Pressure Could Force Hamas Into Deal

By Ori Nir

Published September 08, 2006, issue of September 08, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — With the Palestinian government on the verge of a complete breakdown, pressure is mounting on the ruling Hamas movement to form a unity government with its Fatah rivals, who support a two-state solution.

In the past, the Bush administration has advised Fatah’s leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, against a formal partnership with Hamas. At this point, however, the administration is not coming out against his efforts to achieve a unity government through dialogue with Hamas, sources familiar with American-Palestinian relations said. The sources speculated that the administration views Abbas’s efforts as the only viable chance — however slim — to break the Palestinian political stalemate.

This past May, the Forward has learned, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch urged Abbas to use his powers to dismiss the Hamas Cabinet and appoint an emergency government instead, one that could serve as an interlocutor for Israel and the international community. Abbas refused and instead has been negotiating the terms of forming a unity government with the P.A.’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyah of Hamas.

The talks have been stalled for weeks because of sharp differences between the two factions: Fatah, a secular nationalist movement and dominant member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, favors a two-state solution; Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, refuses to recognize the Jewish state. Yet internal public pressure is mounting on Hamas.

The P.A.’s employees have launched an open-ended strike — practically rendering the Hamas government dysfunctional. Palestinians are demanding that Hamas compromise to allow international aid into the financially starved West Bank and Gaza.

“Currently, the entire Palestinian system is in crisis mode: The government is in crisis, the presidency is in crisis, the whole society is in crisis. This requires change,” said Ziad Abu-Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council that represents Gaza City, in an interview with the Forward. Speaking from his Gaza home during a phone interview, Abu-Amr added that Hamas knows it has to change something and that the easiest thing for it to change is the structure of the government.

“A national unity government is the most logical way to end the crisis, but only if it brings about an end to the international siege,” said Abu-Amr, the head of the Palestinian legislature’s political committee.

A professor of political science who has studied the Palestinian fundamentalist Islamist movements for years, Abu-Amr is currently involved in efforts to bring together Hamas and Fatah to agree on a unity government. The gap between the two parties is still significant, he said.

According to Palestinian press reports, last week Abbas handed a draft plan to leaders of Hamas, with three alternatives for a future structure of a national unity government. All alternatives, according to an August 31 report in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, which is associated with Fatah, propose that the new government would be headed by a “nationally agreed-upon prime minister.” Experts say that such a prime minister probably would be an independent elected official, with no party affiliation, or a respected nonelected persona with national gravitas and international recognition.

The differences in the three proposals have to do with the new government’s platform, sources familiar with the negotiations between Fatah and Hamas said.

Fatah insists that the platform meet the three conditions set by the international community for relations with a Palestinian government: renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel and endorsement of all past agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Hamas still resists accepting these conditions, but it is facing a dilemma, Abu-Amr said. “It is a movement that can’t make political and ideological transformations in a short period of time,” he continued. “It needs time. But Hamas also knows that the Palestinians don’t have time.”

Fueling the sense of crisis is the strike by P.A. employees. The vast majority of the 170,000 Palestinian public-sector workers are participating in the massive strike, including teachers and some workers of the healthcare system. The police union announced that it would join the strike this week, as well. Government employees either have not been paid at all or have received small subsidies since March. The donor community is supplying some funds for vital workers through Abbas’s office. Hamas officials have managed to smuggle some cash for salaries in recent months, but not enough to appease the livid government workers.

A report issued last week by the World Bank states that because of Israeli travel restrictions and the sharp drop in international aid, the Palestinian territories face “a year of unprecedented economic recession — real incomes may contract by at least a third in 2006, and poverty to affect close to two thirds of the population.” A United Nations report published in July said that 70% of Palestinian households are living in poverty.

Conflicting reports were published in recent days regarding the extent of progress that Abbas is achieving in his unity-government negotiations with Hamas. Some senior officials have told Palestinian reporters that the two sides are on the verge of agreement. Others said that the gulf between the two sides is still wide. A source familiar with the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Forward that Abbas is “watering down” his proposal to the point where he runs the risk of falling short of meeting the international community’s conditions for talks with, and economic aid for, the P.A. The source noted, however, that the mounting public pressure on Hamas is causing “cracks” in the Islamist movement’s absolutist position. Therefore, Abbas senses that he could find the “sweet spot” that would allow him to strike a deal that manages to open the door for international aid.

Small cracks in Hamas’s wall of resistance have become publicly visible in recent weeks. Senior Hamas officials expressed full support for the striking civil servants and promised to do everything possible to break the international economic boycott of the P.A.

On August 27, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad published an unusual opinion article in Al-Ayyam in which he sharply criticized the “resistance” — apparently referring to the armed wings of Palestinian organizations — for creating a state of “anarchy and corruption” in Gaza. In the article, a plea addressed to the resistance and headlined “Have Pity on Gaza,” he criticized the continued launching of rockets into Israel, although many such attacks are carried out by members of his own movement. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza one year ago, Hamad wrote, Israeli retaliation against the rocket attacks killed more than 500 Palestinians and injured more than 3,000. Only “three or four” Israelis were killed by rockets launched from Gaza, he wrote. Because of “our mistakes,” Hamad added, “the occupation returned to Gaza.” Hamad’s extraordinary article, Palestinian experts say, was a reply to the growing view that Hamas bears the responsibility for the chaos and poverty in Gaza.

In another expression of Hamas distress, Prime Minister Haniyah last month suggested that the P.A. could collapse. The statement was apparently intended as a threat but does not seem to have been taken seriously by Israel, the international community or Palestinians themselves. “The collapse of the P.A. will be by default, not by design,” Abu-Amr said.

Samar Assad, who directs the Washington-based Palestine Center, said that the P.A. can continue to survive under Hamas “on life support” for quite some time. Both Hamas and Fatah, she said, know that in order to revive it, they must join forces in government. That realization, said Nathan Brown, an expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, makes a Palestinian national unity government a more realistic option than ever before.

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