A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Hamas Offers to End Rule if Aid Resumes

New York Times

November 10, 2006

GAZA, Nov. 10 - Hamas committed today to folding its eight-month government if that would restore the international assistance that was cut off after it won national elections earlier this year.

In a shrewd and dramatic speech, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyah, said he would likely resign in the next "two or three weeks" to make way for a national unity government more acceptable to international donors than Hamas, the organization responsible for the deadliest attacks against Israel.

"When they put the siege on one hand, and having me the prime minister on the other, I said 'no: Let us end the siege and let us end the suffering of the Palestinian people,' " Mr. Haniyah, 43, a former teacher and union official, told worshippers at Friday prayers here.

It was a public acknowledgment that Hamas had failed to run the Palestinian Authority on its own terms in the face of an American and Israeli-led cutoff of funds and aid, and that Mr. Haniya and his government would soon be replaced by a "unity" government of technocrats, currently being negotiated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas refused to meet the three conditions set out by the international community: to recognize the right of Israel to exist, to forswear violence and to accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements that imply a two-state solution. In turn, Israel withheld more than $50 million a month in taxes and customs collected for the Palestinians and the United States and Europe cut off direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.

The efforts of Hamas to bring in sufficient money from Arab supporters, especially given the reluctance of banks to challenge the Americans, have not been sufficient to pay salaries to thousands of employees dependent on the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Haniyah's public confirmation was not a complete surprise to his listeners, but it marked a symbolic public moment here: an acknowledgment of the difficulties Hamas faced, internally and with the outside world, as it tried to move from fighting to governing.

Much as the speech roused cheers at the mosque, and praise here for its apparent sacrifice, it was unclear whether Mr. Haniyah's stated intentions could restart the flow of aid as Palestinians.

On one hand, Mr. Haniyah suggested that any new government of national unity would be able to satisfy the demands of Israel and other donors, which include recognizing Israel's right exist.

At the same time, Mr. Haniyah said that Hamas would remain a key player that would never waver from principle. This raises the question of whether a new government would be any more palatable to donors than the current one.

"We will not compromise," he told worshippers. "We are going ahead with a government that will not give political compromises."

Hamas has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist, for example, but it is unclear that any new government, many of whose key officials will be appointed by Hamas, will do so either, at least in any explicit way.

At a minimum, the speech seemed to burnish Hamas's populist credentials at a time when its support has been shrinking amid the economic hardship and still-high bloodshed, underscored by the deaths of 19 people here on Wednesday from an apparently errant Israeli artillery barrage. (Eighteen were killed in the initial incident; Another, Basim Kafarna, 39, died of his injuries on Friday.)

"This is something new," Mohammad Abu Sweileh, 30, a cake baker, said joyously in the crowd at the mosque where Mr. Haniyah spoke. "In the Arab world, leaders don't give up their positions."

For months, Hamas has been in negotiations with Fatah, the party led by Mr. Abbas, to form a national unity government of professionals and technocrats not immediately beholden to any party. In recent days, those talks seem to have picked up steam, and Mr. Haniyah's announcement seemed a firm sign of hope that they may succeed.

Mr. Haniyah said he expected more talks next week and that "within two or three weeks, we will announce joyful news."

In theory, such a government would be able to win back international aid that paid about half of the $165 million the Palestinian Authority needs every month to pay salaries and operating expenses, with the money the Israelis collect on behalf of the Palestinians making up a part of the remainder. Even so, the Palestinian government was running a deficit.

But theory aside, the three conditions cause distinct problems for Hamas, and experts disagree over whether the group can, in the end, stay true to its declared objective of creating a state including all of historical Palestine (including Israel) and also satisfy donors. Hamas offers a long-term truce with an Israel in its pre-1967 borders, but has not repudiated its longer-term objectives.

Israeli officials have said they would not hand over the money they collect to a Palestinian government, led by anyone, that merely fudges the conditions.

"Any Palestinian government has to meet these three conditions" it doesn't matter who is in it, what their names are," Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post published today.

Even with a new government, it seems clear that Hamas intends to remain the driving political force: It holds a majority in the parliament, and its reported candidates to replace Mr. Haniyah all have deep connections to Hamas. Reportedly the choice of Mr. Haniyah's successor is a major block holding up a final deal on a new government.

Mustafah Sawwaf, a Palestinian journalist and analyst deeply familiar with Hamas, said that the intention to remain the principal player means that Hamas can never accept the three conditions for restarting aid.

"As long as Hamas is in control, it will not," he said.

But another political expert, Khaled Abdel Shafi, said that, given the economic problems and worries about more bloodshed, Hamas would likely have no choice but to find a way to accede to the conditions.

"The people are tired of the current situation," he said. "They are very worried."

He said he believed most Hamas supporters could accept the conditions for resumed aid, if not directly from the mouths of Hamas leaders and if, in fact, the money resumed.

"It's only the hard-core of Hamas, which is not that significant in terms of numbers, which is worried about the recognition of Israel," he said.

Taghreed El-Khodary contributed reporting from Gaza.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document may contain copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. NGOWatch is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of NGO accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.