At Hamas’s anniversary celebration in Gaza last week, the organization’s Politburo leader Khaled Meshaal delivered one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement. For over a year, since Hamas’s collapse in relations with Syria and the crisis with Iran, Meshaal has been fighting for his political life. While Hamas forces in Gaza may have resumed “armed struggle” against Israel as part of an effort to undermine the control of external leaders, especially Meshaal, the wily old politician was able to spin conflict, cease-fire negotiations and his continued position at the top to claim “credit” for Hamas’s “victory.”
The cost of this “victory” to the people of Gaza has been enormous: over 175 deaths and at least $300 million in damage to property and infrastructure. But the cost of Meshaal’s “victory” speech to the Palestinian national movement could be even more devastating in the long run. It locks him and Hamas into the most hardline, confrontational and maximalist positions, making both Palestinian national reconciliation and progress towards independence far more difficult in the coming years.
Meshaal’s main point was that he’s not going to allow himself to be outbid by an extremist turn by local leaders on the ground: he can be every bit as aggressive and recalcitrant as them and there is no need to look for an alternative leadership.
And there’s a certain connivance in this by the two main external actors affecting events in Gaza: Egypt and Israel, both of which facilitated his “triumphal” visit. Clearly both prefer to deal with a Meshaal- or at least Politburo-led Hamas than one dominated by local leaders in Gaza. The regional calculation remains that the externally-based Politburo will be ultimately restrained by its new regional Arab patrons while local Gaza leaders, at least for now, have a greater interest in conflict.
It was Gaza-based Hamas leaders, after all, that resumed "armed struggle" with Israel earlier this year. On the other hand, it was Meshaal and other Politburo leaders that—working through Egypt, which got all the credit—negotiated a cease-fire acceptable to the Israeli government. But these same perceptions required Meshaal to adopt maximalist positions to consolidate credit for the "victory" and try to offset any notion within Hamas that he represents a less confrontational wing of the group.
The central theme of Meshaal’s speech was a total rejection of any recognition of, or compromise with Israel, under any circumstances. “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land,” he declared. He emphasized that armed struggle, and not negotiations, where the only way forward, under the strange slogan, “Liberation first, then statehood.” He said there was “no legitimacy for Israel,” and that Hamas would never recognize it. And, of course, he emphasized the right of return for every refugee.
These positions are totally unworkable from the perspective of the Palestinian national interest. It’s certainly true that Israel and, to some extent, the international community, have rewarded Hamas’s “armed struggle” in certain ways, but no one in their right mind can imagine that there is any prospect of a Palestinian “military victory” against the Israeli armed forces.
As for the project of ending the occupation, Israeli settlers and their friends can only have been ecstatic at Meshaal’s hyper-bellicose positions, all of which strengthen their two main contentions: 1) there is no Palestinian partner for peace; and 2) Israel settlements are, among other things, forward defenses against an implacable existential enemy.
For the Palestinian national movement, Hamas is a disaster built on a calamity. From its outset, it has sought to undermine the mainstream nationalist movement by outbidding it on patriotic rhetoric, maximalist demands, violence, intractability and phony Islamic credentials. It has been a cynical project from day one.
Its formation during the first intifada was facilitated and smiled on by Israeli leaders who were hoping to split the Palestinian national movement between nationalists and Islamists. And its present rise is being facilitated, wittingly or unwittingly, by Israeli and international policies that have created the appearance that nonviolent diplomatic efforts by the PLO and institution-building on the ground in the occupied West Bank by the Palestinian Authority are futile projects that are not advancing independence or even improving Palestinians’ daily lives.
Other Hamas leaders were trying to outbid Meshaal, just as Hamas in general tries to outbid the PA. Elements within the Ramallah leadership sometimes allow themselves to be drawn into that bidding war, unhelpfully escalating rhetoric against Israel although not abandoning a commitment to nonviolence or the goal of peace.
Among Palestinians, just like Israelis, the “patriotic” bidding war makes for great domestic politics but disastrous national policies. Meshaal’s speech is completely comprehensible in terms of his own personal political standing within Hamas and among Palestinians and other Arabs. But in terms of the interests of the Palestinian people, Meshaal’s speech was “mish ma’ool” (senseless or unbelievable) and profoundly toxic from every possible perspective.