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"On one matter there is no disagreement between the Palestinian factions: the unity of blood," wrote Rifat Nasif, a member of Hamas from Tul Karm, in an article published on the movement's Web site. The unity of blood means that no Palestinian blood should be shed in civil warfare. Recently, however, it seems that this is about the only thing that links Hamas to the PLO, and especially to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority - except, of course, the joint battle against Israel. When it comes to matters involving joint political action, division of authority, and planning for the future in Gaza, "a lot of bad blood stands between these organizations," as one Hamas official in the Gaza Strip says.

The latest thing to anger Hamas was a statement by Nabil Sha'ath, who insisted that government authority could be shared with Hamas only if the organization agrees to a cease-fire. "Neither Sha'ath nor anyone else in the PA will dictate terms to Hamas," Nasif declares in his article. "Some of us" [a reference to PA officials] are not at all interested in reaching an agreement [between the PLO and Hamas]. They enjoy the status quo." That is, they are comfortable with the business concessions and benefits they control.

Another group seeks to please the Americans, Nasif charges, referring to Palestinians who support the Geneva formula. Therefore, no one is left to lead the struggle against Israel - except for Hamas, of course. Nasif quotes Hani al-Hassan, a former interior minister in the PA: "Hamas fell into a Zionist trap when it proposed a joint government ... Fatah and the PA are present on the ground and can manage the affairs."

The political struggle between Hamas and Fatah on the issue of ruling the territories, and Gaza in particular, has already resulted in harsh statements directed against each other by their representatives. Hamas believes the time has come to establish a joint leadership with equal rights and responsibilities for each of the partners. Hamas is even seriously considering holding elections in the territories on all levels, and in all institutions - including presidential elections. "The era of discourse between those issuing commands and those following orders is over," Nasif states. "Take a look at why the PA is not interested in holding elections," he suggests. "Like your Netanyahu said - They're a-f-r-a-i-d."

The political struggle between Hamas and the PA is nothing new. It has accompanied the two bodies almost from the day they were established. A particular low point in their relations came in the mid-1990s, when the PA began open warfare against Hamas activists, carried out arrests, and placed Sheikh Yassin under house arrest.

It was particularly hard for Hamas to accept the PA's readiness to bring CIA officials into the territories as part of the Wye framework. The failed attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshal in Jordan in 1997 and the release of Ahmed Yassin from prison (as demanded by King Hussein) horrified Yasser Arafat.

Two years later, in 1999, Arafat was the one to encourage the expulsion of Hamas leaders from Jordan. The monarchy faced a difficult dilemma, Jordanian sources explain. On the one hand, the expulsion of Hamas leaders would appear to the public as an action taken under Israeli pressure. "But the truth is that in addition to the good reasons Jordan had for expelling the four leaders [weapons and incitement material were found in their offices], there was also pressure from senior Palestinian figures. But we can't discuss this," the Jordanian sources say.

The political dispute between the PA and Hamas is not over, but Sharon's disengagement plan has compelled them to join hands and try to find a way to share control. The hudna talks initiated by Egypt last summer officially and publicly lifted Hamas onto the political track it has avoided for years. Its argument has been that it is a fighting social organization whose entire goal is to expel the Zionist enemy from the occupied territories and that no negotiations on peace or a cease-fire should be held with the enemy.

But the Hamas leadership, which had refused to sit with PA representatives because they were "born in Oslo" (an accord Hamas loathes), quickly discovered that there are great advantages in negotiating with the PA. When Khaled Meshal was asked in an interview on this change in policy and readiness to sit with PA officials, and even with American representatives, he responded: "We are a political organization with ideological goals." That is, the organization has political aspirations, which have been reflected in a number of public statements by Hamas leaders. For example, Hamas has referred to the PLO as "a representative" of the Palestinian people and not "the sole representative." More explicitly, Hamas leaders have announced that they regard themselves as a possible alternative to replace the PA. Now they are already talking about general elections.

The assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi may, according to sources in the PA and Hamas, work to encourage Hamas to pursue this political track and pave the way for it to become part of the government. The immediate result was to strengthen the leadership of Khaled Meshal as head of the organization.

Hamas is an institutional organization built along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. A Hamas representative interviewed by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal explained last week that the organization comprises three main fronts: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the diaspora. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are divided into districts; there is an advisory council in each district, elected in secret balloting and headed by an "emir of the faithful." The elected representatives, whose identity is kept secret, come from all segments of society and even include prisoners who are still incarcerated in Israel.

Each district advisory council chooses representatives for the regional advisory council, which in turn elects the supreme advisory council that sets policy for the movement. Each district in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is represented on the supreme advisory council, either through elected representatives or appointees. This council selects from among its members an administrative arm known as the political bureau.

But this model, which seems to be taken straight from a textbook on public administration, is not exactly followed in reality. According to one Hamas source, the concept of "elections" is a relative matter and decision-making in a democratic way is a theoretical concept. Thus, for example, Ahmed Yassin strongly opposed the appointment of Khaled Meshal to head the organization, despite his recommendation by the advisory council. The assassination of Yassin, therefore, was apparently not in the PA's interest. Rantisi, who was "appointed" as Yassin's deputy, tried to chart an independent course of action and declared himself the movement's leader, assuming that his political strength was sufficient to circumvent Khaled Meshal. But he was blocked: Khaled Meshal, who apparently enjoys the support of Hamas in the West Bank and sits on the organization's coffers, was able to outmaneuver Rantisi. When Rantisi was assassinated, no one else stepped forward to claim or dispute the leadership role and Khaled Meshal was the one to issue the first public announcement about the appointment of an unnamed replacement. It is still unclear whether a replacement has indeed been appointed or whether the declaration was intended only to highlight Meshal's leadership role. In any case, Meshal's status in Hamas is uncontested.

Meshal, 48, is a relatively young leader who, like Rantisi, does not have the status of a religious authority. This further blurs the identity of the organization as a purely religious one, and brings it closer to being categorized as a political organization. Meshal is originally from the village of Silwad, near Ramallah, and moved to Kuwait in 1967. While studying physics at university in Kuwait, he was active in the Islamic movement and, together with others, established a bloc of Islamic students. He continued this activity while working as a physics teacher in Kuwaiti schools. Along with tens of thousands of other Palestinians, he was forced to leave Kuwait in 1990 following Yasser Arafat's public support of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.

Meshal, who was married (today he has seven children), arrived in Jordan and became active in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. After he was expelled from the country with three other Hamas leaders, he moved between Qatar, Damascus, Lebanon, Tehran and again Damascus. People who have met him say he has a charismatic personality and sense of humor, and is an effective manager and sophisticated politician.

Meshal is two years older than his Damascus-based colleague Dr. Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, the leader of Islamic Jihad, and is two years younger than Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader. The three are not only close in age; they also enjoy friendly relations and symbolize the new leadership of radical Islamic organizations. This new leadership is not subordinate to official religious leaders such as the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or, in Nasrallah's case, a Shiite religious authority. They are politicians, not theoreticians, and are not considered teachers of religious law. Their ideology is primarily nationalistic, and only then religious. In this way, they are different than the founders of their movements.

Meshal is now the one who will compete against the Palestinian Authority, and PA officials expect this Meshal-led confrontation to be more difficult than the one hitherto led by Hamas leaders based in the territories. "Leaders from the outside, whether they be from Fatah or Hamas, speak a different language," explains one PA source. "They don't feel the situation on the ground like we do, and they are regarded as foreigners by grassroots activists. What does Meshal know about life in Gaza? What does Farouk Kaddoumi [the PLO foreign minister] know about life in the West Bank? You say that we are happy about Rantisi's assassination. But we fear that instead of Rantisi we'll have to deal with a number of new gangs that will break away from Hamas, refusing to accept the authority of the leadership from abroad. This happened to the PLO and Fatah. Why shouldn't this also happen in Hamas?"