The Hamas victory: democratization – but not what the US expected

Hamas youth in Ramallah (Maureen Clare Murphy)


Wednesday’s landslide victory for Hamas over Fatah in the Palestinian legislative elections should surprise no one. More than a dozen years after the Oslo accords, Palestinians have passed a public verdict on the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the old guard that it represents: They failed dismally at the task of pressing for Palestinians’ inalienable rights under international law and a bevy of UN resolutions.

Hamas’ victory can turn out to be a very positive development if handled with sensitivity by the US, Israel and the EU. Wednesday’s election results, coming on the heels of Ariel Sharon’s apparent demise, may well open new spaces for vision and action, particularly among EU members who have, over the last year, misplaced their collective backbone when it came to speaking out unequivocally against massive and systematic Israeli violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in Palestine.

The “Palestinian street” has long considered the PA to be corrupt, high-handed, and worse: far too subservient and obsequious to Israeli and US demands. Its integrity was long ago compromised, and its effectiveness undermined, by a pronounced dependence on external funds, humiliating kow-towing to Israel, and its leaders’ craven fears of risking their privileges and power by siding with the people. Contrary to being a dramatically negative and cataclysmic event, Hamas’ victory is in fact a welcome sign of change and a possible turning point, not a breaking point, in the long, painful, and cynically named “peace process.”

It is also an index of democracy in action. By assuming the role of the governors, not the governed, Hamas must now grapple with the gaps between ideological purity and political compromises. Rhetoric and demonstrations will only get it so far from now on. Effective politicking, of the sort rarely seen since Oslo, will be crucial to Hamas’ success.

International law versus ideological posturing

The Palestinians have employed a variety of ideologies – emancipatory, universalist, Arab nationalist, as well as Islamist – to press for their rights on the world stage. But in the end, their “ace in the hole” was never ideological posturing but rather, demanding Israeli accountability before the international community on the clear strength of UN resolutions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and International Humanitarian Law.

Hamas’ victory was all but guaranteed by the draconian unilateral policies adopted by the Israeli government, which did everything it could to ensure it had “no partner for peace.” Even so-called Israeli doves enthusiastically rallied to support Ariel Sharon’s attempts to limit the Palestinian “demographic threat,” although this meant violating international humanitarian law. A country whose peace movement is sympathetic to ethnic cleansing is a country with serious problems, a country in need of a reality check. Hamas’ emergence may be just such a wake-up call.

Sharon, as well as most Likud members, initially opposed the building of Israel’s “security barrier,” or Apartheid wall, on the grounds that it would only clarify and institutionalize the 1967 borders. Ever the wily fox, however, Sharon quickly realized that building the wall on Palestinian lands in a manner that would be advantageous for illegal settlements and devastating for Palestinians would advance the most hard-line of all Likud visions and practices, which amount to Apartheid, a clear violation of International Law and accepted interenational norms.

Some Palestinian factions’ unwise and illegal use of suicide bombings to kill Israeli civilians worked against the Palestinian people as a whole in the post-9/11 era, lending seeming credence to Israel’s cynical argument that the Wall was crucial for Israeli security, and that the safety of every individual Israeli trumped Palestinians’ claims to the basic modicum of rights and resources required for human beings to live lives of dignity and hope.

The massive and ugly wall has not prevented subsequent bombings, has been decreed a grave violation of International Law by a July 2004 advisory ruling of the International Court of Justice, and is simply creating more anger, frustration, and humiliation among Palestinians, i.e., providing the basic ingredients for making more young people conclude that suicide bombings are rational and meaningful responses to the deep existential crises afflicting their and their families’ lives. The wall is nothing but land theft and the crushing of Palestinian self-determination disguised as a security measure.

Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza was an attempt to “dump” the Gaza quagmire it had created on Palestinian laps. If the Oslo process was an attempt to subcontract the occupation to the PA, then the unilateral withdrawal without any coordination with a Palestinian partner was a way of sub-contracting violence and abuses against Palestinians to the Palestinians themselves. Tensions between various armed factions are running high. This produces feelings of schadenfreude among the Likud Party, who point to Palestinian disarray as evidence that Palestinians cannot govern themselves. This may yet prove the pretext for another punishing IDF assault on Gaza, or a rationale for refusing to give up any illegally gotten lands in the West Bank.

Despite the Oslo Accords, which blithely sidestepped all relevant UN resolutions and International Law, particularly the requirements of the Fourth Geneva Convention concerning the proper behavior of an occupying power, the Israeli occupation never ended. In fact, more settlements were built, more lands and water resources stolen, in the 1990s than in the decade preceding Oslo, according to studies by the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Palestinians suffered from increasing economic hardships and ever tighter limitations on their freedom of movement after the institution of harsh “closure” measures by the IDF in 1994, even before suicide bombings had begun. Poverty and famine are now a daily scourge in many communities in the West Bank and Gaza. Given these stark realities, is it any wonder Palestinians refused to vote again for the PA?

Hamas’ victory stems, ultimately, from the blatant corruption, mediocrity, and lack of leadership in the Palestinian Authority, the elite of which were supported and propped up by successive US administrations. The late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat governed the Palestinians with a mixture of patriarchy and a mafia-like system of patronage that helped to fragment institutions and through them, families and regions. The Palestinian leadership also ignored the emergence of a new generation impatient with the lack of future job prospects and disgusted by the Byzantine politics of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas shrewdly played on these shortcomings and contradictions by offering a clear and simple message: “Salvation comes from religion and the faithful application of Qur’anic principles, which are based on social justice and human dignity.” Over the last 25 years, the Islamist movement has created an impressive framework of effective and minimally corrupt social services institutions to help the poor, widowed, orphaned, and those who have sacrificed life and limb for the liberation of Palestine.

Regional and international repercussions

At the regional level, Hamas’s victory is a response to the disastrous war in Iraq. In Arab and Muslim eyes, America’s military invasions are viewed as proof that the US was bent on killing as many Arabs and Muslims as possible to avenge the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Vengeance disguised as democratization. Support for Hamas can then be seen as a final rebuke of, and turning away from, any US-proposed interventions and plans. This might be a very salutary development for Palestinians, who have lost their political agency to the Fatah elite subsidized by “peace process”-related funding from the US, Canada and the EU.

How should the West react to Hamas, a political player long defined as a pariah because of its use of violent tactics that have also contradicted International Humanitarian Law? First, the Bush Administration and the European Union must not withhold aid from the Palestinians. The more impoverished and desperate they become, the more they will be thrown into extremists’ hands. Hamas, despite its dramatic electoral showing, really does not represent the majority of Palestinian public opinion. The vote was not so much a mandate for Hamas as it was a protest vote against the PA, Oslo, and US and Israeli policies.

Second, enhance the role of international principles and institutions such as the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations, as well as increasing and diversifying the Palestinian voices that must weigh in about the future. Where are the women? The youth? The artists, educators, lawyers and intellectuals? The US cannot continue to set conditions for Palestinian interlocutors, while providing Israel with a blank check to act unilaterally and in violation of established international norms, a course of action the US is now, alas, pursuing to its own and others’ detriment.

A time of testing and challenge awaits Hamas. The West — especially the EU — ought to welcome and assist the democratically elected members of the new Palestinian legislative council for the sake of stability in an already volatile region. No matter how it is viewed, Hamas’ victory marks a crucial intersection of new opportunities and persistent dangers, not only for Palestinians or the Middle East as a whole, but also for the US, the EU, and the UN.

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    Laurie King-Irani, a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, is an anthropologist and journalist. She was editor of Middle East Report in Washington DC from 1998-2000. King-Irani is now based in Spain.