Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 February 2006
Issue No. 780
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The problem is Israel, not Hamas

Hamas's rise to power is only a problem if Israel remains wedded to its colonial policy of stealing Palestinian lands and terrorising its people, writes Khaled Amayreh

Palestinian Tareq Abu Dayeh, owner of Chairman Arafat shop, stands outside his souvenir store in Gaza between posters of slain Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin

On Thursday, 26 January, the world woke up to news of the stunning victory of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, over its main rival Fatah in the Palestinian legislative elections. Virtually all observers had predicted that Hamas would make significant gains and might even have a slight lead over Fatah, the governing party of the Palestinian Authority (PA). None -- and probably few within Hamas itself -- expected that the movement would take 74 seats out of the 132 contested seats.

Indeed, one could say without exaggeration that Hamas has outperformed itself, the enormity of the victory taking the movement by surprise, throwing its leadership off-balance, at least in the immediate aftermath of the elections. To be sure, Hamas hadn't hoped and certainly didn't plan for a landslide win. Hamas had repeatedly indicated that it would prefer to be in a position to influence the government, but not to govern itself.

In pre-election interviews Hamas leaders and candidates voiced their hope that the movement would win between 50 and 55 seats, which would have enabled the movement to assume the role of a strong opposition to a presumed Fatah-led government. It is now amply clearly that Hamas itself failed to appreciate the extent of the Palestinian public's disenchantment with the PA, including its misgovernment as well as failure to get Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian homeland.

Widespread corruption and graft permeating the PA -- indeed, rampant nepotism, favouritism, embezzlement and cronyism, as well as chronic lawlessness, chaos, and lack of personal security for the average Palestinian -- had a strong impact on voter behaviour. But it is also true that the underlying reasons for the democratic coup have to do, first and foremost, with the increased savagery of the Israeli occupation, which is nothing short of an act of rape, and the PA's failure not only to end the occupation but even to mitigate its manifestly brutal effects, impacting all aspects of Palestinian life.

Indeed, ever since the conclusion of the Oslo Agreement more than 10 years ago, Israel effectively confiscated over 50 per cent of the West Bank and implanted in occupied land dozens of Jewish-only colonies inhabited by Talmudic messianic fanatics, most of whom view non-Jews as scum, vermin and dirty animals that ought to be exterminated. Moreover, Israel effectively deprived Palestinians of the vast bulk of their freedoms and human rights and jailed tens of thousands of political prisoners in detention camps without charge or trial.

The accumulative outcome of this policy of repression, along with the frustrations of a failed and futile peace process that only provided a cover for Israel's genocidal treatment of the Palestinians, eventually led the Palestinians to shun Fatah and opt for Hamas. True, Hamas will not be able to achieve miracles for the Palestinian people, especially as far Palestinian efforts to end the Israeli occupation are concerned. To be sure, Hamas didn't promise voters that it would liberate Jerusalem in the next four years or get millions of refugees repatriated and compensated. However, Hamas, which ran on a "Change and Reform" platform, promised to put the Palestinian house in order, which is doubtless the first step towards national liberation.

Hamas will face many challenges and pitfalls, especially if the US and the EU follow through on threats to sever economic aid to a Hamas-led PA. The Quartet, whose members (US, EU, Russian and UN) met in London on Monday to discuss the rise to power of the Islamist movement, has urged Hamas to abandon armed resistance and recognise the state of Israel. In addition, the Israeli government moved to withhold a badly-needed $40 million dollar fund of tax returns, apparently for the purpose of deepening the post-electoral victory crisis facing Hamas, and indicating to the Palestinian people that Israel is the ultimate boss, not any Palestinian government.

Hamas is already seeking to avert a head-on collision with the international community, especially in the absence of any semblance of Arab solidarity. Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip sought in earnest to assure the international community that the movement would respect the international commitments of the PA but urged the world to respect the Palestinian people's free choice. This week, winning Islamist candidates told Western media, which flocked to Palestine to cover the "Palestinian Tsunami", that Hamas would prove itself to be a force of moderation and peace, and that the movement would definitely move to mend its erstwhile negative image.

On the domestic front, Hamas is seeking to form the broadest possible coalition government, probably one that would include academics and technocrats, untainted with the "terror" canard. Hamas has been urging Fatah to join the upcoming government, arguing persuasively that the weight of the Palestinian national burden exceeds the ability of any one faction to bear.

Fatah, embittered by its crushing defeat, has so far refused to join the contemplated Hamas government, on the grounds that Fatah should leave its "foe" and "rival" to "face its fate". "Let it fail, so that the people will see," said one angry Fatah candidate. However, it is likely that some Fatah leaders will sooner or later join the Hamas-led government, either out of concern for national responsibility or the attraction of public office.

There is no doubt that Hamas will have to carefully and wisely navigate both itself and the entire Palestinian national destiny through the treacherous waters of forming a functional government under occupation at home and amid hostile international storms and currents. To do that, Hamas will have to show not a small amount of pragmatism, including a possible de facto recognition of Israel.

There is no guarantee, however, that Israel will reciprocate. Israel believes that Hamas' victory is dangerous, not so much because of the "violence issue" or non-recognition of Israel (which Israel utilises for propaganda purposes) but rather because with Hamas in government, Israel would not be able to force the PA into succumbing to Israeli blackmailing tactics.

Needless to say, Israel wants a weak Palestinian partner that can be easily bullied into submission, a partner that would accept functional arrangements here and there, one that would more or less accept an enhanced and less harsh Israeli occupation, instead of genuine liberation from a nefarious and dehumanising colonialism, all in return for vague commitments to a Palestinian state without known borders and, indeed, without substance.

Hamas will not be that kind of partner and will insist on total and absolute Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 territories, including East Jerusalem. This is Israel's real concern, not Hamas' armed resistance and refusal to recognise Israel.

This is why Israel will seek to use every possible red herring or distraction to evade the crux of the matter; namely the need to adopt a strategic decision to give up the stolen land and spoils of the 1967 War.

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