Hamas Risen

by Graham Usher
published in MER238

On January 27, 2006, Fatah activists and Palestinian security personnel converged on the Palestinian Authority’s parliament building in Gaza City. Within minutes, cars were torched, tires set aflame and stones thrown at election banners displaying the visages of victorious Hamas candidates. The cry was for vengeance, particularly against a leadership that had just presided over Palestine’s premier nationalist movement’s worst political defeat in its 47-year history.

From one of the parliament’s doors, one of Fatah’s successful candidates, former Palestinian Authority (PA) security chief Mohammed Dahlan, appeared. He seemed both determined and pensive, his profile lit by the flare of machine-gun fire. “Fatah is the first movement, the only movement, and it will remain the first and only movement despite all those who conspired against it,” he told the mob. “No!” he thundered against a cascade of gunfire. “Fatah will not join a government led by Hamas.”

Three miles away, in Beit Lahia, another procession was underway, this one led by children. Decked by billowing green flags, they were marching on the home of former Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri. At 29, al-Masri is the youngest member of the next Palestinian parliament, and also, he insists, every legislature in “the entire Middle East.”

Al-Masri sat under a triumphant canvas arch, marking a bridge from resistance to government. On the one pole were pictures of nine Hamas “martyrs” against a backdrop of exploding Israeli buses; on the other were Hamas’ five successful candidates for northern Gaza, attired in suit and tie to a man. Al-Masri was similarly groomed.

No, he was not worried by the fires raging in Gaza City. “These reactions are the first noises from Fatah. Let us wait for its final decision” about joining a national coalition headed by Hamas. Nor did he seem concerned by Western ultimatums -- set by Israel, orchestrated by the United States -- stipulating what Hamas must do if it wants to join the comity of acceptable governments. “Hamas derives its legitimacy from the Palestinian people, not from the international community,” he rejoined. “One of the reasons they voted for us was our fixed principles. And one of these is that there will be no recognition of Israel as long as it occupies our land. Another is that it is the inalienable right of the occupied to resist the occupier.”

Only one question remained. Five thousand were storming the parliament in Gaza, while 500 were marching in Beit Lahia. Why were Hamas’ celebrations so small when its victory was so big? “Because Hamas’ positions are known and because people know now is not the time for celebrations,” al-Masri explained. “It is the time for work.”

A Victory Larger Than Itself

On January 25, Hamas candidates won 74 seats in the PA’s 132-member parliament, where they will be joined by four Hamas-backed “independents.” It was a win that exceeded their fantasies. Five days before the poll, Khalid Jadu, a Hamas councilman in Bethlehem, said “anything more than 55 seats would be an achievement -- and probably a headache.” Three days before, Hamas’ candidate for Rafah, Ghazi Hamad, buoyed by internal polls showing that “Hamas will do well in Gaza,” admitted there was a real debate within the movement over whether to accept ministerial positions. “I think we should join the government. If we win big, we should run ministries and improve people’s lives.”

But this was the minority view, he conceded. On the eve of elections, the consensus in Hamas was that the price of government -- such as PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ condition that any minister would have to abide by all agreements signed between Israel and the PLO -- would be too high, “at least for now.” There were other considerations, too, said Jadu. “After all, we don’t want to inherit an estate rife with debts.”

On January 26, Hamas had inherited the estate, to the chronic indebtedness of which was now added the prospect of international opprobrium. Not only that: by virtue of its absolute majority, Hamas was the only party constitutionally able to form a government. The preference was not to do so. Ostensibly, this was consistent with pre-election pledges in favor of a “national coalition” government comprising “all the Palestinian forces,” especially Fatah. In reality, unity was required to shield Hamas partially from the enormous international duress it knew would accrue if it achieved an unalloyed triumph.

Three reasons lay behind Hamas’ success: Palestinian disillusionment that peace or even meaningful political negotiations with Israel were anywhere on the horizon; appreciation at Hamas’ civil role as service provider during the lean years of the intifada, as well as its vanguard position in the armed Palestinian resistance, widely seen among Palestinians as the catalyst for Israel’s summer 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip; and revulsion at a decade of Fatah misrule of the PA, capped by its failure to bring law, order, economic recovery or political progress in the wake of the withdrawal.

