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The new (and old) Hamas

What lay behind the sweeping victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections – and what will it do with its new-found power?

March 1, 2006
8 min read

On 25 January 2006, candidates of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, won 74 seats in the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) 132-member parliament. The result is little short of epochal. For the first time since the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1969 the mainstream nationalist faction Fatah has been replaced as the dominant force in Palestinian politics, and in an internationally monitored and sanctioned suffrage.

Not only this: in so voting Palestinians defied a US-led campaign (including the illicit funding of Fatah candidates), which warned that a Hamas-led PA would suffer diplomatic ostracism as well as financial sanctions. They also blew to smithereens the premise on which the US ‘democracy project’ in the Middle East is based. Far from returning secular ‘moderate’ governments more amenable to Israel’s hegemony in the region, democracy has so far strengthened the Islamist opposition in Egypt and Lebanon and brought Islamist governments to power in Iraq and the PA. It also contributed to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rise to power in Iran. For better or worse political Islam is seen as the most authentic opposition to Israeli and US neo-colonial ambitions in the Middle East and, whenever they can, Arabs and Muslims are voting for it in droves.

Finally, Hamas’ victory has exposed how frail is the coalition behind the US’s ambitions. Within barely a week of the election Russia announced it would not observe the US ban on Hamas and invited an Islamist delegation to Moscow. France, Turkey, Spain and China could easily follow suit. The ‘coalition’ against Hamas is thus actually quite small: Israel, the US and European lackeys like Britain. The political question raised by Hamas’s victory, however, is large. Is Hamas (as its detractors allege) a thoroughly reactionary movement bent on the destruction of Israel? Or it is (as its supporters claim) simply trying to restore the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to its ‘proper character’, away from mystifications of the ‘war on terror’ and Israel’s security and back to focusing on an illegal, belligerent occupation and the Palestinians’ unqualified right to resist it?

There were three reasons for Hamas’s triumph. Disillusionment that peace or even meaningful political negotiations with Israel were anywhere on the horizon; appreciation of Hamas’ civil activity as service provider during the intifada as well as its vanguard role in the armed Palestinian resistance, seen among Palestinians as the cause behind Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last summer; and revulsion at a decade of Fatah’s misrule of the PA, capped by its failure to bring law, order, economic recovery or political progress in the wake of the withdrawal. It is also clear (from pre-and post-election surveys) what Palestinians were not voting for. They were not voting for an Islamic state or the destruction of Israel. Although Hamas won an absolute majority of seats, 55 per cent of Palestinians voted for Fatah and other secular parties. 75 per cent of Palestinians still support reconciliation with Israel based on a genuine two-state solution, including 60 per cent of those who voted Hamas. 68 per cent support a return to negotiations. Three per cent support the establishment of an Islamic state.

Given these realities, how to explain Hamas’ overwhelming mandate? Simple, says Ghazi Hamad, editor of the Islamist al Risala newspaper and a Hamas candidate in Gaza. ‘Hamas presented an alternative. We said negotiations alone are not enough to achieve our rights. What is needed is a Palestinian-led strategy, based on a genuine national consensus over aims and a proper balance between political and military struggle.’ No sooner had Hamas won the elections than Israel laid down the terms for its entry into the comity of ‘legitimate’ governments. To enjoy recognition from Israel, Hamas must a) rescind its charter which calls for the ‘obliteration’ of Israel; b) disarm its own armed resistance as well as that of every other Palestinian faction; and c) adhere to all previous PLO-Israeli agreements, including Oslo and the roadmap.

There is not a chance that Hamas will comply with any of these demands, says former PA culture minister and now a Hamas-backed ‘independent’ MP, Ziad Abu Amr. ‘Hamas has already said it recognises the de facto reality of the Oslo agreements and is prepared to continue its ceasefire with Israel. But it is not going to make political concessions on its programme, not at least until Israel commits itself to ending the occupation.’

