammed with blankets, plastic kitchen utensils and school uniforms, all awaiting distribution.
How does al-Salah pay for all this stuff? "The banks give us credit. They know we can account for every penny we spend," says Nafiz Mansour, its director. He assumes the PA will eventually unfreeze the funds under popular pressure. He is probably right, for al-Salah's aid and activism are deeply appreciated by people who have rarely felt so abandoned.
There are other reasons, aside from welfare, for the Islamists' rising popularity in Gaza. On October 24th two fighters from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Palestinians' two biggest Islamist movements, infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, in the Gaza Strip, killing three soldiers, two of them women. The settlement is home to 60 families and is a base for an army battalion. Its location south of Gaza City enables Israel to slice the strip in two, severing Palestinians in places like Rafah from their main hospitals, universities and businesses in Gaza City. In reprisal for the attack on Netzarim, the Israeli army demolished three unfinished 13-storey residential towers from which it said Palestinians had been firing on the settlement. The PA said that, once built, the apartments would have housed 5,000 Palestinians.
In September, Israel tried killing Hamas's leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, aware of the movement's growing power in Gaza. He shrugs off talk that the attack on Netzarim augurs a new Islamist alliance ready to fill the PA's leadership vacuum. "We're not interested in ending the PA," he says. "We're interested in ending the [Israeli] occupation." To this end, he justifies suicide bombings inside Israel as necessary responses to "Israel's crimes against our civilians" in the West Bank and Gaza.
Even so, he says he is ready to discuss another Palestinian ceasefire with Ahmed Qurei, the PA's new prime minister. "We're waiting to hear proposals from Abu Alaa [Mr Qurei's nom de guerre]," says the sheikh. "We observed a truce in summer and took some steps on the ground. But Israel refused to reciprocate. If it is in the Palestinian interest to have a ceasefire, we will have one. If not, we won't."
In practice, say other Hamas men, they won't sign another ceasefire unless Israel ends its policy of assassinating Islamist leaders, stops its incursions into the PA's areas, stops demolishing Palestinian homes and stops building new barriers cum borders. In these respects, Hamas is in tune with most Palestinians.
The goals of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas are not in contention. Both groups desire the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories in Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority seeks a negotiated settlement that would allow them to remain in power. Hamas, on the other hand, seeks the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state. As the popularity of the Palestinian Authority declines, the possibility for a negotiated settlement decreases. Hamas and its charitable entities continue to provide financial and religious support. Therefore, many Palestinians hold greater faith in Hamas than in the Palestinian Authority.
This rise in support for Hamas has greatly affected the PA. As the internationally recognized authority in Palestine, the Palestinian Authority is held responsible for managing the violence. Its ability to do so is impeded when it is viewed as ineffective by international leaders, due to its failure to secure the promises of independence and effective governance awarded by the Oslo Agreement. Hamas' popularity has also affected the PA's ability to negotiate internationally.
As the question of authority in Palestine continues to go unanswered, the Palestinian people are left in the balance and look to those who provide for their basic needs. Although many seek a peaceful solution to the conflict with Israel, the legacy of the first Intifada, the Palestinian Authority's perceived failures, and the continuing deterioration of living conditions create conflict for the Palestinian people and its leadership.
Shikaki, Khalil. "Palestinians Divided." Foreign Affairs. (2002):
BBC News. Westcott, Katherine. "Who Are Hamas?" October 19, 2000. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/978626.stm> (accessed July 8, 2005).
NPR. Shuster, Mike. "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict Part 6: From the First Intifada to the Oslo Peace Agreement." October 7, 2002. <http://www.npr.org/news/specials/mideast/history/history6.html> (accessed July 9, 2005).