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Provoking the peace.

It looks as if it could be a long haul getting Middle Eastern delegates back to the peace table. With over 400 Palestinians still exiled in Southern Lebanon and reports of escalating violence against Palestinians and property in the West Bank, the Israeli position is precarious. However, interfactional disputes among the Palestinians, make for a less than convincing show of unity.

THE VISIT OF the United States secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to the Middle East at the end of February, saw some very active diplomacy aimed at kick-starting the peace talks which Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, brought to a crashing halt with his banishment of 415 Palestinian Islamists to Lebanon in the middle of December. The Arab states indicated their readiness to restart the talks, with April as the probable date, and Rabin, having already backtracked on the expulsion of 101 of the Islamists and halved the terms of exile of the remainder, went further in a press conference on 24 February, when he described the mass deportation as "unprecedented and an exception".

The Palestine Liberation Organisation and the delegation to the peace talks are desperately hoping for some further concessions from Israel, probably as a token to Ramadan, to ease their way back to the negotiating table. The delegation brought Mr Christopher's attention to complaints of human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories, including summary executions and house demolitions, and drew attention to the escalation in Palestinian deaths, including several children, since the December expulsions, in the hope that the US secretary of state will put further pressure on Israel.

At the same time, the Palestinian spokesperson, Hanan Ashrawi, side-stepped previous statements from leading members of the delegation declaring that there would be no return to the table before the return of every last expellee. Reflecting the PLO's desire to find a way for the Palestinians' return to the peace process, she spoke with the utmost diplomatic caution, hinting that "evolving ideas" had emerged from Mr Christopher's visit.

The subjects of the impasse, however, did not try to ease her task, given their all-out rejection of talks from the start of the Madrid conference. From their South Lebanon exile, the Hamas spokesman, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, again rejected any compromise, including the currently preferred idea of speeding up judicial reviews of individual cases by Israel, stating "we prefer death to submitting any appeals to (Israeli) committees".

The Islamists consist of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the smaller Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (IJMP), led by Fathi Shqaqi from Damascus since his own earlier deportation from Israel. This group, which won immense popularity during the 1980s through a series of daring armed attacks on Israeli targets and became one of the key triggers for the intifada in December 1987, has resolutely refused all truck with the PLO. Nor has it shown any sign of joining forces with Hamas, although, with the latter's resort of organised military resistance on an ever-increasing scale, ideological differences between the two organisations have by now been virtually eliminated.

The IJMP has, however, joined in the declarations of the ten Palestinian groups, led by Hamas, expressing their opposition to the Madrid process. The group maintains a sizeable following in the Occupied Territories, as demonstrated by the degree to which its own strike days are observed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Despite the weakening of its structure with the arrest and expulsion of its leaders and key cadres in spring 1988, it has continued to organise and inspire acts of violent resistance in the territories and within the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel itself. The killings of two Israeli civilians and wounding of eight others in Tel Aviv on 1 March by a Gazan youth, Ziyad Salim Silmi, has been claimed by Shqaqi's movement as a planned protest against the December expulsions, rather than a random attack.

The spokesman for the Hamas expellees seized on the Tel Aviv attack, which once more caused Israel to seal off the entire Gaza Strip, to make the point that Israel's security could not be helped by the deportations as the government had claimed. The two groups, despite the absence of any formal alliance between then, are making common cause for the time being, maintaining good relations from their separate groups of tents.

The present Hamas-Jihad axis, brought about by the expulsions, has reinforced the Islamist challenge to the PLO and especially its driving force, Fatah, by its ability to bring the peace process to a halt. Where once the Islamists, under the Muslim Brotherhood, pursued a quietist policy vis-a-vis Israel, while the PLO followed a line of maximum confrontation, the roles have since been reversed. The PLO's radical change towards accommodation with Israel, begun tentatively in 1974 and brought to its conclusion by its endorsement of a two-state solution at the end of 1988, has been countered by the growth of a more militant Islamic movement. The appearance of the IJMP in the early 1980s, followed by the creation of Hamas at the onset of the intifada, signalled a move towards jihad, a continuation of an uncompromising demand for the return of the whole of mandatory Palestine.

The growing Islamist ascendancy is both a reflection of feelings in the wider Middle East region and, more importantly, a direct result of the situation of the Palestinians on the ground. Most significant, in this respect, has been the failure thus far of the PLO to secure any tangible success from its 1988 initiative in accepting United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and the resultant compromise with Israel. The United States-PLO dialogue started at that time proved a false dawn. The Madrid process, begun with equally high hopes, now looks - from the vantage point of the West Bank and Gaza Strip - similarly doomed. Israel's failure to make any real advance in line with Rabin's initial promises on taking office in summer 1992 has returned the West Bankers to a familiar state of despair. A line has been drawn beneath which the autonomy proposal, at present articulated by Israel, is not worth the having. The outlook for final status looks even bleaker.

However, the PLO and its more pragmatic supporters in the Occupied Territories see the present process, however flawed, as their best hope for the future. But the waning of popular support for this view has swung the West Bankers to the Islamic movement. Hamas has emerged as the second force after Fatah in the territories, positioning itself as the leader of the combined secular and Islamic voices of opposition to the peace process. Yet, only a year and a half ago, many of those who now give Hamas their support were marching for peace and decorating the Israeli military with olive branches.

The situation should not, in theory, be irreversible. But, in the absence of any serious pressure from the United States, hope of real progress which might swing support back to the Fatah-led nationalists looks unlikely. In December the Palestinian delegation was hard put to justify its participation in round eight of the Washington talks. The expulsions brought the process to a shuddering halt. Awakening the ultimate collective nightmare of mass transfer, an immediate overriding solidarity brought to a temporary halt the vicious feuding between Fatah and Hamas, which in the preceding summer had resulted in scores of casualties in the Gaza Strip.