The question before Hamas is how to deal with a triumph that is “larger that its expectations, capabilities and support base,” says Nasir Aliwar, a Palestinian political analyst in Gaza. Its aim is clear, at least according to discussions with victorious Hamas candidates. Hamas seeks to restore the Israel-Palestinian conflict to its “proper relationship,” away from the hegemony of Israel’s security needs and Washington’s regional designs and back to the paradigm of an illegal occupation and an occupied people’s unqualified right to resist it, “including armed resistance.”

It is the means to this end that are so difficult. For Hamas to affect this shift, it must renegotiate its historically adversarial relationship with Fatah, navigate Israeli and other international demands without abandoning core goals and principles, and reconnect the Palestinian cause to its Arab and Islamic hinterland in a way that brings sustenance to the struggle as well as cover for political accommodation. Much will rest on these enormous wars of position, and not only in Israel-Palestine.

Fatah

Fatah, the dominant faction in the PLO since 1967, has so far met Hamas’ overtures for a national coalition government with rejection. Two reasons are given for this: one principled, the other less so.

The principled reason is that Fatah should use the reprieve of a period in opposition to “complete what we should have done before the [parliamentary] elections,” says Usama al-Fara, a Fatah official in Gaza. “And that is to make Fatah a democratic party with a leadership trusted and elected by its members.” The loudest exponent of this view is Dahlan, probably the single most powerful Fatah leader in Gaza. As the demonstrations outside the parliament building attest, he is also the most phobic about any coalition with Hamas. His program for reform has been aired more by his followers than himself, but all are aware that it carries his imprimatur.

Members of Fatah’s Central Committee (FCC) and Revolutionary Council (FRC) -- the movement’s supreme decision-making bodies -- must stand down. Then, an “interim emergency leadership” should be established with the sole remit of democratizing Fatah “from the smallest cell to the largest region.” Finally, and only finally, a general conference of the party should be convened so that a new FCC and FRC can be elected. “Only then will Fatah’s base be able to influence its leadership—whether those in the parliament or those on the FCC and FRC,” says al-Fara.

The need for internal reform within Fatah is incontestable. Due to its repeated failure to hold primaries for candidates prior to the elections, Abbas was forced to appoint a list that satisfied few and alienated many. A week before the elections there were some 120 “independent” Fatah candidates standing against 130 “official” candidates, with most of the independents running in protest at the way the official list was drawn up. The number of rebels was gradually whittled down to 74, less by organizational order than by promises of jobs, money and land. But the remaining candidates fragmented the nationalist vote, particularly in swing constituencies like Khan Yunis, Salfit, central Gaza, Ramallah and East Jerusalem.

Post-election surveys have revealed the price of this disunity, magnified by an electoral system under which half the seats were won in district races and the other half -- the “national seats” -- were allocated according to the list’s proportion of the national vote. While Hamas won 45 (or 68 percent) of the 66 district seats in the parliament, it did so with a 36.5 percent average vote per district. Sixty-three percent voted for non-Hamas candidates in the district races, the vast majority dispersed between Fatah’s official and independent candidates. Similarly, Hamas won 29 seats (against Fatah’s 28) among the national seats, but with 44.4 percent of the vote. The non-Hamas vote (almost 56 percent) was split between Fatah (at 42.4 percent) and the four other PLO or third-force lists. On the basis of these figures, it is difficult to refute the verdict of one Fatah leader: “Hamas did not win the elections. Fatah lost them.”

But the other reason for Fatah’s reluctance to share power with Hamas in government is its refusal to cede power within the PA, for the last 12 years a main source of its wealth, patronage and firepower. The demonstrations in Gaza were not simply mounted to denounce a failed and discredited leadership. They were a warning to Hamas not to tamper with Fatah’s hegemony over the PA, especially its 50,000–70,000 strong security forces, many of whom are Fatah cadre, and 70 percent of whom voted for Fatah in the elections. “We are here to make sure no one cuts the lifeline to the security forces,” said Jamal al-Durra, a fighter in Fatah’s semi-official al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militia. “This is not a hope,” he added. “It’s a guarantee.”

