Hamas Gets a Helping Hand - From Israel

The framing of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as part of a process of disengaging from - rather than reengaging - the PA, has created a perception among Palestinians that violence succeeded where negotiations failed.

In trying to make sense of Israel's actions since the election of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the Sharm summit, it may be useful to dust off Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Yaari's book on the first intifada, "Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising," (Simon and Schuster, 1990). Written more than 15 years ago, the book documents a premeditated policy by elements within the Israeli establishment to weaken the secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization by strengthening the Islamic fundamentalists who later became Hamas. Schiff and Ya'ari defined the results of this policy - an empowered Hamas - as a "partly self-inflicted scourge."

What was policy by design in the 1980s is perhaps becoming policy by default, negligence and yes, maybe a little malice, in today's circumstances. Some may read these lines with incredulity and seek comfort in the now familiar retort that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is leaving Gaza at great political risk and is simultaneously implementing confidence-building measures in the form of withdrawals from Jericho and Tul Karm.

But look closer: All the polling and anecdotal evidence points to an increase in support for Hamas. The compromises reached in last week's Six-Point Cairo Declaration by all the Palestinian factions and the recent PA municipal elections are indicative of this trend. The resulting Israeli calls to disarm Hamas immediately , which sound so reasonable as to be rarely questioned, come at a time and under circumstances least propitious for such a move.

Undoubtedly, the growing strength of Hamas has much to do with internal Palestinian politics. For good reason, Fatah is held responsible by its own public for many of the shortcomings of the Palestinian Authority. The harsh and often ugly rivalries within Fatah and the PA - inter-personal, inter-generational and between different security agencies - further erode their image. This is in contrast to the image Hamas seeks to promote of itself - untainted, uncompromising, able to deliver - and which is an easy sell from the responsibility-free "benches" of the opposition.

But Israel is not a passive bystander. At all levels, Israel exercises a disproportionate influence on everyday Palestinian life - greater than the PA or any international aid agency. According to the latest World Bank report, the Israeli closure system is "the proximate cause" of Palestinian economic distress; it cites 723 obstacles to Palestinian movement in the West Bank and 732 kilometers of road under restricted usage.

The framing of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as part of a process of disengaging from - rather than reengaging - the PA, has created a perception among Palestinians that violence succeeded where negotiations failed. The current round of so-called Israeli confidence-building measures was described recently by one senior, internationally-respected PA minister as "nickel-and-diming" Abu Mazen to death. It took more than six weeks to agree to hand over sleepy Jericho (when were we actually in Jericho?) and Tul Karm, which is now surrounded on "only" three and a half sides by fence and wall. A popular joke doing the rounds in Ramallah is that the Jericho checkpoint was moved - all of 200 meters down the road.

The list of what can be defined as meaningful measures is known: significant, not cosmetic, redeployments, lifting of closures and prisoner releases. For Israel, some are genuinely difficult, others inconvenient. Many require the kind of hard-disk change that still seems to elude the Israeli establishment. Palestinian officials and civil society activists describe a growing sense of frustration at the lack of visible improvements on the ground along with concern for the longevity of the current administration.

Israeli inertia on these fronts is in stark contrast to the government's hyper-activity elsewhere. Every settlement expansion or tender for new neighborhoods between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem is ammunition for Hamas. So is every closure, like the one imposed to "celebrate" Purim, or every kilometer of separation barrier built on confiscated Palestinian land.

All this ahead of elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in July, which Fatah activists fear could be a repeat of partial municipal elections in Gaza earlier this year, which were swept by Hamas. In this light, Israel's actions again seem to rest on shaky logical foundations: Disarmament is not a stand-alone issue, but rather it raises a broader question about what is feasible and how far confidence-building can proceed in the absence of permanent status negotiations.

Interim arrangements on territorial issues encourage only interim understandings on a cease-fire. Both Sharon and Hamas are aware that a permanent status agreement will run more-or-less along the lines outlined in the Geneva Initiative, and neither are enthusiastic about the idea. Abbas, by contrast, is a keen advocate of permanent status negotiations and is clearly hoping that after a Gaza withdrawal, both Israeli and international opinion may gravitate in this direction.

So the same old logic applies: A strengthened Hamas will diminish Abbas, Fatah and the prospects of permanent status talks. If Hamas is in the ascendancy, then Abbas will be weakened both in terms of his international standing and his ability to confront Israel on issues like settlement expansion, the separation barrier or endgame peace talks.

To make these observations is not to suggest conspiracies of any kind or to free Palestinians of their own responsibilities. Of course, for us Israelis, our overriding concern is not whether something is more convenient for Abbas or how it influences the internal Palestinian balance of power, but rather how it advances Israel's national interests. Settlement expansion, checkpoints and land confiscations, which are all unjust, are also fodder for Hamas - and that is not in our interest. What is in our interest is a permanent status agreement, which is perhaps the only way to create the conditions under which real disarmament may be possible.

Israel backed the forebearers of Hamas in the 1980s. Whether through design, default or neglect, we must not repeat this dreadful mistake.

Daniel Levy served as policy adviser to Yossi Beilin, was a member of the Israeli team to the Oslo B and Taba negotiations, and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.daniel@heskem.org.il