Into the mainstream
Khaled Amayreh examines the implications of the success of Hamas in last week's local elections in Gaza
The Palestinian Islamic resistance group Hamas won a landslide victory in last week's local elections held in 10 Gaza towns and villages. Hamas's Reform and Change list won 77 of the 118 seats contested, while Fatah won only 26. The remaining seats went to clan and independent candidates, some allied with Fatah. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) won a single seat.
All candidates agreed the elections were free of any irregularities.
The results come as an unpleasant surprise to Fatah -- and the Fatah- dominated PA -- for several reasons.
The population centres in which the elections were held have long been considered traditional power bases for Fatah. Indeed, the impression was widespread that election officials had selected these areas as "test cases" on the assumption that a strong Fatah showing would create the momentum necessary for more Fatah election victories elsewhere.
The towns and villages in which Islamist candidates were most successful are among those hardest hit by Israeli bombardment and bulldozing. An estimated 40 per cent of Beit Hanun's farms and citrus groves have been bulldozed by the Israeli army, and the civilian infrastructure of the town, including roads, bridges, electricity and water networks, has suffered similar devastation
Israel, through its newly-reactivated psychological warfare unit, attempted to spread the message that the wanton destruction in these areas should be blamed on Hamas, not the Israeli army, claiming that the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip was in retaliation for resistance spearheaded by Hamas.
The Israeli propaganda onslaught failed miserably as Gazans demonstrated their trust in Hamas. The views of one northern Gaza citizen, a middle- aged farmer who voted for Hamas, are typical: "We don't view Hamas through Israeli glasses," he said. "Hamas is us, and we are Hamas. Hamas represents Islam and we are Muslims. Hamas is against corruption, and we don't like corruption. Hamas is against Israel, and we hate Israel. Israel's hatred of Hamas is a vindication... it is a certificate of good conduct."
The election results in Gaza suggest that the same people who voted overwhelmingly for PA leader Mahmoud Abbas on 9 January are in many instances voting equally overwhelmingly for Hamas. It is a situation that has led some Palestinian analysts to argue that Hamas must have surreptitiously instructed some of its supporters to vote for Abbas. But a more plausible explanation could be that Gazans, fed up with years of corruption by Fatah operatives and officials, had opted to vote for local Islamist leaders in protest.
Ghazi Hamd, editor-in-chief of the Gaza-based Islamist weekly Al-Risala, believes the most important factor behind the overwhelming support for Hamas in Gaza is "the religious factor".
"It is simple," he says. "Most Gazans are religious and people simply think that it is morally incumbent on them to give their votes to candidates who uphold Islamic values such as honesty, justice and self-abnegation."
Hamas leaders in Gaza agree, insisting that the election results show that Palestinians are rallying behind the slogan "Islam is the solution."
The Hamas victory in Gaza's local elections, and its earlier good performance in the West Bank mayoral elections on 23 December, will encourage the movement to participate fully in legislative elections, slated to take place in July. They will also consolidate the movement's status in the Palestinian society as a political player on an equal footing with Fatah.
What remains unclear is whether the strengthening of Hamas through the ballot box will push the movement towards more moderation, as some observers have suggested, or prompt Hamas leaders, especially those based abroad, to reassert the kind of radicalism that invited international sanctions and hostility.
Hamas is already showing signs of greater moderation not only vis-ˆ-vis reformist Palestinian leader Abbas, but also in relation to the peace process. The movement has agreed to a cease- fire with Israel, on condition of reciprocity and the release of Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails. Hamas has also indicated that it will accept a political settlement involving a total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as well as the repatriation of Palestinian refugees expelled by Israel in 1948. Such a position, says Palestinian commentator Hani Al-Masri, will consolidate Palestinian national unity as never before and allow a broad-based national consensus on the final-status issues to emerge.
And this, the PA leadership hopes, will ultimately convince the international community, especially the US, that the obstacle to peace in Palestine- Israel is not the Palestinians, not Hamas or the so-called terror, but rather the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian homeland and refusal to come to terms with Palestinian aspirations to freedom and self-determination.