amas’s landslide victory
in the January 25 elections for the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative
Council (PLC) is an unprecedented turning point for politics in
both Palestine and the broader Middle East. Arguably for the first
time since the establishment of Israel in 1948, an official administrative
power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has strong popular support
and is not directly beholden to Israeli or Western interests.
Pre-election polls had consistently forecast a tight race between
Hamas and the ruling party Fatah. Hamas was expected to win approximately
one-third of the seats in the PLC, with 40 percent going to Fatah.
The Independent Palestine list of Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent
NGO figure in the West Bank, was predicted to emerge as the third
largest party, significantly ahead of the secular left Popular Front
for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Smaller parties like Badil,
a coalition of smaller Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) factions,
and the Third Way, led by former Palestinian Authority (PA) Finance
Minister Salam Fayyad and Hanan Ashrawi, director of the Palestinian
NGO Miftah, were also expected to gain several seats each.
Defying predictions from both participants and observers alike,
final results gave Hamas 74 seats compared to 45 for Fatah. The
PFLP managed three seats, with two seats each going to Independent
Palestine, Badil, and the Third Way. Independent candidates achieved
four seats. The high voter turnout of 78 percent can be considered
a definitive mandate from the Palestinian electorate.
It is hard to overstate the significance of the shift that has taken
place. The Palestinian Authority under Fatah rule—with a few
notable exceptions following the uprising that began in September
2000—was generally marked by little more than verbal disputes
with the Israeli government. PA security forces coordinated with
the Israeli military, arrested political opponents and activists,
responded to Israeli actions on the ground with little more than
muted, rhetorical opposition, and routinely repeated the mantra
of the “violence on both sides.” This role facilitated
the demobilization and confusion of the Palestinian national movement.
The real fear that the victory of Hamas brings to Israel, the U.S.,
and EU is this: Who will they call on to control the Palestinian
population now that the old PA—however ineffective and unreliable
it was from their perspective—has crumbled?
Rejecting a Political Fiction
he popular vote for Hamas is principally
a rejection of the disastrous negotiations that followed the signing
of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Countless voices have criticized those
accords as a fig-leaf for the ongoing colonization of the West Bank
and Gaza Strip, far removed from the avowed goal of an independent
Palestinian state. Under the cover of peace negotiations, Israel
continued to encircle and isolate Palestinian towns and villages
with its network of settlements, bypass roads, and checkpoints.
The Israeli military controlled Palestinian transit with a complicated
system of permits and movement restrictions. These isolated population
islands were given the trappings of autonomy, but effective control
remained in the hands of the Israeli state. Oslo (and subsequent
agreements) was aimed at having Palestinians police themselves while
allowing Israel to deepen this system of apartheid.
Hamas’s victory is a striking indictment of this so-called
peace process. Promoted with the deliberate deceit of Western governments
and the corporate media, the myth of negotiations was fully shared
by the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, most particularly
by individuals such as Palestinian President Abu Mazen and Prime
Minister Abu Ala. The PA leadership came to represent submission
and surrender under the banner of peaceful negotiations and empty
condemnation of violence. Indeed, immediately prior to the Legislative
Council elections, Hamas leader, Khaled Mishaal, pointed out that,
“The experiment of 50 years taught us this road was futile
and Hamas would not continue to deceive the Palestinian people with
this political fiction.”
nderstanding the nature of the Oslo process
is central to explaining the Hamas victory. Most commentary has
pointed out that popular sympathy for Hamas is based on rejection
of the corruption, nepotism, and profiteering of the ruling party
Fatah following the establishment of the PA in the mid-1990s. While
this is certainly true, it provides little explanation of the root
causes of this corruption. What usually goes unstated is that this
systemic corruption was a direct and deliberate outcome of the Oslo
established a system in which the Palestinian Authority became completely
reliant on foreign funds for its continued survival. Israel guaranteed
the subservience of the Palestinian Authority through control over
border crossings and movement between cities, a campaign of massive
land confiscation that devastated Palestinian agriculture and severed
the city of Jerusalem (which provided 40 percent of the Palestinian
economy) from its West Bank hinterland.
