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Islamization or Secularization of the Palestinian Cause


 Muhammad Dahlan: “There is no difference between Al-Qaeda and Hamas”[1]

This article is an updated version of a paper first published in Circunstancia, Year VII, Nº 18, January 2009, a journal of the Spanish Foundation Jose Ortega y Gasset, in colaboration with the Royal Elcano Institute.


Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Fighel – ICT Senior Researcher

The Nature of the Threat

Israel is fighting not only Hamas, which is a radical Islamist religious/political movement whose ideological and strategic goal is to destroy Israel as a Jewish state in order to build on it a Sharia Islamic Taliban-style one, which is facing a coalition of radical actors – Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah – which is responsible for the destabilization of the entire Middle East for the last two decades.[2]. Hamas poses strategic short and long-term threats of destabilization on Israel as well as on the Palestinian structured entity in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli military campaign (“Cast Lead”), that started in 27th December 2008,as a reaction to Hamas’ strategic decision to end violently the temporary six month ceasefire, is to crack and weaken Hamas is aimed to restore Israel’s deterrence on Hamas, dismantle its terrorist motivations and operational capabilities in Gaza Strip and create a new strategic reality in the southern border of Israel.

Another dimension of the long term strategic long term outcome of the current Israeli military actions is to suppress Hamas entrenched and victorious in the Gaza Strip which represents a radical Islamic threat to the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and future affects on the stability and possibly the survival of the moderate Arab regimes in Jordan and Egypt, threatened by radical Islam take over. Israel’s current military all out campaign in Gaza Strip is directed against a Hamas terror radical regime that has controlled the Gaza Strip since its 2007 coup, creating the conditions of the emergence of other militant global Jihad oriented Islamist organizations in Gaza in the past two years. If Israel clearly defeats Hamas,Mahmoud Abas(Abu Mazen) will win. He will claim that he attempted to avoid the confrontation, but Hamas’s stubbornness, insensitivity to Palestinian interests, and work on behalf of regional powers provoked Israel’s actions. Abas will be able to present himself to the people of Gaza as the savior who will rebuild what Hamas has destroyed with its adventurous and destructive policies.

The Israeli Battle in Gaza – Palestinian Political survival

The success of Israel’s military campaign to reach its security objectives and crack Hamas, as declared by the Israeli government, will have a direct impact on the Islamization and radicalization of the Palestinian issue as represented by Hamas, which poses a threat for any potential progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas’ radical Islamic foundations and ideological commandments are “non-starter” positions. The new reality created by Hamas in Gaza poses a great deal of concern within the Palestinian secular national movement, in Israel and the west as well.

The Palestinian national aspiration towards a rational pragmatic two states solution, are threatened by the Islamic Hamas whose maximal, irrational radical Islamic aspirations pose internal Palestinian danger to the very existence of the PLO, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The simple strategic equation should be clear, metaphorically presented within a connected vessels system, suppressing military and political measures in weakening Hamas will directly effect the strengthening of the future of Palestinian Authority.
A successful outcome of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza to weaken and break Hamas as representing of the radical Islamic global and local threat, creating a new fundamental security strategic change, will have a direct effect and a major impact on role of the Palestinian Authority within the internal Palestinian arena to fulfill its national political aspirations and goals. The outcome of the conflict in Gaza will shape the future of the Palestinian politics. A clear defeat of Hamas would strengthen the PA’s internal position for the first time since losing Gaza in 2007. However, an unclear outcome that restores the status quo or ends in a relative stalemate would allow Hamas to claim victory.

Hamas and the Palestinian Authority Polemics

The London Arabic daily newspaper “Al-Hayat” published an extensive interview with Muhammad Dahlan, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and member of the Revolutionary Council of the Fatah Movement, formerly head of the Palestinian Preventative Security Force in the Gaza Strip and Arafat’s protégée. The interview included 4 segments published between August 30th and September 2nd 2008 on the newspaper’s website[3]. In the first segment Dahlan claims, “…there is no difference between the Hamas, interested in establishing an Islamic Emirate in Gaza, and Al-Qaeda” [4]. According to Dahlan, there is no certain indication that the decision to take over Gaza has been arrived at by the Hamas alone or with the aid of outside factors, but the result, according to him, is clear – Hamas intends to establish an Islamic Emirate in the Gaza Strip.

