The Islamist group Hamas is showing few signs of the moderation analysts say is needed to engage in a peace process with Israel and continue receiving the badly needed international financial support for the Palestinian Authority (PA). Members of the group, which won a surprise majority in January parliamentary elections, revoked the special powers granted to PA President Mahmoud Abbas by the last Fatah-controlled legislature (AP). Fatah legislators walked out in protest (Reuters), one day after their party leaders rejected an offer to join the Hamas-led government.
The international community is also divided on how to deal with the Hamas government. Russia, for example, split from its other partners in the Middle East peace process by inviting Hamas leaders for a visit. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the group it must renounce terrorism and recognize Israel (BBC). In Moscow, Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal admitted the organization must “change its manners,” but reiterated it would not alter its policies until Israel did the same (Gulf Daily News). In contrast, the United States has said it will not cooperate with a Hamas government.
But Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group writes in Beirut’s Daily Star that Washington, if it works through Abbas, can achieve its goals in the region without compromising its principles. Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, tells cfr.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that Hamas is capable of a securing a lasting cessation of violence, but there will need to be better engagement with the United States and Israel. And David Makovsky, Michael Herzog, and Elizabeth Young of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy say the international community should focus on humanitarian aid and education—while cutting back on wage assistance and reconstruction funds—until Hamas proves itself as a governing body.
Daoud Kuttab writes in the Daily Star that Hamas’ victory could herald a new battle between political Islamists and repressive regimes in the Arab world. It could also mark the fracturing of Islamic extremist movements into smaller blocs that pursue their own interests. For example, tensions are emerging between Hamas and al-Qaeda. In a recent video, senior al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri congratulated Hamas on its victory but urged it not to recognize any agreements made with Israel. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal quickly responded that Hamas has its “own vision” and doesn’t need advice from al-Qaeda (BBC). The flare-up comes as Abbas says al-Qaeda is operating in Gaza (Guardian).
The confusion in the PA comes as Israel faces its own parliamentary elections at the end of March. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is planning to unilaterally withdraw settlers from parts of the West Bank if his centrist Kadima party wins (Jerusalem Post). The proposal is supported by the Israeli defense establishment, which also wants to separate Gaza from the West Bank until there is a new PA government. The details of the proposed withdrawal are explained in this Haaretz story. Some say the move is a troublesome sign that Israel is preparing to unilaterally set its own borders.