IT IS ONE of the finer ironies that Israel has succeeded through its much-publicised December deportation of over 400 Palestinian Islamists in "de-demonising" those whom it invariably portrays as "terrorist fanatics". At the same stroke it has brought to a halt the bitter and often violent feuding between the two main contenders for power in the Occupied Territories, Yasser Arafat's Fateh movement and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.
The infighting reached its height last summer in an outburst of violence which approached civil war proportions in the Gaza Strip. As recently as November, Arafat had likened Hamas to the Zulu Inkatha movement in South Africa. Pacts between the two groups patiently negotiated over the years always failed to stick.
The rivalry grew in intensity as Hamas increased its strength, posing a serious challenge to the PLO's claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people, and heading the opposition to the Washington peace talks. As the negotiations dragged on, the nationalists' failure to secure any convincing advances in the quest for peace worked to the advantage of the Islamists. Hamas' unswerving rejection of the talks became a focus for the large numbers of Gazans and West Bankers increasingly disenchanted with a programme which was seen to represent a sell-out of Palestinian rights.
However, Arafat's direct attack on Hamas (his Inkatha charge) was abruptly dropped with the expulsions. Outrage at Israel's disregard for Palestinian human rights and international conventions forced the PLO, and its internal leadership in the Occupied Territories, to take the lead in diplomatic action on behalf of their chief opponents.
Hamas thus found itself as the unlikely hero of the hour. In spectacular contrast to the hostile press normally accorded to Islamist movements throughout the region, Hamas - thanks to Yitzhak Rabin - won itself the prize of international publicity, figuring under such bizarre rubrics as "the Lost Tribe" Every detail was shown of the suffering of the band of devout Muslims stoically accepting their fate in a freezing no man's land. Even support within Israel began to waver as the repercussions of the action started to sink in. The Hamas spokesman, Abdul Aziz al Rantisi, capped this public relations coup by wishing the Western world a happy Christmas in English over the sound waves of the international media.
Hamas' position as a serious player in the Palestinian political game is no...