Ironically, it was
In light of Hamas’ seizure of the Gaza Strip, it is worthwhile to understand how this radical Islamist organization came to play such a major role in Palestinian political life and how
Ironically, it was
Beginning in the early 1980s, with generous funding from the US-backed family dictatorship in
While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or right to hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities allowed radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored newspapers and even have their own radio station. For example, in the occupied Palestinian city of
Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), was founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who had been freed from prison when
American policy was not much different: up until 1993, US officials in the consular office in
One of the early major boosts for Hamas came when the Israeli government expelled more than 400 Palestinian Muslims in late 1992. While most of the exiles were associated with Hamas-affiliated social service agencies, very few had been accused of any violent crimes. Since such expulsions are a direct contravention to international law, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the action and called for their immediate return.
The incoming Bill Clinton administration, however, blocked the United Nations from enforcing its resolution and falsely claimed that an Israeli offer to eventually allow some of exiles back constituted a fulfillment of the UN mandate. The result of the Israeli and American actions was that the exiles became heroes and martyrs; the credibility of Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinians grew enormously – and so did their political strength.
Still, at the time of the Oslo Agreement between
In early 2001,
Seeing how Fatah’s 1993 decision to end the armed struggle and rely on a US-led peace process had resulted in increased suffering, Hamas’ popularity grew well beyond its hardline fundamentalist base, and its use of terrorism against Israel – despite being immoral, illegal and counter-productive – seemed to express the sense of anger and impotence of wide segments of the Palestinian population.
Meanwhile – in a policy defended by both the Bush administration and Democratic leaders in Congress –
The election of a Hamas government
With the Bush administration insisting that the Palestinians stage free and fair elections after the death of Arafat in 2004, Fatah leaders hoped that coaxing Hamas into the electoral process would help weaken its more radical elements. However, the response from
In December 2005, a month prior to the Palestinian election, the House of Representatives passed a resolution by an overwhelming 397-17 majority criticizing Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, for “his willingness to see Hamas participate in the elections without first calling for it to … renounce its goal of destroying the state of
However, neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor other House leaders have ever criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his willingness to see parties, such as the National Union – which seeks to destroy any Palestinian national entity and expel its Arab population – participate in Israeli elections, an apparent acknowledgement that while Congress sees Israel’s survival is axiomatic, Palestine’s survival is an open-ended question. (In any case, under the Palestinian Authority, as with the state of
Similarly, the resolution – co-sponsored by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders – insisted that groups such as Hamas “should not be permitted to participate in Palestinian elections until such organizations recognize
The Senate also weighed in. A letter signed by 73 of 100 senators – including 2008 Democratic presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama – also questioned the decision to allow Hamas to participate in the election on the grounds that “no democracy in the world allows a political party to bear its own arms”. Ironically, just weeks earlier the Senate had voted unanimously to praise the recently completed Iraqi parliamentary elections in which a number of political parties with their own militias openly participated and formed the new Iraqi government.
In addition, the
Despite US objections, the Palestinian parliamentary elections went ahead in January 2006 with Hamas’ participation. They were monitored closely by international observers and were universally recognized as free and fair. With reformist and leftist parties divided into a half dozen competing slates, Hamas was seen by many Palestinians disgusted with the status quo as the only viable alternative to the corrupt Fatah incumbents and with Israel refusing to engage in substantive peace negotiations with Abbas’ Fatah-led government, they figured there was little to lose in electing Hamas.
In addition, factionalism within the ruling party led a number of districts to have competing Fatah candidates. As a result, even though Hamas only received 44% of the vote, they captured a majority of Parliament and the right to select the prime minister and form a new government.
Ironically, the position of prime minister did not exist under the original constitution of the Palestine Authority, but was added in March 2003 at the insistence of the
Efforts to undermine the government
Despite claiming support for free elections, the
The Bush administration pressured the Canadians, Europeans and others in the international community to impose stiff sanctions on the Palestine Authority, though a limited amount of aid continued to flow to government offices controlled by Abbas.
