What is behind the Hamas-PA conflict?

There is clearly a conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Sharon has an interest in fomenting this further as a divided Palestinian community would be much easier to control. In the past Israel backed the formation of Hamas as a counterweight to the PLO. Now the opposite is the case and Israel is leaning on the PLO to curb the influence of Hamas.

40 people were injured and two civilians and one policeman, Major Ali Makkawi, were killed on Sunday October 2 in the fiercest clashes ever seen in the Gaza Strip between Hamas fighters and the Palestinian Authority’s police. It would seem that Sharon is close to attaining his dream of an open civil war between the PA and the Resistance movement.

This clash was the direct result of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s campaign ‑ backed by the Sharon government ‑ to control Gaza. Israel wants one army within the Palestinian community, under its direct or indirect control, and its choice for now is the PA. Israel pulled out of Gaza recently, but it obviously wants the PA to police the Strip for it.

While the PA’s police were trying to prevent resistance fighters from carrying weapons on the streets, Sharon was bombing Gaza from the air and carrying out the assassination of Hamas and Jihad leaders and activists.

According to Aljazeera, the fighting broke out when the police came to arrest Muhammad Abd al-Aziz al-Rantissi, the son of the late Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz al-Rantissi, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004. According to reports, the police beat al-Rantissi. Seeing this, people in the neighbourhood gathered to protect him, and the police opened fire indiscriminately to disperse the crowd

The fighting spread to the nearby Shati refugee camp where Hamas members shot four rocket-propelled grenades at a Palestinian police station, killing the policeman, and another at police in Shaikh Radwan, a Hamas stronghold in Gaza City.

As I write these lines the Israeli army has detained another 40 members of Hamas and the Jihad. Nearly 500 of their members have been detained since September 25 when the Sharon government intervened in the elections by arresting hundreds of Hamas activists, including candidates in the elections.

The Israeli rulers do not hide the fact that they want to prevent Hamas from running in the upcoming election in January. The Chief-of-Staff of the Israeli army, General Dan Halutz, repeating the line of Sharon, said that Israel will not allow Hamas, which was behind the majority of anti-Israeli attacks during the five-year Palestinian uprising, to run in January's legislative elections.

However, it seems that Israel’s position has had the opposite effect of what Sharon and his advisers were hoping for. “This campaign has given rise to concern among the Palestinian public that Israel is trying to forcibly undermine Hamas so as to help Abbas and his Fatah organization to defeat it in the upcoming elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council,” wrote Danny Rubenstein in Haaretz on October 2.

This is exactly the reason why the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) stepped in and tried to prevent such an open war. According to Aljazeera, “The deputy head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hasan Khreisha, told Aljazeera that the clashes were unacceptable by the Palestinian street and called for an investigation, to end these incidents as they bring the Palestinian society into a state of self-destruction, as if we are destroying ourselves”.

He was asked what was behind the clashes and his reply was “the Israeli government and the forces of occupation.”

Now, all of a sudden the Israeli government has decided to end the attack on Gaza. "We have decided to suspend the offensive operations that we launched last week… the decision means the suspension ‘for now’ of Israeli air raids in the Gaza Strip, of artillery fire towards the north of the territory and of operations aimed at eliminating resistance groups in Gaza and the West Bank.”

"This statement is part of the propaganda campaign to blackmail our people and to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to fight against the factions and resistance groups," said Hamas’s spokesman in Gaza.

The government does not explain its motivation but clearly understands that its actions only help Hamas. According to official data, in the third round of municipal elections in the Palestinian territories held on Thursday, September 29, Fatah won 53 percent of the seats in the local councils, and Hamas only 26 percent. Yet, these figures are misleading. Hamas actually received more votes in absolute terms. Fatah won in 55 of the 104 communities, while Hamas won 25. However, the figures are distorted because Hamas won by a large margin in 15 of the 32 large communities, and in at least 22 of the small communities with between 1,000 and 3,000 residents.

Since many of our readers many not understand the real nature of Hamas and its internal contradictions it may be worth spending some time on this question.

Hamas is clearly a growing movement among Palestinians. It is a populist movement deeply rooted in Palestinian society. It is not only because of Israeli oppression, the lack of a meaningful opposition within Israeli Jewish society to the occupation, and the widespread poverty, but also the corruption of the PA, which is backed by Israel, that has helped to make Hamas a popular movement.

Like any mass based populist movement its head is conservative and capitalist while its legs ‑ its base ‑ is made of poor people who have been pushed in this direction but who could be won over to a truly revolutionary movement. The motion of this movement can be explained only by the contradiction between the head and the legs, between the right-wing conservative head and the social base that wants to struggle against oppression. A Hamas spokesman explained last week that, “Our enemies are trying to stick us with an image of Al Qaida-type terrorist fanatics, but the truth is that we are a legitimate national resistance movement".

It is well known that many of Hamas’s detainees these days are political activists and are not linked to terrorist activity. Many of these detainees actually belong to Hamas’ moderate wing. One detainee, Mohammed Ghazal of Nablus, announced a short while ago that Hamas might consider modifying its charter, which currently denies Israel's right to exist. (However, under pressure, he later denied making the statement but Reuters announced that they had a tape recording of what he said).

