5 - 11 February 2009
Issue No. 933
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In focus:
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 
to respond.

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 
Palestinian people.

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 
from scratch.

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 

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