The following are selections from “Demarcating ‘security cooperation'” by Graham Usher which appeared in AL-AHRAM WEEKLY, 28th August – 3rd September, 1997

Last week representatives from the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and 11 other Palestinian political groups gathered in Gaza and Ramallah for a special “national unity conference” to meet the challenges thrown up by the crisis in the peace process.

Most Palestinian commentators saw the participation of the Islamist groups Hamas and Jihad (who boycotted earlier ‘national dialogue’ meetings in February and April) as testimony to Yasser Arafat’s ability to preside over all streams of Palestinian opinion. It is less clear whether this tacit acknowledgment of Arafat’s leadership will translate into “common ground” for action in the weeks ahead as the conference demanded.

“… the mere presence of Hamas and Jihad at the conference was evidence of Arafat’s ‘appeasement of terrorism'”, said Israeli Government spokesman, David Bar-Illan.

The same message was conveyed by Israeli leader Benyamin Netanyahu in phone calls over the weekend to President Mubarak and King Hussein. The U.S. government also commented that Arafat’s public embrace of Hamas leader Aziz Rantisi “was not particularly constructive in resorting [restoring?] trust and confidence” to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Arafat was unapologetic. The national conference was a response to the Netanyahu government’s policies of humiliating the PA and an “internal affair” that concerned Palestinians only, he said. It was a line that went down well on the Palestinian streets.

The collapse of the Oslo peace process has been accompanied by a decline in Palestinian support for Arafat and the PA. This discontent has not been confined to the )PA’s Islamist opposition. Recent months have witnessed a growing convergence between Hamas and elements of Arafat’s own Fatah movement, including those Fatah activists who staff the PA’s myriad security forces.

In June the PA’s head of Preventive Security in Gaza (and Fatah leader) Mohamed Dahlan, admitted that the PA may have “erred” in its ruthless suppression of Hamas following the suicide operations inside Israel in the spring of 1996. Now he says, the PA and Fatah believe that “Hamas has a very important presence in building the Palestinian homeland”. West Bank leader, Marwan Barghouti, has also warned that any indiscriminate arrest sweep by the PA of Hamas members “under Israel’s dictates” would be resisted by Fatah, “with demonstrations if necessary”.

Fatah’s new found sensitivity to Hamas is not solely due to the rejectionist policies of the Netanyahu government. It is also a recognition of Hamas’s growing strength among Palestinians.

Over the last year, Hamas in Gaza has quietly rebuilt its infrastructure, providing welfare to needy Palestinian families where PA provision (dependent on revenues collected in — and currently frozen by — Israel) has conspicuously failed.

Hamas also seems to have overcome the political schisms that nearly wrecked the movement after the 1996 suicide attacks. Then there were open divergences between Hamas’s Gaza-based leadership (which publicly opposed the operations) and its Jordan-based leadership (which supported them). The recent release from Israeli and American custody of such militant leaders as Rantisi in Gaza and Musa Abu Marzouk in Jordan has, say sources, united Hamas around a new consensus of opposition not only to Oslo but also to any “fratricidal conflict” with the PA.

In such circumstances it is understandable why Arafat has chosen to talk to his Islamist opposition rather than suppress it. Whether the national conference amounts to an “embrace” is another question….

At the same time as the national conference, PA security chiefs were meeting with their Israeli counterparts and American CIA officers to establish a new “mechanism” for security cooperation. The events were hardly coincidental, say sources. With security liaison, Arafat is signaling to the Americans that that he is committed to working with the Israelis to prevent terrorism in Israel. And with the national conference he is signaling that the PA cannot and will not become “an Israeli militia” in the self-rule areas.

Netanyahu has long rejected this distinction. Arafat’s hope is that the Americans will not do likewise.

(Thanks to Dr. Aaron Lerner of IMRA for editing these selections)