Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 12-13, 45

Two Palestinian Views

Hamas Forms a Government

Ismail Haniyeh—From Refugee Camp to Prime Minister’s Office

By Mohammed Omer

Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniya speaks to protesters carrying photos of loved ones being held in Israeli jails as they demonstrate outside the International Red Cross offices in Gaza City on March 6, 2006 (AFP Photo/Mamud Hams).

AS SHAKESPEARE observed in The Tempest, “Politics makes strange bedfellows”—and few alliances are stranger or more unexpected than those within the present Palestinian government. The January legislative elections saw the ruling Fatah Party solidly defeated by the Hamas “change and reform” slate, leaving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah heading a Hamas-dominated Parliament. Having long branded the Hamas movement as terrorist, Israel and the West were quick to issue almost predictable threats about refusing to work with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Even stranger still, however, is the situation within occupied Palestine itself, where former political prisoners and pariahs now occupy the halls of power with men who not so long ago were their jailers. For when the armed wing of Hamas was mounting military resistance to Israeli attacks and invasions it was the Fatah security services which, in an effort to appease Israel, frequently arrested and tortured some of the very men who now will lead the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Although new Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is little known in the West, he has earned enormous respect among the people of his native Gaza. While the Fatah leadership rarely moves through Gaza without an armed escort, Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders routinely walk alone through Gaza’s many towns and refugee camps. “Hamas is not corrupt,” said university student Amal Faud, 23, of Gaza City. “I have full confidence in Ismail Haniyeh and the other Hamas leaders.”

In contrast to the focus in the Western press on the Islamist roots of Hamas and the expressed concern that Hamas will impose a Taliban-style regime on Palestine, such sentiments are rare among the citizens of Gaza. As Al Surani, a secular lawyer from Gaza City, explained, Ismail Haniyeh “listens more than he speaks. He understands the peoples’ concerns, and when he does speak, he is tactful and coherent.”

Haniyeh’s political opponents might take issue with the new prime minister’s tact, however. At recent Friday prayers in his neighborhood mosque, Haniyeh announced he was refusing the customary salary of US$4,000 a month offered him by the Palestinian Authority. No, he said, he would take only US$1,500 a month, the amount he actually needed to support his family. His party, he went on to explain, had won election on its pledge to reform the Palestinian Authority—where, for instance, a certain PA bureaucrat costs the PA treasury US $200,000 annually. A PA spokesman, Al Taeb Abdelraheem, immediately issued a press release, scolding, “Such statements by the new prime minister are not appropriate to his office.”

Haniyeh, however, seems determined to show Fatah—and the world—a new standard of appropriate behavior. Born in 1963 to a refugee family originally from Al Jouar village, he grew up in Beach Camp, one of the poorest refugee camps in Gaza City. Like the other camp children, he studied in UNRWA schools, then went on to graduate from Islamic University in Gaza City in the Arabic Language department. As an undergraduate, he became active in the Islamic Bloc, the student wing of the Muslim Brotherhood that would later become Hamas. During his student days from 1983 to 1986, he often was at odds with the Fatah-led student groups.

After completing his master’s degree, Haniyeh joined the university faculty, and later became an administrator at Islamic University. Although he preferred to keep a low political profile, Israel nevertheless jailed him four times, and finally exiled him, along with 400 other Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, in December 1992.

Haniyeh returned to Gaza and his university post in 1994, and was marked as a terrorist by the Israeli army. In fact, he worked closely with Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, serving as the wheelchair-bound cleric’s office manager and confidential aide. As the second intifada continued, Israel stepped up its program of extra-judicial assassinations, targeting public Hamas figures like the sheikh and his successor, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Haniyeh assumed a public role in the Hamas movement only after Israel succeeded in assassinating Sheikh Yassin on March 21, 2004, firing a missile at the elderly man’s car as he left morning prayers.

In the following two years, Haniyeh evolved into a forceful public speaker, a superb listener—and now, Palestine’s prime minister. “But Ismail Haniyeh hasn’t changed,” insisted Abu Fadi Al Hasani, a 50-year-old Beach Camp neighbor. “He still prays every day in the mosque where we all pray. He respects all the people. Anyone—a child, an elderly person—can talk with him and he will listen.”

