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After Hamas: a time for politics

Eóin Murray
30 January 2006

The electoral earthquake in Palestine has produced a new political landscape which Palestinians, Israelis and the international community all now have to face, says Eóin Murray.

On Friday night, 27 January, the taxi I was travelling in through Gaza city turned a corner and drove directly into the head of a march by supporters of the Fatah movement headed by Mahmoud Abbas. They were walking towards the offices of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), supposedly to protest against the Fatah leadership.

At the head of the march were armed and masked men waving oversized yellow Fatah flags. Some of them began to shoot in the air. My taxi-driver turned to me in the back seat, animated, and began cursing the Fatah members. Among his more polite comments was a statement that resonated deeply with me in light of Hamas’s shock victory in the 25 January elections to the PLC: "This is the reason why Fatah lost the election and why Hamas are now so strong. Why are they shooting? They just want to cause problems for us all."

Gaza is a place where a taxi-driver's analysis carries considerable weight and his comments are echoed across the strip, even among people I know whose family are lifelong Fatah supporters. The victory of Hamas has produced a new political landscape which Palestinians, Israelis and the international community now have to grapple with.

Why it happened

The reasons for this Hamas victory are multiple and complex.

Fatah has been the controlling party in the Palestinian political arena for forty years. For ten of those years it has led the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the governing body that is partially responsible for providing basic services such as schools and hospitals, as well as possessing some limited security powers within certain parts of the area occupied by Israel in 1967.

Under Fatah's tenure, the PNA has slipped from crisis to crisis. The endemic corruption across the PNA's ministries has, most recently, been combined with the collapse of law and order in the Gaza strip (and to a lesser degree in some cities in the West Bank). The election of Mahmoud Abbas (also known by his nomme du guerre, Abu Mazen) in 2005 – following the death of Yasser Arafat, Fatah's and the Palestinian national movement's architect – brought some renewed hope. But little has changed for ordinary Palestinians.

Hamas, running under the banner of al-Taghrir wa al-Islah (change and reform), offered a new opportunity for the Palestinian people. People responded to this opportunity with an overwhelming decision in an election that was clearly as free and fair as it could be under conditions of occupation.

The success of Hamas owes much to a reaction against years of corruption by Fatah leaders. But the campaign itself also had a clear impact on voters' minds. Unlike Fatah, Hamas ran a skilful election campaign. Hamas candidates, selected only after an extensive consultation process, were well educated. Voters perceived them to be clean from corruption, whereas most Fatah candidates were unpopular individuals who had been a part of the system of inept and clientilist management that had compromised their party's role in the PNA.

Hamas also engaged in careful vote management, including selecting the right number of candidates for each constituency. Fatah candidates, by contrast, faced two problems: their internal rivalries and divisions, and the fact that they had to compete with 120 Fatah "independents" (former prominent members of the party who were using their political authority to attempt to win election on their own account).

Fatah candidates had little delivered achievements to show voters, while Hamas was able to present a comprehensive manifesto for social and political change. Fatah's status as the incumbent should have benefited the party – instead it was the factor which tore it apart.

As the dust settled, many observers voiced justifiable concerns that Hamas's lack of management and political experience will affect its ability to run a new government. Palestinian voters, however, had already factored in this element to their electoral calculations – and concluded that Fatah's own "experience" had produced only mismanagement and a general deterioration in their situation. In the decade since Fatah took control of the PNA the price of gas more then quadrupled, the price of electricity rose, hospital services declined and PNA schools retained larger class sizes then those run by the United Nations refugee agency (UNRWA).

Throughout the second, "al-Aqsa" intifada, Hamas have also been engaged in grassroots activism and service provision. They have distributed food among the hungry and shelter for those whose homes were demolished by the Israeli military. Even on occasions when their own military operations, often against Israeli civilians (acts clearly illegal under international law) went wrong, Hamas were able to step in to rectify the situation.

I know of one family in the north of Gaza whose windows broke as a result of Hamas firing a homemade rocket towards Israel. The next day local Hamas leaders arrived at the door of this particular house with a carpenter, an electrician and a plumber – they apologised profusely and began to fix the windows and anything else that needed it.

What now?