The intimidation worked. On January 29, Abbas declared that all of the PA security forces as well as the Finance and Information Ministries would ultimately be answerable to the president rather than the prime minister. Hamas protested the move, pointing out (accurately) that Finance, Information and three of the security forces -- the police, civil defense and the intelligence Preventive Security Force -- constitutionally fall under the remit of the prime minister.

The Preventive Security Force is seen by Hamas as Dahlan and Fatah’s most organized base within the security forces, and potentially the most explosive point of resistance to a Hamas-led government. For this reason, Hamas met Abbas’ “bloodless coup” with patience, coming as it did after an “emergency” summit between the president and Dahlan. “These problems will be solved through dialogue when we are in government. For now, all I will say is that not a single police officer’s job will be lost and not a single salary cut,” said Ismail Haniyya, Hamas’ prime minister-designate.

For Palestinians, a violent polarization between Fatah as “the party of the Authority” and Hamas as its newly elected government is the worst future imaginable. The problem is that it is entirely imaginable. Fatah leaders speak openly of Hamas being unable to form a coalition or collapsing under the weight of international sanctions, so that new elections can return them to their “old role” as leader of the PA. Other Palestinians warn that Fatah’s dependency on PA resources is now so great that some cadre will be tempted to help engineer a coup or sow domestic disorder, either in concert with foreign forces or through stepped-up violence against Israel. The political analyst Aliwar warns of the “Algerian model” and its allure.

Who Wants “National Unity”?

This is why the overwhelming sentiment among Palestinians is for a national coalition government. Does Abbas share it? After the elections, he tightened his grip on the PA, by extending presidential powers over its security, finance and media institutions, and also promoted Fatah loyalists to head the PA’s personnel, salaries and comptroller departments. Via a last-minute vote in the outgoing, Fatah-dominated parliament, he was also given the authority to appoint a nine-judge constitutional court with powers to resolve any dispute between the presidency and the parliament, including over the president’s right “to cancel any law approved by the parliament on the grounds that it is unconstitutional,” says a PA legal adviser.

These various moves hint at the likelihood of a constitutional crisis between the two branches of government. They effectively give “full power to President Abbas to dissolve Parliament any time he wishes,” says ‘Aziz al-Duwayk, a professor whom Hamas has selected to be parliamentary speaker. He has vowed that the next parliament will work to overturn the legislation, as well as the promotions of personnel. But what does Abbas want to do with these accumulated powers? In his February 18 address to the new parliament, he said he expects the next Palestinian government to: 1) abide by existing agreements with Israel, including the 1993 and 1994 Oslo accords and the 2003 “road map” toward peace; 2) accept negotiations as the “strategic and credible” way to resolve the conflict; and 3) espouse “peaceful” rather than armed resistance.

Hamas rejected the last two appeals as contrary to its election program. But it had already gone a long way toward acceding to the first. In his first public address after the elections, Hamas politburo head Khalid Mashaal met Abbas’ challenge with submission: “The PA was founded on the basis of the Oslo accords. We recognize that this is a reality, and we will deal with it with the utmost realism, but without neglecting our fundamental principles.… In other words, we will honor our commitments, provided they serve our people and do not infringe on our rights, but we will not accept dictates. This, very clearly, is our position.”

The price for this accommodation is for Abbas to throw his weight behind Fatah joining a coalition government. For now, all he is saying is that Fatah’s participation in government “will be for Fatah to decide.” Fatah is saying that it will not join a national unity government until Hamas “changes its program.” Negotiations to square these circles are not expected to reach a definite conclusion until after the Israeli elections on March 28.

According to aides close to him, one of the reasons Abbas was so adamant about holding the elections as scheduled was that he saw them as means to neutralize his opponents within Fatah and the PA. “Abu Mazen doesn’t want to destroy Fatah; he wants to destroy those parts of Fatah that have blocked his policies of a ceasefire, reform and negotiations,” says one confidante. Through the parliamentary elections and then the convening of the Fatah General Conference, the goal was to forge a new “Abbasian” Fatah out of the debris of the old “Arafatist” one.

