Hamas Victory Q/A

The stunning victory by Hamas in the Palestinian election has raised many questions. Jewish Voice for Peace offers some answers to help our members and supporters make sense of these momentous developments.

Q: Who is Hamas?

A: Hamas is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Created in 1987 during the first intifada, Hamas was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamic militant group. Hamas is a purely Palestinian group and focuses exclusively on the Palestinian issue.

Hamas’ charter explicitly calls for Israel’s destruction; it bars recognition of Israel and compromise with her. The charter also commits the group to armed struggle and, in describing its view of Israeli and Zionist plans, cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a Russian forgery from the very early 20th century that is the seminal piece of modern anti-Semitic literature) as its source. Hamas has engaged in many criminal acts of attacking civilians.

But Hamas has another side as well. It has established an extensive social services network, especially in the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians have gotten much more material aid through and from Hamas than the PA over the years. This is a key source of support for Hamas among those who do not share their political, religious or ideological worldview.

Hamas, though certainly bound to a particular dogma, has always shown a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances. In the past, Hamas has refused to engage in Palestinian elections, seeing them, correctly, as products of the Oslo Accords they opposed. But they have obviously changed their views on this point. Even before that shift, there were many indications that, while they may never accept the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, they were prepared to find ways for Israel and Palestine to live together.

The book “The Palestinian Hamas” by Israeli scholars Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand Hamas. Though a bit outdated (the book was published in 2000), the clarity it sheds on Hamas is still valid. In fact, the way the book battles the simplistic view of Hamas has only been strengthened in recent years—if anything, Hamas has become more adaptable to new circumstances and more open to new ways of doing things than it had been five years ago.

Q: So is Hamas a terrorist group?

A: Yes. But many terrorist groups have become governments or taken leadership positions in governments in the past. That includes groups like the Irgun Z’vai Leumi and the Lochamei Herut Israel (LEHI or Stern Group), terrorist groups from the pre-state Yishuv, or Jewish settlement in Palestine. From the ranks of those groups came two Israeli Prime Ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Fatah, the party that had been in control of the Palestinian Authority, also had a long history of attacks against Israeli and other civilian and military targets. It is precisely the fact that Hamas has such a great involvement in the violence of the second Palestinian intifada that gives them much more ability than Fatah had to control that violence, if they wish to do so.

Q: Does this vote mean that Palestinians support Islamic fundamentalism?

A: Not likely. Although in recent years, religion has increased in influence in the Palestinian territories, Palestinian society still has a very strong secular element. While Hamas certainly has a sizable core of supporters, their success in this election was not due to religion, ideology or violence. Rather, it was attributable to the failure and corruption of the ruling Fatah party and to the accurate perception that Hamas was better organized and free of rampant corruption.

More than anything, this was a vote for change, and Hamas was the alternative. Beyond Fatah’s corruption, there was also the fact that Fatah’s way of doing things had gained the Palestinians nothing in their dealings with Israel. From the Palestinian point of view, the politics of Fatah failed to produce results, so why not give Hamas a chance?

Q: Was this a vote in support of increased attacks against Israel?

A: Again, not likely. Recent polls indicate very strong Palestinian support for continuing the cease-fire with Israel. Polls have consistently indicated that Palestinians reserve their right to resist occupation with force, but both oppose attacks on civilians (although the settlers in the West Bank who are often armed and sometimes have formed ad-hoc militias can blur the distinction between civilians and combatants) and believe that violence is an unsound tactic at this time (this has not always been the case during the second intifada, but the polls on this point have been consistent for quite some time now).

Hamas is cognizant of these popular feelings. That is why they have abided by the cease-fire for the past year and why they have already stated their willingness to continue it, despite the fact that the conditions they set a year ago for maintaining the cease-fire have not been met (this primarily refers to the release of Palestinian prisoners).

Q: Doesn’t it make sense for Israel to refuse to negotiate with terrorists?

A: The entire issue is phony; Israel has not been negotiating with Fatah in any real sense since the end of talks at Taba in early 2001, in the last days of Ehud Barak’s term as Prime Minister of Israel. So their refusal to talk with Hamas does not represent a change from before the election.

It is fair for Israel to push for Hamas to change their charter. But one makes peace with enemies, not with friends or even “partners.” It was not the military leaders of Hamas that got elected, but those from its political wing. The same controversy was raised a decade ago in Northern Ireland, and everyone eventually realized that the only way to move forward was to involve Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army’s political wing. That same pragmatic view is needed now.

It is wrong and counter-productive for Hamas to refuse to negotiate with Israel and it is wrong and counter-productive for Israel to refuse to negotiate with the legitimately elected leadership of the Palestinians.

