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A Duplicitous Referendum
Setting the Record Straight on Hamas
by JENNIFER LOEWENSTEIN

Oxford, England.

A June 3rd poll conducted by Near East Consulting based in Ramallah, Palestine shows that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians support the Prisoner’s Agreement, an inter-factional agreement signed by one member each of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, and the DFLP inside Israel’s Hadarim prison this past May. (1) The document implicitly recognizes Israel by accepting, among other things, a Palestinian state in the lands occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war.

News reports have paid a lot of attention to the Prisoner’s Agreement in part because it accepts the Arab League initiative (Saudi Plan) unanimously adopted by the Arab states in Beirut in 2002 at the height of the Second Intifada. By calling for an independent Palestinian state on the ë67 lines in return for peace with Israel, both the Saudi Plan and the Prisoner’s Agreement echo the international consensus on Palestine since the mid 1970s. Israel has completely ignored the Arab initiative despite overwhelming support among the Palestinians.

But the Prisoner’s Agreement has also become the focal point of the most recent crisis in internal Palestinian politics: Palestinian Authority president and Fatah deputy leader Mahmoud Abbas has called for a national referendum on the document should Hamas fail to adopt it as part of their official program. So far, Hamas has refused and has labeled Abbas’ actions "illegal."

Not surprisingly, there is more to the referendum story than ever makes it into the press. In this case, the information omitted from the public record makes it possible for the United States, Israel and their allies to continue to justify the economic siege imposed on the Palestinian territories, a siege that is causing Palestinian society to teeter on the brink of ruin. In their rush to push forward a regional, pro-US and anti-democratic agenda, those states allied against the Palestine national movement (including Egypt and Jordan) have created the kind of humanitarian crisis one would expect to find as the result of a natural disaster.

No attention has been paid to what the Hamas leadership is actually saying, or to critical factors such as US efforts to build a 3,500 man militia around the office of Abbas in an effort to encourage civil infighting or Israel’s recent approval of a large shipment of arms and ammunition from Egypt and Jordan for the equipping of the Presidential Guard. Abbas, who is supported by the US, aims to increase the number of armed soldiers around him to 10,000. He is also aiming, with US support, to create a shadow government that will undermine the legitimate one now controlled by Hamas.(2) It should come as a surprise to no one that, in the words of Mohammed Nazzal, a member of the Hamas government in exile, "Hamas will not submit to blackmail" (3) This is essentially the goal of Abbas’ call for a referendum. There is no need to bring to a popular vote support for the Prisoner’s Agreement. Overwhelming popular support for this and other initiatives, including support for the two-state solution, has long been documented.

Most of the rhetoric damns Hamas for refusing to follow Abbas’ instructions. Hamas remains the reason why states should support the economic and political blockade on Palestine although this does little more than fuel the "War on Terror" by adding another organization to the blacklist of regional enemies. Labeling Hamas a "terrorist organization" obscures the reality, however. Its political leadership and its electoral/government program (i.e. not its Charter) have put forth both reasonable and moderate demands. Acceptance of an independent Palestinian state has long been part of its strategic agenda. Its reputation as a "rejectionist" movement stems in part from its unwillingness to act alone, without reciprocal moves by Israel, a state whose extremist policies over the past 5 decades have transformed the physical landscape of Palestine so dramatically that the prospects for a genuine peace settlement today are bleaker than ever.

In his latest comments on Abbas’ decision to call the referendum, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert summed up his government’s view of this effort insofar as it could create a bridge toward peace talks with Israel. He said, "The referendum is an internal game between one faction and the other…. It is meaningless in terms of the broad picture of chances towards some kind of dialogue between us and the Palestinians. It’s meaningless." (4) Whether the referendum ësucceeds’ or ëfails’ therefore, will be of no consequence whatsoever in efforts to resume negotiations or as form of leverage to end the deadly siege on the territories.

II. Hamas accepts a two-state solution. When asked by Newsweek-Washington Post correspondent Lally Weymouth on 26 February 2006 what agreements Hamas was prepared to honor, the new Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh answered, "the ones that will guarantee the establishment of a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital with 1967 borders." Weymouth went on, "Will you recognize Israel?" to which Haniyeh responded, "If Israel declares that it will give the Palestinian people a state and give them back all their rights then we are ready to recognize them." (5) This view encapsulates the Hamas demand for reciprocity.

