The ailing Palestinian leader, though disliked by many Palestinians for a variety of reasons, still enjoys widespread respect among the wider public, including the powerful Islamist camp.
 
Earlier this week, Hamas' politburo chief Khalid Mishaal sent a telegram to Arafat at his hospital bed, wishing him well and assuring him that the group would never compromise Palestinian national unity.
 
However, despite the pleasantries - sincere though they may be - Hamas is already preparing for the post-Arafat era.
 
This stems from a conviction that the Palestinian leader, even if he recovers fully from his serious illness, will not be the same again and that his ability, especially mental capacity, to lead effectively would have been irreversibly impaired.

End of era

Second, Hamas realises, as, indeed, does the rest of the Palestinian political class, that the political diminution of Arafat and certainly his death would signal the end of an era and the beginning of a new one whose features and borders are difficult to determine now.

"We will not allow any chaos or disunity to occur and the best way to realise this goal is by formulating a united national leadership that would lead the Palestinian people to ... prepare for elections in which all Palestinians would participate"

Ismail Haniya,
Hamas leader in Gaza

The uncertainty surrounding the post-Arafat era is thus forcing the movement to think in a more proactive manner and not leave anything to chance.
 
That is why the movement has called for the formulation of a collective Palestinian national leadership that would lead the Palestinian struggle in the absence of its enduring symbol.

A logical justification for the proposed leadership is the prevention of chaos and lawlessness and possibly a destructive power struggle, especially within the ranks of the heterogeneous Fatah movement.

Fatah's various components have always been kept together by Arafat, often through a combination of financial appeasement and a policy of divide-and-rule.
 
Ismail Haniya is one of Hamas' most respected leaders in Gaza, owing to his straightforward style and long association with the movement's late founder and spiritual leader Shaikh Ahmad Yasin.

Collective leadership

He believes that a collective leadership in the interim period, between Arafat's death or infirmity, should they occur, and the organisation of general elections, is more than an option - it is a national imperative. 

"We will not allow any chaos or disunity to occur and the best way to realise this goal is by formulating a united national leadership that would lead the Palestinian people to the safety shore and prepare for elections in which all Palestinians would participate," he says.
 
Haniya expresses apprehension that Israel might try to "fish in troubled waters" by interfering or even intervening in the process to choose a successor to Arafat.

Abbas (L) and Qaraya may not
accept a collective leadership now

"We are aware that the Zionists will be trying to instigate trouble and chaos, but will not allow them to achieve their goals, neither at the struggle level nor at the political level."
 
It is difficult though, to expect the old guard within Fatah, people such as former and current prime ministers Mahmud Abbas and Ahmad Quraya and the heads of the various security agencies, to digest, at least right now, the concept of a collective national leadership.
 
The reasons for that are both personal and political.

At the partisan and personal levels, most veteran Fatah leaders are unlikely to be willing to sacrifice the long-standing  prominence and pre-eminence of their movement just to demonstrate goodwill towards the Islamists, their ultimate political and ideological rivals.

Perhaps more importantly, many Fatah leaders have accumulated personal wealth of varied sizes and should be worried that a truly effective nationalist-Islamist leadership would eventually ask them "where and how did you amass this wealth?"
 
Politically, according Hamas a significant role in managing the "national burden" is likely to tread hard on the sensitive nerves of Fatah moderates - especially the "Oslo veterans".

Radicalising peace process

The more mainstream leaders of Fatah also realise that including Hamas in a collective leadership would almost automatically lead to a definite radicalisation of the overall Palestinian position vis-a-vis the peace process and Israel.

"I think Hamas is a mature political movement, it has learned the lessons of the past. I am not worried a bit about Hamas playing a negative or destabilising factor in the Palestinian struggle" 

Atif Udwan, Islamic University of Gaza political science professor

This may complicate things for the Palestinians and give Israel ammunition for blaming the lack of progress in the peace process on the "Hamas-Fatah" leadership.
 
Hamas understands very well the various variables governing the Palestinian political arena, including the powerful external factors influencing Palestinian political thinking and behaviour.
 
Hence, the movement is unlikely to risk appearing as a "problematic factor" in formulating and shaping the post-Arafat political discourse.
 
"I think Hamas is a mature political movement, it has learned the lessons of the past. I am not worried a bit about Hamas playing a negative or destabilising factor in the Palestinian struggle," says Atif Udwan, political science professor at the Islamic University of Gaza.
 
An expert on Hamas, he tells Aljazeera.net that the movement has been steadily moving towards moderation.
 
Becoming mainstream

"Hamas is now steadily becoming a mainstream movement. Nobody, even the Americans and the Israelis, can exclude Hamas from any future political equation."
 
One Hamas official in the Hebron region tells Aljazeera.net  that Hamas would act more responsibly and more wisely after Arafat.
 
"We will be more flexible in accommodating other views and we shall not allow any ideological rigidity to impede progress towards national unity," says the Islamist leader who, for security reasons, demanded anonymity.
 

Some of the Palestinian leader's 
advisers are strong Hamas foes

He points out that Hamas will not seek, even if it could, to replace Fatah.
 
"We read very carefully the international map, we will not allow Hamas' own considerations, however legitimate and attractive, to override our people's interests."
 
The Islamist leader says Hamas would prefer to be in a position to "influence" a future Palestinian leadership than assume the leadership itself.
 
None the less, Hamas is likely to find itself in a generally better position once Arafat is no longer around.
 
Some of Hamas' most ardent opponents, such as Arafat advisers Muhammad Rashid, Tayib Abd al-Rahim, Hakam Balaawi, Musa Arafat, and Ghazi Jabali, will be greatly weakened by Arafat's absence or impairment.
 
This will allow Hamas to move further towards the Palestinian political mainstream and also present its views more audaciously than ever before.