Dahlan continues to state that, Hamas operates for the implementation of this plan, which isn’t a general plan or a principled aspiration. “This isn’t just a plan, it is already being implemented. They [the Hamas] are firing judges and teachers and appointing in their stead others, on their behalf. They are taking over non-governmental establishments even if they are not connected to the Fatah. [The Hamas] said they have problems with Dahlan and his people, and later on attacked members of the Executive Force and members of the Central Committee and have arrested Dr. Zachariah Al-Agha later on they attacked all Fatah members who actually identified with the Hamas, banished them from their houses and destroyed them on their heads since the Hamas sees only itself. They attacked [members] of the Islamic Jihad and confiscated their weapons, closed down the Popular Front’s broadcasting station…”[5]

Dahlan has noted the Al-Qaeda influence in Gaza strip and claimed that the conditions and the environment are suitable for enhancing Al-Qaeda’s influence. According to him, the Gaza strip is fraught with chaos and weapons. In Gaza there is a state of loss of vision and strategy with the Hamas and also amongst all the forces of power active in the Gaza strip, which a suitable is an environment for Al-Qaeda. Dahlan concludes, “as far as I am concerned, there is no difference between the Hamas and Al-Qaeda. They are all the same”.[6]

In his eyes, Hamas is not a force that will prevent the entry of Al-Qaeda factors into the Gaza strip, as claimed by Hamas leader in Damascus Haled Masha’al. Dahlan states that Hamas itself, as a radical Islamic Palestinian organization, is not a source of national Palestinian pride when under its actual rule in the Gaza strip it has murdered 600 people a year, injured about 2,500 people, crippled 800 to 900 people and has made thousands of arrests. Dahlan states” this Islamic model has no connection with Islam in its tolerant means”[7] as everyone knows.

Based on Dahlan statements and analysis of Hamas activities since its inception in 1987,it is evident that the strategic objective of Hamas within the Palestinian arena is to take over and replace the PLO in the leadership of the National Palestinian Movement. For that end, the Hamas aspires to take over the PLO and its institutions including the Palestinian Authority’s governmental, security and civil apparatus established in 1994 as a result of the implementation of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO, that was recognized by Israel for the first time, under the patronage of the international community as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. Following the success of Hamas’s military takeover in the summer of 2007, over the Palestinian Authority’s security organization in Gaza, Hamas’s complete takeover of the Gaza strip was completed in the summer of 2008 with two additional power moves in the field of the civil system, taking over control on the educational and health systems, thus Hamas has completed its takeover of the Authority’s systems and has established a new reality on the ground, to the surprise of the world.

The Palestinian representation- the underground stream rupture

Many Islamic groups support democracy as a practical tool to arrive into power and strive to it for the realization of their ideology, but do not agree with democracy as a political “idea” at its root. They view the democratic concept as a golden opportunity for realizing the “white revolution”, which will bring them into a position of political power, without the need for violence. Algiers is a typical example of an Arabic democracy that has brought radicalism to the forefront of the political stage, under the patronage of embracing the idea of freedom and liberty. The elections for the Algerian parliament, held for the first time in 1991, brought the extremist party “The Islamic Rescue Front” to win the election with a vast majority, which ultimately led to a military coup whose objective was to weaken the extremist forces. Hamas, as various other Islamic terrorist organizations in the Middle East, embraced the golden opportunity given to them to exploit democracy, allowing elections and embrace it as a tool for realization of the radical ideology and bring it to government in a democratic fashion.

Dahlan’s statements reflect a deeper strategic insight to a historic and gigantic development within the Palestinian arena regarding the right of representation of the Palestinian cause.

The streak of success in the election process for the local councils held in 2005 and the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006, has provided Hamas with the justification to the claim that from the results of the elections it has been proven that the Palestinian people have spoken in favor of its support of the Hamas and placing it as a newly genuine legitimate force, at the forefront of the Palestinian leadership instead of the historic traditional PLO. Hamas which in fact is a radical Islamic organization, far removed from values of democracy, has adopted the democratic argument and claims that from now on, it is the representative of the Palestinian people, while posing a new threatening challenge to the arrangement existing since 1964, where the PLO has taken the right of representation and leadership of the Palestinian cause.