In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer four days after the PLC elections, the new Hamas Foreign Minister, Mahmoud Zahar (considered the party’s hard-liner) remarked, "We can accept to establish our independent state on the area occupied [in] 1967." Like Haniyeh and other Hamas members, Zahar insists that once such a state is established a long-term truce "lasting as long as 10, 20 or 100 years" will ensue ending the state of armed conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. (6)

Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad commented to reporters on 10 May 2006, "Yes, we accept an independent state in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. This attitude is not new and it is declared in the government’s platform." (7)

In an effort to clarify the Hamas position on Abbas’ call for a referendum, Hamas parliamentary speaker Aziz Duweik explained that it had nothing to do with a lack of support for the two-state settlement. "Everybody in Hamas says ëYes’ to the two-state solution," he said. "The problem comes from the fact that the Israelis so far [have not said they] accept the 1967 bordersÖbetween the two states."(8)

Other leaders are just as explicit. "Hamas is clear in terms of the historical solution and an interim solution. We are ready for both: the borders of 1967, a state, elections, and agreement after 10-15 years of building trust," commented Usama Hamdan, the Hamas Chief Representative in Lebanon. (9) Notable here is that his remarks were made in 2003 well before the Hamas victory of January 2006. Indeed, it should be pointed out that most of the on-the-record comments to this effect were made prior to these elections.

Additional Hamas spokespersons who have made explicit reference to acceptance of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 lands include Sheikh Ahmad Haj Ali, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and Hamas legislative candidate currently imprisoned in Israel (interviewed in July 2005); Muhammad Ghazal, Hamas spokesperson also currently in an Israeli jail (Sept. 2005); Hasan Yousef, West Bank political leader (August 2005); and the Hamas Electoral Manifesto Article 5:1 which calls for "adherence to the goal of defeating the [1967] occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital." (10)

In 1989, Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (assassinated by Israel in March 2004) stated, "I do not want to destroy IsraelÖ. We want to negotiate with Israel so the Palestinian people inside and outside Palestine can live in Palestine. Then the problem will cease to exist." (11)

The hard-line Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, assassinated by Israel in April 2004 commented in 2002 that, "[T]he Intifada is about forcing Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders." This "doesn’t mean the Arab-Israeli conflict will be over," but rather that the armed resistance to Israel would end." (12)

In a 2004 report published by the highly regarded International Crisis Group, "During the 1987-1993 uprising, Hamas leaders proposed various formulas for Israeli withdrawal to the June 4th 1967 borders, to be reciprocated with a decades’-long truce (hudna)." That same report notes that, "In a March 1988 meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and then with Defense Minister Rabin in June 1989, Hamas leader (now FM) Mahmud Zahar explicitly proposed an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries, to be followed by a negotiated permanent settlement." The offer was refused. (13)

III. In a CounterPunch article posted on 24 February 2006, I wrote that the Hamas leadership had "clearly and repeatedly" called for an independent Palestinian state on the lands occupied by Israel in 1967. (14) I received numerous emails demanding "proof" of this assertion and calling me a traitor, a liar, a Nazi, a terrorist sympathizer and an anti-Semite. The statements included in this piece should help put to rest those accusations. Indeed, the statements made to this effect by Hamas members here are but a small sampling of similar statements made over the years that are part of the public (though unreported) record.

Surely, one can find many remarks by Hamas leaders over the years that are much less conciliatory, indeed even inflammatory and often disturbing. It would be misleading to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless the trend especially in the past few years up to the present has been toward a more conciliatory, indeed more realistic policy. As Crisis Group analyst Mouin Rabbani has written, "On Hamas I would not hesitate to say that the organization as a whole has essentially reconciled itself to a two-state settlement as a strategic option but has not formally adopted this as an organisational position. Yasin, Rantisi, Abu Shanab, Mashal, etc. have all made such statements. Have they made others that contradict them? Of course. But I think it can safely be concluded the strategic decisions have been made, the tactics remain unresolved and the formalities will come last." The question for us is whether or not we will give Hamas the chance to translate their words into actions. Rabbani writes, "it would be as naÔve to take the above statements on faith as it would be foolish not to put them to the test."(15)

As Menachem Klein points out in a recent Haaretz article, "The political texts of Hamas indicate that at present the organization is not fundamentalist." (16) It has moved away from the ideological demands of its Charter into a pragmatism that seeks to respond to the demands of the day without falling into the same traps that Fatah and the Fatah-led PA fell into over the years. It has respected a one-sided truce for the past 16 months ñthough with the June 9th Israeli artillery attack on a north Gaza beach in which 7 civilians died, six of them from the same family, this truce may have come to an end. Hamas has also agreed to support negotiations between Abbas and Israel.

