The Hour of Hamas

Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank has created a new reality for Palestinians. How the Palestinians choose to respond to these changed circumstances may well determine whether or not they at last achieve an independent state. So this moment may prove to be the Palestinians’ greatest opportunity. Or, in the words of Abba Eban, it may be yet another opportunity to miss an opportunity.

How the Palestinians respond depends largely on how the Palestinian body politic deals with the growing power of Palestinian Islamic movements, which undoubtedly expect a significant share of power in post-withdrawal Gaza. Will armed groups resume their fight against Israel, or will the Palestinian Authority act to defuse or combat the attacks? To what degree are Fatah, the secular movement controlled by Palestine President Abbas, and the Islamist Hamas ready to reach an understanding about how to proceed after the disengagement?

Abbas and other PA officials stress the need for “one regime, one legal system, and political pluralism.” Abbas also wants weapons in only one set of hands – those of the Palestinian Authority. He successfully persuaded Palestinian militants to hold their fire and show Israelis and the world that dismantling settlements need not involve Israeli-Palestinian violence.

But can he translate this achievement into an extended ceasefire, peaceful elections, and consolidated PA rule in Gaza and the northern West Bank? Failure to do so will lead to yet another defeat for the legitimate Palestinian aim of attaining a viable state.

The diffculty of the task ahead can hardly be overstated. Hamas has launched an intensive media campaign to appropriate the Israeli withdrawal as a victory of its “armed struggle.” The campaign and its themes reflect an internal fight for control of the Gaza Strip and other PA-administered territories, and stresses Hamas’ determination not to be disarmed and to continue the “armed struggle” in the West Bank.