Electricity, water, and communications remained firmly in Israeli
hands. This control was codified in agreements such as the 1994
Paris Economic Protocol, which restricted what goods Palestinians
were permitted to export and import.
Foreign inflows, principally from the U.S. and EU, became the sole
means of liquidity for the Palestinian Authority. These funds, however,
came with a political price and were designed to buy compliance
with ongoing colonization. Patronage and corruption were the obvious
and logical consequences of such a system. With little opportunity
of sustaining a livelihood, individual survival became dependent
on the disbursements and personal contacts in the PA or Fatah. Around
half a million Pales- tinians are reliant on the PA for their livelihood.
Moreover, prominent figures in the Palestinian Authority held control
over the large Palestinian monopolies that directly conducted business
with Israeli and foreign companies. Their profiteering depended
on the continued status quo. Perhaps the most notorious example
of this was the cement companies owned by the Palestinian prime
minister, Abu Ala, later found to be directly involved in building
the apartheid wall.
An increasingly wide gap between the majority of the population
and the wealthy elite in and around the Palestinian Authority turned
into a vast chasm following the onset of the Palestinian uprising
in September 2000. Poverty levels reached 70 percent in areas such
as the Gaza Strip while the conspicuous consumption of an increasingly
small elite reminded the general population that the brunt of Israeli
attacks against Palestinian society was not being borne equally.
In contrast, Hamas activists are now seen as honest, reliable, and
committed to the interests of the poor.
The elections were conducted with two votes: one for a West Bank/Gaza
Strip-wide party list (66 seats) and one for individual candidates
running on the district level (66 seats). Confirmation of how Hamas
candidates were perceived by the communities closest to them was
shown by the district level vote where Hamas took 45 out of the
available 66 seats.
he election heralds an enormous shift if
a Hamas-led PA fulfills its promise to act in accordance with popular
interests. To take one very concrete example: currently, around
100 Palestinians are held as political prisoners in Jericho prisons
by the Palestinian Authority. These activists are drawn from all
political factions. Perhaps the most notable are leaders of the
PFLP who are being held for the assassination of the far right,
Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, in response to the
killing of the PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa. Their imprisonment was
ordered by the Israeli, U.S., and British governments and was hugely
unpopular across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, Ahmed Saadat,
the general secretary of the PFLP, won a seat to the legislative
council at the head of the PFLP list while being detained in Jericho.
It appears highly unlikely that Hamas will continue to comply with
measures such as these and, indeed, one of their first announcements
following their victory was that they would release Saadat.
If Hamas makes good on its promise not to sustain these structures
of occupation then this will be a huge setback for Israeli and U.S.
interests in the region. The situation, however, defies simplicity
due to the network of factions and interests located throughout
the PA apparatus. The legislative council is a weak body and considerable
power remains in the hands of Abu Mazen and the presidential office.
security forces—in particular the Preventative Security branch
—remain a Fatah-led body under the nominal control of Abu Mazen
while Hamas, particularly in the Gaza Strip, maintains a strong
network of armed cadre.
A number of commentators have raised the fear that the election
results could herald a repeat of the 1991 Algerian experience where
the election victory of the Islamic party FIS was overthrown by
a military coup and led to prolonged civil war. Any repeat experience
in the Palestinian context would undoubtedly involve the Israeli
military and security apparatus in both provoking and maintaining
internal armed strife. There is no doubt that Hamas is aware of
this threat and they have repeatedly stated that Hamas supports
a government of national unity and have so far refused to be drawn
into armed clashes with other Palestinian factions. Nevertheless,
covert Israeli support for such an eventuality is a real possibility.
The push to keep Palestinian security forces under Abu Mazen’s
control could lay the groundwork for such a scenario. U.S. support
for key PA security chiefs, such as Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub,
is an open fact and both have been prominent in the post-election
armed demonstrations by Fatah supporters. These demonstrations have
condemned the Hamas victory and called for the resignation of Abu
Mazen and the Fatah central committee. Nevertheless, in a statement
released on January 28, Fatah’s armed wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs
Brigade, described these demonstrations as a populist grab for power
by particular Fatah leaders. In a none-too- oblique reference to
Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, the AMB sharply criticized the
organizers of the demonstrations as “ones who spread corruption
and greatly contributed to the humiliating Fatah defeat.”