Once one of the more prosperous regions in the Arab world, decades of Israeli occupation had resulted in the destruction of much of the indigenous Palestinian economy, making the Palestine Authority dependent on foreign aid to provide basic functions for its people. The impact of these sanctions, therefore, was devastating. The Iranian regime rushed in to partially fill the void, providing millions of dollars to run basic services and giving the Islamic Republic – which until then had not been allied with Hamas and had not been a major player in Palestinian politics – unprecedented leverage.
Meanwhile, record unemployment led angry and hungry young men to become easy recruits for Hamas militants. One leading Fatah official noted, “For many people, this was the only way to make money.” Some Palestinian police, unpaid by their bankrupt government, clandestinely joined the Hamas militia as a second job, creating a dual loyalty.
The demands imposed at the insistence of the Bush administration and Congress on the Palestine Authority to lift the sanctions appeared to be designed to be rejected and were widely interpreted as a pretext for punishing the Palestinian population for voting the wrong way. For example, the
Other demands included an end of attacks on civilians in
While Hamas honored a unilateral ceasefire regarding suicide bombings in
A House resolution last summer, passed by an overwhelming 410-8 majority, went so far as to praise Israel’s “longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss and welcomes Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Only seven Democrats voted against the resolution, which put them on record commending President George W Bush “for fully supporting
It was out of this environment that Hamas grew from a radical minority to an electoral majority and is now patrolling the streets of the Gaza Strip in full control.
Since their humiliating defeat in the Gaza Strip, Fatah militia have been engaging in a wave of arrests and kidnappings of Hamas activists in the
Furthermore, while Hamas’ popular support has traditionally been less in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip, where the majority of its residents live in impoverished refugee camps, the Islamist group’s support is still quite strong in the
Despite its dubious constitutionality, Abbas announced a new emergency cabinet without any Hamas participation within days of Fatah’s ouster from the Gaza Strip, and included some prominent technocrats, reformers and independents.
His new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is a highly intelligent economist and former World Bank official who lived for most of his adult life in the
Fayyad then formed a small centrist party with scholar and human-rights activist Hanan Ashrawi to challenge both Fatah and Hamas in last year’s parliamentary election, but their slate received only 2.4% of the vote. Though a sincere nationalist and reformer, Fayyad’s close ties to the
The makeup of his new government is not Abbas’ biggest problem, however. The Palestinians recognize that the
They are aware that the Bush administration and Congress have endorsed
They also know how the
Concrete political initiatives
However, unless there are concrete political initiatives as well, this will not be enough.
Abbas has called for peace with strict security guarantees for Israel, including the dismantling of Hamas’ militias, in return for an independent state on the 22% of Palestine occupied by Israel since 1967, and has even expressed his willingness to accept minor and reciprocal border adjustments. Polls show that a majority of Palestinians in the
Under this Israeli plan – endorsed by the Bush administration and a broad bipartisan majority of Congress –
These non-contiguous Palestinian cantons, therefore, would more closely resemble the infamous Bantustans of apartheid
The Israeli government, with no apparent objection from the United States, has thus far refused to even put a freeze on the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank that are eating up ever more Palestinian land needed to make a Palestinian state viable.
Furthermore, Israeli occupation forces have yet to lift the scores of checkpoints paralyzing economic life in the
However, as a result of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, “The prime minister’s advisers [declared] the Palestinian Authority dead, [saying] there is no one to talk to … and that the Bush administration will not put pressure on Olmert at this stage to come up with ideas for renewing the negotiations with Abbas and promoting a diplomatic solution.”
As Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group and former and former National Security Council member and special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs under president Bill Clinton, has noted how “almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged”.
Hamas’ armed takeover of the Gaza Strip has shown this to be all too true, and the
Stephen Zunes is