The Palestinian National Covenant, PLO’s founding document, defines the organizations’ objectives. In its original version the covenant was ratified by the PLO in its first sessions in 1964, the covenant was redrafted more clearly by the Palestinian National Council (PNC) in its session in Cairo in July 1968. In the summit meeting if the Arab League that was held in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, in October 1974 the Arab countries decided that as of that date that the PLO will be considered the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The council’s decisions limited Jordan’s ability to maneuver and revoked its ability to reclaim the West Bank, a fact that ultimately led to the process of King Hussein’s detachment from the West Bank in July 1988.[8]

On September 9th 1993 the Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO leader Yasser Arafat exchanged letters where the PLO chairman recognized the State of Israel and has defined the Palestinian Covenant articles denying its existence as “invalid and un-implemental”. In his letter of response Yitzhak Rabin recognized in the name of the State of Israel the PLO as the organization representing the Palestinians. In an additional letter sent by Arafat to the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Arafat calls to the Palestinian people to cease all violence. The declaration of principles of the Oslo Accord signed in initials secretly in Oslo on August 20th 1993 was finalized with a public ceremony in Washington on September 13th 1993. Following this agreement and subsequent agreements, the Palestinian Authority was established.

Some of the organizations comprising the PLO were strongly against the Oslo Accords and the Palestinian Authority’s policy, including the Hamas who isn’t a member of the PLO and who constantly tried to sabotage the PLO’s achievements as a representative of the Palestinian nationality. The Oslo Accords caused in fact a rift in the PLO between the Fatah and smaller organizations supporting it and the opposition organizations (the rejection front). This situation brought on the paralysis of the Palestinian National Council who convened only once since the Oslo Accords in 1996 and a significant reduction in the activities of the PLO Executive Force.

During the years between the Oslo Accords and the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifadah in September 2000, the PLO as an organ was very much marginalized by the newly born Palestinian Authority, which took its place. The similarity that was created between the two entities due to the fact that the head of the PLO was also leading the Authority and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority was comprised from the Fatah leadership facilitated the transition and the PLO’s and Fatah’s transition from a national organization using terrorism to the Palestinian Authority who has governmental right in parts of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza strip.

With the death of Yasser Arafat on November 11th 2004, Mahmmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was elected chairman of the Executive Force of the PLO. Following this exchange there was additional recuperation in the PLO’s organizational institutions. On the other hand, there was a decrease in the PLO’s power in face of the Islamic organizations (mainly Hamas) in the fight for control over the Palestinian streets.

The elections that took place in 2006 when the Hamas overpowered the Fatah and achieved majority in the Legislative Council, when the presidency was still under the control of the PLO, emphasized and deepened the rift between the PLO as a secular national Palestinian movement and the Hamas who challenged the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy in continuing to represent the Palestinian interest.

Hamas victory in the elections for the Legislative Council signaled the beginning of an all out campaign to de-legitimize the Palestinian Authority and its head the deployment of a propaganda campaign for the heart of the Palestinian public to support Hamas who has won in democratic elections to lead the representation at least in the Legislative council. Taking over government in Gaza during an armed and violent takeover and Palestinian Authority’s government institutions, were another step in the takeover and defiance process of the Hamas in face of the Palestinian government bodies and stating a final fact pointing to the weakness and the lack of legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority led by the PLO as leader and representative of the Palestinian public in the Gaza strip.

Hamas attempt to establish an alternative body to the PLO (a new PLO)

After Hamas’s victory in the elections for the Legislative Council and the failure of the parties to form a political coalition to set up new government, in a rally held at the Gaza strip on January 17th 2007 commemorating Fatah Day, Muhammad Dahlan – one of the Fatah leaders, said harsh words against Hamas and promised that Fatah shall respond with force to any attacks its people. In reaction to the crowds’ shouts against Hamas “Shiite, Shiite” Dahlan cut them off and stated: “Fatah does not say what they [people of Hamas] have said. They are not Shiite but murderers. We shall not respond to bloodshed but with unity of Fatah and its roots in the Palestinian soil”.[9]

In response to Dahlan, Hamas spokesman at the Legislative Council accused Dahlan that he is leading a Zionist plan to a military revolution against the Palestinian people and their government. “Dahlan’s words are an attempt to ride the wave, on the back of the Fatah movement and exploit the atmosphere of chaos spreading civil war between the Fatah movement and the Hamas, to create hostility amongst the Palestinian people against one another, divert attention from our real conflict with the Zionist enemy and mask the corruption that one day will be exposed to the entire people”.[10]

