Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian Authority legislative elections has everyone asking “what next”? The answer, and whether the result should be seen as a good or bad thing, depends very much on who is asking the question.
Although a Hamas success was heavily trailed, the scale of the victory has been widely termed a “shock.” Several factors explain the dramatic rise of Hamas, including disillusionment and disgust with the corruption, cynicism and lack of strategy of the Fatah faction which has dominated the Palestinian movement for decades and had arrogantly come to view itself as the natural and indisputable leader.
The election result is not entirely surprising, however, and has been foreshadowed by recent events. Take for example the city of Qalqilya in the north of the West Bank. Hemmed in by Israeli settlements and now completely surrounded by a concrete wall, the city’s fifty thousand residents are prisoners in a Israeli-controlled giant ghetto. For years Qalqilya’s city council was controlled by Fatah but after the completion of the wall, voters in last years’ municipal elections awarded every single city council seat to Hamas. The Qalqilya effect has now spread across the occcupied territories, with Hamas reportedly winning virtually all of the seats elected on a geographic basis. Thus Hamas’ success is as much an expression of the determination of Palestinians to resist Israel’s efforts to force their surrender as it is a rejection of Fatah. It reduces the conflict to its most fundamental elements: there is occupation, and there is resistance.
For Palestinians under occupation, it is not yet clear what Hamas’ win will mean. It is now common to speak of a Palestinian “government” being formed out of the election results, as though Palestine were already a sovereign and independent state. But if the first duty of a government is to protect its people’s lives, liberty and property, then the Palestinian Authority has never deserved to be called a government. Since its inception, it has not been able to protect Palestinians from lethal daily attacks by the Israeli army in the heart of their towns and refugee camps, or to prevent a single dunum of land being seized for settlements, nor to save a single sapling of the more than one million trees uprooted by Israel in the past ten years. Rather, in Israel’s conception the Palestinian Authority was supposed to crush Palestinian resistance to make the occupied territories safe for continued Israeli colonization. Hamas will certainly not allow that to continue, but whether it will be able to tranform the Authority into an arm of the struggle against Israel is by no means certain. Hamas, which has observed a unilateral truce with Israel for a year, has signalled that it wants to continue this if Israel “reciprocates.” The movement clearly believes it can make such an offer from a position of strength and it is to its tactical advantage to leave uncertainty about when and how it might resume full-scale armed resistance.
Elements of the Palestinian Authority security services run by Fatah figures may be unwilling to put themselves under the control of a Hamas-led authority, which could lead to the collapse of what is left of the Authority’s structure, or even its break-up into personal militias. Israel and the United States which refuses to accept the outcome of the election may see an interest in encouraging such an internal conflict. Israel is likely to use Hamas’ win as a further pretext to tighten repression and accelerate its unilateral imposition of walls and settlements on the West Bank designed to annex the maximum number of land with the minimum number of Palestinians. Such developments increase the risks of a dramatic escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
As for the majority of Palestinians, who live as refugees and exiles in the diaspora, they have been progressively excluded and marginalized from efforts to solve the conflict. Whereas the US and its allies, with UN assistance, went to extraordinary lengths to allow Iraqi “out of country voters” to participate in that country’s elections, the same powers have shown no interest in giving Palestinian refugees a voice. Fatah, which many Palestinian refugees suspect would sell out their rights in a peace deal with Israel, obviously had no incentive to demand such participation. It remains to be seen if Hamas, born in Gaza where ninety percent of the population are refugees, will be able to articulate an agenda that speaks to the concerns of the diaspora.
For the “international community” — principally the ‘Quartet’ made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the election result is a major embarassment. They, and the coterie of well-funded NGOs and think tanks that generate so much of their intellectual guff have built their approach on the notion that Palestinian “reform” rather than an end to the Israeli occupation, is the way to resolve the conflict. While nominally committing themselves to a two-state solution, these powers dragged the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority into an endless game where Palestinians have to jump through hoops to prove their worthiness of basic rights, while at the same time no pressure has been applied to Israel to end the confiscation of land and expansion of settlements. This peace process industry chose to hail Israel’s tactical withdrawal of eight thousand settlers from Gaza last summer, while ignoring the far larger number of settlers Israel has continued to plant all over the West Bank effectively rendering a two-state solution unachievable.
The principal purpose of this game is not to bring about a just and lasting peace but merely to inoculate the players from the charge that they are doing nothing to resolve a conflict that remains an enduring focus of regional and worldwide concern. A true peace effort would require confronting Israel and holding it accountable, something none of the Quartet members have the political will to do. There is no doubt that Fatah was entirely complicit in the game, to which it had become both a prisoner and an indispensable partner. Why else would the United States have desperately tried to shore Fatah up by spending millions of dollars on projects in recent months designed to buy votes, and why else would the EU have threatened to cut off aid if Palestinians voted for Hamas? Most Palestinians could see clearly that after years of negotiations and billions of dollars of foreign aid that they are poorer and less free than ever before as more of their land has been seized. It is no wonder that this kind of bribery and blackmail had no power over them and probably had the opposite effect, increasing Hamas support.
Hamas’ victory pulls the rug from under the project of trying to deflect the blame for the conflict from Israeli colonization to Palestinian internal pathologies. The peace process industry will not give up easily, however, and will now urge Hamas to act “responsibly” and to “moderate” its positions — which means in effect abandoning all forms of resistance and assuming the docile and complicit role hitherto played by Fatah.
The instant US demand that Hamas “recognize Israel” is like rewinding the clock twenty-five years to when this same demand was the pretext to ignore and exclude the PLO from peace negotiations. But as Hamas has observed, all the PLO’s submission to these demands did not lead to any loosening of Israel’s grip or any lessening of US support for Israel. Hamas is unlikely to do as the US demands, and even if it did, it would probably only give rise to new resistance groups responding to the worsening conditions on the ground generated by the occupation.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada