The Saban Center for Middle East policy hosted a policy discussion with Zaki Chehab, London Bureau Chief of Al-Hayat and author of Inside Hamas. Joining him was Khaled al-Yazji, former Chief of Protocol for the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Chehab began by speaking about the recent kidnapping in the Gaza Strip of BBC correspondent Alan Johnson by Mumtaz Durmush, the leader of a Gaza-based group. The kidnapping indicated a growing presence of al-Qa'ida in Gaza, evidenced by Durmush's demand that a prisoner linked to al-Qa'ida, Abu Qatada, be released from custody in the United Kingdom in exchange for Johnson. Chehab argued that this indicates al-Qa'ida is taking advantage of the desperate circumstances in Gaza to establish a presence. Gaza is fertile for extremist groups because individuals are becoming increasingly desperate and turning away from the rule of law.
Chehab argued that not enough has been done to help strengthen Palestinian moderates, especially PA President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen). Chehab noted that the challenge of strengthening moderates is compounded by the fact that many in the region feel the United States has soiled its reputation. As a result, it is somewhat of a liability for President Abbas to be linked with the United States. Abbas and other moderates in the region, like Lebanese President Fouad Siniora, are paying a very high price politically—they are on the frontline of a new battle the Middle East, not between Israel and Arabs, but between moderates and extremists. The problem is that the United States, the supporter of the moderate leaders, is doing little aside from supplying rhetoric to assist them. At the same time, Iran, the supporter of the extremists, is providing weapons and funding. One example Chehab cited was Israel not allowing President Abbas to import weapons for his Fatah forces. When President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met, Abbas asked for permission for the PA to bring weapons into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, in line with an agreement signed with Israel years earlier. However, Israel and the United States prevented this, Chehab claimed.
Al-Yazji said that Hamas's strength results from the political situation in which the Palestinians and the whole region finds itself. A key reason for Hamas's political strength is the feeling of deprivation within the Palestinian territories and the notion that Palestinians delivered on their commitments to Israel, but received nothing in return. Added to this was the sense among Palestinians that Fatah was unable to establish a healthy government and provide vital public services.
Al-Yazji said that while Hamas is an Islamic movement, it is also extremely sensitive to the political climate: Hamas has been successful at converting its popularity into political power. The situation today—Hamas is in power, Palestinians are fighting amongst themselves, and the central government authority is weakened—makes it critical for outside actors to devise strategies to empower Abbas and other moderates, and restore the PA. The situation is critical, al-Yazji argued, because Hamas has virtually broken down the PA and at the same time is increasing its own legitimacy. The danger is that Hamas is on track to create a second Palestinian government that will replace the PA with its own rule. Abbas's inability to stop this, al-Yazji argued, is not because of any flaws in his personality, but because none in the international community have assisted him. Chehab made the point that it would be politically beneficial for Hamas to have the PA crumble, and some in the organization have actively called for this to happen.
During the question and answer session, Chehab further analyzed al-Qa'ida's presence in Gaza, arguing that the relationship between Hamas and al-Qa'ida is not that strong and Hamas has taken measures to distance itself from al-Qa'ida. In addition, key al-Qa'ida figures, like Ayman al-Zawahiri did not support Hamas's involvement in politics.
Chehab said that that Hamas essentially has two wings: there are political leaders in Gaza who handle daily affairs and there are organizational leaders in Damascus who control the money, and thus the power. Members of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Chehab argued, face two, often-opposing tensions. If they want to be part of the government, they have to deal with the needs of the people, but if they want money, they must listen to their leadership in Damascus.
Chehab said that Hamas's popularity has declined recently; in student council elections at Birzeit University (in the West Bank), Hamas won a majority of seats in the April elections, but only by a razor thin margin. This is significant because Hamas has held strong majorities in the student council in the past and Birzeit's student elections are seen as a barometer for Hamas's overall popularity among Palestinians. Many Palestinians voted for Hamas to express frustration with the situation and with Fatah's inability to govern. However, Chehab said, Hamas has faired no better than Fatah and has disappointed many of those who supported in the elections.
Chehab discussed the January 2006 election in which Hamas gained control of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Chehab said that Hamas made concerted efforts to surprise people on Election Day. A year before the election, Hamas officials told members of the organization that if asked about whom they will vote for, to give misleading answers to reporters and pollsters. According to Chehab, this is why the Israeli intelligence failed to predict a Hamas victory. At the same time, however, Hamas did not understand the responsibilities that come with government. Chehab said that the day before the elections, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar (who became the Foreign Minister) said that a Hamas-led government would not need the international community, it could operate on its own.
Regarding the flexibility of the Hamas-led government, Chehab argued that the government has made many concessions, a large portion of which the West has ignored. At the Riyadh Summit in April 2007 that led to the Mecca Agreement and the Palestinian Unity Government, Hamas said it would be committed to the agreements that the Palestinian Authority had signed with Israel. The international community, Chehab argued, erred in not engaging with Hamas after it signaled its willingness to moderate. One participant asked whether Hamas would ever be willing to engage with Israel on peace-related issues. Chehab noted that many Hamas leaders would never recognize Israel, but some have said it is not their decision to make, it is the decision of the Muslim Brotherhood.
There was disagreement between Chehab and al-Yazji over the strength of Abbas. Chehab argued that President Abbas has taken steps recently to strengthen himself, whereas Al-Yazji said that the opposite is true. Abbas, al-Yazji argued, had a strong mandate from the public when he was elected but failed to reform the Palestinian Authority. Al-Yazji also said that Fatah is weak because former President Yassir Arafat did not take measures to strengthen the party. Rather, he concentrated more on building followers who were loyal to him personally and not necessarily to his Fatah Party. Al-Yazji said that many in Fatah are hoping for Hamas to last in power the full, four-year term. The reason for this is that Fatah sees Hamas as damaging itself the longer it stays in power. Aside from power politics, however, there is real problem with the current state of affairs. Al-Yazji said that there is no accountability. Palestinians in the past could blame Abbas or Arafat, but today they do not who is responsible.