Fatah’s election defeat clearly marks a setback to that plan. The question is whether Abbas would attempt to reach the same goal by leading Fatah -- or “his parts of Fatah” -- into a coalition government if Hamas were to accede to his conditions. Even then, Abbas would face sizable opposition from the usual quarters: the FCC, FRC, elements within the security forces and other parts of the PA bureaucracy, as well as al-Aqsa brigades members in their pay. Still, Hamas is convinced there is a silent constituency within Fatah willing to take the “patriotic stand.” This constituency requires only that Abbas give it voice.

Nor would Hamas be miserly with the largesse, says ‘Adwan. Hamas would have “no problem” with Fatah’s Nasir al-Qidwa, formerly the Palestinian observer at the UN, returning to the post of foreign minister. It has already approached former World Bank technocrat Salam Fayyad, who served as Abbas’ finance minister, to retake that job. Most importantly, Hamas believes that Fatah’s imprisoned West Bank general secretary (and most popular politician), Marwan Barghouti, would be supportive due to his pre-election pledge that “the aim of January 25 is not which party has the most seats…. It is to form a broad national reform government with the participation of all.” The critical position is that of interior minister, given its nominal control of the security forces and responsibility for security coordination with Israel. Following the elections, Hamas reportedly approached Dahlan. He refused, leading the charge on the parliament building. Will this be a constant obstruction?

The position of interior minister would strengthen Dahlan’s grip on the security forces and neutralize his opponents within them. While his acceptance of the job would be unpopular among some in Fatah, it would be greatly esteemed in Palestinian public opinion. It would probably be welcomed by Egypt, the European Union and the US, all of whom have enjoyed good relations with Dahlan in the past. It would also enable Dahlan to renew the tacit alliance he formed with Hamas during his previous tenure at Interior under Abbas’ 2003 premiership, when the watchword was “inclusion” rather than polarization.

Hamas’ view of Dahlan -- then as now -- is that he represents “the pro-Western stream within Fatah.” For precisely this reason, his cooptation would be a prize worth paying for. But is a rapprochement between Abbas, Dahlan and Hamas conceivable? “I think it very unlikely,” says one of Dahlan’s closest allies in Gaza. On the other hand, “nothing is impossible in politics.”

Israel

Israel received Hamas’ victory with shock. Guided by pre-election surveys, it expected Hamas to be a formidable opposition in the next PA parliament, perhaps with a ministry or two. It never expected the Islamist party to be the party of government. Once the new day dawned, however, Israel was trenchant in its response. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at the sixth Israel-Europe conference in Jerusalem on February 6, intoned: “There will be no recognition of a Palestinian government with the participation or under the control of Hamas unless three conditions are met: the Hamas charter is changed to recognise the state of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state; total dismantling of all weapons and a total cessation of all terrorist activity; and acceptance of all agreements signed between the PA and the state of Israel.”

These conditions have more or less been adopted by three members of the Quartet that sponsors the road map—the US, the EU and the UN. The very public exception was Russia, which, spying an opportunity to increase its prestige in the Middle East, immediately broke ranks by inviting a Hamas delegation led by Mashaal for talks in Moscow. It was a rupture for which the Hamas leader expressed the “deepest appreciation,” and it was not the only crack in the coalition.

While Israel put sanctions into effect “the moment” Hamas deputies assumed their seats—including a freeze on the transfer of $55 million in monthly tax rebates to the PA -- the Quartet has said it will hold its fire until the actual formation of the next Palestinian government. One reason for the patience was to delay the crunch -- and extend the relative calm in Israel -- until after the Israeli elections on March 28, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice particularly concerned that a return to mayhem inside Israel might “bolster the wrong elements” in the poll, a reference to Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. But the main reasons were to use the interim to consolidate Abbas’ presidency as a counterweight to the Hamas government and to array such a large international coalition against it that Hamas would be forced to accept “moderation” as the price of its political existence. No Palestinian believes the extortion will work.

