On the morning after his inauguration, President Obama made his first international telephone call to a world leader at 8am Washington time – to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. This was a clear signal that the new president was serious in getting down to business in the region. Obama assured Abbas of his support for a sustained ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and his backing of the decision made by European leaders at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh last week to get tough on weapons smuggling. Telephone calls to other leaders in the region followed. This demonstrates a change in priorities from his predecessors, for whom the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appeared well down the agenda, to be dealt with at a later stage in their presidency.
The importance Obama seems to be placing on tackling the conflict was borne out by his swift appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the region. Mitchell, an Arab-American and former senator, is a familiar and well-respected face in the Middle East. With barely a week in the post, he has been despatched to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree a modus operandi to revive the stagnant peace process.
The word on the ground is that that the talks that began in Cairo on 25 January will need nothing short of a miracle to reconcile Hamas and Fatah. Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (nominally the government of all the Palestinian territories, but whose writ only runs in the Fatah-dominated West Bank) looks the weakest among the parties involved in the conflict. To revive his standing, Abbas has invited Hamas to join in an internal Palestinian dialogue, but Hamas is sceptical. It believes that the PA may try to make political capital out of the current situation in Gaza, whose destruction is on a scale which its inhabitants have never experienced even in their bloody history.
In Al Zaytoun, a neighbourhood east of Gaza City, 23 members of the Dayeh family were killed when the four-storey building they shared was bombed at dawn on 6 January. When Mohammed, Rida and Amer, the survivors, tried to locate their relatives among the debris, they made the grim discovery of four children in one apartment who had died alongside their mother, and the body of one of their brothers.
Abdul Rahman Jarrah, a Palestinian student from Jabaliya camp north east of Gaza City, put on his uniform and picked his way through the wreckage to Al Fakoura UN Relief and Works Agency school last Saturday. This was the first time that Abdul, along with half a million of Gaza’s schoolchildren, was able to attend school after an almost month-long closure forced by the hostilities. When Abdul took his usual place, he found three empty seats beside him. One was at the desk he used to share with his best friend Isam – who lost his life when an Israeli tank fired a shell at his house.
In this period of fragile truce between Israel and Hamas, what prospects lie ahead for the Palestinians? Both in the West Bank and in Gaza, they are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the talks. Also on the agenda is for Hamas and Israel to agree a prolonged ceasefire of at least a year to give the international community and the fledgling administration in Washington space to restart the stalled peace process.
Walk anywhere in Gaza and the impression one gets is that the Hamas government is still a force to be reckoned with. It shows no signs of losing its grip on this tiny 25-mile by 6-mile strip of land. The Hamas infrastructure that the Israeli army claims to have destroyed was, for the large part, government buildings belonging to the Palestinian Authority – the majority of which were rebuilt in 2002 with European taxpayers’ money as infrastructure for the future Palestinian state, for which even an airport was built in the optimistic days of the late 1990s.
At the time of the ceasefire, Hamas indicated it would use every means at its disposal to ensure a constant flow of weapons. The international community is equally determined they will not succeed. An armada of European ships has been sent to police the local coastlines, as the Red and Mediterranean seas are obvious smuggling routes from Iran, a long-term backer of Hamas. An American naval vessel has already intercepted one ship bearing a cargo of Iranian weapons. On land, an underground network of tunnels provide what Israel believes is Hamas’s primary weapons smuggling route.
But Hamas will never lack either the means or the ingenuity to acquire weapons. Even Israeli army storage facilities are a source. Members of the Israel Defence Forces have been charged with stealing weapons and selling them to middle men who then pass them to Palestinians. This “co-operation” became increasingly audacious during the intifada – Israeli criminals would use fork-lift trucks to lift stolen cars over the security fence that surrounds Gaza, and then claim insurance money for the “stolen” cars.
Commanders of Hamas’s military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades, insist that even if smuggling routes are blocked they are now capable of manufacturing weapons themselves, as large numbers of their personnel have been trained in arms technology abroad, particularly in Iran, since they took control of Gaza in June 2007. Presently, Hamas’s missiles have a range of 10-50km, but the group’s leaders believe it is only a matter of time before their rockets will be able to reach the Israeli capital, Tel Aviv.
Thus far Hamas has succeeded in glueing the movement together, although its opponents are pinning their hopes on the possibility of a rift between the Gaza leadership and that based in Damascus, led by Khaled Mishal. The large numbers of uniformed police who returned to Gaza’s streets following the Israeli withdrawal signalled that the movement has preserved its essential units, which are currently run from makeshift offices in tents and vehicles near the destroyed government buildings. (Despite the large numbers of Gazans killed, the military wing spokesperson Abu Obeida claims only 48 Hamas fighters were lost in action, partly due to their tactics of working in small units of just two or three fighters.) Critics argue that the confrontation with Israel failed to match the rhetoric of Hamas leaders who promised to turn Gaza’s backstreets into a graveyard for Israeli forces. But it is clear that Hamas has been strengthened as a movement, and it is also enjoying unequivocal support from the influential Muslim Brotherhood, whose wings are active throughout the Middle East and Muslim Africa.
The international community does not recognise it as the government in Gaza and so will not support it financially. With the tightening of Gaza’s border with Egypt (to prevent weapons smuggling), and the possibility of another Israeli attack if Hamas rockets continue to rain down on its southern towns and cities, the group could find itself starved of funds. Rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure and homes will cost around $2bn. Any delay in this reconstruction will generate anger among the demoralised Palestinians of Gaza, but the Hamas purse-strings may not stretch to cover so high a figure. Furthermore, although Palestinian wrath is largely aimed at Israel in the wake of the incursion into Gaza, there are some who have had enough of Hamas, whose actions since taking over the government have not brought peace or prosperity to its people.
Hamas cannot turn back to championing a military struggle and encouraging suicide bombings. Acceptance of a ceasefire would give the movement breathing space to assess what is going on in the wider region. Its large and influential neighbour to the south, Egypt, does not recognise the Hamas-led government. Apart from the fact that it has a treaty with Israel, Egypt has long had internal problems with the Muslim Brotherhood – from which Hamas sprang. But it has good relationships with Syria and Iran, neither of which recognise Israel, and it is now looking northwards.
Warm relations exist between Hamas and Turkey’s government, led by Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has managed to maintain his country’s membership of Nato and its aim to become part of the European Union, while still espousing Islamic values. An “Erdoganisation” of Hamas could soften its standing in the eyes of the international community. Erdogan’s party is, after all, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, but he enjoys a healthy relationship with Israel.
What will Hamas’s future hold? It may elect to remain as a resistance movement and, therefore, as a pariah in the eyes of western capitals. Or it may agree to be more flexible to aid a future political settlement. It will certainly be pressured to change its ways to become more in step with the international community. But the west, Israel and Barack Obama also need to change their thinking when it comes to dealing with Hamas. As long as the Islamic movement represents a large part of the Palestinian people at the ballot box, the west and Israel will have to accept it, for whatever it is. Hamas is not going to melt into the background, and nor will any future Israeli military action succeed in eradicating it. That is one thing of which we can be sure.
Zaki Chehab’s book “Inside Hamas: the Untold Story of Militants, Martyrs and Spies” is published by I B?Taurus (£17.99)