Islamic Group's Growing Influence Heats Up Radical-Moderate Rivalry
Competition with PLO recalls Zionist battle to create the Jewish state. PALESTINIAN POLITICAL STRUGGLE
JERUSALEM — AS the Palestinian expellees stranded in southern Lebanon line up for prayer each morning, or brandish copies of the Koran for TV cameras, their ordeal has changed the face of Palestinian politics.
The plight of the radical Islamist Hamas members has given their movement dramatic new weight - enough to send Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat to Khartoum, Sudan, over the weekend for a meeting to patch up his ties with Hamas leaders.
While no immediate moves were expected from the summit, the expulsion has shaken up relations between the PLO and rival Hamas. It has also pointed up intriguing parallels between the Palestinians' struggle today and the Zionists' battle for creation of the Jewish state nearly 50 years ago.
During the past year of mounting frustration in the occupied territories with the scant progress made by Palestinian negotiators at the Middle East peace talks, Hamas has won support for its calls for all-out-war against Israel.
Now, the worldwide ruckus over expelling those linked to Hamas "has sealed the movement's legitimacy," says Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political analyst. "Hamas is now a fully fledged, legitimate political organization."
Despite its self-proclaimed, and internationally recognized, status as "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," the PLO was obliged to call Hamas leaders to Tunis for urgent discussions last month. The Islamists underlined their new self-confidence by arriving when they chose to, three days after the date set by the PLO.
While strengthening Hamas' hand, however, the expulsion also has a silver lining for Mr. Arafat, offering the plo a long-coveted chance of a direct role in the Middle East peace talks.
Left-wing members of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's coalition government are arguing that the harsh blow against the extremist Hamas must be matched by an overture to the more moderate PLO, with which Israeli leaders have always refused to talk.
Palestinian negotiators themselves, who openly take their orders from PLO headquarters in Tunis, have long insisted that Israel must make concessions if they are to retain any popular support for the peace process.
These arguments appear to be winning ground. Of the 120 Knesset (parliament) members, 47 now favor direct talks with the PLO, as does nearly half the Israeli population, according to recent opinion polls.
The dramatic violence used by Hamas, whose militants killed six Israeli soldiers in as many days last month - even as moderate nationalists were negotiating with the Israelis - ironically recalls the last years of the Zionist struggle against the British for the creation of Israel.
At that time, radical extremists in the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, and in the Stern Gang, bombed and assassinated their way to an independent state, even as the moderate Jewish Agency and its military wing, the Haganah, took the path of political negotiation.
"There is no doubt there are similarities," says Israeli historian Yehoshua Porat. "The Haganah mainstream was more moderate in its use of force, while the Irgun was readier to use force and more extreme in its political dreams" of an Israel stretching across the Jordan River.
Today, the PLO is prepared for a two-state solution, just as David Ben-Gurion and the Haganah accepted partition. Hamas, however, demands abolition of Israel in the same way Irgun insisted on the whole of the Land of Israel.
Tactics on both sides are similar. The British deported some 400 Irgun suspects to East Africa in 1944, laying no charges and holding no trials, while the Irgun kidnapped and killed two British sergeants in 1947 in retaliation for the hanging of two Irgun men.
Begin's communique explaining the murders used language that the Hamas killers might well have used in justifying their murder of police Sgt. Nissim Toledano last month. The British soldiers, he said, had been convicted of membership in a "British criminal terrorist organization known as the British occupation force" and of "premeditated attacks on the Hebrew underground."
Though the Haganah fiercely condemned the murder of the sergeants, many historians argue that this incident was the straw that broke the back of the British mandate in Palestine, clearing the way for a new Jewish state.
Begin himself, in his memoir of his Irgun days, was sure that many of his rival Jewish leaders "frequently blessed us in their secret hearts, while energetically cursing us with their lips."
In much the same way today, "there is an objective division of labor within the Palestinian movement," says Professor Porat. "The PLO is talking, while Hamas is exerting pressure by acts of terror."
Porat sees a major difference, however, in the depth of the Haganah's hostility to the Irgun, which the PLO has not shown toward Hamas. Haganah men, for example, often handed over Irgun fighters to the British, or held them prisoner, fearful that Irgun attacks might so anger the British as to deny the Jews a state.
The PLO has never gone anywhere near as far as this in its rivalry with Hamas. But last summer, youths loyal to the mainstream PLO group Fatah clashed with Hamas militants violently and repeatedly in the Gaza strip.
And a group of PLO-affiliated notables in Gaza, worried by the Hamas gangs, secretly telephoned an Israeli Knesset member, asking him to ask the Army to impose a curfew on Gaza, according to an Israeli source familiar with the conversation.
Last month, prior to the deportations, Arafat told an Italian journalist "we have problems with Hamas, and Israel is not helping. Israel is arresting only Fatah people. I think Israel should do more about the Hamas problem."
When Israel did do more about the Hamas problem, expelling 415 of its supporters, the PLO was obliged to rally behind the victims, but its wariness of the Islamists has not slackened.
Indeed, some Palestinian analysts fear that the rivalry between the two groups has come to overshadow their ultimate goals.
"Both Hamas' and the PLO's strategies are aimed not just at the shape of a future Palestine, but at winning over the street now," Dr. Jarbawi says.
"Internal factors," he argues, "are now of more concern to both the parties than the major factor - the outside one - Israel."