Elections results in the Occupied Territories show that Fatah has lost its majority in the Palestinian parliament by a stunningly large margin. This is a transformational event with lasting geopolitical importance, for Hamas and Fatah, for Palestinians and Israelis, and for the world.
Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah and head of the make-believe Palestinian â€œgovernmentâ€, was never an inspiring figure. Palestine today is still at a stage that requires a liberation movement. Yet Abbas, even more than Arafat before him, bought into the Western conceit that he was a head of state in the making. Rather than leading the struggle for liberation, Abbas focused on being a technocrat to satisfy the rhetorical needs of the EU and the US who funded him. In his speeches, he sometimes channeled the words dictated to him by his donors more than the aspirations of his constituents. His handling of his greatest challenge as a politician — restoring cohesion and a sense of purpose to Fatah — was mediocre. The necessary takeover of Fatah by the younger generation of leaders is happening, but far from smoothly, and older figures widely perceived as corrupt and ineffectual continue to cling to power. Finally, Abbas has staked his grand strategy on the continuation of Oslo and a negotiated peace with Israel. On that front he has achieved nothing; although, to be fair, it wasnâ€™t his fault.
Nevertheless, Abbas is about to make history, and leave his people and the whole region an inspiring gift. Abbas is overseeing the first grand democratic defeat of an Arab leader in a popular election. If he steps down as he has promised to do, he will have completed an achievement without parallel. Let it be noticed that losing was not as easy as it may seem. Abbas had to overcome and ignore the persistent calls within his own party to postpone the elections. He had to contend with a grand chorus of Israeli, US and EU voices calling on him to undermine the democratic process by excluding Hamas. He had opportunities aplenty to cave in. He did not. Palestinians, not the least because of their poverty and years of stubborn resistance, have a more democratic culture than the rest of the Middle East. Nevertheless, it is to Abbasâ€™ credit that he accepted and expressed this democratic spirit. It is a rare leader anywhere, and rarer still in the Middle East, who doesnâ€™t imagine himself Godâ€™s gift to his nation. For defending the integrity of this fragile democratic exercise even as it went against him Abbas deserves an unqualified Bravo.
Hamas is the big winner of the elections. It too deserves a Bravo. (From reading the mainstream Western media, one gets the impression that the only interesting question is when Hamas will recognize Israel and renounce violence. Our â€œobjectiveâ€ journalists cannot possibly adopt a perspective other than that of the Israeli state. Do send them a nice card; their â€œprofessionâ€ is the oldest in the world. I will not bore you with the same question. I hope Hamas does what Palestinians expect them to do and nothing else — lead the fight for liberty and dignity.)
For many years now Hamas has been at the forefront of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. While far from being alone, Hamas recognized early that Oslo was a cul-de-sac and a fraud. For better or for worse — and the jury is still out — Hamas played a crucial role in the decision to meet the militarized Israeli repression of the second intifada with arms. Hamas was early to adopt the tactic of suicide attacks. Thanks to the usual double standard, these are viewed in the West as more reprehensible than the much more lethal weapons routinely used by Israel. Fatefully, Hamas took a hard line on the use of suicide attacks, refusing to accept distinctions others proposed, such as between civilian and military targets, or between targets inside the Occupied Territories and those in pre-67 Israel. While I believe this was Hamasâ€™ biggest mistake and a missed opportunity to drive a wedge between Israelâ€™s bellicose leadership and less bellicose public, Hamasâ€™ position reflected significant segments of Palestinian public opinion and was neither less nor more immoral than Israelâ€™s military practices.
Crucial to its current electoral success is Hamasâ€™ recognition that resistance is more than guns. Since its inception, Hamas has operated mosques, schools, clinics and charities. It has made the survival and maintenance of Palestinian society a major priority, providing vital services in an economic environment that got bleaker by the day. Despite not having access to the larger sums and apparently useless expertise that the PA received from the US and the EU, Hamas is widely recognized to have done a better job than the PA as a provider of services. That is no small success and reflects well on the qualities of Hamasâ€™ leaders and cadres. Beyond that, it demonstrates Hamas ability to maintain a spirit of dedication and personal integrity.
