Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2006
Issue No. 778
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The non-secular solution

Hamas is working hard to consolidate its hold on Gaza, traditionally the base of the Islamist resistance movement, reports Erica Silverman from Gaza City

"The Palestinian people have reached a point that obligates the movement (Hamas) to enter the elections, to be involved in changing the situation, protecting its people's achievements, continuing the process of liberation, and supporting the unity of the Palestinian people," Said Siyam, one of five Hamas candidates running for a seat in the Gaza district, told Al-Ahram Weekly, asserting that elections and Islam "is the solution".

Driving toward the centre is Hamas's campaign strategy for the upcoming Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections slated for 25 January; a wise strategy for the formidable challenger to Fatah, and for a movement that has recently embraced the democratic process while remaining committed to forceful resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

The campaign is in full swing in Gaza, as Hamas candidates are engaged in targeted door-to- door campaigning, question and answer sessions in diwans (places of family gathering), along with their popular festivals held daily, drawing thousands of supporters from across the Strip, now able to move freely inside Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal in August.

Voters have been asking Hamas, "How will you continue the resistance as a political party?" At the Al-Jamal family diwan in Shujyah, Gaza City, Siyam responded: "Our political and media discourse, and our move towards the Legislative Council, is to protect the resistance and its weapons, and to provide it with legitimacy. This is what makes Europe stand and condemn our participation ... Hamas practices politics with arms in her hands."

Hamas's political platform does not differ substantially from that of Fatah, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, although without specifying the boundaries of the state. Hamas' 30-page policy document does not mention the "the destruction of Israel," while the introduction defines the refugees' "right of return" to what is now Israel as "an inalienable right about which no political concessions should be made."

Hamas candidates in Gaza are campaigning on the principles of improving internal and external relations, introducing administrative and judicial reforms, fighting corruption, and implementing Sharia-based policies. The occupation poses obvious barriers, especially in Gaza. The inability of candidates and campaign workers to enter or exit the Strip, security concerns amid ongoing hardships -- particularly the state of lawlessness and chaos in Gaza -- and the participation of East Jerusalem's residents in the elections process have all hindered Palestinians' ability to ensure free and fair national polls.

Hamas is running a professional, well orchestrated political campaign delivering one unified message of "Change and reform," allowing the party to curry the favour of voters disenchanted with the Palestinian Authority's (PA) history of corruption and ineffectiveness. Fatah, the incumbent party of President Mahmoud Abbas, is delivering two less aggressive messages: "Give us a second chance" and that "a bright future" lies ahead with Fatah. While movement remains the most popular faction, Hamas has managed to cut its lead down to only six percentage points according to recent polls.

Hamas is expected to capture an estimated 30 per cent of the vote, Fatah an estimated 40 per cent, with about 16 per cent going to the major independent players. An estimated 10-15 per cent remains undecided.

New electoral laws divide the 132 seats in the PLC between a majority system (66 district seats) and a proportional representation system (66 seats from party lists). Hamas is running 21 candidates for 24 available seats, one of which is reserved for a Christian candidate, in the five Gaza districts, traditionally Hamas strongholds. The movement is running one Christian candidate for the reserved seat. On the party list, Hamas is running 59 candidates, headed by Ismael Hanieya. Hamas will "explore a unified national strategy; not only the strategy of Fatah, but one that reflects and represents all the Palestinian factions, with the objective of presenting a unified front against Israel," Ghazi Hamad, Hamas candidate from the southern Rafah district, told the Weekly.

Hamas' political psychology of resistance is empowering and attractive to the 1.4 million Gazans, more than half of which are refugees, surviving for 38 years under occupation in a 365- square kilometre area. Unemployment remains at 38 per cent and 60 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, the Israeli cabinet decided Sunday to allow East Jerusalemites to participate in the elections, provided that Hamas is not permitted to campaign in the area. When Israel threatened to ban the participation of East Jerusalem's residents, the Fatah leadership suggested postponing the elections. Mahmoud Al-Zahar, senior Hamas leader in Gaza and ninth on the party list, promised that the Palestinian people wouldn't remain "arms folded" towards "any party attempting to hamper the electoral process," and stated that "the international community won't allow the Israeli occupation to hinder the organisation of the PLC ballot in occupied Jerusalem."

Hamas operates its own popular media channels, including its own weekly newspaper, a radio channel and a newly introduced television station, and has also campaigned via SMS messaging and e-mails. Several Web sites present its campaign message and educate Palestinians about the new voting system. One site features reports such as "Elections in the context of Sharia Law," explaining how entering PLC elections are compatible with Islam.

Hamas is also fielding new, moderate leaders such as Ghazi Hamad, editor-in chief of Al-Resalah newspaper, run by Hamas. Hamad claims "self-education," a highly experienced cadre of leaders, and their success in municipal elections (Hamas unexpectedly won 73 per cent of the vote in local municipal elections in Nablus last month), has afforded the movement the ability to run such a professional campaign. According to a senior official of the National Democratic Institute (NDI -- an American organisation observing the electoral process and training political parties), however, Hamas' campaign is too good not to be the result of assistance received from the outside. The NDI is not permitted to have official contact with Hamas. Israeli officials from the Prime Minister's Office assured the NDI this week that candidates and campaign workers will not be delayed or detained, according to NDI Country Director Michael Murphy.

A "code of conduct" was developed by the Arab Thought Forum and NDI, and signed by 12 parties, including Hamas, that commits all to upholding democratic principles, prohibits election- related violence, and restricts individuals engaged in, or advocating, violence from becoming candidates. Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Hamas has refrained from attacking Israel or resorting to force with other Palestinian factions, even through Israel has continued to assassinate and detain its members, and even after a Hamas member was shot dead by a Fatah leader during a recent dispute between activists hanging election posters in Gaza City.

The Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades has authored a wave of political violence in Gaza leading up to the elections, creating a degree of chaos that has threatened the entire process. "People feel there is no Authority, and Hamas is working to bridge the gap between the people and the PA," according to Hamad, particularly in Gaza, where violent family disputes are common and uncontrolled by the PA.

Along with concerns about chaos and lawlessness, one question on voters' minds in Gaza is whether Hamas will eventually negotiate with Israel. "We'll negotiate [with Israel] better than the others, who negotiated for 10 years and achieved nothing," stated Sheikh Mohamed Abu Tir, second on the Hamas Party list and campaigning in the West Bank. However, Siyam told the Weekly : "Negotiating with Israel is not part of our agenda ... Our main agenda is dealing with what has been destroyed by the Israeli occupation, and improving the internal situation."

Meanwhile, some, like Hamad, have been busy explaining to constituencies why Hamas has decided to embrace the democratic process and how doing so is in accord with Sharia law. Speaking to a group of veiled women gathered in his Rafah home, Hamad stated, "Islam is not only in the mosque ... religion means people enjoying their life, clean water, jobs, opportunities..."

In Rafah 34,000 women will vote and 32,000 men. Jameela Al-Shanty, number three on the Hamas Party list and a professor at Gaza's Islamic University, told the Weekly that her platform includes "encouraging the participation of women in governance". Fathiya Barghouti Rheime, of Hamas, was elected the first female Palestinian mayor about a year ago.

With Palestinian pilgrims returning from hajj (the journey to Mecca and Islam's holy shrines), making their way through the clanking metal gates of the Rafah terminal -- opened 25 November -- the banner "Islam is the solution" must be poignant, and may soon be tested in a transformed national parliament.

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