In Europe and the US a considerable amount of fuss has been made, justifiably so, over the open declaration in Hamas's founding charter that it wishes to destroy the state of Israel, which sits on 88% of mandatory Palestine. In fact, the Israeli occupation was not the primary focus of most Palestinian voters, who were more concerned with immediate issues of livelihood and the authorities' corruption. But the wider issue of Israel's control did shadow the entire election campaign, and Hamas by no means ignored it.

During Israel’s unilateral "disengagement" from the Gaza strip in August-September 2005, Hamas hung banners throughout the strip declaring "four years of pain is better then ten years in vain" (a reference to the ten years of Oslo and four years of the post-2000 intifada). During the recent election campaign, the Hamas poetry club were again out in force – plastering Gaza with signs and graffiti reading "when the martyrs' blood was shed the enemy fled". Thus, Hamas were able to outflank Abu Mazen's claim that negotiations with Israel had produced success.

For this Israel, the US and the EU must take considerable responsibility. They made it difficult or impossible for Abu Mazen to offer Palestinian civilians signs of progress able to persuade them that negotiations would bring an end to Israel's 1967 occupation and produce a sovereign Palestinian state. The Palestinian president's supporters will certainly be happy to blame the Americans and Europeans for this. They will say that the west failed to place enough pressure on Israel to stop wilful killings of civilians or the expansion of settlements and the use of the "apartheid wall" to annex Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Also in openDemocracy on the Palestinian elections and Israel’s plans:

- Jane Kinninmont, "Life after Sharon: Palestinian prospects"
(January 2006)
- Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel’s unique democracy" (January 2006)
- Yasser Abu Moailek, "Fatah's awkward 'independents'"
(January 2006)
- Lindsay Talmud, "A provisional Palestine: road to nowhere" (January 2006)
- Yasser Abu Moailek, "A Palestinian choice" (January 2006)

Aside from the scale of the Hamas victory the other major shock in these elections has been the elimination of all but a handful of independent voices from the political scene. The leftist PFLP performed badly as did the lists of Mustafa Barghouti and Hanan Ashrawi. Many Palestinians see Barghouti as being too close to Fatah, and both his and Hanan Ashrawi's reputations were marred by charges that the enormous sums of money they spent during the election were sourced in the United States.

Difficult times lie ahead for the Palestinian civilian population of the West Bank, Gaza strip and occupied east Jerusalem. Hamas are faced with an inherited but looming financial crises sparked by the decision of the European Union in late 2005 to stop funding the PNA at the end of February unless certain behavioural benchmarks were met (the fact that no similar decision has ever been made towards Israel indicates to Palestinians the hypocrisy of the international approach to this conflict).

This uncertainty, coupled with western unwillingness to fund a Hamas-led government, will bring the PNA to the brink of collapse and possibly beyond that point. Unless a compromise can be reached with the EU, or an alternative source of money established (possibly from the Gulf area, where many unelected dictators must now be nervous at the prospect of what democracy may bring in their own states), then salaries in the PNA will not be paid.

This will have a massive impact on the other key problem facing a Hamas government – the security breakdown in its Gaza base. Hamas will in any case have considerable difficulty in controlling the twelve, Fatah-dominated Palestinian security services; but with no money in the bank, it would be even less able to ensure law and order.

But it is the international community as well as Hamas itself that now faces the challenge of having to make Realpolitik decisions that will help determine the post-election landscape and the chances of progress towards a settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis.

President Bush – the man who has called so vociferously for democracy throughout the region – now has a taste of what this democracy would look like. It is no longer satisfactory for the United States and the European Union to use the term "terrorist" to avoid recognising political realities. They must now begin a process that includes engagement with Hamas, so that the movement can be brought in line with respect for international law, in two ways: the ending of attacks against civilians, and the claim over the land now owned by Israel recognised as legitimate.

However, such engagement will be meaningless if the west does not ensure that Israel ends its belligerent occupation and associated human-rights violations. Israel's behaviour as a state which believes itself to be above the norms of international law has combined with Fatah's corruption to hand Hamas this victory. It is time now for the west to awake and respond to the voices of the Palestinian people. Both occupation and corruption must come to an end.

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