The difference between the US/EU funding conditions and those of the Gulf countries are not as incongruent as Hamas leaders may want people to believe.
The story of the Palestinian national movement can only be told through the ways and means that different Arab and non-Arab governments have tried to control it. While the Palestine Liberation Organization was established and controlled principally by the regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the 1967 defeat weakened that arrangement leading to the revolutionary guerrillas takeover of the organization in 1969. With Fatah and the leftist Palestinian guerrillas at the helm, the revolutionary potential of the PLO constituted such a threat that it precipitated an all-out war in Jordan in 1970, a situation that powerful and repressive Arab regimes did not want to see repeated. It is in this context that Arab oil money (from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, United Arab Emirates, and Iraq) began to pour into the coffers of the PLO, primarily to ensure that it would not encourage revolutionary change in Arab countries and that insofar as it did not compromise Arab regime interests, its weapons should only be directed towards Israel. The Lebanese civil war and the PLO role in it in the second half of the 1970s remained a problem but, as far as the Arab regimes were concerned, it was a problem that they were able to contain.
With the onset of the 1980s and the military defeat of the PLO in 1982, Arab funding for the PLO was no longer conditioned on its not turning its weapons against them only but that the organization also no longer target Israel. The various attempts at agreements between the PLO and King Hussein in the mid-1980s were part of that plan. With continued Israeli and US refusal to deal with the PLO no matter how much its policy and ideology had changed, the situation remained frozen until the first Palestinian uprising in 1987 gave the PLO the bargaining opportunity to lay down its weapons against Israel. The formalization of this transformation took place in Algiers in 1988 and later at the Madrid Peace Conference.
As oil funding dried up after the Gulf War of 1990-91, the PLO needed new funders. Enter the United States and its allies whose terms did not only include the Oslo capitulation but also that the newly created and Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority be indeed armed and that its weapons should have a new target: the Palestinian people themselves. The PA obliged and continued to receive its funding until the second Intifada when, contra their raison d’être, some of its security forces did engage the Israelis in gunfire when the Israelis attacked. Funding was intermittently stopped, Yasser Arafat was placed under house arrest, and the Israelis re-invaded. A resumption of steady funding continued after Arafat’s death conditional upon Mahmoud Abbas’s "seriousness" in pointing Palestinian guns at the Palestinians themselves, which he and the PA’s thuggish security apparatuses have done. However, they have not been as effective as the US and Israel had wished.
This is where we stand today. Hamas’s electoral win is changing the funding game. The United States and the European Union are insisting that Hamas pledge that its guns would only target the Palestinians who resist Israel or all funding will be stopped. Hamas is refusing to acquiesce and is waiving oil funding (Saudi, Qatari, UAE, Kuwaiti, and Iranian) as an effective alternative, as if the latter has no conditions attached to it. Indeed, much of this funding had been curtailed upon US instructions after 9/11, leaving Hamas dependent on private funding from these countries. Herein lies Hamas’s dilemma and its future course of action. The funding scenarios look as follows:
– The US and its allies will cut off all direct and indirect funding to the PA in the hope of forcing Hamas to tow the line.
– The US and its allies will cut direct funding to the PA (which constitutes little money relatively) and maintain indirect funding to non-PA channels and NGOs (which is where the large sums go), claiming that these organizations are the only ones that will be able to subvert Hamas’s agenda and that cutting them off would mean handing all of Oslo’s "achievements" over to Hamas.
Regardless which of the two scenarios is used (and this will depend on who prevails in the White House), Hamas will seek, and is in fact already seeking, alternative funding from Arab and Muslim Gulf countries. As Arab countries are as scared of the popularity of Hamas today as they were of the Palestinian guerrilla movement in the 1960s and 1970s, they are eager to find ways to co-opt and control it, making sure Hamas’s revolutionary potential and rhetoric do not spill over into their countries. Since the attempts to destroy Hamas through repression by the Israelis and the PA (not to mention its criminalization by the US and the EU and its continued harassment in Jordan) have failed to make it less popular and less of an electoral choice for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, co-optation, the Arab regimes believe, might be the more effective strategy. It is through funding Hamas that oil money will defuse its threat and push it to follow the desired course of action.
How much Hamas will resist this scenario will largely depend on the internal struggle within the movement itself. In contrast to Fatah and the PA, Hamas has had a clean history and reputation, free from charges of corruption and theft, and full of social welfare programs that help tens of thousands of Palestinians. The sanctity that has surrounded the group until now will not last very long once it assumes office, regardless what its sources of funding will be. Moreover, as many of Hamas’s major leaders have been murdered by Israel’s terrorist campaign of targeted assassinations, the leadership in power today is not as unified on the central questions as it once was. It is important to remember that Hamas had had ideological fluctuations constantly since its inception, and not only on whether it is open to negotiate with Israel, but also on which parts of the Oslo process it is willing or not willing to engage, to name only two principal issues. Its participation in the recent elections, which resulted from Oslo, stand in stark contrast to its official line of rejecting that agreement. Its performance in the next few months, if not the next few years will clarify if it will engage in ideological acrobatics, and if so, whose funding conditions it will accept, the Gulf countries or the US/EU.
The difference between the US/EU funding conditions and those of the Gulf countries are not as incongruent as Hamas leaders may want people to believe. Both parties want to domesticate Hamas by eliminating it as a threat to themselves and to Israel. The US can play the same role as it did during the 30 years when it refused to deal with the PLO and subcontracted the Gulf countries to rein it in. The US may follow this effective strategy again, for another three decades.
While the Gulf countries’ conditions might not appear as stringent as those of the US/EU, in that they would not demand of Hamas to undo its program before the entire world (only the Egyptian government has gone that far and may soon reverse course), they can ask it to conduct itself as if it had done so without any open renunciation of it. Either way, the effect will be the same.
The Palestinian people who voted in their majority for Hamas did so in the hope that unlike the corrupt and repressive Fatah, Hamas can deliver on ending the occupation. If Hamas is to remain true to its principles of liberating the occupied territories, the only successful strategy it can follow is the one that the PA and Arafat, under instructions from their funders, put an end to in 1994, namely a return to the mobilization of the first Intifada without resorting to suicide bombings that sacrifice Palestinian and Israeli lives. Hamas leaders have indeed voiced their commitment to maintaining the military truce with Israel in place for several months. As a governing body, Hamas may very well launch a general strike and organize massive demonstrations against the Israeli occupation that would focus on the apartheid wall, the colonial settlements, and the occupation checkpoints. If Hamas, as recent statements from its leaders indicate, combines this domestic strategy with an international diplomatic offensive to return to international law and the consensus of United Nations resolutions against the occupation, against the colonial settlements, and against the wall (all of which were nullified by the PA under Arafat and Abbas in accordance with the wishes of their funders), it will be able to maintain and increase its popularity among the Palestinian people.
PA collaboration, which was remunerated with lots of funding, did not place one square inch of Palestinian land under Palestinian sovereignty, and neither will Hamas’s acquiescence. Depending on the outcome of the internal struggle within Hamas, it remains unclear what strategies the organization will follow. As it is not conditional funding that will end the occupation and keep Hamas in power, but rather an effective strategy to evict the criminal and brutal Israeli occupiers, the test for Hamas’s leaders is whether they will play the illusory game of governance under occupation as Fatah had done, or if they will launch a massive civil resistance against it. The enemies of the Palestinian people are praying they choose the illusion of governance.
-The writer is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. His book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question will be published later this month by Routledge. (Al Ahram Weekly, February 9-15, 2006)