The key question will be how Hamas manages the contradiction between
its commitment to the national struggle and maintaining the structures
of the PA. The economic dependency of the PA will not disappear
with the Hamas victory although the political character of this
relationship has been made strikingly obvious with threats by the
U.S. and EU to cut funding. It remains to be seen whether Hamas
can find alternate sources of support and whether they will attempt
to implement some form of wealth re-distribution or, instead, become
more acceptable to the West.
This contradiction is not of Hamas’s making. A conscious aim
of Oslo was to narrow the Palestinian struggle to a dispute over
land percentages in the West Bank and to sever any link between
Palestinians in the West Bank/Gaza Strip, those who remained in
1948 historic Palestine as Israeli citizens, and those exiled outside
of their homeland. Key to this was the destruction of the PLO as
a national liberation movement and its replacement by the Palestinian
Authority state building project.
The formation of the PLO in the 1960s was a critical step forward
for the Palestinian struggle as it unified the dispersed Palestinian
nation across many generations and countries. The bedrock demand
of this struggle was insistence that Palestinians had the right
to return to their homes and lands from which they had been exiled.
A key feature of all negotiations since Oslo has been an attempt
to undermine this demand, reducing it to the symbolic return of
a few thousand Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Despite
the willingness of individuals such as Abu Mazen to acquiesce to
such attempts, Palestinians across the globe remain united behind
a full return to historic Palestine.
In a show of tragic irony following the Hamas victory, Abu Mazen
claimed that he would continue negotiations with Israel under the
auspices of the PLO rather than the PA. Although this has technically
always been the case, the neutering of PLO structures post-Oslo
meant that the direction of negotiations was far removed from democratic
or popular control.
Both Hamas and the PFLP campaigned around the importance of renewing
Palestinian structures outside of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The PFLP included in its program that the Legislative Council elections
should form the mandate for the West Bank/Gaza Strip representation
for the Palestinian National Council (PNC). As the Palestinian parliament
in exile, the PNC is the highest leadership body of the PLO and
supposedly represents all Palestinians in exile. It has, however,
been moribund in recent decades. The PFLP has called for elections
across the world to elect the rest of the PNC and to re-establish
it as the primary force for Palestinian decision making.
In an encouraging sign Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal clearly identified
this as an important strategic orientation of Hamas. In an editorial
published in the
on January 31, Mishaal stated,
“Our message to the Palestinians is this: Our people are not
only those who live under siege in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip
but also the millions languishing in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan
and Syria and the millions spread around the world unable to return
home. We promise you that nothing in the world will deter us from
pursuing our goal of liberation and return. We shall spare no effort
to work with all factions and institutions in order to put our Palestinian
house in order. Having won the parliamentary elections, our medium-term
objective is to reform the PLO in order to revive its role as a
true representative of all the Palestinian people, without excep-
tion or discrimination.”
In this context, the Palestinian solidarity movement is faced with
important challenges. Given the disarray that Hamas’s unexpected
victory has caused for Israeli and U.S. plans, we should fully expect
a sustained ideological offensive against them in the mainstream
media. This campaign has already begun with the predictable stories
of the impending “Talibanization” of Palestinian society.
Such claims, however, must be treated with suspicion. Hamas’s
victory expressed a political sentiment and desire for a real alternative
to the Oslo straitjacket. The Hamas leadership clearly recognizes
this and has shown little inclination to imple- ment far-reaching
social changes along religious lines.
The Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has overwhelmingly
stated that these negotiations have been a cover for the deepening
of Israeli apartheid. The clear message of Hamas representatives
in the weeks following the election is that the peace process—as
understood by Israeli and Western powers and dutifully regurgitated
by the mainstream press—has nothing to do with a genuine, just
peace. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the world will
heed this message.
Hanieh is part of the Al-Awda Right of Return Coalition and co-author
Stolen Youth: The Politics of Israel’s Detention
of Palestinian Children