PLO vs. Hamas: Battle for Minds and Hearts
Dave Eberhart, NewsMax.com
Saturday Dec. 8, 2001
U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni Friday delivered a list of 19 steps the United States wants Palestinian Authority leader Yaaser Arafat to take against terrorists in the Palestinian-controlled territories over the next 48 hours.
In addition to arrests of key Islamic militants, the U.S. lists closures of weapons manufacturing sites.
But arresting Hamas terrorists will pit Arafat against an organization that has won many hearts and minds in the shabby quarters of Gaza and the West Bank.
In a staged rally this week, Arafat urged unenthused crowds to stand against "everyone who is trying to undermine our national goals.” Translation: Stand against Hamas.
The last time Arafat moved against Hamas in any major way was 1996 on the heels of a wave of suicide attacks against Israel by the militant arm of the organization.
At that time Arafat rounded up 600 Hamas members, many of whom only passed through the revolving doors of the jailhouse.
But in 1996, peace negotiations were perceived as going somewhere, and Hamas was not as powerful and popular.
Many Palestinians, tired of what they see as Arafat’s corrupt and weak leadership have turned to Hamas, a broadly based social and political organization with firm roots within the impoverished Palestinian population.
Filling a void left by Arafat’s inept regime, Hamas has long provided schools, medical clinics, childcare, food subsidies, labor exchanges, and even cash welfare payments to the destitute residents of Gaza and the West Bank. All these services to the poor are provided irrespective of political affiliation.
This has translated into goodwill among the 2 million plus Palestinians in the territories. The Robin Hood image is polished when Hamas members periodically hand out to poor families about 50 U.S. dollars worth of Israeli shekels, the currency most used by Palestinians.
Thought of by many in the West as just a cabal of terrorists, the complex Hamas has a spiritual leadership of fundamentalist clerics and a political leadership of academics and activists. It is the underground military wing, which recruits and trains the suicide bombers who derail peace in the region.
And Hamas members and leaders do not just live in the Palestinian territories. There are divisions of Hamas in Iran, Sudan, Syria and other Muslim countries.
As of October 2001, support among Palestinians for the Hamas and similar groups had risen to 31 percent, up from 23 percent in September 2000, according to a poll by Dr. Nader Said of Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, in the West Bank. The same poll showed that support for Mr. Arafat’s Fatah organization had dropped to 20 percent, from 33 percent.
Hamas is most popular among the Palestinian women, who appreciate its social services, Dr. Said discovered in his polling. Hamas also does well with the young people. At a recent student council elections held at a university on the West Bank, Hamas overwhelmed Fatah, 60 percent to 34 percent.
Many Palestinians side with the bloody tactics and peace-strangling strategy of Hamas because of recent history. Israel’s withdrawl from Lebanon in May 2000, after 22 years’ occupation, led many Palestinians to determine that the war of attrition conducted by Hezbollah guerrillas had forced Israel to cut and run.
Consequently, many Palestinians do not support the cease-fire and many approve of the suicide bombings: sentiments the polar opposite of those espoused by leader Arafat.
In a hugely unpopular move Wednesday night, Arafat’s Palestinian police placed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, under house arrest in Gaza. Protestors quickly filled the streets, throwing stones until the police opened fire killing one.
But the popularity of Hamas does ebb and flow, its popularity climbing during the past year as peace talks collapsed.
Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster, opined that Hamas popularity was not so much rooted in its charities but in its terror exploits. "People want nothing short of revenge, blood, more of it,” he said, "and under these conditions, the ones who give them blood are the ones they will give their support.”
But if Arafat is successful in cracking down on Hamas and the hope for peace reemerges, the prevailing favorable attitude may change. "This is temporary,” said Shikaki of the bloodlust of many rank and file Palestinians. "Once the reason for it is gone, then support for it is gone.”