5 - 11 February 2009
Issue No. 933
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Don't undermine the PLO
Hamas's suggestion of replacing the PLO would take the Palestinian struggle
back to square one, writes Galal Nassar
The first Intifada, launched on 9 October 1987, was a concerted effort carried
out by all resistance groups acting under guidance from their umbrella
organisation, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Less than two years
after the Intifada broke out, a new group came onto the scene. It called itself
the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.
Since its inception, Hamas disassociated itself from the PLO, refusing to join
it, declining to coordinate with it, and generally acting as if it wasn't
there. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Hamas celebrates the Intifada on 8
October, not on 9 October as the rest of Palestinian groups do.
Hamas sees itself as a group standing outside the mainstream of the resistance,
with no obligation to the needs of Palestinian national unity. In fact, Hamas
sees itself as an alternative to the mainstream, a force that should rise to
the top, eventually replacing the PLO.
In a nutshell, Hamas wants to create a new umbrella organisation, one based on
the Muslim Brotherhood programme. This is not something Hamas says in public,
but it is nevertheless true. Unfortunately, the PLO failed to grasp this
threat, hoping that Hamas would moderate its stand in time.
Hamas resented the Palestinian Authority (PA) since its creation in 1994. Hamas
leaders have consistently maligned the Oslo Accords, the agreement that paved
the way to the establishment of the PA. Not a group that shies from using force
to make a point, Hamas engaged in military operations against Israel simply to
confuse and embarrass both the PLO and the PA.
Israel didn't waste time in exploiting this new phenomenon and employed various
methods to deepen divisions in Palestinian ranks. At one point, however, Hamas
turned completely around and ran for elections. It did so without joining the
PLO or coming to terms with the legal status of the PA. Its surprising
landslide victory was only the beginning of a new phase of trouble.
Subsequently, Hamas ended up barricaded in Gaza, the PA frustrated and unable
What Hamas wanted was more than just controlling the PA, or even creating a
mini-caliphate in Gaza. Hamas wanted a new Islamic authority to emerge, not
only in Gaza and the West Bank, but wherever Palestinians live, at home or in
Recently, the chief of Hamas's Political Bureau, Khaled Meshaal, lashed out at
the PLO, calling for the creation of an alternative umbrella organisation for
the Palestinians. The announcement came as a shock to many, but it was in
keeping with what Hamas had in mind all along.
Some say that the whole thing is a new manoeuvre on Hamas's part to gain
leverage in its talks with the PLO. Others say that Hamas is trying to control,
not wreck, the PLO. But whether the aim is to control or replace the PLO, it
comes down to the same thing.
One wonders if there is still a point in Cairo hosting another dialogue between
Hamas and the PLO. One wonders, too, why Fatah failed for so long to launch the
reform of the PLO everyone has been waiting for. The PLO has a national
programme that has lasted for a few decades but is now under threat and it
needs to find a way of revising and consolidating it.
When it comes to bad timing, Hamas cannot be outdone. It triggered the recent
war with Israel when every political party in Israel was eager for a fight that
would boost its chances in the coming elections. And it had Meshaal pounce on
the PLO even before the Gaza war was officially over.
There is a ceasefire in Gaza now, but the saga is far from over. With just a
week left for the current Israeli government, Israeli officials may not be able
to resist another go, if just to improve their approval ratings a little bit
The remaining week is not enough to settle any of the issues that came up
before and after the war, including the truce Cairo was trying to mediate. The
Israelis want the Palestinians to surrender fully in return for 18 months of
calm during which the crossing points would be partly opened and the siege
would remain in one form or another. This means that the suffering of Gaza is
far from over.
Despite the unilateral ceasefire it has announced, Israel is not done dividing
the Palestinians. And Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak are all
threatening to wreak more havoc on Gaza. Why not? The war has improved the
standing of the Labour Party and gave Barak a shot at being Israel's next prime
minister. Livni, a quick learner, is finding that extremism pays.
One wonders how any of this will end. At what point exactly will the Israelis
quit persecuting the Palestinians and the Palestinians quit bickering among
The Palestinian people have sacrificed much. They have just experienced a
brutal aggression, with perhaps more to come. For their sacrifices, the
Palestinians deserve a united leadership. They deserve a leadership capable of
acting upon clear goals and leading the nation closer to its aspirations. In
fact, the Palestinians should use the recent tragedy to close ranks, not to
turn against one another.
The hope was that Arab-backed Egyptian mediation would lead to dialogue and
eventually to a measure of unity. Such an outcome would have helped resolve
some difficult issues, from how to end the blockade to how to start
reconstruction. But any hopes were dashed when Meshaal declared in Doha his
desire to form an umbrella organisation for all Palestinians at home and
abroad. Although he didn't say the words, many interpreted his remarks as a
call to discard the PLO, the internationally recognised representative of the
If implemented in any form, Meshaal's ideas would destroy the remaining
achievements of the Palestinian struggle. For all its shortcomings, the PLO is
the moral backbone of the Palestinian people. And with the Palestinians so
divided, the PLO's voice is needed more than at anytime before. The PLO is the
official face of the Palestinians, a face familiar to and recognised by 120
countries around the world -- no mean achievement by any account.
Formed by an Arab summit decision in Cairo in 1965, the PLO lacked full Arab
support until 1973, when it was declared the sole legitimate representative of
the Palestinian people. This was an achievement for which battles were fought
and blood was shed. This was an issue on which the Arabs remained divided for
long, until it was finally settled. To undermine the PLO now is to start again
This is the time for confidence building, not division. We need initiatives to
revive dialogue and unity. It is clear that Israel is playing the Palestinians
one against the other and trying to secure the secession of Gaza. Israel, which
has never accepted the moderate views of the PLO, is not about to reconcile
with the hardline Hamas.
What Hamas is giving the Israelis is an opportunity to excuse themselves from
all responsibilities. If the PLO were challenged by another organisation, the
Israelis would immediately claim that they cannot find anyone to talk to, as
both the PLO and the new organisation would be too weak to speak for all