“Hamas has already said it recognizes the de facto reality of the Oslo agreements and has clarified that it is prepared to continue the ceasefire with Israel. But it is not going to make political concessions on its program, at least not until Israel commits itself to ending the occupation,” says Ziad Abu ‘Amr, a Hamas-backed independent MP who is tipped to become a minister.

Hamas has met the threat of political and economic sanctions with hubris. But the threat is real. The PA is already teetering near bankruptcy, with a projected deficit for 2006 of at least $600 million. In 2005, the Authority’s $1.6 billion budget was supported by a $649 million subvention from the EU and $400 million from the US, most of it disbursed through non-governmental organizations. Its monthly payroll of $116 million to pay 135,000 public employees is largely dependent on the rebates from Israel, as well as grants from Arab countries and loans from Palestinian banks (which, on news of Hamas’ victory, refused to lend). The termination of aid from all or any other one of these suppliers could send the PA into freefall, with violence and/or an international trusteeship filling the void.

There are some in the Israeli political and military establishment who would not be averse to this, believing that the end of the PA would clear the way to more regional, less nationalist solutions. Some may already be acting to that end. On February 4, the Israeli army launched what the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called an “assassination offensive,” murdering 12 Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Brigades fighters in Gaza over the next five days. The action was ostensibly a reprisal to mortar fire that had injured a child and three civilians inside Israel the day before. But it is difficult to see the entirely Israeli-driven escalation as anything other than a means of trying to provoke Hamas’ military arm to tarnish the Islamist party further in the eyes of the West. So far, Hamas has not risen to the bait. It has kept its fighters out of the fray, while insisting that “the forces of Palestinian struggle have the right to respond.”

The Bush administration may also be disappointed by the restraint, believing that a return to violent resistance by Hamas would strengthen the coalition against it, hasten the PA’s collapse and return a new, reformed Fatah to power on the back of new elections declared by Abbas. But that gambit, too, is fraught with risk. Domestically, regionally and internationally, the collapse of the PA could only be seen as another failure of US foreign policy, especially after the pressure the US exerted on Israel to allow the elections to happen. Nor would Brussels be indifferent. Whatever misgivings there may be about the next Palestinian government, the EU still sees the PA’s existence as the precondition for a return to political negotiations and the basis of a future Palestinian state.

Roads to Perdition

The more likely future -- especially after a new Israeli government is installed -- is containment, or what some have called “coordinated unilateralism.” This is where Israel and Hamas eschew “strategic” issues to do with negotiations and mutual recognition in favor of “practical arrangements” to do with aid, services and violence, replicating the détente that obtains between Israel’s West Bank “civil administration” and Hamas-run municipalities.

Whatever his bluster now, Olmert may be among the adherents of this approach. On February 7, he sketched more clearly than ever before the strategic direction of any government led by him. While nodding brusquely to the road map, he said Israel’s goal must be to “separate” from the Palestinians while deepening its grip on Jerusalem, the main West Bank settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. His defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said the final, unilateral determination of Israel’s permanent borders could be accomplished within “two years.” If this is the goal, there are some Israelis who believe that Hamas may prove the better “partner” than Fatah, since the Islamists -- no less than Olmert and Mofaz -- would prefer a long-term truce to any tangible moves toward a permanent agreement.

But “a long-term arrangement of non-belligerency,” to use Ariel Sharon’s phrase, is only a longer road to perdition, especially for the Palestinians. Even were Hamas passively to trade governance for annexation, Islamic Jihad and Fatah would not. Resistance would erupt, with high-trajectory missiles fired over the West Bank walls and tunnels dug under Gaza barriers being the probable mode. A far more likely scenario is that Hamas would head a government that preserves its semi-autonomous armed resistance, mimicking the so-called Hizballah model that was the template of so much of Hamas’ activity during the intifada. But, then as now, the strategy will founder on one fundamental contradiction. The PA is under military occupation and subject to financial ransom. Lebanon and Hizballah were not. Sooner or later the contradiction would mean collapse and/or reconquest.

