In the 1960s the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed to fight for Palestinian statehood and self-determination. It announced itself through terror tactics – hijackings and bombings – but later turned mainly to diplomacy. Its leading personalities included Muslims and Christians and it demanded a ‘secular democratic state’ where Muslims, Christians and Jews would live side by side in equality. For four decades, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, secular rather than religious demands dominated Palestinian political life. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Peace Now movement emerged amongst Israelis calling for an end to the occupation. At the same time, more radical Israeli peace groups were opening dialogue with Palestinian representatives. The ‘war’ camp and the ‘peace camp’ could not be pigeonholed by religion or ethnicity.
Origins of Hamas
Israel’s clandestine response, revealed later by former CIA officials, was to encourage the growth of religious groups among the Palestinians as a counterweight to the secular PLO. Israel allowed funds to be channelled to these groups from abroad to promote it at the expense of the secular PLO. It was trying to divide the Palestinian movement. Hamas, which prides itself today on its refusal to recognise Israel, grew out of an organisation called Al-Mujamma al Islami, a local arm of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Led by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Al-Mujamma al Islami was legally registered in Israel in 1978. It widened its base through religious and social work, and formalised itself as Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) in 1987.
The best laid plans…
As Hamas became much stronger than just a divisive counterweight, the Israeli establishment took fright. Yassin, once discreetly encouraged by Israel to undermine the PLO’s support, was assassinated by an Israeli helicopter gunship in 2004. Some Israelis were worried that they had helped create a Frankenstein’s monster but others saw further benefits. They believed that any willingness by Fatah to make compromises for peace would be torpedoed by Hamas rejectionists, leaving the status quo unaltered, with the Occupied Palestinian Territories still in Israeli hands. The Iranian revolution, the increasing muscle of Christian fundamentalists on American politics and the emergence of Al Qa’eda represent a convergence of religious and political agendas which has affected the Palestinian street as well. Some Israelis welcome rather than fear this development. They believe that if the conflict is cast as Muslims versus Jews, it will divide the Palestinians between the Muslim majority and their Christian minority and at the same time neutralise the growing Jewish opposition within Israel.
These factors combined with the increasing impoverishment and desperation of Palestinians living under Israeli rule, Arafat’s death in 2004, and accusations against its political leaders of corruption and treachery, created a political crisis and power vacuum.
Source: Channel 4