Ramallah, Israel, Palestinian Territory
Don't try to find anyone to go on the record as a Hamas member in this city. While recent polls show the faction became more popular throughout the West Bank since last November and Israel's military campaign against armed factions firing rockets into its territory, Hamas members lay low to avoid arrest by the Israeli army or Palestinian Authority security forces.
Despite staying under the radar, however, they are working hard to increase even further their already substantial popularity ahead of any possible changes on the political map and their relationship with the PA.
"Of course there is a security concern if we declare our identity," a senior West Bank Hamas official told The Media Line, speaking on condition of anonymity.
To avoid difficulties, even members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian parliament, who ran on Hamas's Change and Reform electoral list which won a majority of seats in the 2006 election, now hide their affiliation, saying they cut their ties with the list as soon as they were elected to the PLC. But turn off your tape recorder and Hamas' West Bank reality emerges.
"Israel can charge me just because I agreed to talk as a Hamas official in an interview," one parliament member from the northern West Bank city of Nablus told The Media Line. "I don't want to give them an excuse to put me in jail. An interrogator told me once: 'You are Hamas.' I told him: 'You say that and the people in the street say that, but I didn't say I am Hamas.'"
Despite the need to guard against potential arrest, observers believe that not only are these members of parliament not from Hamas, but that they ran on its list because they knew it would attract voters. Meanwhile, the faction is working secretly in the West Bank, the only way for Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization -- including it's so-called political arm, the Change and Reform List -- to function politically.
Following a self-described national Islamist party line, Hamas leaders in the West Bank say they also take a pragmatic approach. "No one is against the two-state solution, but contrary to Fatah, we are against acknowledging Israel," the senior Hamas official parliament member added.
However, West Bank analysts say this approach, which included a decision to halt attacks in the West Bank, doesn't mean that the faction and Israel don't share an interest in creating chaos that would lead to a third intifada, or armed Palestinian uprising, against Israel.
Just last Wednesday, 23 people affiliated with Hamas, including three PLC members, were arrested by Israel, a move Hamas said was aimed at sabotaging reconciliation efforts with the PA. Back in 2006, Israel was accused of using similar tactics when it arrested most of the Hamas PLC members following their victory in Palestinian elections.
The Palestinian Authority is also blamed for arresting West Bank Hamas members just to intimidate them, faction officials say. They also criticize PA security coordination with Israel, although pressure between the two factions was eased after deals were signed which allowed both Hamas and Fatah to hold anniversary celebrations in each other's territories. Indeed, Hamas was allowed to openly celebrate its 25th anniversary last December in the West Bank
PA security forces spokesman Adnan Dmairi doesn't deny security cooperation with Israel, saying: "As people under occupation, we need to coordinate with Israel in daily activities, but we will never coordinate with the occupation to harm our people." No one is arrested for their political affiliation, he insists.
Dmairi claimed that there are many groups interested in undermining security in the West Bank, and that Fatah people were also arrested for violations like collecting weapons. He said security forces have arrested a large number of groups for this offense but that they couldn't be directly linked to Hamas.
Despite having to tread carefully, Hamas officials say the faction is as strong in the West Bank as it was in 2006. However, as a banned faction, little is known about its operations and activities.
"We don't know who is Hamas, and if there are membership applications. We can't tell if someone is Hamas or not even if he says he is," George Giacaman, head of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, told The Media Line. Some of those who go public are not representative of Hamas' leadership or even talk about its decisions and plans.
Meanwhile, attempts at reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority remain stalled. Analysts in Ramallah believe the unexpected upcoming visit of US President Barack Obama might put any reconciliation between the two factions on hold. They argue that any perceived unity between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas would be seen negatively by Obama.
Hamas also doubts much will come of talks with Israel. "Abbas bets on negotiations, but we don't think that the Israelis are going to give him anything. This was confirmed by the latest Israeli official's remarks," a Hamas leader told The Media Line, referring to former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's comments that peace between Israel and Palestine is "impossible and can only be managed," and remarks issued by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office that there is no change in Israel's policy regarding establishing communities on land Israel captured in the 1967 war.
Whether elections or integrating Hamas into the PLO comes first was a major issue discussed during the just-concluded talks in Cairo between Fatah and Hamas officials that failed to make any progress on reconciliation. "Hamas wants seats in the PLO [the official Palestinian umbrella organization responsible for peace talks] that reflect their votes in 2006, a number the party knows it will never reach again," Birzeit University instructor Nasha't Al-Aqtash told The Media Line.
Still, Palestinians are hoping to end the 2007 dispute that split the Gaza Strip and West Bank between the two factions. Hamas is out to win parliamentary, presidential and PLO national council elections, while it appears Fatah is in a weak position worsened by its conflicting sectors and groups.
If local elections are anything to go by, Fatah could suffer the same fate again, but on the bigger stage. "Those who split from Fatah came out ahead in the party's formal lists in the municipal elections, and that's alarming," Al-Aqtash said.
Hamas believes it has a good chance to sweep all of the elections. "Fatah's failure to provide tangible results on the ground, the war in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli pressure on us prove to the people that we are the one paying the price of the occupation," a Hamas leader told The Media Line. He added that the Hamas anniversary celebration gave the faction a boost in the West Bank where it might even do better than in Gaza.
"There are more Hamas supporters in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip because people in Gaza have tried Hamas and don't want it, but the West Bank has not seen much of Hamas in power," Al-Aqtash explained.
If elections do happen, it will be the first time Hamas participates in the PLO and presidential elections. Hamas boycotted the presidential vote in 2005 which Abbas won and was until recently refusing to run in the PLO's National Council elections. The National Council is the body that determines the path taken by the PLO, the sole representative of the Palestinian people. It includes Palestinians inside and outside of the Palestinian territories.
"Hamas has given much attention to the Palestinians abroad, a sector Fatah has ignored," Al-Aqtash told The Media Line.
Despite its remaining strength in the West Bank, even with the limitations it must face there, as Fatah and Hamas have both had chances ruling in their respective areas, observers believe that the people's bad experiences under both factions' rule will pave the way for independents to do well in any elections. Sources close to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad talk about his intention to run independently in the presidential elections. "People have tried both [Fatah and Hamas] and resent them both," Giacaman said.
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"Hamas Leaders Keep Low Profile in West Bank"
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