RAMALLAH // As tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, poured into Gaza City's streets to mark the 22nd anniversary of the founding of Hamas, the contrast with the West Bank could not have been more stark. Here there were no demonstrations or celebrations. Hardly a Hamas flag was flown and only a handful of legislators were available to do interviews on the occasion. The Islamic Resistance Movement, it would seem, has gone almost completely underground in the West Bank.
In part this is by choice, in part it has been imposed on the movement. Israel has for years chased the movement's political and military leaders. After Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006, Israel arrested more than 40 of the movement's legislators, paralysing the Palestinian parliament. Most of these were recently released, but the Palestinian Legislative Council nevertheless remains defunct and may in the coming days be officially suspended.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has also been engaged in a lengthy security clampdown. About 600 people have been arrested since 2007 and the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. These are detentions that according to the PA are purely for security considerations and part of its efforts to abide by its commitments under the 2003 Quartet-sponsored road map. Not so, Hamas officials say. These are "political arrests", part of a dedicated campaign against the Islamist movement, and the continued incarceration of the 600 current detainees poses one of only two remaining obstacles to reconciliation between the factions, Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas legislator from Ramallah, said yesterday in an interview.
Moreover, the arrests continue. In the past two days alone, Mr Ramahi said, PA security forces have rounded up 200 Hamas activists and summoned several hundred others in a bid to keep the movement from organising any events in the West Bank to mark its anniversary. Major Gen Adnan Damiri, a security spokesman, denied these numbers and acknowledged only that the security services had "summoned dozens" of Hamas activists to tell them they were not allowed to organise any demonstrations unless they applied for and received official permission. (Hamas refuses to ask for official permission since it does not recognise the legitimacy of the Salam Fayyad government.) Other security sources said about 20 Hamas members had been arrested in the West Bank in the past two days but denied that as many as 200 had been rounded up.
Whatever the reason, Hamas anniversary celebrations in the West Bank were neither mooted nor restrained; they did not take place at all. But that should not be confused with a lack of popular backing, Mr Ramahi said, dismissing public opinion polls that suggest Hamas has lost popularity in recent months. "At the moment, people are a little afraid of participating in Hamas events," Mr Ramahi said. "But I assure you, we know our base and we know that we are more popular than ever."
The reason for the movement's popularity was simple, he said. The strategy of negotiations had failed, and irreparably so. Since Fatah, even though it has now also come to the same conclusion, has no other strategy, there is no alternative to that proposed by Hamas. "The difference between us and them is that we ask them to allow the resistance to work. We have to have resistance, with or without negotiations. But Fatah is trapped because it relies on money from the US and EU. Fatah fears that if it returns to resistance it will lose that funding."
There is certainly plenty of confidence in Hamas as it enters its 23rd year. In Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, one of the movement's main leaders, said Hamas has realised a "large part" of its goals and boasted that its "understanding of the resistance is total, and is not limited to armed conflict". The movement has proved itself capable of adapting to changing circumstances. Hamas has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, which for years in the Palestinian territories did not engage in any active resistance to the Israeli occupation, but rather focused on social, charitable and educational activities. That changed in 1987 with the formation of Hamas, which took a significant part in the first intifada and wedded itself to the idea of armed resistance.
But the movement had little effect on the political process, and remained outside the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which officially represents the Palestinian people. Hamas was adamantly opposed to the 1993 Oslo Accords, and for years refused to recognise or participate in the Palestinian Authority, sitting out the first parliamentary elections in 1996. But after the outbreak of the second intifada and the death of Yasser Arafat, the PLO and Fatah leader, the movement made a strategic decision to run in the PA's second parliamentary elections, which it won with a landslide.
That seemed to set it on the same course as Fatah, one that led it from being a resistance group to being a political party now negotiating with Israel. Indeed, some observers say that with Hamas observing a truce with Israel in Gaza and negotiating over a prisoner exchange, it is almost there. But Mr Ramahi rejected this. "We will never accept to negotiate with Israel. We will continue the resistance until Palestine is liberated. We will accept a state on the lands of 1967, but this is not a negotiable matter.
"When Israel is ready for this, we will sit down and talk about how to implement it. We won't negotiate over this. This was Fatah's big mistake." firstname.lastname@example.org