Hamas translates into English as “zeal” or “courage”. It is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawima al-Islamiyya, which means “Islamic Resistance Movement”. It was formed as the armed wing of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) in Gaza, in 1987-88. Prior to this it had been a small branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in Gaza in 1946.

After 1967, the main front organization of the Brotherhood was Ahmad Yassin’s Mujamma, which was established in 1973. Mujamma was mainly a welfare/charity organization that helped to establish clinics, kindergartens, and schools in Gaza. One website reports that “After 1967, a great part of the success of the Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood was due to their activities among the refugees of the Gaza Strip. The cornerstone of the Islamic movement’s success was an impressive social, religious, educational and cultural infrastructure, called Da'wah, that worked to ease the hardship of large numbers of Palestinian refugees, confined to camps, and many who were living on the edge”.

This activity was encouraged by Israel. In fact, the Israeli state and Ariel Sharon in particular encouraged Mujamma to apply for registered charity status in 1978. This allowed the organisation to widen its base through it religious and social work. Mujamma was indirectly and directly funded by Israel as a means of combating the PLO, which Israel at that time considered to be the more dangerous movement.

According to Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies, “Israel aided Hamas directly - the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization).” A former senior CIA official added that Israel's support for Hamas “was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative.” Mujamma’s funds tended to come from oil-producing states and Israel itself.

Throughout the 1980s, as Mujamma’s influence began to grow at the Islamic University of Gaza, the organization increasingly began to use violence against cinemas, places selling or serving alcohol, casinos, and other such places it deemed un-Islamic. However, as its social base was growing and many poor had joined the movement, the organization became more and more political, especially in Khan Yunis under the leadership of Abd al-Aziz Rantissi. This led to conflicts with Israel.

In 1984, 13 members of the organization, including Yassin, were arrested by Israel. An arms cache was also seized. By 1985, the organisation had roughly 2,000 members, who were mainly employed in the religious, community services, and trade sectors.

Hamas was formed in February 1988 under the pressure of its social base that was demanding to be allowed to participate in the first Intifada. The August 1988 Charter declared that all of Palestine was Islamic trust land that could never be surrendered to non-Muslims. The Charter affirmed that Palestine was an integral part of the Muslim world. Hamas also publicly stated that it was an anti-Communist organization, as the Charter blamed the Zionists for the French and Russian revolutions.

When Hamas was created it had three separate wings. There was the political wing, composed of Yassin's closest allies, which produced leaflets, raised funds, recruited members and co-opted mosques. The intelligence apparatus, known as al-Majd (Glory), under Yihyah Sanwar and Ruhi Mushtaha, was created for internal policing, especially in Gaza. This wing later merged with the military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades, which at that time was the smallest wing. Hamas operated through a cell system, and was therefore hard for Israeli agents to penetrate.

Initially however, Israel did not interfere in the activities of Hamas. It was seen as a social reformist organization that could be used to marginalise the PLO and to avert a social revolution. At that time there were frequent meetings between leading members of Hamas (including Yassin) and Israeli government officials. This cooperation only ended after the “al-Aqsa massacre” in October 1990. It was after that massacre that Hamas turned its primary opposition towards Israel, declaring that every Israeli soldier and settler was a legitimate target. Military actions in the form of terrorist attacks against ordinary Israelis replaced their former collaboration with the Israeli rulers.

Hamas, unlike Arafat, did not support Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War against the United States. Instead, they called for the withdrawal of both Iraqi and US troops from Kuwait. Consequently, the Gulf States shifted their funding from the PLO to Hamas, and may have donated as much as $28m per month (from Saudi Arabia primarily). Hamas thus took the PLO's role as provider of welfare and social care away from it, generating considerable public support.

In December 1992, Rabin expelled the leaders of Hamas, leading to a non-aggression agreement with the PLO. Hamas was opposed to the Oslo agreement and joined the wider rejectionist alliance which gained considerable support (over 20% of Palestinians supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad despite PNA pressure). The first Hamas suicide bombing in opposition to the Oslo accords took place in 1993.

In 1994, there were clashes between Hamas and the PA police in Gaza. Arafat co-opted the leadership in Gaza, which subsequently opted for non-military measures. This caused a split in the Hamas leadership throughout the occupied territories. At the same time, Abu Marzuq, the head of Hamas’s political leadership in Jordan, gave de facto acceptance to the existence of Israel “within the 1948 borders”, by declaring that a hudna (ceasefire) would be put in place if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories. This was also reiterated by Sheikh Yassin in a letter he wrote in the spring of 1994 in which he offered a ceasefire if Israeli forces were withdrawn from the occupied territories, and if the settlements were dismantled and prisoners were released.

The same is happening in this period and Hamas’s political wing is now seeking to participate in the “Pax Americana” and has begun to participate in elections. Hamas has now even declared that the US and Britain, unlike Israel, are not occupying powers. Although Bush has officially declared that Hamas is a terrorist organisation he is also considering using Hamas as a second option. However, the government of Israel is opposed to this and is attempting to block such a possibility by any means possible. The rulers of Israel are well aware that if Hamas were to become a partner of the US, the usefulness of Israel as the main strategic asset for the US in the region would decline.

As we can see, the contradiction between the popular base of Hamas and its conservative leadership is a very real one. This is the historical tragedy of the Palestinian people.