Public rejection of corruption is no doubt a major explanation for the rise of Hamas. But so is religion. Palestinian society has turned increasingly to religion in response to the hardships of daily life under Israeli occupation. At the same time, it is hard not to credit the religious bond and commitment for Hamasâ€™ strength and ability to resist the lure of corruption. It is fashionable in the West, especially at the center and left of the political discourse, to compare â€œour fundamentalists with theirs.â€ While there is truth in that comparison, it misses quite a lot. â€œOur fundamentalists,â€ from George Bush to Pat Robertson, are fundamentally corrupt. Their religion is a racket. On the Muslim side the opposite seems often to be the case. Far from being a shakedown, religion over there is an antidote to corruption. Karl Marx famously dismissed religion as â€œOpium for the masses.â€ In the Middle East it is more like amphetamines. It keeps people going past the end of exhaustion and despair.
While Palestinian society turned more religious, Hamas turned more ecumenical. Palestinian parliamentarian Hanan Ashrawi expressed fear that â€œmilitants will now impose their fundamentalist social agenda and lead the Palestinians into international isolation.â€ That is a distinct and worrying possibility, but it is not set in stone. In these elections the candidates for Hamasâ€™ new political party â€œReform and Changeâ€ included women, Christians, and moderates. Hamas is now a larger political tent of Palestinian nationalism with a strong religious orientation; it encompasses radicals, moderates and conservatives with a variety of perspectives. Tensions between democratic and religious authority will continue to exist, and narrow fundamentalist tendencies are clearly present. But there is also hope that the current openness will hold and that Hamas will continue to develop toward increased democracy and inclusiveness.
With regards to the national struggle, which understandably casts a large shadow, Hamas has staked two major differences from Fatah. These differences underscore the threat that the victory of Hamas poses to the Westâ€™s colonial strategies.
Hamas maintains it will continue to defend armed struggle as a legitimate option. For now, Hamas is abstaining from violence, although the cease-fire agreed in Cairo had officially expired. It is quite possible that Hamas will continue to favor peaceful means. But it refuses to cave in to pressure and maintains the right to evaluate its strategies from a Palestinian rather than Western perspective. American, Israeli and European officials claim they will not talk to Hamas as long as it doesnâ€™t renounce violence. As long as these hypocrites donâ€™t renounce violence themselves, they have zero moral authority. Hamas deserves credit for refusing to take moral guidance from self-righteous bullies.
Hamas is also refusing to recognize Israel and negotiate on the basis of Oslo and the roadmap. Instead Hamas candidates have outlined a strategy of independence, strengthening Palestinian society and resistance and advancing national goals without relying on Israeli and international approval. Hamas calls this option â€œignoring Israel.â€
In the current international context, such a strategy is dangerous but not without sense. While Israel demands to be recognized, it is clearly unwilling to recognize minimal Palestinian demands. Both the White House and the Democrats — â€œprogressiveâ€ such as Barack Obama and regressive like Clinton and Lieberman — are parroting Israel like a second grade pupil reading from My Pet Goat. The EU seems mostly interested in helping the US play a â€œgood cop, bad copâ€ routine. There will be a price to pay, but Hamas seems to think the West has currently little to offer Palestinians beyond money to lubricate the wheels of corruption. There is precious little evidence to prove them wrong.
As Hamas handles the pressure of assuming power, either in a coalition with Fatah or alone, it is possible that these two principles will be watered down significantly. The price for consistency may be too high, especially in lost foreign assistance. Palestinians today survive on foreign charity (or, one could rephrase that as saying that the Israeli occupation is financed by the EU and the US). Unless Hamas can hook up new donors to replace the EU and US, it may be willing to compromise rather than face a popular backlash. I hope that Hamas finds creative ways to subvert this new phase of Western colonialism. But realistically, the challenge is enormous.
As a secular leftist, I would have been more comfortable had Palestinian society coalesced around a leftist resistance movement. Iâ€™m sure many readers share that preference. But Palestine is not in Latin America, and our comfort level is not the most pressing issue. Hamas is today an important face of the Palestinian struggle for liberty, equality and justice. It is the face chosen by the majority of the Palestinian public in the Occupied Territories in clear defiance of Western colonialism. With its new power and old habits, Hamas will have plenty of opportunities to go wrong. However, as long as it maintains its commitment to democracy and strives to advance the rights of all Palestinians to full human dignity, Hamas can be a force for good.
Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer who writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcomes comments at: [email protected].