Hamas and Palestinian Democracy

Surprising everyone, including themselves, Hamas won the recent Palestinian Legislative Council elections in a landslide, picking up 74 of 132 seats, compared to 45 for Fatah, the group that has represented the Palestinians for 40 years. Knowledgeable observers, like the Israeli government, had been worried about a strong Hamas showing (though not this strong), and had been pushing to postpone the elections. The United States, blissful in its ignorance, blithely decided to push ahead.

For the record: I don’t like Hamas or any other religious extremist organization. I think its suicide bombings of civilian targets are atrocious acts and have harmed the Palestinian cause. I also don’t see how they are worse than the frequent Israeli killings of Palestinian civilians, including a nine-year-old girl, Aya al-Astal, shot near the wall on the very day of the elections. And I don’t see how Hamas’s actions compare with the cruel closures Israel placed on the Palestinian territories, which hit their height in 2002 and 2003, causing massive malnutrition and killing far more babies than Hamas could.

That said, I find much recent commentary on the results to be absurd. The strangest is the idea that now, having won the elections, Hamas must renounce violence. This directly contradicts what these same commentators say in every other case that comes up — governments are supposed to have more of a right to commit violence than non-government actors, not less, and democratically-elected governments the most of all. Well, Hamas was elected overwhelmingly, in an election where Israel and the United States both did their best to suppress the Hamas vote.

I do agree with those who say Hamas should renounce terrorism. Now that they’ve been elected, they should embrace the far more civilized doctrine of collateral damage. They can hire military lawyers who carefully go over every possible target, check which international conventions they have agreed to, and try as hard as they can to finesse the restrictions, just as the United States did when it cordoned off Fallujah and subjected it to withering bombardment in November 2004, likely killing more civilians than Hamas has in its entire existence.

It should be pointed out that Hamas has not carried out an attack in well over a year and declared a formal tahdia, or truce, in March 2005. They did this even though suggesting a truce is the most dangerous thing a Hamas leader can do; in 2004, for example, after Abdelaziz Rantissi offered a 10-year truce with Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 borders and allowed establishment of a Palestinian state, within three months both he and the wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had been assassinated by Israelis.

Israel has yet to go a year without killing Palestinians, even though leaders who called for such a truce would not be in danger of assassination except possibly by settlers.

Another strange notion being peddled is that Hamas must abandon its call for the destruction of Israel. That call, while insupportable, is a statement about the supposed illegitimacy of the Israeli state, not a call for genocide against Jews. Undoubtedly, there are people in Hamas who have a strong emotional desire to kill all Jews; there are also Israelis who want to kill all Palestinians, and Americans who want to kill all Arabs. Those feelings must be distinguished from actual or even potential political programs.

In that regard, Hamas’s call for the destruction of Israel is the mirror of Israel’s stubborn refusal to declare its borders, which always leaves open the destruction of even any possibility of a Palestinian state. Indeed, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, when asked if Hamas would ever abandon the goal of destruction of Israel, said, “If Israel is ready to tell the people what is the official border, after that we are going to answer this question.”

Rejecting Fatah’s corruption and authoritarianism, the Palestinian people have made a new choice. Israel’s response of withholding the Palestinian Authority’s tax receipts is entirely illegitimate. The U.S. decision to withhold aid, also reprehensible, shows what it really thinks of democracy in the Arab world when the results go against its interests. The talking heads are wrong: the problem was not Bush’s naïve faith in democracy but the administration’s naïve faith that it could manipulate Palestinian election results with USAID money and cheap ploys.

Perhaps, for once, the United States should live up to its rhetoric about democracy and accept the decision of the Palestinian people.



Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes. His latest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies. He can be reached at rahul@empirenotes.org.

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