Middle East

Middle East Road Map

Abu Mazen: Mission Impossible

Hamas supporters in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza demonstrate on June 6, 2003
Hamas supporters in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip demonstrate on June 6, 2003 (Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP-Getty Images).

Hamas’ decision to cut off talks with the government of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] didn’t come as a surprise. The commitments that Abu Mazen ultimately presented to the Israelis, as well as the issues that he raised in his speech at the Aqaba summit, made the continuation of talks with Hamas a waste of time.

Abu Mazen bluntly said that he was committed to the road map and its implementation on the ground, lock, stock, and barrel. He especially emphasized the security portion of it: to end the Intifada and stop armed resistance as well as the disarmament of both Islamist and secularist resistance movements, chief among them Hamas.

The summit talks were based on the assumption that Hamas would accept a cease-fire for a period of a year, during which it would refrain from launching any fedayeen actions in the West Bank and Gaza, or martyrdom missions inside Israeli cities, such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which would give Sharon an excuse to opt out of the road map.

Sharon doesn’t want a truce. On the contrary, he desires an all-out struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) over Hamas’ weapons, and he has found endorsement from U.S. President George W. Bush.

Abu Mazen’s speech at the Aqaba summit was full of concessions to the Israelis. At the same time, Abu Mazen didn’t demand the right of return for [1948] Palestinian refugees. He ignored the issue of Jerusalem; he didn’t touch upon Israel’s daily terror acts against the Palestinians; and finally, he didn’t take a serious position on the release of more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners [held by Israel].

A bloody clash between Hamas and Abu Mazen’s government is now likely. This is because Hamas will not surrender its weapons voluntarily. Abu Mazen wants to gain prestige as a strong Palestinian leader, after President Yasser Arafat has been marginalized, and he wants the elimination of most of the PA’s financial and security institutions. In addition, he wants to prove his credibility in the eyes of the Americans, and it is likely that he will begin to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad—as required by the agreement—as soon as possible. However,  Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi [who survived an Israeli missile strike on June 10—WPR], one of the leaders of Hamas, has vowed that Hamas will not dispose of its weapons, and Sheik Ahmad Yassin, Hamas’ spiritual leader, has proclaimed that resistance is the only way and will continue by the will of God.

In the past, attempts by the PA to rein in Hamas, disarm it, and arrest some of its leaders were an attainable goal; complicated but possible, because previous governments possessed legitimacy, or a great deal of it. The reason was that at its head stood President Arafat, the master of popularity, who retained extensive political capital from more than 30 years of contribution to the Palestinian liberation cause.

The current government of Abu Mazen doesn’t enjoy this kind of legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinians, and he hasn’t received the blessings of Arafat. Most dangerous is the fact that his government faces a strong opposition, comprising Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade [Fatah], and both the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The most important stumbling block the government faces, however, is Arafat himself, and with him the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people.

The coming days will prove critical for Abu Mazen. He has to achieve his promised goal of bringing security, and he has to subdue the resistance movements. This will be practically impossible and will only stir up enormous trouble.