Alongside the political situation, the dire socio-economic conditions in which many Palestinians have long lived have provided a second, extremely fertile growth area of Hamas. Seen at their worst in the overpopulated camps of the Gaza Strip, and exacerbated by the prolonged curfew during the Gulf war and the restrictions imposed thereafter, these conditions were a classic breeding ground for a return to religion. And, while the Marxists rapidly lost credibility with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the message of the Islamists was persuasive. Moral probity appealed over the endemic corruption with Fatah. Material help, welfare and social institutions were already well established in Gaza and in parts of the West Bank, centred on the conservative strongholds in Hebron, Nablus and Jenin. After the Gulf war, when the PLO's finances were hard hit in retribution for its backing of Saddam Hussein, Hamas was able to fill the breach as the beneficiary of yet more generous funding from the Gulf, as well as from a new donor, Iran.

Hamas was thus well-equipped to play a central role in the economic, social, as well as the political sphere. With its claim to religious legitimacy it has also become an increasingly important source of identification for Palestinians, in tune with the continuing upsurge of Islamic feeling throughout the region.

The PLO has countered the challenge by doing its best to absorb Hamas into the Palestinian mainstream. On the one hand, it has adopted Islamic symbols, in particular in its communiques, many of which are now embellished with religious references. On the other hand, there has been a serious attempt to co-opt Hamas, firstly within the local intifada leadership, the Unified National Command (UNC) and secondly within the overarching PLO body, the Palestine National Council (PNC). Both these attempts were unsuccessful. Hamas has resolutely participated in the intifada as a separate movement in parallel (and often in competition) to the UNC. At the broader level, Hamas has consistently demanded an unrealistically high 40% representation on the PNC, a demand which has unsurprisingly not been met. Hamas also requires the PNC to rescind its resolutions of November 1988 and withdraw from the peace process.

It is over this last issue that the PLO is now in serious difficulties. Without a satisfactory solution to the expulsion crisis, it cannot ignore public opinion and return to the negotiating table. However, the derailment of the peace process would undermine the PLO's fundamental strategy, as well as signalling a total victory for Hamas.

As a result, there has been a concerted attempt to shore up relations with the Islamists. After the expulsions, a first joint PLO-Hamas communique was published, followed by intensive negotiations in Tunis and Khartoum. The talks were inconclusive, with Hamas' various demands unchanged. Significantly, the IJMP refused to attend, disdaining, not for the first time, all compromise with the nationalist leadership.

Hamas' position has altered in the last months. The expulsions made the movement the central issue on the Palestinian political scene, and the object of international concern, which Israel's hesitant compromises have so far been unable to end. On the other hand, the loss of its internal political leadership is likely to prove a considerable blow, at least in the short term. However, against any weakening within the Occupied Territories, there has been a notable strengthening of the organisation abroad.

Outside diplomacy has for some time been conducted from Amman, where Hamas has its official spokesman, Ibrahim Ghosha, and another representative, Mohammed Nazal. Extensive funding operations were also in place, chiefly in the United States and Britain, through which hefty contributions from Muslim communities throughout the world - and particularly the Gulf - were channelled. In the United States, the donations were apparently circulated through three institutions: the Holy Land Fund, the Holy Land Institutions for Aid and Development and the Appeal for the Occupied Land.

Last autumn the PLO began to circulate reports of Iranian support: substantial funding, the opening of a Hamas office in Tehran, a radio station and military training. Tehran had already been the venue for a conference of Palestinian rejectionists in October 1991, one week before the Madrid proceedings. This resulted in the first joint communique by ten Palestinian groups, under the leadership of Hamas, opposing the peace process. The ten have since maintained their joint calls for an end to the talks.

Last October a draft agreement was signed between Hamas and Iran which, significantly, declared Hamas to be the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian jihad". This was a clear attack on the PLO's longstanding claim to be the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" - a claim which Hamas has long challenged.

Another important development, seen as a consequence of Iranian involvement, has been a sharp increase in organised armed attacks by Hamas on Israeli targets, which led to the December expulsions. Since then, Israel has enlarged on the list of Hamas activity abroad: training camps for armed activists in Sudan and Iran, other activities and offices in Syria and Jordan, and a claim by Rabin that $30 million was transferred to Hamas by Iran via the United States over the last year. Israel's arrest of two American Palestinians at the end of January in the Occupied Territories revealed a cash sum estimated at between $100,000-$250,000 intended apparently to fund military attacks organised by a central command in the United States.

Israel claims that Hamas' entire organisational structure is run from the United States and Britain. However, apart from the known presence of Musa abu Marzuq in Arlington, Virginia, the supposed involvement of the United States is unclear. Even more hazy is the alleged British connection. Informed sources do not attach too much importance to the claims given Israel's interest in emphasising the Hamas threat in the embarrassing aftermath of the deportations.

Clearly there will be more hard talking between Hamas and the PLO. The latter is anxious to tame the Islamists by absorbing them into the broad grouping of the PNC. For Hamas this could be a tempting proposition, if it could strike a better deal than it has hitherto been offered. It would then have achieved its first tactical goal: the breaking of the PLO's exclusive representation of the Palestinian people.

Following the logic of the "strategy of enclavers" by which Hamas and its mother organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, built up their cell-like structures, this may be feasible for Hamas in the short run. But what are the chances of long-term cohabitation, given that the respective goals are pointing at 180 degrees? Can there now be any compromise over the PLO's two-state solution and Hamas aim of total sovereignty over mandatory Palestine as part of a region-wide Islamic state? And what does this new stage of the Islamist challenge mean for the peace process?
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; Israel's banishment of Palestinian members of Hamas
Author:Kristianasen, Wendy
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:A judgement for right.
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