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Counterintuitive Palestinian politics: Is Hamas treading a path paved by the PLO?

James M. Dorsey

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This article incorporates remarks by the author at the International Summit of Religious Authorities.

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Spanish philosopher George Santayana didn’t have Palestine in mind when he coined the phrase, ‘history repeats itself.’

Yet, Mr. Santayana’s maxim may apply to Hamas when comparing the group’s political evolution to the 16-year-torturous road traversed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from classification by Israel and its Western allies as a terrorist organization to establishing the Palestine Authority on Israeli-occupied Palestinian land.

To be sure, there is no guarantee that Hamas, despite its brutal October 7 attack on Israel and wanton slaughter of 1,200, mostly civilian Israelis, will emulate the PLO in eventually recognising Israel and abandoning the armed struggle.

Moreover, Hamas’ current notion of realpolitik falls far short of anything that would qualify it as an acceptable and credible party to the negotiation of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even so, the parallels between the PLO and Hamas’ political evolution are noteworthy.

The PLO embarked on its road to recognition of Israel and abandonment of the armed struggle in 1974 with a first ever direct appeal to Israelis published as an advertisement in Yediot Ahranot, a leading Israeli newspaper, by Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) leader Nayef Hawatmeh.

Al-Tayar Al-Shaaby founder Hamdeen Sabahy (right) met with Palestinian Liberation Front Secretary General Nayef Hawatmeh to discuss the current political scene in the Arab World. Photo Al-Tayar Al-Shaaby handout

The PLO refused to address Israelis directly prior to publication because that would acknowledge the Jewish state.

The DFLP’s pioneering advocacy of Palestinian engagement with Israel and recognition of the Jewish state as part of the PLO’s endorsement of a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not stop the group’s primarily Gaza-based paramilitary wing, the National Resistance Brigades, from participating in Hamas’ October 7 attack.

The Brigades said it had lost three fighters in combat with the Israeli military. It said it had engaged Israeli forces in the towns of Kfar Aza, Be'eri, and Kissufim.

The October 7 attack claimed the lives of at least 130 Israeli civilians or ten per cent Be’eri’s residents, including women, children, and infants.

The publication of Mr. Hawatmeh’s appeal was negotiated by American activist and journalist Paul Jacobs as part of an initiative that would have included talks hosted by Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba between the PLO and two prominent Israeli politicians, Arie Eliav, a member of parliament and former secretary general of the then governing Labour Party, and Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, the head of Histadrut, Israel’s national trade union, that was closely aligned with Labour.

The plan was scuttled months after the advertisement when DFLP operatives attacked a girls’ school in Maalot. They took 115 people hostage and killed 31, including 25 schoolgirls.

Ma'alot Massacre. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The DFLP attacked Maalot to reestablish its credibility among Palestinians after being heavily criticised for its outreach to Israelis.

The Maalot attack overshadowed the significance of the PLO’s first formal steps towards accepting a two-state solution a month after the incident.

The PLO’s parliament, the Palestine National Council, meeting in Cairo, adopted a 10-point program that called for "the establishment of the people's independent combatant national authority over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated."

The Council endorsed three years later the Palestinians’ right to "establish their own independent national state over their national soil."

For the first time, the PLO stressed "the importance of connecting and coordinating with the Jewish progressive and democratic forces inside and outside the occupied homeland.”

Similarly, Hamas adopted an updated charter in 2017 that differed significantly from its 1988 fundamental document but was as ambiguous and ambivalent as the PLO pronouncements in the 1970s.

Hamas’ original 1988 charter called for the killing of Jews based on a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Hamas dropped the call to kill Jews in its new charter.

The 1988 charter also insisted on a Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine that would replace the State of Israel.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat delivers remarks during the Palestine Peace Accords ceremony at the White House, Washington, USA in 1993. Photo: Mark reinstein /

Significantly, Hamas adopted its first charter months before PLO leader Yasser Arafat recognised Israel.

Hamas’ revised charter still calls for Israel to be replaced by a Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine but allows for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as an interim step provided it does not involve recognition of the Jewish state.

Instead, the charter advocates a long-term ceasefire that would de facto acknowledge Israel’s existence.

Complicating Hamas’ potential to follow the PLO’s path is the group’s rejection of an Israeli and US negotiating framework that demands recognition of Israel and abandonment of the armed struggle as a prerequisite rather than an outcome of negotiations that was adopted by Mr. Arafat.

Hamas concluded from the failure of the PLO’s approach and the 1993 Oslo accords to produce an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel that Palestinian concessions upfront were counterproductive.

The brutality of Hamas’ October 7 attack ensures that any role for Hamas or a potential successor in future negotiations will have to adopt the Israeli-US framework. This reduces the likelihood that Hamas or its successor may follow in the PLO’s footsteps.

Even so, the jury is out on whether Hamas, or a possible successor, will retain spoiler capability.

Irrespective of whether Hamas adopts the PLO model, Palestinian moderation has proven to be a torturous process. It often adheres to the principle of two steps forward, one step backwards.

To be sure, Hamas’ decision to randomly kill or kidnap anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, during the October 7 attack rather than only target Israeli military personnel and facilities is a huge step backwards that has reeked unimaginable Palestinian suffering, which is not to absolve Israel of responsibility for its conduct of the Gaza war.

The jury is out on who Palestinians will hold responsible for the Gaza carnage, Israel and/or Hamas.

Even so, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Israel is unlikely to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth. Even if Hamas is destroyed, its hardline philosophy will survive, probably embodied in a successor.

More than 30 years after Mr. Arafat recognised Israel and abandoned the armed struggle and three decades after the conclusion of the Oslo accords it is evident that Palestinian moderation is a fragile process that needs nurturing.

Israel’s emphasis on the stick rather than the carrot coupled with the Palestine Authority and Hamas’ failure to provide good governance and effective leadership created the environment for a nascent armed resistance on the West Bank, the October 7 Hamas attack, and the DFLP’s participation in the assault.

To be clear, nothing justifies the random killing of innocent civilians. Even so, more killings and greater repression of Palestinians is not a solution.

A pathway towards a solution lies in fewer Israeli sticks and more Israeli carrots. It lies in empowering Palestinians rather than undermining them. It resides in encouraging Palestinian moderation rather than stymying it.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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