News Analysis: Israel’s Attempt to Weaken Hamas May Have Strengthened Link to PLO
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News Analysis: Israel’s Attempt to Weaken Hamas May Have Strengthened Link to PLO

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The Israeli expulsion of 415 Moslem militants, and the U.N. Security Council’s insistence on their return, leaves moderate Palestinians little choice but to back their Islamic fundamentalist rivals and boycott the peace talks with Israel.

A resolution by the world body that simply condemned Israel might have left Palestinian negotiators some room to maneuver on the question of returning to the peace talks in Washington.

But the Security Council’s explicit demand that Israel reverse the decision ties the hands of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which calls the shots for the Palestinian negotiators.

Now any compromise with Israel might be seen as a betrayal of their “Palestinian brethren.” The PLO, which has been losing ground to the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, may therefore find itself compelled to order its proxies to stay away from negotiations, which were due to resume after the Clinton administration takes office Jan. 20.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin radiated confidence over the weekend that, in the long run, the Palestinians would negotiate. He believes they view any alternative to the peace talks as ultimately harmful to the PLO’s status.

And he believes that, in their hearts, leaders of the secular PLO rejoice at the blow struck at the religious extremists who are their archenemies.

Nevertheless, at this stage, the PLO appears to hold no other option but to support Hamas. In fact, leaders of both organizations are now planning to meet in Tunis to jointly consider a response to the mass expulsions.

Israel may think it is doing the PLO a service by weakening Hamas. But moderate Palestinians do not see it that way. An adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks cautioned Israel to “stop meddling in our internal affairs.”

“We will settle our differences between us without Israel’s interference,” said Ziyad Abu-Ziyad.

In fact, though, secular Palestinian groups have been worried for several months by the growing power of Moslem fundamentalists.

Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have successfully undermined a message of long standing that the PLO is “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Legitimate, perhaps, they say, but no longer exclusively so.

The Palestinians have not escaped the Islamic fundamentalist epidemic that has spread throughout the Arab world, from Algeria in the west to Iran in the east.

Hamas is particularly strong in the Gaza Strip, where it is nourished by poverty, political frustration and strong ties with ultrareligious centers in Egypt — which themselves threaten the stability of the regime in Carry.

Waxing stronger, Hamas also raises the banners of social and religious purification, supported by a swelling flow of funds from Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Gulf states.

From Iran, Hamas enjoys an annual commitment of $30 million made by Teheran after its establishment of a military arm, called the Iz a-Din al-Kassem group, which claimed responsibility for many of the recent terror attacks. The money keeps flowing in, and the authorities are unable to stop it.

The arrest last week of 1,600 Moslem fundamentalist activists and the expulsion of more than 400 of them may upset the logistics of these organizations and put them, at least temporarily, on the defensive.

But the problem goes beyond the immediate strength of Hamas. It resides in grass-roots support for the Moslem fundamentalists throughout the Palestinian community. And support for the religious extremists means lack of support for the PLO — Israel’s indirect partner in the peace negotiations.

The PLO can reverse this trend only by pointing to progress in the peace talks — and presently there is precious little.

A growing number of Israeli public figures, such as Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, believe Israel should balance out its strike against Moslem fundamentalists by recognizing the PLO and entering into direct negotiations with it.

But such voices are at present in the minority.

Palestinian leaders such as Abu-Ziyad reject the equation outright. “One has nothing to do with the other, ” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “You must recognize the PLO, but that has nothing to do with the need to return the deported Palestinians.”

So, even if Israel took such a step — an unlikely development in view of domestic political pressures — it might not achieve the hoped-for results. The secular leadership of the Palestinians is too attentive to domestic opinion of its own to turn openly against their rivals.

An argument made for last week’s expulsions was the need to “strengthen the Palestinian peace camp.”

But the move does not appear to represent the way the PLO itself wishes to weaken its fundamentalist rival.

Israel will need a considerable measure of political wisdom to transform the deportations into a political breakthrough with the “Palestinian peace camp.” A lot of wisdom — and a significant measure of luck.

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