On April 27th, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and three of Hamas’ senior members from Gaza participated as observers in the convention of the Central Council of the PLO in Gaza. Their participation was at the invitation of Salim Za`noun “Abu Adib,” president of the Council. Abu Adib has been for many years a link between the PLO/Fath and the Islamic Palestinian groups. The leadership of Hamas insisted upon being invited on an official, rather than on a personal, basis.
In the wake of this decision on the part of Hamas’ leadership in the Gaza Strip, an extraordinary statement was made by Ibrahim Ghosheh, the movement’s spokesman in Amman. Ghosheh, in his official statement announced that “A delegation of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, led by the brother and warrior Ahmad Yassin,” took part in the convention on the basis of “a local decision of those brothers and not a central decision of the movement.” Such unusual phrasing - particularly in an organization that has hitherto placed such emphasis on the unity of the movement - reads like a condemnation. Ghoseh no longer describes Yassin as “the founder of Hamas, spiritual father and leader of the movement,” but as one of the local brothers who made a decision based on purely local considerations. Yassin and his colleagues published an unapologetic announcement, in which they categorically stated that their participation in the convention was in fact based on a decision by the movement, and after they had insisted on being invited officially. Between the lines, Yassin’s statement clarifies that he and his people wanted to take part in the convention in order to have the opportunity of presenting their position to the Council. A conflict comes to the fore This extraordinary step taken by Yassin - unique in the history of the relationship between Hamas and the PLO - was taken against the background of an internal conflict in the Islamic groups of the school of the Muslim Brotherhood. The conflict revolves around the question of whether to support the obstinate position of Hamas or whether to choose the political path taken by Arafat. A few weeks ago the Egyptian weekly Al-Sha`b, the unofficial organ of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, published a long article in which the Palestinians were called upon to support Arafat and not to accuse him of treason. The author wrote that Arafat was doing everything he could for the Palestinians and that no faction should put obstacles in his way. Meanwhile from the Sudan, under the leadership of Dr. Hasan al-Turabi - the most distinguished contemporary leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world - comes a hint of limited support for Arafat, which can also be viewed as a criticism of Hamas. Isma`il Abu Shanab, one of Hamas’ participants in the convention, stated to the weekly Al-Sabil, the organ of the Jordanian Muslim Brothers that supporting the declaration of an independent Palestinian State on May 4th, “is in keeping with the policy of Hamas, which supports the foundation of a Palestinian State on every inch of liberated land, without giving up any part of the Palestinian rights and the continuation of the jihad to the liberation of all of Palestine.” Are we hearing a new tune here? Is Hamas starting to walk in the political path taken by Arafat - albeit 20 years late? The PLO began turning toward politics in the mid-70s - a change that was accelerated after its expulsion from Lebanon in the 1980s - under the rallying cry of liberating what could be liberated. “Even Jericho” was the famous call of Arafat in those days. Are Yassin and his colleagues preparing themselves for a new phase of the struggle? Will they begin to merge with the Palestinian Authority step-by-step, even while preserving their independence from the Authority and their ideology of “jihad till the end?” Will they defer their inflexible struggle till the next generation? Can we assume that Yassin and his friends are better at reading the expectations of the Palestinians in the Territories than are Ibrahim Ghosheh, Muhammad Nazzal, Musa Abu Marzouk and Khalid Mash`al, who are cut off from the real wishes of the Palestinian public in the West Bank? To be, or not to be, a state is no longer the question Is Hamas preparing itself for a new arena of confrontation with the Palestinian Authority, in which the focus is not on the rejection of the foundation of an independent state during negotiations with Israel, but on the future nature of the coming state? One of the articles in the statement of Yassin and his associations with regard to the convention in which they participated was “the emphasis on building a secured civil society with its institutions, where there is respect for pluralism, human rights are being kept, there is struggle against corruption and the state is based upon the sovereignty of the law.” Since the Yassin’s release from prison in October 1997 and his return to Gaza, more emphasis is put on civil rights, political freedom and democracy in the political messages of Hamas. The participation of Yassin and three senior members of Hamas in the convention of the Central Council of the PLO is an important landmark that reflects a process. Since the release of Yassin one can trace a continuous but slow change in the direction of greater politicization of the movement’s struggle. Yassin was arrested on May 1989, in the midst of the popular uprising in the Territories and the reality of a violent general struggle against the Israeli occupation. After his release he returned to Gaza, where in contrast to conditions on the West Bank, Palestinian self-rule was trying to politically maneuver the struggle for an independent state on part of Palestine with the support of the vast majority of the Palestinian public. In the territory of the Palestinian Authority there is almost no one who better understands the wishful thinking of the Palestinian public. Yassin has devoted his life to public activity mainly in the social fields. The “blazer suits” and American university graduates like Abu Marzouk and Mash`al can not teach him the wishes of the residents of the Jebalia and Nusseirat refugee camps. The answers to the questions raised above are probably positive. Yassin and his close associates, the products of highly educated Palestinians from refugee families in the Gaza Strip, and who reflect the social change in the Strip under the Israeli occupation are probably standing before a new phase of struggle. In this new phase there is a recognition in the Palestinian Authority as a fact, even if it was born “in the sin of Oslo.” What does all this portend? What is the significance of this for Israel? A thorough analysis would require another article. But the first consequence may be an internal political struggle between the traditional leadership in Gaza and the activists in Amman, who act under the auspices of the Jordanian Muslim Brothers and through them the crown. Such a struggle might lead to terrorism by the “foreign” activists, mainly in the West Bank and Jerusalem. There, Yassin has less influence while at the same time there is a Palestinian consensus around the City to justify a violent struggle. A situation could also develop in which Hamas’ terror in the West Bank or Jerusalem would lead the Palestinian Authority to combat it, on the understanding that the “local,” Gaza elements of the movement led by Yassin, have no part in its perpetration. Thus the local Hamas infrastructure would be outside of the fray. Another consequence is that towards the beginning of the negotiations for the final settlement, on the basis of the American promise to establish an independent Palestinian state, Arafat and his people can rest secure in the unity of the Palestinian public. In any case, the important thing is that there are signs of a change in the Hamas movement in the Territories, similar to the change in the PLO in the past—a change in which the dream of liberating all of Palestine is deferred to future generations. The new circumstances are exploited for the establishment of future civil institutions, at the expense of the struggle against the foundation of the state based on reconciliation with Israel. In one sense, Yassin went to Kanossa in Gaza. But he may profit from this and gain for his movement a political and social freedom of activity that would add to its success in the eyes of the Palestinian public. We should always remember that Yassin’s greatest achievement