Indeed, Haniyeh and his family of 13 children have never moved from their home in Beach Camp. “I’m his neighbor,” said Al Hasani, “and I know he was offered a much bigger, better house outside the camp. And I know he said, ”˜I’m not going to leave my people, my neighborhood, for something that doesn’t belong to me!’”

Despite his blunt style, Haniyeh has a history of opening dialogue with Fatah factions. His self-deprecating humor also sets him apart from many Palestinian politicians. Back in December 2003, for example, Sheikh Yassin, Haniyeh and other Hamas members narrowly escaped an Israeli assassination attempt when the Israeli air force bombed a house where they had been meeting. At a Hamas rally soon after, Haniyeh explained that when he heard the Israeli helicopters approaching, he ran clumsily down a metal staircase, put his leg through an opening and was momentarily stuck. After they all had escaped safely, Haniyeh told the sheikh of his mishap, only to be told by the elderly, crippled imam, “Oh, you should have called me! I would have rescued you when your leg got stuck!”

Although the new prime minister has only recently assumed office, President Abbas, Israel and the international community have barraged the new Hamas leadership with a list of conditions, warning that they will recognize and deal with a Hamas-led government only if it recognizes Israel, honors existing agreements made with Israel by the PLO, and renounces violence.

Haniyeh’s response to these conditions has been consistent and clear: “We are surprised that such conditions are imposed on us. Why don’t they direct such conditions and questions to Israel? Has Israel respected its agreements? Israel has bypassed practically all agreements. We say: Let Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians first and then we will have a position regarding this. Which Israel should we recognize? The Israel of 1917; the Israel of 1936; the Israel of 1948; the Israel of 1956; or the Israel of 1967? Which borders and which Israel? Israel has to recognize first the Palestinian state and its borders. At least then we will know what we are talking about.”

Asked in a phone interview if his government would honor the existing Oslo accords, Haniyeh replied, “The Oslo agreements said that a Palestinian state would be established by 1999. Where is this Palestinian state? Has Oslo given the right to Israel to reoccupy the West Bank, to build the wall and expand the settlements, and to Judaize Jerusalem and make it totally Jewish? Has Israel been given the right to disrupt the work on the port and airport in Gaza? Has Oslo given it the right to besiege Gaza and to stop all tax refunds to the Palestinian Authority?”

Needless to say, there are more questions than answers—questions Israel and the international community do not seem eager to address. Haniyeh was elected on the basis of his unblemished reputation and a promise of reform and transparency, but he faces heavy internal and external challenges. Israel, the U.S. and the EU are threatening Palestine with an economic siege, cutting off development programs and humanitarian aid. The domestic challenges facing Haniyeh are almost as severe, as some of his Fatah opponents, regardless of their public rhetoric, hope a spectacular Hamas failure will result in a call for new elections and their return to power.

If Haniyeh can chart an honest, pragmatic course of partnership with the international community, working toward a peaceful solution that preserves Palestinian rights, it very likely will quell much of the political infighting. But one of the most immediate problems is Israel’s ongoing military attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. Indeed, Prime Minister Haniyeh faces an ongoing threat he cannot readily neutralize—namely, from Israeli helicopters and F16s. Israel has said it will continue its program of extrajudicial assassinations, and Avi Dichter, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, recently announced that the Palestinian prime minister remains subject to arrest.

Thus Ismail Haniyeh, democratically elected parliamentarian and Palestine’s new prime minister, is threatened by Israeli bombs as much as the humblest citizen. It’s a kind of equality few world leaders would want to claim.

Mohammed Omer reports from the Gaza Strip, where he maintains the Web site <http://www.rafahtoday.org>. He can be reached at <[email protected]>.

New Hamas Government Trumps Old PLO

By Samah Jabr

After nearly two months of unstinting but fruitless efforts to form a national unity government, newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh finally formed a cabinet comprising 24 Hamas activists and experts.

