"As far as we are concerned, it seems that the Oslo accord is dead. The strange thing is that those who signed the Oslo accord continue to sit around its corpse not knowing whether to bury it or not. This is a real crisis that is scorching the Palestinian Authority and which is felt by all the Arab leaders and by the leaders of the world. The solution to this crisis is a burying of the Oslo accord, but this necessitates the unity of the Palestinian people and the support of the Arab world. It is true that the alternative is difficult, but it is better than sitting around a dead corpse."
--Hamas official Mahmud al-Zahhar, (al-Ittihad al-Usbu'i, Abu Dhabi, Oct 31)
The release from an Israeli prison of the spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, has breathed new life into an organisation which neither Israel nor Yasser Arafat can afford to ignore, according to political analysts.
Yassin, who was jailed for life in 1989 for his role in crimes which included the murder of three Arab "collaborators", was freed in exchange for two Mossad agents captured after bungling an attempt to assassinate another Hamas representative in Amman.
Arafat, annoyed that the popular Hamas leader was released as a result of intervention by Jordan's King Hussein, rather than through PLO efforts over the years, found himself having to embrace Yassin rather than risk losing more ground to the Islamists.
Relations between Hamas and the PLO/Palestinian Authority have see-sawed. Shortly after Yassin was imprisoned, he was attacked by Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO, which accused him of selling out Palestinian activists. "Should we begin with the brother in prison " Fatah asked sarcastically in Falistin A-Thawra in July 1990, " the warrior arrested after he went to buy a few weapons from a well-known dealer? The man who, when interrogated, revealed the names of all of the Hamas activists he knew --173 to be precise--as well as the exact role played by each " (July 1990). [A smaller Islamist group, Islamic Jihad, also slammed Yassin in 1988 for becoming what it called "a shining television star overnight".]
For its part, Hamas regarded the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 as a sell-out of the "struggle" by the PLO. The campaign of suicide bombings against Israelis since 1993 has been Hamas' most public answer to Oslo.
As the PA watched Hamas support grow--as much a result of its widespread network of charities as of the bombings--it attempted to bring the Islamists into the broader Palestinian fold. Much-touted "unity talks" saw Arafat embracing Hamas leaders, much to the consternation of Israel and the US.
Under pressure to act against terrorists, Arafat then tried another tactic to keep Hamas (and Israeli protests) under control: mass arrests of activists. In each case, however, most of the detainees were freed as soon as the focus moved elsewhere, and those arrested were seldom questioned, let alone charged and tried. Israel has dubbed this phenomena Arafat's "revolving door policy".
Yassin's release on October 1 came just days after another string of arrests and closures of Hamas institutions, and he immediately appealed to the PA to ease up on his organisation. Arafat has started to comply; he is too aware of the risks if he doesn't. For Yassin has become a far more powerful symbol now than he was at the time of his imprisonment.
In an enlightening comment, key Hamas official Mahmud al-Zahhar told the Abu Dhabi newspaper al-Ittihad al-Usbu'i that Yassin had "become a symbol, not only for the Movement [Hamas] but for the entire Palestinian people. Consequently, his release from prison will be a factor in the unification of all sectors of the Palestinian people. In fact, the presence of the sheikh among his people will bolster the resistance movement against Israeli occupation of our land. Furthermore, the release of Sheikh Yassin from prison in this way has given the case an international dimension, and has given the Islamic Resistance Movement a part of the Arab legitimacy. We have heard and sensed the welcome of all the Arab governments and regimes, as well as foreign governments, which have all welcomed his release. This reflects a change in the way the world now views us" (Oct 31).
Asked about future relations between Hamas and the PLO, al-Zahhar replied: "The Hamas movement, the Islamic factions, the Fatah movement, and the other organisations can all sit down together and initiate a dialogue without making any commitments toward the Oslo accord."
A similarly conciliatory tone came from PLO leader Hani Al-Hasan, who told the Al-Quds newspaper: "The return of Sheikh Yassin strengthens national unity; it does not weaken it An alliance between Hamas and Fatah is inevitable Hamas is a constructive opposition movement It fulfills an important and positive role in the Palestinian arena: it spreads Islamic values and serves as a very important psychological barrier defending the Palestinian youth and the Arab nation from invasions of culture and values, which we reject" (Oct 24).
It appears the return of Yassin and the consequential revitalisation of Hamas are going to make a deal with the PA that is acceptable to the Israeli government a lot harder to reach.
Speaking at a "welcome home" rally in Gaza City on October 22, Yassin said: "We have made a covenant with Allah to be holy fighters unto death. Our people must choose the path of holy war because if we do not fight, our people will die. This world only understands the language of force."
And Ahmed Mashaal, the Jordan-based Hamas official the Mossad tried to assassinate for his role in suicide bombings in Jerusalem, warned: "Our path is clear: armed struggle until the occupiers have been banished. Nobody in the world can change Hamas' strategy" (Star, Amman, Oct 22).
There appears little room for compromise. Scholars of Islam have noted that, unlike the PLO's Charter, which can theoretically be amended by a two-thirds majority of the Palestine National Council (such an amendment is, of course, required by the Oslo Accords yet is several years overdue), the Hamas Covenant cannot be changed.
Why? Because each clause of the Hamas document is backed by portions of the Qu'ran, and are thus regarded as infallible. The Covenant begins: "The movement's programme is Islam. From it, it draws its ideas, ways of thinking, and understanding of the universe, life and man. It resorts to it for judgement in all its conduct " Clearly, simple political expediency won't play a role in Hamas' decisions.
Since 1974, the PLO has followed a programme of piece-by-piece "liberation" of an independent state. Some of its leaders have conceded in recent years that this may never be more than parts of Judea-Samaria and Gaza. Hamas, on the other hand, has not even pretended to be willing to make a deal. All of today's Israel was once ruled by Muslims, and all is thus to be reconquered for Islam.
Article 11 of the Hamas Covenant reads in part: "The Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered; it, or any part of it, should not be given up. Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, not all the kings and presidents, neither any organisation nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that."