Q: Don’t Israelis have a right to be scared by this result?

A: Yes, they do. The top Palestinian party is sworn to Israel’s destruction by its charter, and has, until recently, been responsible for some of the most horrific suicide bombings in the intifada. That they are now making some more conciliatory remarks is not very reassuring to Israelis, especially since those remarks, at least for the time being, include refusal to recognize Israel.

But while fear should never be ignored, it must also not be allowed to overcome reason. Hamas is the legitimately elected party in power. It is reasonable to expect them to act like a legitimate political party, but it is not reasonable to simply say there will be no dealing with them. There are good reasons to be afraid of Hamas. There are even better ones, particularly if there is to be any hope for a better future, to engage them.

Q: Is Hamas prepared to engage in diplomacy with Israel?

A: Not at present, but there are indications that this could change. Hamas’ charter bars negotiating, recognizing or making any compromises with Israel. For the time being, they are sticking to that line, but even their own officials are saying that such a stance is incompatible with being the leading Palestinian party. Hamas understands that they are going to have to change. One Hamas official has already said that, while Hamas is not prepared for direct negotiations, if Israel has “something to offer, 1,000 ways can be found” to negotiate, which likely means negotiating through third parties.

The Secretary-General of the Arab League flatly stated that Hamas “must” negotiate with Israel and abide by the Beirut declarations of 2002. Based on a Saudi peace proposal, the Arab League in 2002 offered full peace and fully normal relations between Israel and each of the member states of the League in exchange for complete withdrawal from the territories occupied since 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state on those lands in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital and “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.” Israel completely ignored this offer. While there are points Israel would not accept whole cloth, there is no discernable reason that this offer could not be the basis for serious, short-term negotiations aimed at a permanent settlement of the conflict.

In any event, this makes it clear that Hamas is going to face intense pressure to recognize and negotiate with Israel from corners that matter to them. Hamas has always been sensitive to Palestinian public opinion, and that opinion still supports finding a way to end the Israeli occupation and reach an agreement with Israel for a secure and more hopeful future. All these factors combine to suggest that Hamas will, if they form a government, take steps to comply with the wishes of the Arab League and most of the Palestinian populace.

Q: How did Israel and the United States contribute to this outcome?

A: In a global sense, major Western powers, as well as Israel, have worked to counter secular Arab nationalism for decades. For a very long time that was seen as the primary threat to first British and French and later American interests. One of the ways they pursued their opposition to Arab nationalism was by strengthening, or at the very least ignoring the growth of, religious opposition groups. This led to the rise of many groups, often equipped with US money and/or training.

In Hamas’ case, they certainly benefited from a general rise in religious militarism. But Israel also helped them by allowing the Islamic groups that preceded Hamas to flourish with relatively little harassment in the 70s and most of the 80s. Israel saw the religious groups opposing the secular nationalists, like the PLO, that Israel was more concerned with. They believed that allowing, and even encouraging Hamas to flower would create a thorn in the side of secular Palestinian nationalism, leading to infighting and blunting the Palestinians’ ability to mount resistance. And for a time, that was what happened. But the rise of groups like Hamas was the inevitable result.

In more recent years, Israeli actions have consistently undermined support for Fatah, Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. In April, 2002, after a horrific attack in Netanya on Passover (carried out, it should be noted, by Hamas), Israel launched “Operation Defensive Shield”. By the end of that offensive, the Palestinian infrastructure had been destroyed. There has only recently been an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority to start to rebuild that infrastructure. Yet Israel continued to insist that the PA clamp down on militants, despite their not having the military means or the political capital to do so. When the PA could not comply, Israel and the US would ridicule their leadership, refuse to negotiate and act unilaterally. Then, by building the wall, in defiance of international law, through the West Bank rather than along the Green Line and by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, Israel demonstrated the irrelevance, in their eyes, of Mahmoud Abbas, the PA and Fatah.

From the Palestinian point of view, things were just getting worse under Fatah’s leadership and what warmth the US was showing Fatah only made the party look like quislings. Indeed, the leaking of news that the US was covertly funneling funds to Fatah to bolster their campaign just before the election was probably very damaging.

Q: What does this election say about Palestinian democracy?

A: Considering that this election took place under military occupation and was run by a Palestinian Authority that does not have anything like the resources of an independent government, the election, in and of itself, was a triumph for the Palestinians. Virtually free of any scandals, and with nearly 78% of eligible voters participating, the election was a huge success. In terms of participation, transparency and verified honesty of the ballot, one would have to dig deep and far before one found an Israeli or American national election that could match it.