But what is Hamas’s programme? The charter was drawn up in 1988 during the first Palestinian intifada. It remains a deeply offensive document, mixing a puritanical form of Islam, Palestinian nationalism and a rehash of Eurocentric anti-semitism. But it has long since ceased being an operational charter (if it ever was). On the contrary, Hamas has been distancing itself from it almost from the moment it was conceived. The most important revision came in 1994, in response to Oslo and the PA’s establishment in Gaza and the West Bank. In an official statement from its political bureau, Hamas distinguished between ‘historical’ and ‘interim’ solutions to the conflict. Historically the goal was still the recovery of Palestine as a whole (including present-day Israel). But as an interim solution Hamas was prepared to offer a long-term truce, or hudna, in return for Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

This is Hamas’s programme today, but with one difference. During the second intifada – and even more so during the elections – Hamas’ spokesmen have been mooting the possibility of recognising Israel on condition that it withdraws from the 1967 occupied territories and recognises the Palestinian refugees’ UN-sanctioned right to return to their homes in what was Mandate Palestine but is now Israel. In other words, says Hamad: ‘If Hamas is to recognise Israel, will Israel recognise Palestine? If Hamas is to honour previous agreements signed by the PA, will Israel honour its agreements? And if Hamas is to end the armed resistance, will Israel end its belligerent military occupation of Palestinian areas? Without any answer to these three questions, the position of Hamas is clear and has been voiced already: there is nothing to talk about.’

Is this apparent prospect of peace real or illusory? Hamas is not simply a Palestinian organisation. It is the Palestinian wing of the regional Muslim Brotherhood, whose policy is ultimately determined by a pan-Arab, pan-Islamic Shura council. And within Hamas itself, there are four crucial constituencies: the ‘inside’ leadership based in the occupied territories; the ‘outside’ leadership based in the Palestinian diaspora; the prisoners in Israeli jails; and the military wing. There are tensions between them, with historically the outside and military leaderships seen as more radical than the inside and prisoner leaderships. But Hamas is ruled by consensus and, once agreed, the consensus is usually adhered to by all parts of the movement.

There is not a chance that Hamas will comply with any of the Israeli demands

For example, the decision to participate in the parliamentary elections and thereby become an integral part of the PA and PLO was the result of years of discussions in Hamas, finally decided by a vote. According to Hamas sources, there was stiff opposition, with some members warning that ‘politics’ would diminish Hamas’ radical élan. But since the decision was taken there have been no discernible dissensions. On the contrary, says Hamad: ‘The movement fell in behind it 100 per cent.’ And through the turn to politics Hamas ‘is signalling that it wants to be cut in on a peace deal, or even that it can deliver a better deal than the PLO,’ says Palestinian analyst Yezid Sayigh. ‘It is doing what the PLO did 30 years ago. All the rest – ceasefire, discourse, use of guns – doesn’t obscure the political trajectory.’

But the trajectory will not be smooth. To get there Hamas will have to renegotiate its historically adversarial relationship with Fatah; navigate Israeli and US demands without conceding its basic political goals and principles; and appeal to the Arab and Islamic world to provide sustenance to the struggle as well as doctrinal cover for any accommodation. Of the three, it will probably be the last that will be crucial vis-à-vis Hamas’s relationship with Israel. In 2002, the 22-member Arab League ratified its ‘initiative’ for resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Arab states offered a ‘full normalisation’ of relations with Israel in exchange for Israel’s full withdrawal from the occupied territories and a ‘just and agreed’ resolution of the refugee question. Israel rejected the initiative, and so did Hamas. It is less categorical now.

We will not oppose the Arab position,’ said Hamas’s political leader Khaled Meshal after the elections. ‘And recognising Israel is possible in the future – but only if Israel recognises the rights of the Palestinian people.’ Until then, Hamas will likely keep its old weapons of non-recognition and armed resistance as well as its newer ones of electoral politics, diplomacy and governance. The question of accepting the Arab initiative should be ‘posed to Israel and not only Hamas’, says Amr Mousa, Arab League secretary-general.

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