Hamas’ counter to these pincers is the “strategic depth” it enjoys in the Arab and Islamic world. This is not only rhetoric. Hamas has sound relations with Egypt, the Gulf states, Syria, Iran and Hizballah. It has also earned enthusiastic kudos in the wider Muslim world, and never more so than now. But the coalition is anything but united. Egypt has effectively joined the Western chorus on the terms for Hamas’ entrée to diplomacy. Jordan has been less strident, but has less leverage due to the poisonous relations that exist between the king and the Hamas leadership and which Jordan is now trying rapidly to repair. The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, are unlikely to do anything that runs too much afoul of US policy in the region. Syria and Hizballah have their own problems.

That leaves Iran, which, according to PA sources, funds Hamas to the tune of $10 million a month. Hamas will certainly ask for more. But, despite threats to the contrary, it is not clear whether Hamas would ask for anything else. A too close association with Tehran -- especially under the new radical leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- would not only strengthen the Western coalition against the Islamist party and fit Israel’s descriptions of it like a glove, it would strain Hamas’ relations with Egypt and the Gulf states, as well as with its “mother” Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which views Iran as a Shi‘i regime as much as an Islamist one. Nor would a close embrace with Iran go down well with Palestinians, especially those who are nationalist, secularist and/or Christian.

The greater question is not whether Hamas can rally the Arab and Muslim world to defend it against Israel and Western subversion. It is whether that world can be mobilized to fracture the Western and Israeli-defined consensus on Hamas and its amorphous yet clearly emerging terms for a settlement.

Flexibility in Spades

The precondition is going to be flexibility on Hamas’ part, and Hamas has been shoveling out flexibility in spades. In the course of its initial consultations with Arab League members in Cairo in February, one or another Hamas leader has said: 1) Hamas seeks a national coalition government with Fatah and other Palestinian factions having a fair share of the ministerial portfolios; 2) Hamas would not be averse to forming a technocratic government, with none of the ministers having an explicit party affiliation; 3) Hamas reaffirms its support for the presidency of Abbas and for eventually joining the PLO; 4) Hamas “does not see the US as an enemy and is open to a US role” in the conflict and therefore the region; 5) Hamas proposes a “united Palestinian army” so that all the Palestinian militias would come under the PA’s authority, fulfilling Abbas’ dictum of “one authority, one law, one gun”; and 6) Hamas would adhere to existing PLO-Israeli agreements as long as these did not conflict “with fundamental Palestinian national principles.”

Most intriguingly of all, Hamas was agnostic in response to Arab League General Secretary Amr Moussa’s plea that it adopt the 2002 Arab League initiative for peace with Israel. Rejected by Hamas and Israel at the time, the initiative commits the 22 members of the Arab League to a “full normalization” with the Jewish state in return for Israel’s “full withdrawal” from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war as well as a “just and agreed” resolution of the Palestinian refugees’ UN-sanctioned right of return. This is how Mashaal answered Moussa: “We do not oppose the Arab position. The recognition of Israel is perhaps possible in the future were Israel to recognize the [national] rights of the Palestinian people. When that happens, I am sure there will be Palestinian and Arab cooperation to deal positively with such a step. But it can only happen after Israel reaches this stage.”

In other words, Hamas could endorse the Arab initiative -- either directly or via a Palestinian referendum -- on the condition that Israel takes practical steps to recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination by “ending the occupation that began in 1967,” as per the phrasing of the road map. Until that commitment comes, Hamas will solicit Palestinian, Arab and Islamic support behind its position of not recognizing the Jewish state and preserving the Palestinians’ right to resist the occupation “by all means,” Mashaal said. The question, said Moussa at the same press conference, “should now be posed to Israel.”

It is clear what the answer would be. Ariel Sharon, who will remain Israeli prime minister, though he is comatose, until the March 28 elections, reoccupied the West Bank in 2002 and adopted his unilateral separation plan in 2003 partly to evade the road map and the “imposition” of an international peace conference, one of whose parameters would have been the Arab initiative. His legatees, Olmert and Mofaz, are moving swiftly to determine Israel’s final borders to make sure this initiative can never be resurrected.

The Choice

But the main audience for Mashaal’s gun-and-olive branch commentary is not yet Israel. It is Washington, and Mashaal hopes to glean whether Washington has understood the true significance of the Palestinian elections. There are three aspects to this significance.

