In the aftermath of the war on Gaza, Khaled Meshaal, Hamas exiled political leader in Damascus, announced plans and a “surprise” to sideline the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), arguing that it is outdated and that the Palestinians need “new national authority.” Another Hamas prominent leader Mahmoud al-Zahar earlier this month told Al Jazeera television that Hamas wants to “preserve the structure of the PLO, but not its program.” Supports of such argument say, while Hamas has won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, confirming Hamas’ legitimacy and popularity among the Palestinians, it is still not a member of the PLO.
Although the PLO is considered the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” since 1964, opponents of the organization in its current situation claim that the PLO lost legitimacy after it slashed 12 articles and amended 16 others of its charter to allow the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 with Israel. Skeptics of the Oslo peace process including Hamas say the PLO’s charter is at odds with the Palestinian resistance movement and gave up the right for the Palestinians to defend themselves against Israeli occupation. While the above argument is very compelling, it does not however explain why Hamas did not demand such changes before the Israeli war on Gaza; or even why Hamas did not entertain the idea of negotiating with all Palestinian factions to allow its membership in the PLO.
The Israeli aggression in Gaza compelled Hamas to alter its strategies to become more politically involved, especially that the Islamic organization could have been totally compromised in the coastal strip during the war. Hamas political move of marginalizing the PLO comes as an attempt to keep its legitimacy as a “resistance movement.” Prior to Oslo, the PLO has had a monopoly over armed resistance against Israel. The devastation that Israel unleashed on Gaza and the destruction it inflicted on the local population enabled Hamas to garner sympathy of the regional and international communities. This outcome and the gains in the public opinion gave Hamas leadership the confidence to speak on behalf of the entire Palestinian people thus questioning the legitimacy of the PLO.
After the war on Gaza, Meshaal was emboldened to question the existence of the PLO. His key argument was that Hamas fought and won the war and has the support of the Palestinians and the Arabs. Therefore, Hamas should be the main representative of the Palestinian people within the framework of a new Hamas-led “national authority.”
For Hamas to start the quest of becoming the sole speaker of the Palestinians, it desperately needs to expand its influence –physically and politically– to the West Bank. However, the Islamic movement continues to be regarded as frail in the West Bank to force itself as it did in Gaza during 2007. The remaining option for Hamas is to build a vehicle, similar to the PLO, in which it can have a strong representation. Such body of representation would not be physically confined to the Gaza Strip, but also would include the West Bank, and the Palestinian Diaspora. This is a similar situation to Fatah movement when it strengthened itself after gaining the control of the PLO in late sixties.
One cannot claim that Hamas’ political tactics and moves are not influenced by regional powers. Hamas aims of marginalizing the PLO and to create another body of representation is an old Syrian agenda, which already been tested during the 1980s in Lebanon. Syria and, for that matter, Iran are making all efforts to replicate the Lebanese Hezbollah model of “resistance movement” in Palestine. Hezbollah became politically powerful in Lebanon after entering the Lebanese political game and became a strong opposition to the government. This political strategy by Hezbollah enabled it to “legitimately” keep its weapons and to anchor itself as the only “resistance movement” that rightfully defends Lebanon against Israel. For Hezbollah, the Lebanese government has become the battle field for advancing its political agendas.
The different here is that Hamas can no longer consider the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the battle field for future political gain since the PA is the product of the Oslo Accords, which was signed by the PLO, but rejected by Hamas. Additionally, the PA is not regarded by the Islamic movement as part of the ‘resistance’ and therefore it cannot be the vehicle for Hamas to flourish politically. In contrast, an organization similar to the PLO or the PLO with modified program can still carry the image of a resistance movement and would be suitable platform for Hamas to speak on behalf of the Palestinians. Additionally, such an organization will give Hamas legitimacy to possess weapons in Gaza and elsewhere to continue fighting against the Israeli occupation, which has been the same argument that Hezbollah maintained in Lebanon.
The Islamic movement must, however, consider mitigation factors that might not work in its favor. Now that the dust has settled after the Israeli war on Gaza, the Palestinians are questioning statements by Hamas’ political leadership in Damascus. Meshaal’s statements after the first week of the war stressing “the resistance lost only little,” while ignoring the 500 Palestinian civilian that were killed by that time, did not positively resonate among the Palestinians. Hamas should reinforce a Palestinian agenda and undermined Syria/Iranian plans in Gaza. It is without a doubt that Hamas is on the right track to become politically powerful in the region. However Hamas’ political accomplishment can be squandered if a Palestinian national unity is not realized.
*Written exclusively to AlArabiya. Rawhi Afaghani is political and media analyst. He is also a conflict analysis and resolution specialist. The author grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank and now lives and works in Washington, DC. Mr. Afaghani can be reach by email at email@example.com.