How Hamas Became the Key to the Roadmap

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Thousands of Hamas supporters chant slogans during a rally in Gaza in February

Although he greeted it with skepticism, President Bush's Mideast peace "roadmap" got its most important boost yet on Wednesday — in the form of a reported agreement by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade to halt attacks on Israelis for three months. In response, the President declared, "I'll believe it when I see it," and echoed the Israeli demand that progress depends on the dismantling of the groups that had reportedly embraced a cease-fire. But Palestinian Authority prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, on whom the Bush administration is relying to deliver Palestinian compliance with the "roadmap," has made clear that he can only do so with the consent of the radical groups. Abbas has held off on accepting security responsibility for Gaza and parts of the West Bank pending a truce agreement from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa brigades of his own Fatah faction, and has said repeatedly that he has no intention of using force against those groups, for fear of sparking a Palestinian civil war that he would likely lose.

The fact that all parties in the region have been waiting for Hamas to deliver its verdict on the cease-fire proposed by Abbas underscores the growing role of the Islamist movement in Palestinian political life. While Secretary of State Colin Powell dismisses Hamas as "a handful of individuals" who must not be allowed to "blow up the roadmap," the reality is plainly more complex. Hamas is believed by Israeli security services to have fewer than 1,000 men under arms in Gaza, compared with some 50,000 on the payroll of the PA security forces. But those numbers don't explain, for example, why Abbas repeatedly and strenuously emphasizes that he has no intention of going to war on Hamas — which is exactly what the Israelis and the Bush Administration are expecting him to do. Abbas, instead, is looking to draw those groups into a unity government and avoid confrontation. His reason is that those organizations have stronger support on the ground, right now, than the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas's standing among ordinary Palestinians rests on a combination of factors. Its foundations are in the mosques and among the clergy, and its extensive social welfare networks have provided such basic services as health and daycare where the PA has often failed. By staying out of the PA it has avoided the taint of corruption associated with the authority in the minds of ordinary Palestinians, and the terror strikes conducted by its armed wing in Israeli cities have answered the desire for vengeance among many ordinary Palestinians, particularly in the embittered and impoverished refugee camps of Gaza. The failure of the Oslo peace process and the collapse of the PA's infrastructure as Israel bombed and reoccupied much of the West Bank and Gaza in response to Palestinian terror attacks has further enhanced Hamas's popular authority. As one Israeli writer noted this week, when PA policemen in Gaza have gone, in the past, to arrest Hamas operatives, they have donned masks to avoid shame and retribution. Attacking Hamas could provoke a popular revolt against the PA in Gaza, and it remains to be seen whether the PA security forces would be willing to act against cousins and brothers who are viewed as heroes in their community.

Not that there's no pressure on Hamas: Although the movement's stature has been enhanced by the "roadmap" process — it is clear to ordinary Palestinians now that the PA is forced to seek the consent of the Islamists before embarking on a cease-fire — the group faces two sources of pressure: Arab governments, and Palestinian public opinion. Still widely viewed in the Arab world as a legitimate resistance movement to Israeli occupation, Hamas's welfare networks have been extensively funded from abroad (and the movement's terrorists obviously draw from the same coffers). Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have been putting heavy pressure on Hamas to accept a truce, and the movement's exile leadership have left the decision up to their structures in the West Bank and Gaza — a way of limiting the impact of external pressure. More importantly, Hamas is usually responsive to Palestinian public opinion. If ordinary Palestinians see in the roadmap a prospect for returning to jobs in Israel and easing some of their economic burden, Hamas can't afford to be seen to be the spoilers. They also can't afford to be seen as the cause of a civil war that would increase Palestinian suffering, and from which Israel would be the primary beneficiary.

Political calculations, rather than a belief in the roadmap process, appears to have prompted Hamas to adopt a three-month hudna, an Islamic term for a tactical cease-fire. On condition that Israel refrains from assassinating its leaders, and possibly other demands such as a release of prisoners, Hamas will undertake to refrain from attacks on Israelis for a three-month period. But they will reserve the right to resume such attacks if Israel strikes at them. That way, they're staying on the right side of Palestinian and Arab public opinion, in the belief that ordinary Palestinians will blame Israel for the next cycle of terror attacks and assassinations. Indeed, Hamas has not yet formally announced the hudna, and it could yet claim ongoing Israeli assassinations as grounds for demurring.

If it goes ahead, Hamas's hudna will clear the way for implementation of the first steps of Phase 1 of the roadmap, in which a cease-fire allows the Palestinian Authority to resume security control in Gaza and the West Bank city of Bethlehem. But the truce introduces an even sharper dispute on the next security steps. Israel, and the Bush administration, have warned that the roadmap requires not a tactical cease-fire by Hamas, but the systematic disarming and dismantling of the organization and other groups that have waged terror attacks.

Amos Gilad, Israel's military chief in the occupied territories who has been negotiating security arrangements with Dahlan, has called the truce with Hamas "a threat to peace," because it leaves their terror capability intact and gives them time and space to regroup. Israel will reportedly give Abbas and Dahlan up to six weeks, following the resumption of security control, to launch a full-blown crackdown designed to disarm and dismantle the terror wings of Hamas and other groups. But current indications are that this is unlikely to happen, which could leave the U.S. micromanaging an increasingly messy process. Already, Bush administration officials have been working with Israeli security chiefs to set rules for Israel's assassination policy, effectively giving it the green light; soon they may find themselves in the familiar (to the Clinton administration) position of chasing after increasingly reluctant Palestinian leaders to clamp down on militancy.

Sharon believes implementation of the roadmap depends on the PA waging a "war on terror," but Hamas has has no intention of disarming and Abbas has no intention of using force against Hamas or any other Palestinian militant group — because he knows that armed with little more than the roadmap and the support of Israel and the U.S., he's unlikely to win a Palestinian civil war. Abbas has almost no independent political base, and his ability to deliver depends to a considerable degree on the extent to which he is able to win Yasser Arafat's backing — that may be the chief reason European and Arab diplomats have continued meeting with Arafat to win his support for implementing the "roadmap" despite Washington's official policy of ignoring the PA leader. And while U.S. officials have so far avoided a face-to-face meeting, the man chairing Monday's meeting between PA security officials and President Bush's envoy, John Wolf, was Al-Tayib Abdel Rahim, Arafat's top political aide.

The fiction of Arafat's irrelevance may soon be dispensed with — even Dahlan has signaled the aging leader that his loyalty remains with Arafat — but even with the support of the PA leader it's far from clear that Abbas can deliver a durable cease-fire. That the hudna agreement was reached through extensive consultation with Hamas, Jihad and Fatah militants currently held in Israeli prisons — the Fatah signatory is reportedly Marwan Barghouti, the high-profile West Bank Fatah leader currently on trial in Tel Aviv for terrorism — is testimony to the limits of Abbas's ability to be much more than a facilitator between the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians they'd rather not have to talk to.

Abbas's position is premised on convincing militants their armed struggle is a dead end. Which it almost certainly is. Unfortunately for him, however, the militants can turn the argument around, and ask just where the road map leads. And right now, he can't convince them even that it leads to an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, on most or all of the West Bank and Gaza emptied of the hated settlements, much less that it addresses longstanding Palestinian shibboleths as the "right of return" of refugee families who fled Israel in 1948. So, despite the reported commitment to three months of calm, the Palestinian political argument — like the wider conflict of which it is a part — remains unresolved.