On March 19 he presented his cabinet to Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president and chairman of the PLO, who took it to the PLO executive committee. Three days later the committee rejected the cabinet, and Hamas’ platform, based on the party’s “refusal to recognize the supremacy of the PLO”—the same reason cited by other Palestinian factions such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in refusing to join a Hamas-led coalition government. The executive committee called on Hamas to alter its agenda and platform. Because only the Palestinian parliament has the authority to accept or reject the government platform, however, the PLO executive committee’s decision was illegal and, moreover, risked causing a constitutional crisis.

Not only is there no article in the Palestinian constitution that requires the approval of the PLO or any of its officials or institutions, but the executive committee is supposed to be elected by the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO’s parliament-in exile, and for no more than two
terms. However, the last time the PNC convened was eight years ago in Gaza—and not to elect a new executive committee, but to amend the Palestinian Charter.

In addition, the composition of the executive committee is supposed to reflect the strength of the various political factions on the Palestinian street. Over the years, however, many PNC members—including committee members and its president, Yasser Arafat—have died. More significantly, the political rainbow in Palestine has changed dramatically; several political factions still represented in the PLO have vanished, while popular ones like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not represented at all.

Added to this is the irony that it is the party whose platform was voted out in the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections—Fatah—which has been pressing the party voted in to abandon the platform which won it the support of the Palestinian people.

Since the constitution allows the appointed prime minister to take his proposed cabinet directly to the legislature, Prime Minister Haniyeh did just that, and on March 28—as Israelis took their turn going to the polls—the Palestinian parliament approved the new Hamas cabinet by a vote of 71 to 36. As the following day’s Washington Post noted, Not a single lawmaker from Fatah...supported the Cabinet filled out by Hamas officials and independents allied with the organization.”

The PLO vs. Parliament

Since its founding in 1964, the PLO has served as an international umbrella group, representing important Palestinian political factions, as well as Palestinians living in their occupied land and in the diaspora around the world. Internationally, the PLO is considered the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and holds a permanent observer seat in the United Nations General Assembly.

The PLO was led by the late Yasser Arafat for more than three decades after the Fatah movement gained control of the PLO’s executive bodies at the 1969 PNC meeting. As the PLO’s most powerful faction, Fatah over the years repeatedly has resorted to undemocratic practices to control PLO decision-making. It is the PLO, for example, which is the signatory to interim peace deals with Israel, although they were rejected by several other Palestinian factions.

The U.S. and Israel refused to recognize the PLO until it denounced its principles and amended its charter—in effect, stopped being itself. Washington’s recognition served to minimize and contain the PLO, terminating its historical role. Today’s PLO, with all its members, committees and institutions, is outdated, redundant and impotent, torn apart by numerous disputes among the heads of its political factions. Among Palestinians themselves, the PLO has lost its attractiveness, respect and much of its credibility.

Abbas’ insistence on presenting the new cabinet to the executive committee, which he heads, was disappointing at best. While Hamas does not deny the role of the PLO, it refuses to acknowledge it as the sole official representative body of the Palestinian people. The new governing party has, however, repeatedly announced its willingness to join the PLO and called for its democratic reorganization.

With regard to recognizing Israel, Hamas stated in its draft platform that the decision rests with the Palestinian people, not with any political group or party, and that any effort to impose the recognition of Israel on the new government would hinder the will of the people.

What a great pity it is that Palestinians do not have a national unity government. Such an achievement would have aided us in finding common ground and avoiding political paralysis or arbitrary violence. Instead, as the March 29 Washington Post explained, once the new government bypassed the PLO executive committee in favor of parliamentary approval, “Abbas declined to block Hamas’ cabinet, opting to give the party a chance to govern the territories on its own and suffer the political consequences if it fails.”

The lack of a national unity government will make it more difficult for Hamas to govern, and bolster efforts by Israel and the U.S. to isolate the new government, which has declared the resistance, as well as negotiations, as “means, but not an end in itself.”

The PLO is important to every Palestinian, but it will not be their sole representative until it embraces this moment of Palestinian history and abandons its one-party, patriarchal mode of governing for a more democratic, pluralistic one. Once it has been reinvigorated, it again can serve as the moving force behind our national struggle and help activate Palestinian communities throughout the world to further the goal of our liberation. 

Samah Jabr, a native of Jerusalem, is a physician currently studying in France.

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