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In a challenge to Israel, Hamas endorses Palestinian unity government

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speak to the media after their meeting in Cairo, Feb. 22, 2012.


Just a few days after many called their political leader Khaled Meshaal a "dictator," members of Hamas are putting on a united front, endorsing a transitional Palestinian unity government with their hated rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as prime minister.

It is a major victory for Mr. Meshaal, who among other things is severing the movement's ties with Iran and adopting a more moderate position – all of which presents a serious challenge to Israel and raises the stakes in any future peace process.

No longer will Mr. Abbas be speaking only on behalf of the West Bank or his own Fatah faction. He will speak for all Palestinians. And Israel, which insists it will have nothing to do with any government that includes Hamas members, may refuse to negotiate with Mr. Abbas.

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Indeed, it's quite possible Israel will quash any attempt at a Palestinian election if Hamas has a chance to win it.

Forming a unity government is a big step for both Hamas, which governs Gaza, and Fatah, the political movement that controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And members in both factions have strong reservations about the deal, especially members of Hamas.

The recent dispute – some describe it as a revolt – arose when Mr. Meshaal met in Doha earlier this month with Mr. Abbas and the Emir of Qatar. To everyone's surprise, the Hamas leader signed a declaration that his movement would agree to the appointment of Mr. Abbas as prime minister.

Leading members of Hamas complained that the decision was taken without consultation and that it flew in the face of an agreement signed last May in Cairo that stipulated that no one from either Hamas or Fatah would be members of the unity government.

Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas figure in Gaza, was the most outspoken. He called Mr. Abbas "an idiot" and "a failure" and said that Mr. Meshaal "should apologize" for agreeing to Mr. Abbas's appointment.

He didn't stop there. Dr. Zahar, a surgeon, complained that Mr. Meshaal also recently supported the idea of a Palestinian state being based on the borders that existed in 1967 – that is, the West bank and Gaza – something completely contrary to established Hamas positions that call for liberating all of Palestine including Israel, and supported the notion of popular resistance (meaning non-violent resistance) instead of Hamas's armed resistance.

"This is not a political party," Dr. Zahar said. "It is a religious and resistance movement." Indeed, Dr. Zahar has always seen resistance against the Israeli occupation as more important than governing the Palestinian territories.

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So silencing Mr. Zahar and his many supporters is a significant victory for Mr. Meshaal.

Adnan abu Amer, a professor of history at al Ummah University in Gaza, attributes Mr. Meshaal's victory to his unique access to money from international donors and to support from the leader of Hamas's military wing, the al-Qassam Brigade, in Gaza.

"While most of the members in Gaza opposed what Mr. Meshaal was doing," Mr. abu Amer said, "the support of 30,000 fighters means no one can stand up to him."

As well, Mr. abu Amer said, "the majority of Hamas members in the West Bank support Mr. Meshaal," a fellow West Banker who hails from a village outside Ramallah.

Though silenced for the time being, Dr. Zahar's grievances against his leader and especially against Mr. Abbas remain, like a ticking bomb waiting to go off.

Indeed, many people in Gaza don't share Mr. Meshaal's view of the world. He is not a refugee as are most Gazans in Hamas, and has not suffered the kind of indignities that come with the blockade and attacks on Gaza.

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However, said Mr. abu Amer, "as an outsider he has a clearer view of the big picture and can be more pragmatic."

"He saw the need to act to save Hamas," he said. "The Arab Spring was good for many Arabs, but its big loser was Iran," said Mr. Amer. "And along with Iran, came Hamas, another loser."

"Meshaal realized he had to support the other Muslim Brothers throughout the region," he explained, "and that meant pulling out of Syria, something Iran tried to stop."

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