On November 2007 the Hamas government in Gaza announced the “firing” of PLO’s representative to the U.N. Riyadh Mansur after presenting a proposition to the U.N. General Assembly calling for outlawing the Hamas and other resistance organizations. This decision had no practical ramification but it constitutes another attempt by the Hamas to illustrate the PLO’s lack of relevance. This step was meant to demonstrate a process of de-legitimization of the PLO in its current form – the Hamas undermines the PLO’s authority in its current form to represent the entire Palestinian people.[11]

Dahlan who is aware and worried about Fatah’s and the PLO’s weakness in face of Hamas’s rising power revealed in another interview given on September 28th 2008 to the Saudi daily paper “Okaz” the fact that Israel has agreed to Abu Mazen’s request to allow the arrival of Fatah leaders living outside the occupied territories to the Convention of the Fatah General Council to be held in Ramallah. According to Nazareth-based newspaper reports, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has received permission from Israel to allow Fatah officials living abroad to enter the Palestinian territories for the organization’s sixth conference scheduled to be held in Ramallah. The agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is similar to the one reached with Yasser Arafat during the National Council meeting in Gaza in 1996, when Israel allowed the entrance of many wanted Palestinian officials.[12] This maneuver is meant to allow Fatah and Abu Mazen and his supporters to win over support and strengthen his position in the divided Fatah movement and strengthening it in face of the ongoing erosion of the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy also in the West Bank.[13]

In the interview Dahlan further revealed that Hamas leadership located in Syria together with other Palestinian factions (the rejection Front) politically identified with Hamas in Damascus, acted together towards establishing a new PLO council parallel to the PLO’s historical Palestinian National Council headed by the Fatah, established in the 1960’s. According to Dahlan, the Hamas initiative to establish the alternative entity was stopped by Syria. Dahlan noted that Fatah does not have a monopoly over the PLO and that they are willing to allow Hamas to join the PLO as previously suggested by Arafat to Hamas in talks held in Sudan (January 1990), a suggestion which at that time was rejected by Hamas.[14]

One of the examples publicized recently reflecting Hamas’s stance regarding the non-legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, is reflected in an article published by Ibrahim Ghausha, representative of Hamas in Jordan in the “Al-Majd” newspaper on September 29th 2008. The writer states that the Palestinian Authority led by the PLO lacks legitimacy in light of the results of the elections and also due to the fact the Authority and Abu Mazen are a tool for promoting the interests of Israel, the United States and the members of the European Quartet. Ghausha goes on to declare that in regards to the Palestinian Liberation organization (PLO) and the Palestinian National Council, the Hamas movement will be willing to acknowledge these institutions only after its re-establishment based on the democratic principle, holding free and clean elections in the “inner” territories (i.e. West Bank and Gaza) and “outer”(i.e. the Palestinian Diaspora around the world) that will bring to the establishment of a free Palestinian National Council, an Executive Force and other institutions of the PLO comprised of new people instead of those today acting in the service of Mahmmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) who abuses the PLO and its institutions for political and other maneuvers.[15]

Ghausha’s position express Hamas’s premise that if general elections for the PLO will indeed be held, Hamas and the Palestinian rejection front organizations will win the majority of votes in a democratic expression of the Palestinian’s desire. This new post election reality will cause a historical revolution in the PLO that will change from a secular-national representative entity into an entity representing the radical national Palestinian Islamic interests as might be reflected in the results of the elections, and the victory of Hamas in the Legislative Council.

Hamas’s attempt to establish a “new” PLO as a framework of a new authentic alternative and a new legitimate leadership instead of the “old” PLO is at the basis of Muhammad Dahlan’s fears. Dahlan is aware of a concrete threat facing the Palestinian Authority in the fight for the right to represent the Palestinian cause, and Hamas’s challenge against the “old order” after its victory on the elections to the Legislative Council, especially after its complete takeover of Gaza in the summer of 2007, when the Palestinian Authority in Gaza has collapsed.

The events mentioned above sharply emphasize the difference in ideological perception between the Fatah and Hamas as expressed violently in the rally held at the Gaza strip on January 17th 2007 commemorating Fatah Day, when in an unprecedented manner Hamas was nicknamed “Shiite” by Fatah supporters. It is obvious the Hamas is not a Shiite movement and the call of the masses was not due to a mistake. The call of Shiite was intended as an insult to the Hamas, an insult as an expression of lack of religious and political legitimacy. The comparison to the Shiite (who is perceived by the popular Sunni belief as inferior, contemptible and despicable) was meant to reflect the hostility and the fear of Fatah supporters from Hamas, which threatens the continuation of the PLO’s historical legitimacy and leadership and the secular Fatah.

