Out with the old, in with the new: Yasser Arafat’s Fateh party was crushed by Hamas in last week’s legislative elections (Magnus Johansson/Ma’an News)
27 January 2006 — Less than 24 hours after the sweeping Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, it is clear that the consequences of this event are likely to be so profound that they are capable of bringing about a political tsunami once the wave finally reaches shore. Although the final implications of the elections are yet to be seen regarding how Hamas will form its governing coalition, what this means for the “peace process”, and how this will affect Palestinian-Israeli and Palestinian-World politics, certain things can already be deduced from the structure of prevailing power relations. That is to say, the dominant Israeli discourse integrally embedded within the rubric and actions of the US “war against terror” are already beginning to frame the way in which these events are narrated: the Hamas victory ushers in the definitive “Islamization of the conflict” in which Israel, and indirectly “all Western countries”, are confronted by a war for “elementary values of democracy and sacredness of life”. Within this logic, Israel must reasonably wage an “eternal war” with “no compromises”, “against religious extremism”, while attempting to preserve the values which “separate us from them”. After all, who can reasonably expect negotiations with those who send suicide bombers, and “call for Israel’s destruction”?
Tragically, the wide scale dehumanization and racism pitted against Islamist movements since September 11th across the world has been so successful that wide sections of the US Left will likewise fall prisoner to similar logic. It is therefore necessary to immediately and clearly articulate an accurate understanding of what the Hamas victory means both for the powers that be, as well as for activists concerned with the fate of the Palestinian national movement, and all subsequent anti-racist, anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist movements.
Why Hamas Won
Hamas won a resounding victory commanding 76 seats in the 132 Person Legislative Council. Together with the support of 4 additional independent candidates who won, and were backed by Hamas, the ‘Change and Reform’ slate of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat Al Moqawama Al Islamiyya) garnered a total of 80 seats - 60.6 % of the high voter turn out (75% of the eligible voters) and almost double the 43 seats of Fateh. What does this represent in the algebra of regional and world forces?
No doubt the clearest message the election results show is that the Palestinian electorate resoundingly said “No More!” to the ruling Fateh party. Fateh’s extended 40 year hegemony over Palestinian national decision making and financial resources; its undemocratic decision making processes both vis-a-vis other factions and within Fateh itself; its poor political calculations and performance; and its latent financial corruption, in the end created more enemies than friends within Palestinian society. Ever since the Intifada began, and particularly after the death of Yasser Arafat, the glue that once kept Fateh together has dissolved as the contradictions it oversaw bubbled to the surface. Simultaneously, Hamas built itself upon the organizational framework initially laid down by the West Bank and Gaza Strip Islamic Brotherhood movements in previous years. Its launching in 1987 within the vibrant theatre of Palestinian politics, forced fundamental changes upon the organization which over time resulted in its growth into a dynamic, disciplined, democratic, centralized party structure. Moreover its political platform cleverly shadowed all the political areas where Fateh and the Oslo Accords retreated with respect to Palestinian national rights: the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, and the unity of the entire Palestinian people. Despite being the largest employer in the Occupied Territories; despite being the only major Palestinian party not on the CIA’s top 20 International Terrorist Group list; despite being the “one with all the connections” to ‘international legitimacy’, Fateh was finally punished for its cynicism, corruption, double speak, and internalized defeatism, both politically and organizationally.
A Moral Victory for the Resistance and for “the Party Serves the People”
But the Hamas victory is not just about negation. Nor is it merely about the oft-cited social welfare network it oversees. Although there are significant socio-economic reasons behind Hamas’ success, this simplification assumes that Palestinians are simply so desperate that they vote for whoever feeds them, and are devoid of any critical political faculties.
Far more significant to Hamas’ victory is what it represents politically, particularly when contrasted with the trajectory of the previous Fateh movement. Hamas represents a definitive departure from the Oslo model and the humiliating false discourse it propagated. Palestinians rejected that they had to be a “partner to peace”; that they were the ones who had to prove that they were not the terrorists; and that “Israeli security and self-defense” was a legitimate premise in the peace process, necessitating all of Israel’s subsequent actions. It is precisely this vocabulary which greased the wheels of the machines which actively sought to extinguish the Palestinian national movement for the past 5 years, and colonized Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza for the past 38.
Equally as important was the fact that in the struggle to attain these rights, Hamas articulated an alternative strategy to what it saw as the dead end of Oslo. Hamas preserved and implemented at times, the Palestinian right to resist. This, in the eyes of its US, Israeli and EU detractors, was its gravest sin. Although this resistance may have taken controversial forms, the reality of the matter is that Hamas was never unique in its employment of these methods amongst Palestinian factions, and often proved itself to be far more disciplined in its use of them. Furthermore, in the course of the Intifada, it was not Hamas which began the hostilities (Israel gets credit for that), nor was it the first Palestinian faction to initiate the Intifada’s militarization (Fateh’s responsibility.)
Only after politically positioning itself upon a firm political base, and articulating a program which protected and sometimes implemented a resistance centered campaign, can Hamas’ social works be understood in context. In fact, it is precisely through the consolidation of these first two criteria that Hamas’ social welfare networks become transformed from mere charity networks, into instruments for political mobilization. Hamas’ victory also exemplified that it is first and foremost the responsibility of the political party to serve its people and not the other way around.
