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Solving the Hamas Predicament

The unexpected victory of Hamas in January's Palestinian elections has radically altered the political landscape in the region. Hamas’ violence has already landed it on the European Union and U.S. State Department lists of foreign terrorist organizations and its charter calls on Islam to “obliterate” Israel. The United States and the West are now deciding how to deal with the new Palestinian government as it waits to see whether the Islamist party changes the way it does business.

Hamas is the Palestinians’ largest and most influential Islamist movement. It was founded in 1987, following the eruption of the first intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While it provides an extensive social services network, Hamas is a determined foe of Israel with a legacy of suicide bombings.

Loretta Napoleoni, an expert on the financing of terrorism and author of the book: Terror, Incorporated, says Israelis initially welcomed Hamas whose founding documents made no mention of Israel’s destruction. She adds that Hamas’ history is closely linked with the last years of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s life.

Napoleoni says, “It was born as an institution to help very poor people and they got funded by Israel. The reason they got this money was because Israel wanted to undermine the power of Arafat and particularly the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was very active, and the Fatah Party.”

Life After Arafat

Many analysts say Hamas received a bonanza after Arafat decided to support Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Large amounts of aid from Arab countries, which supported the war against Saddam, went to Hamas. Hamas used the funds to establish itself in Gaza and on the West Bank where it built schools, orphanages, mosques, health care clinics, soup kitchens and sports leagues for poor Palestinians.

But according to Loretta Napoleoni, Hamas broke the PLO’s control over the occupied territories only after Yasser Arafat’s death and the disappearance of about 2 billion dollars from the Palestinian Authority’s coffers.

She adds, “Some people say the total amount of money stolen by Arafat and put into his secret bank accounts is about 15 billion dollars. A lot of this money was in circulation inside the Palestinian territories in order to buy loyalty and to keep the corruption machine of Fatah going. When Arafat died, about two billion dollars disappeared. This helped Hamas win the elections, because Fatah did not have the money to buy votes.”

Hamas’ election sweep in January was met with widespread concern. The International Quartet on the Middle East Peace Process, which is promoting the Roadmap for Peace, threatened to isolate and cut aid to Hamas if it didn’t reject violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The West also demands that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist.

In addition, Israel has threatened to sever economic ties with the Palestinians, bar the entry of Palestinian workers into Israel and prevent the construction of a seaport and airport in Gaza. Israel has already suspended the transfer of revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Demands and Counter Demands

Reaction from Hamas has been mixed. Some of its more moderate leaders have stated they are willing to sustain a long-term ceasefire and adhere to some Israeli-Palestinian agreements. But they say they will recognize Israel only if it agrees to some of Hamas’ demands.

Henry Siegman is Director for the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He points out that Hamas leaders “point to Israel’s decision to annex unilaterally large parts of the West Bank as a denial of Palestinian statehood. And, in fact, the prospective Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ismail Haniya, has said, ‘You have to tell us first what Israel you are asking us to recognize. If you are asking us to recognize an Israel that has already helped itself to half of the West Bank of what would be a Palestinian state, that Israel we will not recognize. If you are talking about an Israel that is prepared to accept the Roadmap and consequently no changes can be made in the pre-1967 situation without Palestinian agreement, then you are talking about an entirely different Israel.’ ”

Since Hamas’ election victory, the situation has deteriorated. The Palestinians have carried out rocket attacks against Israel; Israel has responded by killing suspected Palestinian terrorists. Tensions escalated further after a recent Israeli raid of a Palestinian jail on the West Bank, from which six militants were abducted. The event outraged the Palestinians and ignited major unrest in the region.

According to Henry Siegman at the Council on Foreign Relations, a peace settlement at this point is unlikely without Western prodding. He says, “The prospects for an agreement between the two parties are close to nil. The question is whether the United States and the Quartet is prepared to get both parties to address a series of reciprocal demands -- not new ones -- but the ones that are in the Roadmap now and to get them to deal with them rather than simply try to bring each other down.”

A Volatile Relationship

Most analysts caution that in the absence of international action, another prolonged cycle of bloodshed is inevitable.

Ian Lustick, Professor of political sciences at the University of Pennsylvania predicts that Israel will continue the unilateral policies of ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, while Hamas will try to avoid firm peacemaking commitments.

Professor Lustick argues, “The formula of unilateral action without negotiations with the Palestinians is exactly what Hamas is ready for. Hamas doesn’t want negotiations either. But they do want a period of calm and they are manifestly able to enforce that calm. So there is a logical deal in which Israel and a Hamas Palestinian Authority wait, a year or two, before any serious negotiations and each of them moves slowly toward it.”

Political scientist Ian Lustick adds, however, that despite years of violence, the Israeli and Palestinian positions have steadily inched closer.

He says, “If you go back to the beginning, the Palestinians and Zionists had completely contradictory ideas. The Zionists had the idea that all of Palestine would be a Jewish state and the Palestinian Arabs had the idea that there would be no Jewish presence at all. Now, the center of gravity inside the Israeli political system is that there will be a Palestinian state. And Hamas is mainly popular because one of the things it is trusted to do is probably be ready to live with Israel, even if not officially, for a very long time.”

Nevertheless, many observers warn, an already difficult Israeli-Palestinian relationship could become even more complex and volatile in the near term.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.