That Hamas comes out the winner is the result of their being the clearest alternative to Fatah, and of their superior organizational ability. It is not inevitable that harder-line groups would triumph in a Palestinian democracy. But other, more secular and mainstream groups, must now demonstrate to the Palestinian people that they are free of corruption, organized and connected to the people if they wish to challenge Hamas.

Q: Is there any positive side to this?

A: Yes, there are opportunities in this surprising turn of events. One of the biggest difficulties over the years of dealing with Fatah, particularly under Yasir Arafat’s was a disconnect between the negotiations with Israel and the US and the attitudes among the Palestinian population. Particularly on the issue of refugees, the terms of negotiations were always very different from what the populace was prepared to accept. Hamas is likely to force the issue into greater clarity. The refugee issue is the hardest one to deal with, because it is absolutely fundamental to Palestinian nationalism and is also the one area where Israelis are almost universally united in being unwilling to see anything more than a token return of refugees. This issue can’t be resolved unless both sides are really negotiating based on the feelings of their people, and in the past Palestinian negotiators have not done this.

The Fatah leadership that has been leading negotiations is very much removed from the Palestinian street. Hamas is very much in touch with it. This would allow for much greater clarity, and, if compromises can be found (which will certainly be more difficult with Hamas, but still not impossible) they will be much more likely to be accepted by the Palestinian masses than the sort of deals Fatah tended to discuss. In fact, the legitimacy which Hamas has now means both greater difficulty but also greater clarity and confidence in all negotiations. If Hamas can be persuaded to strike a deal, it will be one that will pass the muster of the Palestinian street, something Fatah could never guarantee.

Hamas also now has the incentive to continue to refrain from attacks on Israeli civilians. More than that, they have incentive to bring all the militias under the PA’s control. And they have the political and military cache to do it, in a way Fatah did not any longer.

Q: What can we expect in the coming days?

A: It is almost impossible to predict where things will go from here. Fatah finds itself outside of whatever power exists among the Palestinians for the first time in more than forty years. There is a lot of anger in Fatah, against Hamas, against Israel and against its own outgoing leadership. There have been a few violent incidents and Fatah has already declared its intention to be a very vocal opposition.

It is not clear what kind of deals Hamas will make to form a coalition government or even if it will do so. Hamas has enough seats to control the government without a coalition, so if coalition-building proves untenable, they have the option not to pursue it. They are currently putting a great deal of effort into bringing Fatah into a coalition government, but thus far Fatah has remained adamant in its refusal.

One thing that is likely is that Hamas will try to focus inward first and leave the nagging question of the Israel, the US and the occupation until later. This is sensible, as it will give them the opportunity to root out corruption in the PA, thereby increasing its effectiveness. Then they will need to make the hard choices about whether to change their stances or how to accommodate the Palestinians’ and the rest of the world’s desire to see negotiations commence again.

Israel and the US would do well to put the onus on Hamas to negotiate by accepting the Beirut Declaration of 2002 as a basis for resuming negotiations (which does not mean accepting their terms whole cloth, something Israel would obviously not do). This would force the issue of recognition and negotiation and would really turn the heat up on Hamas to sit down and negotiate a deal. It could prove a turning point, but it is not going to happen. As sensible as such a move would be for everyone, even the Israeli Labor Party has immediately turned to a call for more “unilateral moves” in the wake of the election, and the Bush Administration is certainly not going to compromise its “anti-terror” rhetoric in this regard.

There is the real possibility that Hamas will try to meet the conditions the US has set forth for being a “legitimate partner” on some level. Hamas could try to make some declaration about this (one of their leaders has already said that Hamas would respect agreements made by previous Palestinian governments, whether they agreed with them or not) and see if that was enough. It is highly unlikely they will change their charter any time in the foreseeable future.  They have already announced their intention to integrate their militia with PA forces, though this may prove more difficult than it sounds. Many observers, including some inside Hamas, feel that by running in the elections, Hamas has de facto accepted the Oslo framework.

For the time being, Hamas is probably going to focus on rooting out corruption in the PA and will maintain the “quiet” with Israel, as long as Israel does the same. It seems likely that Israel will do so, although with their own elections coming up, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be very deliberate about how he approaches the Hamas-led PA. He could decide that increasing actions in the West Bank or even extra-judicial killings would bolster his position. But this doesn’t seem immediately likely. The other militant groups like Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade may decide that it is now time for them to ramp up their operations. The al-Aqsa Martyrs in particular, being a breakaway faction of Fatah, may wish to immediately de-stabilize the Hamas government. It is a certainty that Hamas will now be blamed for every attack, whether they had anything to with it or not, much as Fatah was in the past, only amplified. It is in their interests to try to bring the other armed groups under control. Whether they can or even wish to do so remains to be seen.

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