The first is that the Hamas victory has exploded the myth at the heart of the Bush administration’s so-called democratization project in the Middle East. Democratization was a project that came about by default. Its origins lay in Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani’s edict that Iraq’s Shi‘i majority would only accommodate the US-led occupation as long as there was a swift transfer to Iraqi sovereignty and free and fair elections to consecrate it.

Democracy was then sold to Washington’s skeptical allies -- Western, Arab and Israeli -- as the most pacific way to effect regime change, as in Lebanon, or, in the PA, as the means to bring forth a malleable leadership more attentive to Israel’s security demands, the US “war on terror” and, eventually, a final agreement in line with Israeli prerogatives. It has so far proved the reverse. On the contrary, wherever Arabs have had a free vote, they have used elections not simply to improve governance, but to strengthen their hand against authoritarian and corrupt regimes and/or foreign occupations that control their lives. Democracy here is not a substitute for national liberation: it is an essential vehicle. For now, the most authentic drivers of that desire are the region’s Islamist movements.

This is why the movement for democracy has so far strengthened the Islamist opposition in Egypt and Syria, enhanced Hizballah’s status in Lebanon and brought Islamist governments to power in Iraq and the PA. It was also a contribution to Ahmedinejad’s ascendancy in Iran. But what do these masses want, aside from the right to change the bankruptcy, defeatism, inertia and venality of their leaders? This is the second significance of the elections.

Palestinians, by and large, were not voting for political Islam or the destruction of Israel. Rather, admits Hamas political leader Musa Abu Marzuq, “alleviating the debilitating conditions of occupation and not an Islamic state is at the heart of our mandate of change and reform.” Abu Marzuq is right. According to polls carried out since the elections, 75 percent of Palestinians still support reconciliation with Israel based on a genuine two-state solution, including 60 percent of those who voted for Hamas. What Palestinians voted against was not peace but Fatah’s maladministration and a political process that has consistently suborned their right to self-determination to Israel’s colonial ambitions in the Occupied Territories. “Hamas presented an alternative to Oslo and the road map,” says Ghazi Hamad. “We said negotiations alone are not enough to achieve our rights. What is needed is a Palestinian-led strategy, with a genuine consensus over aims and a proper balance between political and military struggle.”

It is becoming increasingly clear what the aim and the consensus are. As a hypothetical question, ‘Atif ‘Adwan was asked what a Hamas-led government’s response would be to an Israeli proposal to resume negotiations from where they left off at Taba in January 2001. His answer would surprise everyone except those who voted for him. “I think Hamas would have to respond positively. We are aware that the two peoples want a fair solution. But we would want to see real Israeli gestures to strengthen the negotiations -- like releasing prisoners, lifting the checkpoints and easing our lives.”

The answer encapsulates the third significance of the elections -- the political choice they unambiguously place before the US and the Europeans. Does the fact of a Hamas victory confirm the Sharonian thesis that the only “secure” future for Israel is one that unilaterally walls itself off from the region? Or does the Hamas victory sear into the Western consciousness that the greatest guarantor of Israel’s security would be a peace agreement signed by a democratically elected Palestinian government that is also a constituent member of the regional Muslim Brotherhood on the basis of an initiative endorsed by every Arab state, including stereotypically “rejectionist” Syria? The price of that agreement will be Hamas’ recognition of Israel as a state behind its 1967 borders. The price for Israel will be to withdraw to those borders, especially in Jerusalem.

Hamas’ political strategy over the coming months and years will be to try to get to that choice. It will strive to build a coalition and a consensus first with Fatah, then with the Arab and Islamic world, and finally with Russia and other individual European states. By the same token, and negotiating with the same powers, Israel will lobby for its unilateralist alternative as camouflaged by the road map, based on conditions the PA is now not only unable, but also expressly unwilling to accept. It will be left to the US to decide the issue. But at least the issue is now clear. It is not about Israel’s security, recognition or even democracy. It is about Israel’s occupation of another people’s country and that people’s right -- gun in one hand, ballot in the other -- to resist it.

 

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