The radical Islamic Hamas, who has won the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council views its victory as the justification and the legitimate and legal basis for its striving for the implementation of Islam’s religious and political principles and the “Sharia” and the duty to establish an Islamic religious state in Palestine as obliged by the principles of its religious-political belief as expressed in the Hamas Covenant. This is the real essence of Hamas’s battle in its fight for getting complete Palestinian legitimacy to which it is entitled as reflected by the results of the elections, a fact that gives in its eyes and according to its understanding the right and position to be the sole, legal, and legitimate representative of Palestinian cause.

This issue was and still is, the core conflict and the strategic threat posed by Hamas and global Jihad entities towards the Palestinian Authority, the PLO and the national-secular Fatah movement as accepted by the international community as representing Palestinian interests in all future political arrangements with Israel.

The PLO secular nationalism confronting the Islamic Hamas challenge

The Palestinian Covenant is one of the constitutional Palestinian documents that constitute the ideological platform for the Palestinians, as a legal constitutive document of the PLO, presenting the organization’s doctrine regarding the national struggle. The Covenant includes the national goals of the Palestinian people and states that “the PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian right for self determination” and it will be realized with the establishment of a state on all Palestinian land.

Articles 25 and 26 of the Covenant stated that for the end of realizing the goals of the treaty and its principles, the “Palestinian Liberation Organization” will hold its complete role in the liberation of Palestine in the sense that the PLO is the operational branch of realizing and achieving the goals of the Covenant. It was also stated that the PLO, embodying the forces of the Palestinian revolution, is responsible for the movement of the Palestinian – Arab people in its struggle for reclaiming its homeland and its liberation, is responsible for its return and responsible for keeping the right for self determination. This responsibility is in all aspects: the military, political and financial, and as will be demanded by the problem of Palestine, the responsibility will be in two levels: the Arabic and the international.

The decisions of the Palestinian National Council taken in February 1983 stating “the PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinian people and all its revolutionary institutions and organizations that express the will for freedom and independence”[16]. PLO’s success in getting this type of decision despite the loss of the territorial stronghold in Lebanon after the first Lebanon war in 1982 and his banishment to Tunisia.

The first Intifadah that erupted in December 1987 moved the Palestinian center of gravity back to the occupied territories from “external leadership” (Tunisia) to “internal leadership” (the West Bank and Gaza strip) with Muhammad Dahlan amongst its prominent leaders from the younger generation. Its results as expressed in the Oslo Accords in 1993 and their implementations, brought the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, created a reality of return of Palestinian secular nationalism to the territories and the realization of a national Palestinian reality with a renewed territorial stronghold in the territories lost since 1948. The establishment of the Palestinian Authority was the actual political realization recognized by Israel and the world as a practical expression of the recognition that the PLO is the legal legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, who has the right of exclusive representation and the independence of decision of the Palestinian people.

Already back in 1993, Hamas viewed PLO’s achievement of territorial political establishment in the occupied territories as a strategic threat, challenged and acted to foil the implementation of the agreements in every possible way including the use of terrorist attacks in various stages of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority during the years between 1994 until the eruption of the “Al-Aqsa Intifadah” on September 2000. Hamas viewed the Oslo Accords as a negative and illegitimate development where secular PLO has betrayed the Palestinian cause by recognizing Israel and its willingness to reach a historical compromise including the possibility of reaching an agreement about the end of the conflict.

Hamas’s on going attempts to weaken the Palestinian Authority and establish an alternative PLO and leadership (Qiyada Badila-Arabic) constitute a threat on the traditional PLO and the Fatah leadership. This fact poses a challenge in face of what is left of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank headed by Fatah and Abu Mazen. From this it can be understood the seriousness in which Muhammad Dahlan takes the Hamas and the radical Islamic movements getting stronger in the Gaza strip under the patronage of government and Hamas (as in the western bank), as a radical Islamic center of gravity with tendencies to global Jihad as an ideological, political and religious alternative to the national-secular ideology rule of the Palestinian Authority headed by Abu Mazen and the Fatah leadership, who is fragmented in conflict and internally divided between various centers of power within its leadership, one of its leaders is also Muhammad Dahlan himself.

The real battle between the Fatah and the Hamas takes place to a great extent behind the scenes and in a fashion that does not receive headlines. The fight is not only for the legal legitimacy and right to represent the Palestinian cause and its people, but also for the ideologic