Playing Two Different Games

The Palestinians are busy forming a government. It is too early to say how the events in Jericho will affect its composition, but what in the past was an internal game of musical chairs among Fatah and its satellites–a competition over personal prestige and a power play by Yasser Arafat–now appears to be a discussion between different political movements and principles.

Hamas has already submitted its proposed guidelines for a coalition government. The guidelines are a mixture of the declarations and slogans of a national liberation movement and the vague promises of a future government. This mix does not bode well for the Palestinian people. Even the vagueness in the guidelines, as Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly complained, is that of an “ordinary” government–things along the lines of “we will work to eradicate poverty,” a standard pledge among Israeli governments.

The guidelines give considerable space to the right of return, as well as to the standard declaration that resistance in all its forms is a right–even though, at the same time, they stress that resistance is a means, not an end. The guidelines also include a promise that Palestinian Authority institutions will be established based on the principles of democracy, justice, individual rights and freedoms, and so forth. Hamas is even willing to discuss changes to its proposal in order to accommodate two tiny factions that are considering joining the government (the Popular Front and Independent Palestine). Fatah, in contrast, has made it clear that it views negotiations with Israel as a fundamental strategic choice, and it is not willing to concede on this issue. If so, it is unlikely that Fatah will join the government.

The first draft of the guidelines stated that a Hamas-led Palestinian government would be willing to seriously consider the principle of negotiations if Israel would recognize the rights of the Palestinian people and provide guarantees of a full withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem. If this is so, then according to Hamas, negotiations are merely a Palestinian gesture should its conditions be met.

At first glance, this is a refreshing “new discourse” that Hamas is introducing into the unequal balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians. It may paint Hamas as “real men” in the eyes of its public, but it does not appear that it will impress anyone in Israel.

In effect, the “conditions” are reminiscent of the style of the armed Palestinian organizations throughout the last five years: They set conditions for Israel, or threatened to “avenge” or “act” or “respond,” in precisely the arena where there is no doubt of Israel’s superiority: force of arms, the ability to kill and destroy.

These organizations, with their suicide attacks and their Qassam rockets, painted the Palestinians as the aggressor, just as Israel’s propaganda claimed. Now, Hamas is deemed the one who is refusing to negotiate. It is helping both Israelis and the international community to forget that for the past five years, it was Israel that refused to negotiate, and that even during the Oslo years, the negotiations consisted mainly of forceful Israeli dictates and Palestinian inertness and concessions.

The guidelines also address the security lull: It is not an end, but a means, and it is meant to achieve national goals. However, its continuation will depend on an end to all Israeli aggression and the release of the prisoners. Here it is possible to see Hamas’ pragmatic desire for a lull to enable it to deal with the domestic issues that were the main reason for its election. But it is also possible to see the boastfulness of the weak, which has nothing behind it. Granted, the guidelines speak about resistance in all its forms–primarily, armed resistance and popular resistance. But the experience of the last five years has proven that the use of arms not only worsened the Palestinians’ situation, but also came at the expense of mass mobilization for a popular uprising.

The use of weapons in the territories and the suicide bombings in Israel that the armed organizations, first and foremost Hamas, presented as a “response” gave Israel an opportunity to implement its long-standing plan of annexing essential territory and shedding responsibility for the occupied, and even to win American backing and tacit European support for this. It turned out that Israel was playing chess, while the Palestinians thought that the game was tables tennis. And even at that, they are losing.

From the way Hamas officials have behaved since their election, it is clear that Hamas understands that the table tennis cannot be only military. Now, it is trying to inject a new element, a political one, into the game. It wrote in the guidelines that the Palestinian cause has an Arab and Islamic dimension, and a Hamas-led government will work to mobilize Arab and Islamic support for the Palestinian people in every field.

Under the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian cause became the entire world’s cause, an issue of both national rights and human rights. Over the last five years, however, Israel has worked energetically to link the Palestinians with international Islamic terrorism and the “clash of civilizations:” enlightened versus benighted.

Now, Hamas’ guidelines are helping Israel as well: They depict a religious and cultural clash, outside the framework of the people’s struggle against foreign occupiers.

AMIRA HASS writes for Ha’aretz. She is the author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza.