Towards Representing All Palestinians

(Eran Shayshon, Haaretz) There is a significant difference between Hamas’ entrance to the PLO and its entrance to the PA.

Eran Shayshon, “Ha’aretz”, June 26, 2005

About two weeks ago, one of the senior members of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, publicly announced that Hamas may in the future join the Palestinian Authority because he is “interested in creating a broad historical change.” In other words, Hamas sees itself as a central partner in the decision-making process regarding the entire Palestinian people, of which the political process is a part.

Haniyeh clarified that Hamas is not only interested in taking a part of the Palestinian Legislative Council (Parliament) of the Palestinian Authority, but also to work to create a “new PLO” that will be the sole legitimate representative of Palestinians in the areas of the PA and in the diaspora.

Not many distinguish between Hamas entering the PLO and entering the PA. The entrance of Hamas into the PA is meant first and foremost to enable it to get a foothold in the decision making process connected to the daily life of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas’ principal reserve of strength is the social network that it unfurls – the “da’awa” – through which the organization distributes its ideas and supplies to the Palestinians: welfare pertaining to education, culture, health and society. The difficulty of financing the da’awa network through donations, which grew worse after the September 11th attack, may have caused Hamas to decide to incorporate the network within the PA in order to earn a piece of the budget which is necessary to sustain its activities.

Hamas’ decision to run for Parliament also derives from the aspirations of its leadership within the territories: to gain immunity from an Israeli blow, and to fulfill its desire to influence the political process.

The meaning of Hamas’ entrance to the PLO is much broader. The status of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people has been recognized in the international arena since the 1970s. However, in internal Palestinian politics, this status has been challenged by the Hamas, other opposition organizations, and, to some degree, by the PA. In spite of its increasing popularity in the Palestinian street, Hamas is far from symbolizing the natural legitimate representative of the Palestinian society – which is relatively secular by Arab standards.

The sense of things is that both sides – Hamas and the PLO – cannot claim to completely represent all the Palestinians. The unification of Hamas and the PLO is supposed to create a new body, which can allege representation of the entire Palestinian people. However, the integration of Hamas in the PLO, on one hand, and the PA, on the other, is paradoxical: Hamas leadership within the territories is likely to grow more pragmatic because of its governmental responsibility for the daily sustenance of the population; In contrast, Hamas leadership outside the territories is expected to maintain or even radicalize further its hard-line political stance, once it obtains official obligations related to the refugees and the diaspora.

Furthermore, Hamas’ entrance to the PLO is more “traumatic” bureaucratically than its entrance to the PA. In spite of the public controversy over the postponement of the elections to the PLC and the election system, the “rules of the game” of the entrance of Hamas are clear. Party representatives will be chosen in democratic elections and this will determine the power relations in Parliament. However, the lesson of the Fatah takeover of the PLO after the ‘67 war seems to indicate that Hamas’ entrance to the PLO will necessitate several changes: a renewed division of power in the workers’ council; a revision of the Palestinian National Charter of the PLO; and an assembly of the Palestinian National Council (the Parliament of the PLO, which hasn’t convened since the mid-90s).

In light of the above, it’s important to relate to three issues that are liable to be affected by Hamas’ moves: first of all, this is a comprehensive transformation of the political, organizational, institutional and ideological systems on the Palestinian side, which weighs on the carrying capacity of the Palestinians concerning complex political moves; second, the formation of a collective national as well as religious Palestinian leadership, as manifested in a “new” PLO, may have significant repercussions on the Israeli Arabs; and finally, “institutionalizing” Hamas’ da’awa network within the government is likely to create a linkage between its prosperity and the political process and thus may cause Hamas to embrace pragmatism.

The entrance of Hamas into the Palestinian constitutional organizations may influence the system of relations between Israel and the Palestinians. In light of that imminent chaos, Israel should reexamine the reality related to key issues touching on the political process.

The author is an analyst at the “Re’ut Institute” of policy planning.