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Cat and mouse

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Cat and mouse

Hamas astuteness means it’s no longer clear who’s chasing who, argues Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah

Hamas has been signaling its willingness to help, or at least refrain from obstructing, American-led efforts aimed at resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and creating a Palestinian state on territories occupied by Israel in 1967.

 Last week, the Gaza-based Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh held a "cordial meeting" with visiting former US president Jimmy Carter. Carter toured the coastal territory, inspecting the havoc wreaked by Israel during its blitz against the blockaded enclave.

Haniyeh told Carter that Hamas would not seek to impede or frustrate any genuine efforts aimed at ending the Israeli occupation and achieving peace. "We are the longest- suffering people in this world. We are killed, maimed, humiliated and savaged on a daily basis. Hence, no one else longs for peace more than we do. But it has to be a dignified peace based on justice and human rights," said Haniyeh through an interpreter. "We say so, because for peace to be genuine and durable, it has to be based on justice."


In Damascus, Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal has been speaking in a similar tone, saying that Hamas was ready and willing to give American efforts a chance to end the 42-year-old Israeli occupation.

Mashaal reportedly told unnamed Western diplomats that Hamas wouldn't seek to thwart genuine peace talks between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel if it became clear that such talks would lead to ending the Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state on 100 per cent of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Mashaal was slated to give a speech 25 June in which he would present Hamas's "new gestures" towards the Obama administration. According to Hamas sources, Mashaal might declare that Hamas would give the US president six months or even a year to get Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Mashaal is also likely to declare that Hamas would refrain from carrying out resistance attacks against Israel during that period provided Israel reciprocates, which must include a clear Israeli commitment to end the two-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip.

More to the point, Mashaal is expected to dismiss with contempt the speech given by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on 14 June. In that speech, Netanyahu set draconian conditions that would render a future Palestinian state with form but without substance. The Israeli premier said Israel would have to be in tight control of the borders, border crossings, air space, foreign relations, water resources and telecommunications of the contemplated Palestinian state. He also said that Israel would retain its occupation of Arab East Jerusalem, and refuse to allow refugees to return home in what is now Israel. He also asserted that the Palestinians would have to acknowledge that the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel have no permanent right to live in their ancestral homeland.

Israel has been taking some token measures to relax its harsh siege of the Gaza Strip. However, Palestinian and international sources have complained that Israel is still barring the bulk of consumer products from reaching Gaza, apparently to pressure Hamas to make concessions with regard to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli occupation soldier taken prisoner by Palestinian resistance fighters nearly three years ago.

Israel has also refused to allow building material to reach the Gaza Strip, which means that the reconstruction of Gaza can't get under away, at least for the foreseeable future.

There are several reasons behind Hamas's "moderation drive". Hamas hopes to get a complete package in exchange for its positive posture. According to informed sources in Gaza, the movement's leadership hopes that the West, especially the Obama administration, will lift or at least substantially alleviate its sanctions against Hamas.

The former Bush administration adopted a stringent and manifestly hostile approach towards Hamas, classifying the resistance group as a terrorist organization and criminalizing any dealings with the Hamas government despite the fact that it was elected in fair and transparent elections held at Washington's urging.

However, President Obama, in his landmark speech to the Muslim world in Cairo earlier this month, spoke in relatively lenient terms about Hamas.

It is widely believed that the Obama administration is no longer insisting that Hamas must recognize Israel as a precondition for any contacts between the US and the Palestinian Islamic movement.

Moreover, Hamas hopes that a certain rapprochement with the US and the West would also pressure the PA regime in Ramallah to end its efforts to isolate the movement. This week, PA President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly ordered the release of hundreds of Hamas-affiliated political prisoners in PA jails in the West Bank.

However, Abbas didn't say when the decision would be carried out and if it would cover all the prisoners, estimated at 800, including the crème de la crème of the Hamas civilian and intellectual leadership in the West Bank.

The implementation of the decision is unlikely to be easy. The PA security agencies seem to be resisting the decision by intensifying the rounding-up of Hamas supporters and sympathizers.

According to Hamas sources, more than 70 Hamas loyalists have been rounded up by the various PA security agencies since the decision was made on 21 June. Furthermore, some Palestinian websites have reported that the American General Keith Dayton, who oversees the training and building of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, has informed Abbas of his opposition to releasing Hamas supporters.

Finally, Hamas hopes that all these prospective developments might create conditions conducive to striking a prisoner swap deal with Israel whereby hundreds of Palestinian political and resistance prisoners, including Fatah's imprisoned leader Marwan Al-Barghouti and Hamas captive law-makers and politicians, in return for the release from Hamas custody of the soldier Shalit.

There is another significant element contributing to the Hamas moderation campaign. Hamas leaders, who represent the driving force of the Palestinian political class, are convinced that the current Israeli leadership has neither the will nor the inclination to take significant steps towards peace. To cover up its true discourse, which is based on prevarication and verbal juggling, the Israeli government is likely to continue to invoke peace and urge the resumption of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, for public relations purposes.

Hence, Hamas thinks it is important and expedient to take certain innocuous steps, which are not inconsistent with its long-standing principles and red lines, such as recognizing Israel, in order to expose Israel and demonstrate to the international community, particularly the US, that Israel, not the Palestinians, not even Hamas, is the party impeding peace efforts.

More to the point, Hamas's perceived moderation is likely to embolden and strengthen the position of Mahmoud Abbas vis-à-vis Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has been using the Hamas-Fatah rift as a sort of red herring to divert attention from the Israeli rejection of the two-state solution and also from the continued expansion of Jewish settlements.

This week, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak approved the construction of at least 200 settler units in the West Bank. The decision is believed to be aimed at testing President Obama's resolve vis-à-vis the settlement issue.

The US on 22 June reaffirmed its opposition to settlement expansion, including in East Jerusalem. However, it remains to be seen if and when the US will translate its declared stance with regard to the settlements into tangible political measures.

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