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Hamas Maneuvers Amid Doubts

Prepared by: Esther Pan
February 15, 2006

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A new Palestinian Authority (PA) parliament will meet for the first time this week amid confusion both within and outside the PA about what happens next in the process of forming a government. There have been a few concrete developments. Hamas nominated two of its members for leadership positions (Reuters): hardliner Mahmoud Zahar to head its parliamentary faction, and Abdel Aziz Dweik, a geography professor from the West Bank city of Hebron, as its candidate for parliament speaker.

Hamas, the surprising winner of seventy-four of the 132 seats in last month's parliamentary elections, is resisting international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel. The New York Times on February 14 reported that Israel and the United States had decided Hamas "must be starved from power" and were looking for ways to force new elections that would bring PA President Mahmoud Abbas' defeated Fatah party back to power. Officials denied the story, but Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal—exiled in Syria—responded by vowing Hamas will never recognize Israel, but will continue its struggle to "liberate Jerusalem" (JPost). Former Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman the United States must focus on persuading Hamas to "transform itself" and accept Israel's right to exist.

Without Western aid, Hamas has no chance of delivering on its campaign promises to improve Palestinian life. The PA budget of about $1 billion per year comes mostly from foreign aid: The European Union gave Hamas some $330 million in 2005 and the United States had earmarked $150 million for this year. This Congressional Research Service report details where the U.S. aid money goes.

In one sign of potential change, Hamas' armed wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam, has been collecting and registering weapons from its members in the Gaza Strip (Haaretz). Some experts say this move could signal Hamas' willingness to impose order on its members and potentially extend a current ceasefire with Israel. Still others say it only shows that Hamas is consolidating its own militia as a counterweight to the Palestinian security services, which are controlled by Fatah. The chaotic state of Palestinian security services is explained in this CFR Background Q&A. As president, Abbas has made little headway in reforming the security services and a major issue going forward is what Hamas will do to bring them under control and ensure security in the PA.

Others, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, think Hamas will moderate its positions once in power (Daily Star). But Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, speaking at the recent Herzliya security conference in Israel, warned Hamas will not change its tune. Michael Herzog, an Israeli general and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, agrees. He writes in Foreign Affairs that the political conditions necessary to co-opt Hamas do not exist in the PA.

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer tells cfr.org the United States should find a way to deal with the Hamas government, particularly if it is headed by an independent. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki tells Gwertzman that Abbas should join a unity government with Hamas as a way to keep Fatah relevant in the PA.

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