Not what they had in mind
February 15, 2007 9:25 AM
Going by last week’s Hamas-Fatah agreement, it is prudent to conclude that the Bush administration’s strategy of encouraging Saudi Arabia to counter rising Iranian influence in the Middle East is not yielding the expected result.
At its root, there remains an irreconcilable difference of perception about Hamas between the White House and the Saudi rulers, with the former regarding it as a terrorist organisation and the latter as an Islamist entity worthy of its patronage.
Most observers agree that the deal that the top Hamas and Fatah leaders signed in Mecca signified the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, moving towards Hamas, and not the other way around as Washington had wished.
On its part, Hamas moderated its position – as stated in the article by Khalid Mish’al, the Damascus-based head of the organisation’s politburo, in the Guardian of yesterday. In it, he referred to the possibility of “real peace” in the region if Israel withdrew from the territories occupied by it in 1967, dismantled the Jewish settlements, released all Palestinian prisoners and acknowledged the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Significantly, Mish’al made no mention of the ceasefire (hudna) for 15-20 years with Israel subsequent to these conditions being met – a position that Hamas had held since 1994.
According to the Mecca agreement, in a cabinet of 19 ministers, Hamas got nine whereas Fatah had only six. As for the crucial interior ministry, controlling all security and intelligence forces, it was Hamas that secured the privilege of naming a non-party Palestinian to head it, with Fatah relegated to endorsing him.
Overall, the agreement reflected the situation on the ground.
After the severance of western aid to the Palestinian Authority due to the Hamas government’s refusal to recognise Israel, forswear violence, and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, Washington hoped to see a decline in popular support for Hamas. But, on the contrary, the Palestinians blamed America and Israel for their misery, leaving the popularity of Hamas intact.
That weakened the position of Abbas. His acceptance of Mish’al as his equal in the national unity talks in Mecca underlined his weakness.
After the failure of Egypt, and then Jordan, to conciliate the warring Palestinian factions, whose armed clashes claimed nearly 100 lives, the mediation by Saudi Arabia in itself indicated a tilt towards Hamas.
Hamas (acronym of Harkat al Muqawma al Islami, or Islamic Resistance Movement) is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Formed originally in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood went on to establish itself in other Arab countries, including Palestine, then under the British Mandate.
In more recent times, the Muslim Brotherhood functioned as the Islamic Centre, a charity organisation, in the Occupied Gaza Strip under the leadership of Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, who would be assassinated by Israel in 2004. With the eruption of the Palestinian intifada in 1987, Yassin and six other leaders established Hamas as the Brotherhood’s activist arm. Yassin was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for conspiring to abduct two Israeli soldiers.
In the wider region the Muslim Brotherhood has enjoyed cordial relations with the Saudi rulers over the past half century. Following the suppression of the Brotherhood in Egypt by President Gamal Abdul in 1954, hundreds of Brethren took refuge in Saudi Arabia. They were given funds to establish the Islamic University of Medina which emerged as a bastion of the Brotherhood in the region.
Little wonder then that when, after being released in 1997, as a result of a prisoner exchange, Yassin made a pilgrimage to Mecca during the hajj season, he was given a VIP treatment in the Saudi kingdom. He was warmly received by Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since 1995. “I can see the glory of the Arabs shining in your eyes,” Abdullah said to Yassin. As a result, Yassin was invited by the rest of the rulers of the Gulf monarchies, and the prestige and coffers of Hamas swelled.
Little wonder too that last week the Saudi King Abdullah reportedly promised $1bn in aid to the new national unity government. That would put the Saudi kingdom far ahead of the Islamic Republic of Iran in terms of financial assistance to the Palestinian government.
Such rivalry can only benefit the long-suffering Palestinians. It will counter the economic leverage that the west has exercised against Hamas so far.
This is hardly the scenario the American policy makers had in mind when they instigated the Saudi leaders to act to neutralise Tehran’s rising prestige and influence in the Arab world.