Hamas’ rejection of Abbas’ call for a referendum on the Prisoner’s Agreement has nothing to do with its willingness to accept an independent Palestinian state on ë67 lands and everything to do with its opposition to those in Fatah and in Israel, the US and EU who are doing everything in their power to bring down the Hamas governmentó and in the most depraved manner: by starving the population into submission and forcing on it the illegal diktats of anti-democratic warlords within the occupied Palestinian territories such as the US-backed Fatah militia leader and former head of the Preventive Security Services, Mohammad Dahlan.

In a June 8th 2006 article in the Financial Times, Henry Siegman commented on remarks made on Israeli television by Israeli security expert Ephraim Halevy. He writes, "Why should Israel care whether Hamas grants it the right to exist, Mr. Halevy asked. Israel exists and Hamas’s recognition or non-recognition neither adds to nor detracts from that irrefutable fact. But 40 years after the 1967 war, a Palestinian state does not exist. The politically consequential question, therefore, is whether Israel recognizes a Palestinian right to statehood, not the reverse." (17)

Indeed, until Israel actively agrees to withdraw to the June 4th 1967 borders, Hamas should not fall into the trap that Fatah under Yassir Arafat fell intoó of conceding more and more for less and less until there is nothing left. Right now the US-backed annexation/cantonization program seems likely to bring the whole Palestinian tragedy to a hideous end. All the maneuverings are a cover for that, the whole discussion about the referendum included. Fatah should by now know better than to fall into the hands of US and Israeli overlords in its quest for local dominance. The fact that it does not should be reason enough for why it was voted out of power last January. Hamas has good reasons to demand that Israel, with US urging, show its good faith first. In the meantime Hamas’ continued opposition to Abbas’ dubious call for a referendum on the Prisoner’s Agreement is justified.

JENNIFER LOEWENSTEIN is a Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. She has lived and worked in Gaza City, Beirut and Jerusalem and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, where she has worked as a free-lance journalist and a human rights activist. She can be reached at: amadea311@earthlink.net

 

ENDNOTES:

1 Press Release: The Palestinian National Dialogue and call for a Referendum Survey #2, 3 June 2006.

2. See "PA Chief Abbas aims to expand presidential guard," by Ze’ev Schiff, Haaretz, 28 May 2006. See also "Talking to Hamas," by Alastair Crooke in Prospect, issue 123, June 2006.

3. Ibid, Ze’ev Schiff, Haaretz, 28 May 2006.

4. "Abbas sets Referendum for July 26; Hamas rejects Poll," Mijal Grinberg and Assaf Uni, Haaretz, 10 June 2006.

5. "We do not wish to throw them into the sea," Interview between Lally Weymouth and Ismail Haniyeh in the Washington Post, Sunday 26 February 2006.

6. "Hamas leader sets condition for truce," on CNN World website, 29 January 2006.

7. "Abbas delays referendum decision," BBC News, Tuesday 6 June 2006.

8.. "Hamas says ready to accept Palestinian statehood in 1967 border," in China View, 10 May 2006;

9. "Enter Hamas: the challenges of political integration," International Crisis Group Report no. 49, Amman/Brussels; 18 January 2006. First edition (preliminary) report.

10. Ibid; The Hamas Electoral Manifesto also states, "Yes to a free, independent and sovereign state on every portion of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem without conceding any part of historic Palestine." This, of course, will raise red flags for some, which is why I include it here. I do not want to be accused of leaving out important statements or phrases. As with other statements, however, it must be measured against current realities both military and political.

11. "Dealing with Hamas," International Crisis Group Report no. 21, Amman/Brussels; 26 January 2004. From an interview in An-Nahar (Jerusalem), 30 April 1989. Quoted in Ziad Abu Amr, Islamic Fundamentalism. Op. cit. p.76

12. "Enter Hamas: the challenges of political integration," International Crisis Group report no. 49, 18 January 2006.

13. "Dealing with Hamas," International Crisis Group report no. 21, 26 January 2004. Amman/Brussels.

14. "For Those Who Haven’t Noticed: Watching the Dissolution of Palestine," 24 February 2006; CounterPunch, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.

15. Mouin Rabbani; personal correspondence. Also in "Enter Hamas" the ICG preliminary report on Hamas from 18 January 2006.

16. "Hamas’ Contradictory Voices," by Menachem Klein, Haaretz, 2 June 2006.

17. "The Issue is not Whether Hamas Recognizes Israel," by Henry Siegman, Financial Times, 8 June 2006.