GAZA STRIP – The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement signed on May 4 in Cairo has yet to bear fruit on the ground. But observers say the deal does highlight gradual transformations taking place within the Hamas movement.
The leaders of the two rival groups, at odds ever since Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip in June 2007, are still in the Egyptian capital negotiating the terms of the agreement. Among other things, the accord calls on the two sides to form a unity government before the next general elections, which are expected to take place a year from now.
In the office of Sami Abu Zuhri, spokesperson for the Islamist group, the effects of the Cairo reconciliation deal can already be felt. A party hardliner, his speech is now devoid of the usual stubborn dogmatism.
"In practice, there are really no differences between Hamas and Fatah," he says. "Both are calling for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital and the right of return. Fatah says it is ready to recognize Israel, whereas Hamas is speaking of a long-term ceasefire. In the end, however, the result would be the same, namely an end to resistance."
This position, which is tantamount to recognizing the Jewish state and to desisting from violence, falls short of the Middle East Quartet's (the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) three conditions for Hamas to be accepted in negotiations: formal recognition of Israel, an immediate end to violence, and acceptance of the existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Asked about Hamas's charter – an anti-Semitic document that calls for reestablishment of pre-1948 Palestine, including territory that became Israel – Sami Abu Zuhri tries to minimize the importance of the text Hamas adopted during its founding in 1988. But at the same time he refuses to disavow the charter. "We ask the international community to judge our position based on the statements of our leaders," Mr. Zuhri says.
This mixture of political flexibility and ideological rigidity is also very familiar to Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas. The man whom Mossad, Israel's national intelligence service, tried to poison in Amman in 1997, has lately revived the old idea of a ceasefire in exchange for a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. The idea was first aired in the early 1990s by Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual guide of Hamas who was killed in 2004 by Israeli assassins.
Almost extinguished during the second Intifada (uprising), the idea resurfaced again when Hamas decided to run in the 2006 legislative elections. This historical event gave them control of the Palestinian government in March of that same year, and then of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. The constraints of public action – an inevitable moderating factor – have influenced Hamas significantly, as their reluctance to fire rockets to Israel demonstrates.
With the signing of the Cairo reconciliation deal last week, Hamas took an additional step towards further transformation. On that occasion, Meshal solemnly declared he would strive, together with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to achieve the common goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, "with Jerusalem as the capital, no settlers, and we will not give up the right to return." Whether intentionally or otherwise, he failed to mention a ceasefire, an omission Israel interprets as proof their enemy will always end up resorting to violence.
Hamas's increasing support for the two-state solution coincides with the diplomatic offensive recently launched by M. Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who are hoping to gain recognition by the U.N. of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.
"On the international stage, it is much better for us to speak with one voice," says Mohammed Awad, foreign minister of Ismail Haniyeh's Hamas government. "There is much to be gained from being recognized as a state."
Eager to adopt a more conciliating tone, the Islamist movement distanced itself last Saturday from Mr. Haniyeh, who had paid tribute to Osama bin Laden, by maintaining that his comments did not reflect their point of view. Mr. Haniyeh's statement, which was interpreted in Gaza as an attempt to defuse tensions between Hamas and Jihadist factions, was strongly criticized in Western countries.
For the time being, it is impossible to know whether these politico-semantic efforts will be enough to persuade the rest of the world. Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, is putting on the breaks: "If the international community does not pay enough attention to Hamas, if Israel fails to grasp what is happening in the region, if they both mock the intelligence of Palestinians once again, it will be a disaster for everyone."
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