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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Palestine Le Hamas aux portes du pouvoir

by By Pierre Barbancey

Palestine - Hamas at the threshold of power

Translated by John O’Neil

Translated Sunday 26 February 2006, by John O’Neil

The new Hamas-led Palestinian parliament met last Saturday. Mahmoud Abbas was expected to encourage the parliament to endorse the Palestinian Authority’s programs and international commitments.

The new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) met simultaneously in Ramallah and Gaza as Israeli authorities have forbidden the Hamas MPs passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Since the January 25th elections the parliament is dominated by an Islamist party for the first time in the Palestinian Authority’s history. Hamas secured 74 seats out of a possible 132. The Fatah party has 45 and the rest are distributed among other candidates, mostly PLO members.

Three weeks after their landslide victory, Hamas leaders took key positions in the Palestinian National Council where they command an absolute majority.

One of the Islamist movement’s more radical leaders in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, was appointed head of the Hamas parliamentary group in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

Aziz Dweik, a geography professor at An-Najah National University in Nablus, represents the West Bank city of Hebron and was chosen as Speaker of the PLC. In this key post, Dweik could be called on to assume the presidency of the Palestinian Authority for an interim period if Mahmoud Abbas, the current president, were to resign, become incapacitated or die. This interim period would last no longer than the 60 days necessary to organize a new presidential election.

But Mahmoud Abbas has no intention to of resigning. The Fatah Party, the majority in the outgoing legislature, strengthened its powers in its last session by passing a legislative amendment that would create a constitutional court to which Abbas would appoint the president and judges. This court will settle all disputes between the executive, legislative and judicial powers and can be called on to decide the constitutionality of laws passed by the now Hamas-led parliament. They approved the nomination of Fatah MP Mahmoud Abu Al-Rob as chair of the Budget and Financial Committee. They also created the “Secretary General of the PLC” post and appointed Fatah MP Ibrahim Khreisheh to it.

Not surprisingly, these last minute reforms have incensed Hamas. Aziz Dweik spoke of the “illegal” initiative as seeking to bestow full powers to president Abbas. But he recognizes that according to Palestinian law, Hamas can not repeal this legislation without a two-thirds majority.

With the nominations of Zahar and Dweik, the other Hamas leader in line for Prime Minister is Ismail Haniyeh. A former cabinet head of the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of Hamas, Haniyeh passes for a moderate, maintaining good relations with all of the Palestinian factions.

Hesitations on the part of Hamas show that it is walking a tightrope - facing pressure on all sides on how it should engage itself in the peace process. The Islamist group has yet to deal internally with this question. A process was already in progress and the different factions clashed with each other. The unexpected electoral victory has forced Hamas to establish its position sooner than anticipated. This is why at the opening of the new legislature Abbas exhorted Hamas to endorse the Palestinian Authority’s programs and international commitments. “If Hamas responds by forming a government with a different political agenda we’ll enter into a constitutional crisis. This could be a long and difficult process”, according to a source close to President Abbas.

Aware of the difficulties, Hamas announced its intention to form a national unity government but has had difficulties convincing Fatah to join it. “Fatah is our primary problem”, a Hamas official admitted. “We fear that Fatah is wants us to fail, which would create chaos and violence”, he explained admitting his fear that Mahmoud Abbas’ movement, which has occupied the administration for more than ten years will refuse to cooperate.

This fear, without a doubt, is the reason that Khaled Mechal, the Hamas leader in exile in Damascus, has made repeated declarations. Recently in a Russian magazine he declared "If Israel recognizes our rights and commits itself to pulling out of all of the occupied territories, Hamas and with it the whole Palestinian nation, will decide to put an end to armed resistance.” In spite of previous declarations, Mechal had already indicated that he would accept a “long-term cease fire" with Israel if Israel accepted the return to the 1967 border and recognize the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination but up until recently he had not spoken of an eventual end to the armed struggle.

Hamas’s spokesperson in Gaza is saying repeatedly, “Hamas is open to dialogue.” This is not the least of the paradoxes that have sprung from the recent Palestinian elections.

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