Text size

"Israel will not extract a tahadiyeh [cease-fire] from Hamas from a position of victory," Mushir al-Masri, the secretary general of the Palestinian parliament's Hamas faction, asserted on Monday. His statement, issued following the report of the killing of an entire Palestinian family this week, apparently by Israel Defense Forces missiles, was intended to make it clear that the situation was a matter of a duel between equals in status, if not equals in capability. The rockets that were fired into Israel afterward were intended to prove that point. They were also intended to set the tone for the talks held in Egypt the following day, between Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and the different Palestinian factions.

Hamas knew that despite the disagreement over the "Gaza first" issue - Islamic Jihad wants the tahadiyeh agreement to cover the West Bank as well - Suleiman would be able to present an agreed-upon plan to the Israeli government. The plan would afford Israel temporary quiet and "give" Hamas the opening of the Rafah crossing. If that will be the case, then Masri will be able to tell his public that Hamas did not yield, but emerged victorious, just as Israel will report that its pressure forced Hamas to surrender.

The Egyptians could also count on Israel to accept the plan because it wants to welcome the U.S. president, who will be arriving here shortly, with the sounds of silence on its southern border. This is how Egypt devised the scheme whereby Israel will enjoy a temporary respite from all the Palestinian factions, and also will open the Rafah crossing for Hamas.

"We are a pragmatic movement that operates within an ideological framework," a Hamas activist in the West Bank explained to Haaretz. "We are well aware of our limitations and know our strengths, and a cease-fire is not only a military, but also a political act. On the military side, if Israel wants to prove that it has the upper hand by assassinating Palestinian civilians, we will show it that we do not forsake our resistance activity until the last minute when the tahadiyeh will take effect - or not take effect. On the political side we forced Israel to negotiate with us, even if indirectly. Israel recognized us without us recognizing Israel."

Masri belongs to the young generation of Hamas' leadership. Thirty-plus, he wanted to study medicine in Turkey, but the circumstances in Gaza prevented him from leaving. Instead, he decided to study Islamic law and published a master's thesis on local government and partnership in policy management according to sharia. Masri is the youngest member of the Palestinian parliament and has been dubbed "the young Abdel Aziz Rantisi" - a reference to the Hamas leader who was assassinated by Israel four years ago. He is a charismatic figure, who is usually referred to in a nondescript manner as "a spokesman for Hamas," but, together with other young colleagues - including Razi Hamad, Ayman Taha and Sami Abu Zahari (the official spokesman) - Masri is part of the next cadre of the organization's leadership, which is in any case young. Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal is 52 and leading Hamas figure Musa Abu Marzuk is 56, as compared with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) who celebrated his 73rd birthday this year.

During the talks about the cease-fire it emerged that Hamas' "young guard" speaks in one voice, but with different tones. The differences in tone were discernible last September, when Razi Hamad, then the Hamas spokesman, published an article in which he called for conciliation between all the Palestinian factions and offered some barbed criticism of Hamas policy. "We do not need round or square tables; we need pure hearts and an understanding mind. And just as Hamas is zealously vigilant of the nation's interests, so are Fatah and the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP] and the Democratic Front [for the Liberation of Palestine, DFLP] and Islamic Jihad. All these forces have the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder in order to extract us from the circle of folly and misery. I tell you that our nation is fed up with the destruction, fed up with the discussions, fed up with the multiplication of governments and authorities, and fed up with the uncertain, restrained, unresponsive and hopeless expectations. Do not torture them more than this."

This outcry, which was published in all the Palestinian and Arab media, is considered an important turning point in Hamas' relations with Fatah. True, Hamad, an educated man who is fluent in both Hebrew and English, and was a journalist for many years, was removed from his post, but he continues to promote national reconciliation and has been involved in the decision-making process concerning the cease-fire.

According to Hamas sources, the differences between Masri, Abu Zohari and Hamad in Gaza, or between Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas leader Mahmoud a-Zahar, are not ideological but practical. When Hamas tries to present itself as an alternative to Fatah, and when it seeks to settle military accounts with Israel, Hamad's soft approach is not useful. On the other hand, it turns out that Zahar's tough stance also failed: When he left Cairo last week on his way to Damascus, to report on his talks with Suleiman to his boss, political chief Khaled Meshal, he no longer insisted on a cease-fire that would include the West Bank, but made do with "Gaza first."

What brought about this change? Sources in Hamas claim that Egypt gave Zahar guarantees that it would open the Rafah crossing by itself if Israel were to reject the cease-fire. Egypt has not confirmed the existence of any such agreement. Egyptian sources only say that Zahar was "presented with a logical plan of action that he could not refuse" - because the Egyptians understand that devising a formula that will portray both sides, Israel and Hamas, as winners is no less important than the cease-fire itself. For the agreement to be implemented, Hamas has to see the Rafah crossing open and Israel has to enjoy total quiet from all the organizations, not just Hamas. At the same time, the term "all the organizations" can be misleading. The relatively large organizations, such as the PFLP and the DFLP, are not problematic in this regard. They support a cease-fire, and their invitation to the talks is more a matter of honor and courtesy.

The problem lies with Islamic Jihad and the resistance committees, among them an organization called the Salah a-Din Brigades, which is one of the groups directly responsible for the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. On its home page its spokesman boasted about the invitation to Cairo, and announced that the organization would send an "official delegation" to the Egyptian capital.

"When you see these 'youths' sitting down for a discussion with the white-haired representatives of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] movements, you understand the type of difficulty the Egyptian mediators are facing," an Egyptian journalist says in a phone conversation. "They speak a different language. They check each other out, and it's not always clear that they understand what is at stake. But these are the 'comrades' who decide whether a Qassam rocket will be launched and the cease-fire will collapse, or whether there will be quiet. This is not only your problem in Israel, it is also our acute problem, because these are the people who in the end blow up the fence [between the Gaza Strip and Egypt] and allow thousands of people to cross the border. They are endangering Israeli-Egyptian relations. They are shabab [delinquent youths] and some of them are thugs."

'Pyramid of franchisees'

According to a senior Fatah figure, the very demand to have the heads of these rather ephemeral organizations - "gang leaders," as he calls them - sign this agreement catapults them to a status of importance almost equal to that of Hamas.

"Israel is creating a pyramid of franchisees for the political processes," he explains. "An agreement with Mahmoud Abbas depends, in the end, on quiet in Gaza. The quiet depends on Hamas. Hamas, which wants to prove that it is the master of Gaza and hence of the quiet there, is dependent on every little organization that can decide at any given moment, and for any given reason, that it is tired of the quiet, or that it did not receive enough money, or that its man was not appointed to a certain office - and then it starts shooting."

And let us assume that a "miracle" will occur, and Hamas and Fatah achieve national reconciliation on the basis of the principles set forth in March's Sanaa agreement, and the situation in Gaza returns to what it was before June 2007, when Hamas took over. Would a unified government be capable of overcoming these smaller groups? "In every Arab state a war is under way against extremist organizations," the senior Fatah man replies. "But they have one government and one army, whereas here we seem to have opened a school for governments and armies."