Palestinian statehood bid: Why Hamas has stayed on sidelines

Hamas has yet to officially declare its stance on the Palestinian statehood bid, to be launched at the UN this week. If the bid fails, the Islamist movement could expand its power in the West Bank.

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    Palestinians applaud in front of a symbolic chair supporting the Palestinian statehood bid in the West Bank city of Ramallah, unveiled Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead Tuesday with his diplomatic campaign to gain full UN membership, brushing aside heated Israeli objections and a promised US veto as the issue of Palestinian statehood takes center stage with world leaders gathering for the opening of the UN General Assembly session.
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As the Palestinian bid for statehood comes to a head this week at the United Nations, Hamas remains split on whether to support the controversial move.

The Islamist movement has long sought a Palestinian state, and its backing would be crucial for any such state to function. But amid a four-year rift with the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas appears to be hedging its bets. A failure for Mr. Abbas could pave the way for Hamas to expand its influence in the West Bank, where it has long been suppressed by Israeli and PA security forces.

"It is worth a wait," says Talal Okal, Gaza-based analyst and columnist. "[Hamas leaders] will congratulate Abbas if his efforts are crowned with success, and of course will rebuke him if he failed. It's a smart strategy."

Recommended: Who is Hamas? 5 questions about the Palestinian militant group.

Hamas loath to back Fayyad's project

The UN statehood bid comes on the heels of a two-year statebuilding initiative launched by PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, a former World Bank official. While Mr. Fayyad is widely trusted by the US and Europe, which have poured in foreign aid for his reform projects, he is viewed by Hamas as a traitor and a "Western tool" to implement America's strategies in the Palestinian territory.

But the disagreement goes beyond personalities; Hamas has been at odds with Fayyad's Fatah party four four years. After winning a majority in 2006 Palestinian elections, the Islamist movement violently ousted its secular rival from the Gaza Strip the following year, putting an indefinite end to the tenuous Hamas-Fatah unity government.

Hamas and Fatah have also failed so far to implement an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation process the two sides agreed to in April because Abbas wants to keep Fayyad as the head of the government, while Hamas wants to keep him away from Palestinian politics.

"It would be a victory for Fayyad and Abbas if Hamas joins the bid," says Atef Abu Saif, a professor of political science in Gaza. "If Hamas supports the attempt, it will have later to unwillingly accept Fayyad as a prime minister for the expected unity government."

Divisions ahead of Friday's bid

Hamas leaders are divided over whether to support PA President Mahmoud Abbas's plan to approach the UN to gain recognition of Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders.

The move goes against Hamas charter, which calls for having an independent state on all of the Palestinian soil, including Israel. It also calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

The Islamist movement, which is listed as a terror group by Israel, the US, and the European Union for carrying out suicide attacks on Israelis, is also against the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and believes that the Palestinian cause can only be solved through armed resistance.

Abbas has said that on Friday he will ask the United Nations to give Palestine full membership as a sovereign state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem along pre-1967 borders.

UN move unlikely to improve daily life

In late July, Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar described the PA's efforts gain state recognition as a political cheat, affirming that his movement is not going to recognize Israel – no matter what price it may have to pay as a result.

Mr. Zahar, a cofounder of Hamas and its top leader in Gaza, said accepting Israel's right to exist would cost millions Palestinians their right to live in historical Palestine.

Youssif Rezqa, political adviser of Hamas Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh, says Palestinians would be making that sacrifice for a largely symbolic initiative that would not improve daily life in the Palestinian territories – and thus it could spell political disaster for the PA.

"This move ... will not produce any positive results on the ground. It might be the last nail in the PA's coffin," says Mr. Rezqa.

In the West Bank, however, Hamas reaction has been totally different. Hamas leader and speaker of the Palestinian parliament Aziz Dwaik announced that he is in favor of the bid and called on Palestinians everywhere to support the Abbas endeavor.

A West Bank takeover?

Even if Hamas leaders could agree in principle on the PA's effort to gain a state, says Mr. Abu Saif, Hamas would rather watch from distance other than back an idea invented by Fayyad.

If the statehood bid fails, whether through pressure from the US and Israel or through other means, Hamas would be well-positioned to capitalize on Abbas's misfortune.

The United States, one of five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, has threatened to block any resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood and withhold the $550 million in foreign aid that it currently gives the PA. Israel has vowed to stop delivering the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA, and some Israeli politicians have even suggested annexing parts of the West Bank to Israel.

"Hamas expects the American and Israeli sanctions will weaken the PA politically and financially," says Mr. Okal. "This can give Hamas a good ground to restart its pursuit to take over the West Bank."

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