Defeat for US Imperialism and Zionism
Although cynics will no doubt argue that the Hamas victory falls in line with US and Israeli policies to legitimize its future actions, the fact of the matter is that both would have no doubt preferred a Fateh victory. US and Israeli strategies during Oslo were premised around the PA being Israel’s security subcontractor. After the Intifada broke out, the US and Israel shifted tack, opting in favor of ‘unilateralism’ to get their way (as implemented in construction of the massive wall and checkpoint system, and the disengagement from Gaza). As for the Palestinian Authority, it was to be retained only in so far it was to be an object of continued torment -“until the Palestinians turn into Finns”, according to Sharon’s right hand man Dov Weisglas. This was supposed to free Israel’s hand to be able to unilaterally determine Israel’s borders, and anything else Israel and the US saw fit.
Although no doubt both Israel and the US have plenty of resources at their expense to exploit the current scenario to their advantage, the Hamas victory is an affront to the politics of how the US and Israel have been running the show for the previous 12 years. Hamas has the potential and desire to reorganize and regroup the Palestinian national movement on a surer footing, stemming the corrosive effects of Fateh’s leadership under Oslo and Israel’s deliberately destructive tactics against it. Hamas’ victory also flies in the face of the Bush doctrine’s efforts to ‘bring democracy to the Middle East’, as though this was to be equated with bringing to power moderate, pro-American regimes. Indeed the contrary has taken place, and it is this model which now shall be held up for movements across the region, eager to push for democracy in their respective countries. No doubt social movements in Egypt, Jordan and a host of other notoriously repressive US sponsored regimes will take note of this ‘Arab experiment in democracy’.
A Victory and a Warning
Despite the fact that these elections took place under a brutal occupation and that Israel made no serious concessions to facilitate them; despite the fact that Israel currently holds 9,000 prisoners many of whom are pivotal national leaders in its jails; despite the fact that just months ago, Israel attempted to arrest the entire Hamas list and campaign organizers; despite the millions of dollars pumped directly and indirectly into Fateh’s campaign by the US and the EU in a last ditch effort to keep the theater of absurd “peace process” alive - the Palestinian people voted resoundingly for a different future. Hamas should be given credit for politically and organizationally articulating and catalyzing that desire for change. At the same time, it must be noted that Hamas’ victory is equally as much a failure for the Palestinian Left, and other secular forces to articulate and organize an attractive alternative. No doubt, the internal debates, and maneuvering on that front are only just beginning.
The Palestinian center of gravity has shifted to Hamas, and all others groupings within the Palestinian arena will be at pains to rearticulate and reorganize themselves if they are to one day seriously challenge them. For the time being however, Hamas will be given time to prove itself in action. At the same time the ballooning of its supporters will also bring with it expectations and political diversity, which the movement itself will also find difficult to navigate.
All this however cannot be decontextualized from what Israel and US will do to ensure that Hamas, like Fateh, cannot bring anything substantial back to its constituency in the form of tangible achievements for Palestinian rights. Indeed, both have already underscored that they will not deal with Hamas “until it recognizes Israel”, “accepts the Road Map” and disarms. Furthermore, the US and EU are openly considering cutting relations and funding to the PA, while the major Israeli political parties (Labor, Kadima and Likud) all advocate ‘unilateralism’ if Hamas is in power (and incidentally, if they are not). These policies alone could spell the end for the PA as we have known it, while unmasking what was always the conditional commitment of these parties to “a peace process”. Yet more worrying is the discourse which emerged within hours of the election results from former Israeli Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon argued that what we are witnessing is the creation of “Hamastan, Hizbullahstan and al-Qaedastan” in Gaza, and that Iran is at Israel’s doorstep. This discourse, and all similar discourse, truly only has one implication behind it - the desire to justify in advance massacres on a scale never seen in the previous 5 years. Hamas is certainly wary of this possibility, and for that reason will ensure it provides no excuses to bring that reality about. Nonetheless, Israel will be the one who orchestrates this and its timing, though likely not before the March elections for Prime Minister.
In these times of reconfiguring mentalities, Palestine solidarity activists must be consistent in challenging the rote racism and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims which facilitate these bloody scenarios. Likewise they must argue politically for what is truly at the heart of this election, and that the right to self-determination and political representation is an internal Palestinian matter that does not contravene the over-arching framework within which the conflict must be understood: the fight of the Palestinian people to resist the colonization of their land for the establishment of an exclusivist Jewish state that acts as the watchdog of US imperialism in the region. Though a Hamas victory on some levels may make this task harder, it also crucially brings up so many issues which Palestinian activists must convincingly argue if we are ever to win real gains: challenging the historiography of the Oslo peace process and exposing the US role in supporting the exclusionary Zionist state and its oppressive policies against the Palestinian national movement. The fact that this election result was achieved more or less democratically (although with clear limitations which should not be overlooked) should potentially make our task easier - but only if we know what’s at stake. Indeed if Israel is to be prevented from eventually doing what it wants to in Gaza, (as it did to Beirut, the heart of Palestinian organizing from 1970 -1982), then Palestine activists will have much to do in the coming months.
Note: Green is the color associated with Hamas’ electoral list. Red is the color of blood.
Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian-American activist and writer presently living in San Francisco. He is currently co-editing a book with Dr. Tikva Honig-Parnass on the Palestinian Intifada, to be published by Haymarket Books in the fall of this year. He can be reached at toufic_haddad [at] hotmail.com