Daunting task lies ahead for Palestinian PM-elect

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 2006, 12:00am

Ismail Haniyeh's backers have already begun referring to him by the title he will soon assume when he forms the first ever Muslim fundamentalist-led government in the Palestinian territories. But he is not entirely comfortable with the designation prime minister.

'Don't call me that, these are hollow titles,' an acquaintance recalled being told this week by the Gaza Strip leader of the radical Hamas movement. 'We are under occupation. Call me brother, not prime minister,' Mr Haniyeh said.

A father of 13 children, he still lives in the beachfront Shati refugee camp in Gaza City where he was born in 1963. Unlike the outgoing prime minister, Ahmed Qorei - an unpopular transplant from Palestine Liberation Organisation headquarters in Tunis - Mr Haniyeh successfully styles himself a man of the people.

Politically, he is viewed as a pragmatist, in part because he tends to avoid the extremist pronouncements of other leaders in a movement that advocates Israel's destruction, and which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings against civilian and military targets.

He has spoken of a truce for 20 years with Israel if it pulls back to its pre-1967 borders and releases prisoners. And he has said the idea of eradicating Israel is not realistic.

'Does someone believe we can use guns to destroy a state that has F-16s and 200 nuclear warheads?' he recently asked in an interview with a Greek newspaper.

But in the view of analysts, Mr Haniyeh will not lead Hamas beyond the truce idea towards the recognition of Israel being demanded by the US and European Union. That would negate the movement's core belief that all historic Palestine is a sacred Islamic trust.

At the same time, however, the analysts say Mr Haniyeh would like a degree of calm in relations with Israel and seeks the continuation of a year-old ceasefire that Hamas has largely observed so it could focus on economic and social issues, and consolidate its hold on power.

With Israel and the US poised to cripple the Palestinian Authority economically in response to Hamas' victory, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas intent on preserving his own dominant role, Mr Haniyeh will need more than his down-to-earth style of persuasion for the daunting task that lies ahead. Small wonder that after being designated prime minister by Mr Abbas, he said: 'I pray to God to help me carry this responsibility.'

Neither he nor other Hamas leaders imagined the movement, running in its first parliamentary election, would win 74 of 132 seats. Polls predicted Hamas would finish a strong second to Mr Abbas' traditionally dominant Fatah movement, making the Islamic movement a large opposition party or a junior partner in the Fatah-led coalition. But with Mr Haniyeh topping the Hamas ticket, and with resonant campaign messages stressing the failure of Fatah to end occupation and highlighting alleged Fatah corruption, Hamas emerged on top and it is Fatah that is deciding whether to be a junior coalition partner or in opposition.

With no experience in governance, Mr Haniyeh is an enormous question mark at home and abroad. He must immediately figure out how to rule an increasingly destitute population that is caught between Israeli occupation, and the internal chaos prompted by Palestinian militias and security forces. It remains to be seen how adept he will be at serving a national constituency rather than a factional one. Another question is how much freedom he will be allowed by Khaled Meshaal, the extremely militant head of Hamas' political department.

Mr Haniyeh's parents come from the area that is now the Israeli city of Ashkelon, north of the Gaza Strip, and were among the more than 600,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled during Israel's creation in 1948. He attended a UN school for refugee children.

The prime minister-elect studied Arabic literature at the Islamic University in Gaza and served as head of the student council. He later held an administrative position at the institution, an intellectual and leadership incubator for Hamas.

Mr Haniyeh joined Hamas at its inception in 1988, during the early days of the first intifada uprising. He was imprisoned for three years by Israeli occupation authorities, starting in 1989, for his part in the insurrection. In 1992, he was among 415 leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad deported by Israel for a year to Lebanon in an unsuccessful bid to cripple Hamas.

His standing in Hamas rose in part because of his close relations to its founder and spiritual guide, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who formed the movement by combining an armed wing to pursue attacks on Israeli targets with welfare and social institutions. In the mid-1990s, Mr Haniyeh became Sheikh Yassin's bureau chief.

'Sheikh Yassin always looked towards Ismail Haniyeh as a son and a right arm,' said Ghazi Hamed, editor of Hamas' Al-Risala newspaper.

And for Mr Haniyeh, Sheikh Yassin was 'the teacher, the person he took his principles and morals from'.

In 2003, the pair narrowly escaped Israeli assassination during an air strike on a Gaza City building. Sheikh Yassin and his successor, Abdul-Aziz Rantissi, were assassinated in separate strikes a year later.

Mr Haniyeh has been careful over the years to maintain good relations with Fatah, something that may now stand him in good stead as he tries to lure it into a national unity coalition. In July he was credited with helping to bring about calm after clashes between Fatah and Hamas militiamen in Gaza City.

'We must conserve our weapons for use only against the occupation,' he said.

Now Mr Haniyeh wants Fatah in the government to defuse a looming power struggle with Mr Abbas, who warned Hamas at the opening of parliament not to question the legitimacy of agreements he helped negotiate with Israel. Having Fatah politicians in the cabinet would also boost its international image, said Palestinian commentator Khaled Amayreh, based in the West Bank.

'Fatah joining would make things much easier. It would avert the much-feared showdown between Abbas and the Hamas-led government,' he said.

But even before Mr Haniyeh forms the cabinet and takes up his post, he has a major crisis on his hands in the form of Israel's halting of monthly tax transfers worth tens of millions of dollars in response to the swearing-in of the new Hamas dominated parliament a week ago.

The taxes collected since 1994 by Israel used to pay most of the payroll for the 130,000 staff of the Palestinian Authority, the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And that could be just the first salvo in an Israeli economic war to undermine Hamas. Other steps that could be implemented are banning the entry of the several thousand Gaza residents who work in Israel daily and starting a blockade on Palestinian exports. Israel has also called on the international community to withhold all aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Under such circumstances, Mr Haniyeh's interest is that there be no attacks in Tel Aviv by Hamas suicide bombers, analysts say.

'I don't expect Hamas attacks. Hamas is going to try to improve its image, especially in Europe,' said Reuven Paz, of the Israel-based Project for the Research of Islamist Movements. 'They will try to crack the US-Israeli-European front against them, and for this they need a pragmatic policy.'

Mr Hamed said: 'Hamas is interested in keeping the situation calm in order to form the government and to arrange things internally. It is not wise for Hamas to do bombings.

'The government is going to focus on imposing security and law, and the economy,' he said. 'These are the expectations of its voters.'

Mr Haniyeh will be making his policies in the shadow of a wary Israeli army. General Yair Naveh, commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, believes the Hamas electoral success should be viewed as an endorsement of its armed attacks. 'The public has said clearly through this vote that armed struggle is the way to achieve gains,' he said.

General Naveh predicts that Hamas will refrain from attacks in the short term, but allow other factions to stage them. In his view, being in power will not moderate Hamas, and any pragmatism shown by Mr Haniyeh or other leaders will still be towards the end of destroying Israel.

'They don't want the state of Israel, they don't want the people of Israel. They want us in the Mediterranean-deep,' he said.