Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement which is the most popular political group among Palestinians, and is also the leading critic and opponent of the ‘peace process’, suffered a major blow on August 30, when the Jordanian government closed down its offices in Amman.
At least 50 Hamas members were arrested (official Jordanian sources said 13), and files and papers were seized. Three senior Hamas leaders escaped arrest because they were in Iran at the time, and two others went into hiding inside Jordan.
Shaikh Ahmad Yaseen, the founder and leader of Hamas, who lives in Ghazzah, said that the crackdown was clearly at the instigation of the US and Israel, and aimed to end Hamas’s opposition to the ‘peace process’. Speaking at a news-conference the day after the crackdown, he said that Hamas could not be intimidated into supporting a betrayal of the Palestinian people.
Hamas leaders in Lebanon and Palestine said that they hoped to open talks with Jordanian officials, leading to a possible resumption of Hamas political activities, and the return of the Hamas leaders who were forced to remain in Iran to avoid arrest. These are Khalid Misha’al, head of Hamas’s political organization, and politburo members Musa Abu Marzuk and Ibrahim Ghosheh. Hamas’s spokesman in Jordan, Muhammad Nazal, went into hiding in Jordan.
Hamas has long based its political operations in Amman, after a 1991 agreement with King Hussein that permitted it to do so provided Hamas did not ‘interfere’ in internal Jordanian affairs. In view of Hussein’s close relations with Washington and Israel, this agreement was assumed to have their tacit approval, presumably so that they could monitor Hamas activities with Jordanian assistance.
Hamas activities in Jordan were highlighted by two events in 1997. First, Musa Abu Marzuk was permitted to settle there after withdrawing his appeal against deportation from the US. A legal resident in the US since the early 1980s, Abu Marzuk had been arrested in 1995 after Israel requested his extradition on ‘terrorism’ charges. Tel Aviv then failed to present any evidence linking him to military activities, but Washington still refused to release him, and he remained in jail for two years, proving a major embarrassment to the US, until Hussein agreed to take him off their hands.
Later in the year, Israeli secret-service agents attempted to assassinate Khalid Misha’al in Amman, by injecting him with a poison. The assailants were pursued and captured by a his bodyguard, embarrassing Israel and angering Jordan. Shaikh Ahmad Yaseen’s release from prison follwed this attempt.
Why the Jordanian government should break this agreement now is unclear. However, it has been increasingly pressuring Hamas in recent months. The governor of Amman, Talat al-Nawasiyah, was reported last year to have warned Misha’al and other Hamas leaders against promoting military activities against Israel while they were on Jordanian territory. The timing of the crackdown, shortly before US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s high-profile visit to the region, culminating in the signing of the revised Wye agreement in Alexandria, was probably not coincidental. Jordan’s new King, Abdullah, would also have welcomed the opportunity to impress his American and Israeli friends. Copies of the papers seized from the Hamas offices would have been gratefully accepted by US and Israeli intelligence agents.
However, it is unlikely that Abdullah will launch an outright war on Hamas, because of the movement’s popularity, not least in Jordan. Jordanian Islamic leaders, including Ikhwan Al-Muslimoon leader Abdul Majid Zuneibat, were quick to criticise the crackdown. Some sources suggest that Hamas may have known about the crackdown in advance, which is why they were in Iran at the time. Others suggest that Jordanian officials may have deliberately timed the crackdown for their absence, to avoid arresting them. Hamas officials are optimistic that a settlement can be reached by which its leaders are permitted to resume their work in Amman, albeit perhaps under greater restrictions.
However, the episode illustrates the increasing pressures on Palestinian Islamic groups as a result of the ‘peace process’. A major reason for the US and Israel pursuing this strategy over the last decade has been their inability to counter the growing popularity and successes of the Islamic movement. The political infrastructure established by the Oslo accord and subsequent agreements is largely designed to make Palestinian collaborators - in the guise of the so-called ‘Palestinian National Authority’ - fight the Islamic movement on Israel’s behalf, thus cushioning the Zionists from the costs of their actions.
The PNA is now responsible for fighting opponents of the ‘peace process’, and has done so with increasing effect, especially since last year’s Wye agreement, by which the CIA were given an official role in helping PNA authorities to ‘police’ their territories. Hundreds of Hamas activists and supporters have been arrested and jailed without any legal procedures, and the PNA authorities are developing an unenviable reputation for brutality and the use of torture. The ‘Ezzidin Al-Qassam’ brigade - Hamas’s military wing - was seriously affected, particularly after the martyrdoms of its leader Yahya Ayyash in 1996, and of Muhi al-Din Sharif last year. In both cases, Arafat’s men assisted the Israelis.
Hamas has also been hampered by a reluctance to fight fellow-Palestinians, even those working for the PNA. Turning the Palestinian struggle against Israel into an internecine fight among Palestinians was a major objective of the ‘peace process’, which Hamas has had to tread carefully to avoid. However, Hamas’s popularity among ordinary Palestinians remains as high as ever, much to Arafat’s annoyance. This popularity is particularly obvious among Palestinian students. Arafat’s refusal to provide universities and colleges with much-needed cash has been linked to the popularity of Hamas. He was quoted in the Palestinian Times newspaper recently as telling the presidents of universities and colleges that ”you can’t have both money and Hamas at the same time”.
Despite the extent of the PNA crackdown, however, Hamas has been able to step up military operations in recent weeks, effectively ending a self-declared moratorium. The two car-bombs which exploded (apparently prematurely) in Haifa and Tiberius on September 5 may have been part of this. The ‘Ezzidin Al-Qassam’ brigades have admitted that they carried out earlier operations: an attack on Israeli soldiers on August 10 in which eight Israelis were injured and Akram Alkam, a 23-year-old Hamas member, was martyred; and a shooting in Al-Khalil in which two Zionist ‘settlers’ were wounded a few days later.
These operations indicate that Hamas retains the capacity to fight the Israelis when it chooses to do so. The risk is that this will increasingly mean fighting the Palestinian collaborators too. Whether Hamas is ready to change its cautious approach, of opposing the political process without directly fighting fellow-Palestinians, remains to be seen.
Other anti-Zionist Islamic movements in the region are also coming under pressure as a result of the ‘peace’ process. The situations of Islamic groups in Syria and Lebanon are similar to that of Hamas in Jordan. There are increasing concerns for what may happen if the governments of these countries reach deals with the Zionists. While Islamic Iran remains committed to opposing surrender to the Zionists, and the Palestinian and Arab Islamic movements have good relations with Tehran, the Arab movements would prefer to be able to operate from bases in Arab countries closer to Palestine, where they can more easily coordinate their anti-Israel activities.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1999