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Hamas Takes Over: A MADRE Q & A

Posted on: Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Keywords: Peace Building, Middle East, Palestine, Israel

Hamas Takes Over: A MADRE Q & A

On January 25, the radical Islamic movement, Hamas, scored a landslide victory in elections held in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas swept 76 out of 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, deposing the Fatah Party, which has dominated Palestinian politics for 40 years. Having pushed hard for these elections as part of its "democracy promotion" rhetoric, the Bush Administration is now wringing its hands about the outcome. But the Hamas victory is also worrying to many people who care genuinely about peace in the Middle East. MADRE offers our perspective on some key questions raised by the Palestinian elections.

Why did So Many People Vote for Hamas?

This was mainly a protest vote against Fatah. As in most places, decades of one-party rule in Palestine produced tremendous corruption, cronyism, and ineptitude. People were fed up. Most Palestinians were also bitterly disappointed by Fatah's failure to relieve repression and poverty generated by Israeli occupation.

Does the Hamas Victory Mean that Palestinians Support Suicide Attacks Against Israelis?

  • Hamas is responsible for most of the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, but that is not why it won the election. Hamas has been strategic in winning "hearts and minds" by providing Palestinians with health care, education, daycare, food aid, housing, welfare benefits, and other social services. For many Palestinian families impoverished by dispossession and occupation, Hamas is the sole providor of basic services. Hamas has also earned a reputation for honest government in running Palestinian municipalities and local councils. So whereas in the US, Hamas is mainly associated with violence, many Palestinians see the group as a reliable benefactor and their best hope for honest leadership.
  • Right now, most Palestinians think armed violence is counter-productive and want renewed negotiations with Israel. Most Palestinians want Hamas to extend its year-long cease-fire with Israel. Hamas has offered to continue to refrain from attacks as long as Israel does the same.

Should Hamas be Viewed as a Legitimate Leadership?

  • Yes. The elections were fair and transparent, with a range of candidates. More than 78 percent of eligible voters turned out for a peaceful election despite difficult conditions created by Israel's occupation. Indeed, this election was closer to international standards for free and fair elections than either of the last two US presidential elections.
  • Hamas may prove to be another one of numerous armed groups that have become political parties. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sinn Fein in Ireland, and LEHI in Israel are examples of groups that switched strategies, opting to pursue their goals through participating in government.
  • Hamas' decision to take part in these elections is a strong indication that it is choosing this path. Previously, Hamas boycotted elections that took place within the framework of the US-brokered Oslo Accords with Israel.

Do the Elections Mean that Palestinians Now Have Their Own State?

  • No. The Legislative Council that was elected is not the parliament of an independent state, but of a Palestinian Authority (PA) that has limited powers over small bits of territory in the West Bank and Gaza, which remain under Israeli military occupation.
  • Until the occupation ends, the PA, whether led by Hamas or anyone else, will have little ability to resolve the most urgent problems that Palestinians face, including grinding poverty and unemployment, rising political violence, restrictions on movement, and lack of infrastructure and basic services.

Does the Hamas Victory Mean that the Peace Process is Dead?

  • Israeli spokespeople say so, but the reality is that Israel suspended the peace process in 2001. Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, stopped negotiations in favor of unilateral moves towards creating permanent borders between the Occupied Territories and Israel. These moves—including last year's "disengagement" from Gaza, the building of the "Separation Barrier," and ongoing settlement building in the West Bank—were all undertaken outside the framework of negotiations and international law. At the moment, the peace process is indeed dead, but that's because Israel refuses to negotiate.
  • Hamas' unwillingness to officially renounce violence (including suicide bombings) makes it easier for Israel to continue its unilateral actions, giving resonance to the claim that Israel has "no one to negotiate with." But remember that Israel made the same claim when Fatah was in charge and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, was publicly denouncing violence and repeatedly offering to negotiate.
  • It's likely that Israel's reluctance to talk with Hamas is less a matter of principle than a reflection of the fact that Hamas would be a tougher negotiating partner than Fatah. Most Palestinians perceived Fatah as overly-willing to concede key demands, such as the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Remember, distrust of Fatah's negotiating position was a big reason for their defeat in these elections.

Will Hamas Negotiate with Israel?

