Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jordan Opens to HAMAS

Hamas Seeking To Come In From Cold
By Sana Abdallah
In Middle East Times (Pan Arab)
August 28, 2008

Chances of coming in from the cold are looking better for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement ruling the Gaza Strip, as the world braces itself for crucial changes in political leaderships and power shifts that might also bring strategic policy turns in the Middle East.

The U.S. George W. Bush administration, which has led a fierce campaign against Hamas and is widely seen as the friendliest U.S. government yet to Israel, has fewer than 150 days left in office, with no sign that the peace talks it is sponsoring between the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel are getting anywhere.

The Israeli leadership is also on its way out, as a corruption scandal forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to announce his resignation next month to elect a new Kadima party leader who will need to keep the coalition government together or else hold snap elections.

Abbas, too, has not yet said whether he will seek re-election if a Palestinian presidential poll is held next January. And he has indicated on several occasions he wants to step down out of frustration that peace negotiations are not making headway toward statehood; neither has he been able to reunite Palestinian ranks and mend the split between Gaza and the West Bank.

Hamas, meanwhile, is keeping a close eye on unfolding and upcoming developments, such as the revived Israeli peace negotiations with its Syrian allies, being mediated by Turkey.

Anticipating key leadership changes, the Islamist movement has already begun to send signs that it deserves to be thought of in a different light and not a "terrorist" organization, and that it is time for the world to revise its strategy in dealing with it.

Since violently forcing out the Fatah-led PA from Gaza in June 2007, Hamas has relentlessly shown that it can withstand the often unbearable military, political and economic pressure that has isolated the impoverished coastal strip and confined its 1.5 million people in a virtual prison.

The Israeli-Western blockade on Gaza and a separate PA administration in the West Bank, which is embraced by the United States and its many allies in the region and the world, has failed to bring Hamas to its knees.

Many analysts agree that the U.S.-inspired sanctions strategy had also failed to turn the impoverished population against Hamas, to which the electorate had given an overwhelming victory in the legislative polls in January 2006 that were internationally hailed as one of the most democratic in the Arab world.

The movement additionally refused to make concessions in recognizing the state of Israel or to renounce "violence" in Western terms and "armed resistance" in Arab terms, the international community's conditions to end Gaza's isolation.

Nevertheless, Hamas tacitly did both when it agreed to a ceasefire with Israel after indirect negotiations mediated by Egypt in June, just as Israel had effectively recognized Hamas as a de facto ruling regime in Gaza.

The Islamist movement agreed to keep militants from firing rockets at nearby southern Israeli towns, and more than two months into the ceasefire, it has kept its word and succeeded, unlike Abbas who had failed to do the same from the time of Israel's withdrawal from the strip in September 2005 until his authority was expelled in June 2007.

The number of rocket attacks from Gaza has been reduced dramatically, and when an occasional mortar is fired, Hamas describes the militants as "traitors" who are seeking to discredit the movement's commitment toward easing the pain of the people.

Israel, meanwhile, had also stopped its daily military operations in Gaza, but is still testing the level of Hamas' obligation before it carries out its own commitments to easing the blockade further.

Or perhaps the Israelis are testing Hamas' patience to see whether its "pragmatic" elements would persevere after having virtually weakened their "moderate" partner, Abbas, by maintaining hundreds of military roadblocks in the West Bank and expanding settlement activities, which have brought the U.S.-backed peace negotiations to a stalemate.

Hamas sources tell the Middle East Times they have taken a political decision to stop fighting Israel until the Israelis sort out their political crisis and elect a new leadership, before Hamas decides the next step. But that next step, they say, will entail a policy of non-confrontation -- even if the new Israeli leadership leans more to the right -- in order to end Gaza's isolation, which they say is a strategy that has already failed.

Hamas also hopes the next U.S. administration, whether Democrat or Republican, will have learned from Bush's mistakes that failed to undermine the movement, but rather weakened Abbas' authority in the occupied West Bank, territory that could also come under Hamas' influence if the current exclusion strategy persists.

The Islamist movement, in the meantime, is trying to demonstrate it is a political power to be reckoned with and that it is willing not to be contentious if given that international recognition.

It has even indicated it does not oppose a negotiated peace settlement with Israel, be that through its own indirect truce talks or through its recognition of the Arab peace initiative, which offered Israel normal relations in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state there.

One of the first U.S.-allied countries to recognize that the exclusion policy has in fact strengthened Hamas is Jordan, the only Arab country besides Egypt to have a formal peace treaty with Israel.

The kingdom, which outlawed Hamas under U.S. pressure and expelled its political leaders shortly after King Abdullah II came to power in 1999, has recently re-opened its channels with the Palestinian movement in meetings between the Hamas' leaders in exile and the chief of Jordan's intelligence service.

Analysts say that Jordan, which has accommodated its own powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement for decades, sees the growing influence of Hamas next door and seeks to bolster its "pragmatic" side. Amman does not see this as damaging the kingdom's alliance with Abbas' authority, which did not oppose its rapprochement efforts and even saw it as helping a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

If Jordan succeeds in its policy shift toward Hamas, analysts say it could set an example for the rest of the international community, especially the United States and Israel, to follow suit.