WORLD

Radical moves

Rabin’s death will not stop Palestinians from talking

ERIC SILVER November 13 1995
WORLD

Radical moves

Rabin’s death will not stop Palestinians from talking

ERIC SILVER November 13 1995

Radical moves

WORLD

Rabin’s death will not stop Palestinians from talking

In the wake of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the immediate concern was the future of the Middle East peace process. But more quietly, another peace initiative is under way—among Palestinians. It seems likely to continue. The key players: Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Emad Falouji, spokesman for the extremist Islamic Hamas movement.

A few months ago, it would have been unthinkable for Arafat to want to hang out with Falouji, spokesman for the largest group of enemies of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet last week, Falouji, publisher of Al Watan (The Homeland), the weekly Hamas paper based in Gaza City, was in Amman, Jordan, as part of a PLO entourage. Ostensibly, he was there to report on a historic Middle East economic summit. But since neither Falouji, a 33-year-old veteran of six years in Israeli jails, nor his newspaper normally covers economic summits, that explanation cut little ice. His presence in Amman was one of the clearest signals yet of a growing rapprochement between the PLO and Hamas, the terror group responsible for such gruesome attacks as the suicide bombings of buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last summer.

In the past two months, Falouji had been the leading advocate of a pact currently being negotiated with Arafat’s fledgling Palestinian National Authority, which controls the Gaza Strip and is gradually expanding in the West Bank. Under the deal, Hamas would stop attacking Israeli targets. In return, Arafat would license Hamas as a political party, opening the door for the “Islamic Resistance Movement,” as Hamas calls itself, to put up candidates for an 82-member Palestinian legislature to be elected in January. Last week, the negotiators won the blessing of the most influential of all Hamas figures, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a crippled preacher who launched the movement from his Gaza City mosque in 1978. Yassin, who has been in an Israeli prison since 1989, convicted of organizing terrorism, told an East Jerusalem newspaper: ‘We should give peace a chance.”

A deal with Hamas would be a powerful boost for the wily Arafat. Israel has put immense pressure on him to get violence under control in the areas under Palestinian self-rule, and Jerusalem has threatened to hold up the peace process if he cannot. Moreover, he has little chance of attracting desperately needed investment if his turf is in turmoil. But he faces some determined

resistance. For one thing, some key Hamas leaders oppose a peace pact. For another, the ultra-extremist Islamic Jihad group has renewed its calls for strikes against Israeli targets in the wake of the assassination in Malta on Oct. 26 of its leader in exile, Fathi Shukaki. Islamic Jihad blames Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and Israeli spokesmen have pointedly avoided denying involvement. Last week, two Islamic Jihad suicide bombers blew themselves up in attacks on an Israeli bus and a nearby road in the Gaza Strip; 11 Israelis were slightly wounded. Rabin’s death may remove some of the pressure for revenge: Islamic Jihad

had reviled him as the man it believed ordered Shukaki’s killing.

For Hamas, however, there are strong practical reasons for the new moderate line. The group is losing its appeal to the Palestinian public as the 1993 Oslo peace agreement finally begins to deliver results—and as autonomy spreads from Gaza and Jericho to the rest of the West Bank towns and villages under an agreement signed in Washington in September. In Gaza, rutted roads are being repaved with Japanese aid. Highrise office and apartment buildings are going up. On the West Bank last week, Israeli troops handed over a police station in the town of Jenin

to Palestinians, a first under the new pact.

An October poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, an independent Palestinian information service, found that support for Hamas among the two million West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians had dropped to 10.7 per cent from 18 per cent in June (Islamic Jihad mustered only 2.4 per cent). Fully 72.7 per cent backed the peace process. Only 17.8 per cent opposed it.

Sheikh Yassin’s peace call was also an acknowledgment of the crackdown on Hamas by Arafat’s secret police. Many activists have been jailed, to emerge with tales of torture. Arafat is working, too, to reclaim the mosques and the schools, Hamas’s main recruiting grounds. Mullahs are forbidden to preach political sermons. School principals are ordered to report any teacher who brings politics into the classroom. Radio Palestine puts across an unalloyed Arafat line. The opposition press has been cowed.

The moves towards a pact are fragile, however. Mohammed Dahlan, head of Palestinian Preventive Security in Gaza, complained last week that the Shukaki assassination had undermined the negotiations with Hamas. At the very least, it strengthened the hand of those Hamas leaders in Gaza and, more particularly, in exile, who always opposed an accommodation with Arafat. For them, all of Palestine, including what has been Israel since 1948, belongs to the Muslims. They are not prepared to compromise, even tactically. They will be part of a delegation that will decide the Hamas stance. “I’m not confident that Hamas will stop its attacks inside Israel,” says Diab Allouh, a spokesman for Arafat’s AÍ Fatah organization. “There are differences among Hamas leaders about military acts.”

One of Hamas’s most rigid hardliners is Mahmoud Zahar, a 50-year-old surgeon recently released after 105 days in a Palestinian prison. He says he has no objection to talking with Arafat. “The alternative is civil war. But that doesn’t mean we are changing our mind, or our policy.” He warns: “Our people still have weapons, and we are the only group willing to act against the Zionists.” If Zahar has his way, Hamas will boycott the Palestinian elections. “Arafat’s aim is not democracy,” says Zahar. “His aim is to elect a council to amend the Palestinian National Charter. We can’t agree to that while millions of Palestinians are still living outside.” Israel has made amendment of the 1969 charter, which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, a condition for a final peace.

Even Falouji, on his return from Amman, was unwilling to commit Hamas to stopping its attacks on Israeli targets—yet. But he and Yassin both stressed they want to avoid “a Palestinian conflict.” The sheikh told his followers: “What’s happening today is an Israeli diktat. It’s not the peace we were looking for. But it’s better than occupation.” If that view prevails, Arafat will breathe much easier.

ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem