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"But look what Hamas is doing in Gaza." That is the standard response in the West Bank to reports about the offensive being waged by the Palestinian Authority (PA) against Hamas activists. And from Hamas men in Gaza one can still hear that the beating of detainees and the forcible repression of demonstrations and meetings are the result of errors of some individuals, not orders from above, despite the fact that the "errors" are continuing. "The error of individual, in contradiction to policy" is how a senior official in a PA security force characterized, in speaking to Haaretz, reports of the torture of Hamas detainees.

Information cannot be obtained through torture, the official said. According to him, Palestinian intelligence has succeeded, in the last few months, in uncovering - without torture - many details about the activities of the illegal Hamas Executive Force in the West bank and about plans to attack PA officials. In the wake of the organization's takeover in the Gaza Strip, the denials by Hamas are unconvincing. Hamas is known for its ability to compartmentalize its military plans and those behind them. But just as in the wave of arrests in 1996, the PA is attacking where the streetlight shines, namely civilian activists. In these mirror images, one large difference stands out: the acts of repression by Hamas in Gaza and the violation of basic civil rights there are given relatively wide media coverage in Israel and abroad. Similar actions by the PA in the West Bank, however, are hushed up.

According to the findings of Palestinian human rights organizations, hundreds of Hamas activists have been arrested, and are still being arrested, in blatant violation of Palestinian law, and by some security forces who do not have the authority to make arrests. Reports from Nablus speak of security personnel who are waiting, with the advent of Ramadan, outside the mosques in order to arrest Hamas activists after evening prayers. Disturbing testimony is piling up that speaks of the severe torture of some detainees - a few of whom required hospitalization. Revenge and intimidation are the name of the game. Some of those released testified that they had been forced to sign a promise to keep completely silent about their experiences during their detention. The arrests are part of a whole complex of offensive tactics: shootings of Hamas activists; attacks, including arson, on Hamas offices; threats to Hamas representatives on local councils, to journalists and members of parliament; and infringement of freedom of the press (including blocking the distribution in the West Bank of the two Hamas newspapers).

Most of these claims have not been checked, nor have they been reported except in the Hamas media. They have not received the same public relations in Israel and abroad as have similar actions by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The reason for this oversight is basically political. The negating of freedom, arrests and intimidations fit the definition of Hamas as an Islamic terror organization, but not the respectable, Western, appearance of the Ramallah leadership under PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad. According to the current Israeli and American interpretation, Abbas and Fayad are capable of reaching a "compromise" (more correctly, a surrender) with Israel. That is to say, an arrangement of a state of enclaves, intersected by settlements (or, alternatively, "a state with temporary borders"). In order to promote this impression, the Abbas-Fayad leadership must be presented as deriving its legitimacy from authentic Palestinian frameworks - either the Basic Law of the PA or the historical legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which today is completely devoid of any content as a liberation movement.

In reality, however, the legitimacy of the PA leadership stems from its compliance with the U.S. standard for an acceptable Arab regime. Ignoring the PA's campaigns of repression is a repetition of past mistakes. It means a denial of the fact that Hamas has won its popularity not because of its religious-political vision, and that the dual reason for its victory at the polls has not disappeared: The PLO failed in the negotiations to achieve political independence; at the same time, its internal administration is tainted by a lack of caring for its people and by seeing mainly to the interests of a limited stratum of society. This stratum owes its comfortable status to the adherence to a tactic of failed negotiations with Israel, over a non-solution.