  • Hamas' Charter, which calls for Israel's destruction, precludes all compromise and negotiations. Yet, throughout the past year, the group has hinted that it might negotiate (through third parties) and maybe even formally recognize Israel. Hamas' election manifesto did not repeat the Charter's calls for the destruction of Israel.
  • After the elections, Ziad Daiah, a Hamas representative in Ramallah told The New York Times, "If Israel will start new negotiations, with direct benefits for Palestinians in a useful time frame, we will accept that." (New York Times, January 27, 2006)
  • But Hamas has refused to change its Charter, sending a signal that even if Israel were to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas would not rest until all of Israel is destroyed.
  • No one knows for sure, but Hamas' mixed signals may reflect a transition in its strategy (if not ideology) that could be an opening for a negotiated settlement.

How Can Israel Be Expected To Negotiate with a Group that is Sworn to its Destruction?

  • It's important not to be glib about Hamas' violent record. This is a reactionary group that defends unconscionable violence against civilians. Unfortunately, the same could be said of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and some of his supporters. Sharon is not guilty of ordering suicide bombings, but no one disputes his role in large-scale massacres of civilians (in Qibyeh village in 1953 and in Sabra and Shatillah in 1982) in which he ordered houses to be bulldozed while families were still inside.* There is horror and grief on both sides, which is precisely why negotiations must take place; peace is not made between friends, but between enemies.
  • We can understand Israelis' fear about the new Palestinian leadership. At the same time, it's important to support those Israelis who won't allow that fear to be manipulated by their government into more counter-productive, abusive policies. Every opportunity for a just peace settlement needs to be pursued, including one with Hamas.
  • In fact, a settlement reached with Hamas—which has proved itself to be attuned and responsive to Palestinian public opinion—may be more viable than a deal struck with Fatah, which lacked popular support.

What Role did the US and Israel Play in the Hamas Victory?

  • The US and Israel contributed to Fatah's downfall by undermining its leadership and destroying its institutions. In 2002, the US supported Israel as it bombed the Fatah-controlled Palestinian infrastructure and government ministries. The US has also backed Israel's closure policy, which denies Palestinians freedom of movement, creating widespread poverty and hardship, and Israel's ongoing land confiscation, settlement building, and assassination of Palestinian leaders. These conditions encouraged people to turn to Hamas for basic services that the PA could no longer provide and for leaders that could more effectively resist Israeli occupation.
  • US attempts to manipulate the elections in Fatah's favor backfired, producing support for Hamas. Days before the vote, Palestinians learned that the US had covertly funded public relations activities intended to benefit Fatah. The intervention angered many Palestinians and deepened the perception of Fatah as a lackey of the US and Israel.
  • Historically, Israel contributed to the rise of Hamas by encouraging the growth of the Islamic movement from which Hamas emerged. Israel hoped the Islamic movement would challenge the secular nationalism of the Fatah-dominated PLO, not understanding that popular movements (whether on the left or the right) have their own dynamic which cannot be controlled by governments or armies.

What Does Hamas Rule Mean for Palestinian Women and their Families?

Hamas knows that its victory is not a popular mandate for the creation of an Islamic state. The Palestinian West Bank, especially, is a largely secular community and it's unlikely that Hamas will move to impose Islamic law. However, Palestinian women have already begun expressing concern about their rights within the family (such as rights to divorce, freedom to choose one's own spouse, inheritance, and child custody) and their rights to work, education, and freedom of dress. Hamas has been known to use violence against women as a tactic for enforcing its reactionary social agenda.

Is There Any Reason for Hope?

The main hope is not Hamas or the Israeli government, but the Palestinian and Israeli people. Most Palestinians want renewed negotiations with Israel. As a democratically elected leadership, Hamas must be responsive to this desire to ensure its own survival. On the Israeli side, peace groups have already issued the first calls for the government to negotiate with Hamas. These groups are in the minority, but recent history teaches how quickly this could change: within a relatively short period in the 1980s and 1990s, calls for negotiations with Fatah went from being illegal in Israel to being government policy.

Most Palestinians, like most Israelis, want peace and understand that it must come through accommodation, not more violence. We can support them by working for an end to US backing for Israel's occupation and for peace talks that will hold all parties accountable to respecting human rights and international law.

* For more on Sharon, see Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.

By Yifat Susskind, Communications Director

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