Gaza Negotiations The Internal Divisions of Hamas

The Egyptian-French cease-fire proposal for the Gaza Strip remains on the table. Hamas, though, is divided. One camp is calling for a decisive battle while others continue to negotiate. And it remains uncertain which side will prevail.

By Volkhard Windfuhr in Cairo


It was a minor scene that took place on Thursday in the heart of Gaza City. But it was a noteworthy one. In front of a closed chicken restaurant not far from the empty culture center, masked men in uniforms were handing out inspirational flyers. "No Peace with the Murderers of our Children," reads one. Another says, "Resist to the Death, Allah Is with You."

A Palestinian woman confronts two Israeli soldiers during a protest in the West Bank town of Billin.
DPA

A Palestinian woman confronts two Israeli soldiers during a protest in the West Bank town of Billin.

But very few passers-by took one of the leaflets. The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, which becomes worse by the day, seemed on Thursday not to be driving Palestinians into the arms of the fanatical Hamas propagandists. "Why are you handing out paper instead of bread," a mother with her two daughters called out and hurries on.

For 14 days, Israeli bombs have been falling on the Gaza Strip -- over 700 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have already lost their lives. The Palestinians are just as tired of this war as the Israelis are. If Hamas thought they could unleash a popular uprising, they seem to have erred.

But scenes like the one above, described by a Gaza Strip resident over the phone, is just one element of a reality that is becoming ever clearer. And it is a reality that has relevance to international efforts currently being made to establish a cease-fire in the Middle East: Hamas is currently unable to speak with a single voice.

Just how divided the radical Palestinian group is has become clear during the cease-fire negotiations currently taking place in Cairo. Khaled Meshaal, the head of the militant wing of Hamas who lives in Damascus, sent a number of prominent functionaries to Egypt on Tuesday to look into the possibility of Cairo playing the role of intermediary. The so-called Cairo Initiative, aimed at putting a stop to the ongoing bloodbath and addressing the roots of the problem, has now grown into a promising attempt to quickly put an end to the violence.

Yet even within the Hamas delegation, there are conflicting views as to the negotiating path the group should follow. Given the disagreement, it is hardly a surprise that the signals sent by Hamas on Thursday were unclear.

Muhammad Nasr, a native of Hebron who has long been a prominent political advisor to Meshaal and belongs to the Hamas politburo, spoke for several hours with Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence and potential successor to President Hosni Mubarak. The discussion focused on the conditions Hamas would have to fulfil before the Egyptian plan could be successful.

But hardliner Nasr refused to budge. Hamas, he insisted, has to be allowed control over the Palestinian-Egyptian border and cannot be forced to recognize Israel, not even indirectly.

With those positions, though, he stands in direct contradiction to central pillars foreseen by the Cairo Initiative. In addition to an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of the Israeli army, Hamas would be required to permanently cease firing rockets across the border from the Gaza Strip into Israel. In addition, responsibility for monitoring the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt would be returned to the Palestinian Authority, the internationally recognized Palestinian leadership which controls the West Bank. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, headed up by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have been at odds since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007.

Even the demand -- already discussed in detail -- foreseeing Arab and European observers stationed along the Gaza Strip border has proven difficult for Hamas politicians to accept. Should such a border observer mission be granted a robust mandate, it would almost certainly mean that the tunnels under the border -- which, in addition to foodstuffs and medicine, also transport smuggled weapons -- would be closed.

Other Hamas negotiators, though, like Imad al-Alami, who accompanied Nasr to Cairo, have proven more conciliatory. Al-Alami, known as "the philosopher," didn't reject outright the Egyptian proposals. Instead, he promised that he would return to the negotiating table with counter-proposals.

Patience is wearing thin at Hamas headquarters in Damascus. But at the same time, numerous Hamas activists who came to Cairo from the Gaza Strip have long become convinced of the necessity of Egyptian mediation. A single Hamas position, though, has yet to materialize.

Given this lack of unity, Thursday's rejection of the Egypt-led peace plan by the coalition of radical Palestinian groups based in Damascus -- to which Hamas also belongs -- is not seen as its final word. The coalition's rejection, say observers, is likely due to pressure exerted by Syria, which was not thrilled about the decision of the Hamas politicians to visit Cairo without the blessing of Damascus.

On Thursday, it was difficult to forecast which of the camps would ultimately win out. But dragging out the talks would likely play into the hands of the moderates. The hardliners, it would seem, have overplayed their hand. It has become increasingly clear to them that no Arab state is willing to go to war for the Gaza Strip -- and furthermore, that no Arab country is willing to withdraw the Arab peace plan -- originally conceived in 2002 and approved by Arab states in 2007 -- which calls for a formal recognition of Israel.

Hamas, it would seem, isn't the only group that has misjudged the situation. The Hezbollah-sponsored television station al-Manar, based in Beirut, has called on the demoralized citizens of the Gaza Strip to fight "till the end" and not give up. Likewise, the channel has broadcasted interviews with well-chosen guests warning about "traitors in our ranks" and threatening "Arab partisans of Israel." The public response, though, is not what the station had hoped for.

Radicals had also envisioned Katyusha rockets being fired from southern Lebanon into Israel as the trigger for a broad alliance between Palestinian Sunnis and Lebanese Shiites. So far, though, such a coalition has yet to materialize.

Behind the scenes, there has been some movement. A number of old Palestinian hands have begun a broad campaign in support of the Cairo Initiative -- a plan not unlike that suggested by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Said Kamal is one of those. Kamal spent many years in Cairo as the representative of legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and was formerly deputy secretary-general of the Arab League. On Tuesday, Kamal was invited onto a talk show broadcast by the Lebanese television channel al-Quds, where he encouraged the Palestinians to take advantage of the Egyptian plan. "There is nothing better for us in sight and, in any case, everything is open to negotiation," he said. "There is no way around negotiating." Al-Quds, it should be noted, is sometimes called "Hamas TV" in Lebanon.

Given these developments, it seems that Hamas leadership will ultimately be left with little room to maneuver. Egypt, after all, is the only Arab country bordering the Gaza Strip. It should be clear to even the hardliners and the die-hard opponents of the Cairo Initiative that, in the end, all roads lead to Cairo.

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