The victory of the militant Islamic group Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections held on January 25, 2006 raises many questions. Both the Palestinians and the international community are entering unchartered and turbulent waters. At least in the immediate future, there is less likelihood for a meaningful peace process.
The historic significance of the election and its outcome cannot be denied. The success of Hamas in securing a convincing majority in the 132-member Palestinian parliament is a reflection of the popular discontent, disappointment and disapproval of the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority (P.N.A.). Even though many observers predicted a significant showing by Hamas, even its hardened loyalists did not visualize a landslide victory.
It is essential to recognize that the elections were not only free and fair but were also truly multiparty elections. With the exception of Islamic Jihad, all major Palestinian forces took part in the elections. Despite the continued Israeli occupation, the elections witnessed a high degree of popular participation. Unlike other Arab and Islamic countries in the region, the Palestinians were given a chance to express their preference and they did it emphatically by voting out Fatah.
End of the Road for Fatah
The election marks the end of the primacy and monopoly of Fatah, founded by Yasser Arafat in 1959. Even under his leadership, the organization had difficulties. For the past few years, especially since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the popularity of Fatah has rapidly diminished. Partly because of this concern and an impending rout, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas postponed the elections, as they were originally slated for June 2005. There were calls that the January elections should also be deferred to enable Fatah to re-group itself and take on the growing popularity of Hamas.
Moreover, since the death of Arafat, internal tensions and squabbles within Fatah have only intensified and have often played out in the streets of Gaza. It was this fear of losing the election that forced Fatah to look for younger leadership. Marginalizing Prime Minister Ahmed Queri, it fielded Marwan Barghouti as its leader. Barghouti is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for terrorist offenses and he would have to be “pardoned” and freed if he were to take oath as a member of parliament, let alone as prime minister, had Fatah won the elections. Even local strongmen like Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril al-Rajoub had to contend with the popularity of the jailed Palestinian leader, who at one time was considered a potential heir to Arafat.
The election also signified popular discontent at the failure of the Fatah-dominated P.N.A. More than a decade after its formation, the Palestinian Authority had failed to deliver some of its basic promises. Not only is there no end in sight to the occupation, but Israel had reentered and re-occupied some of the Palestinian towns it had vacated on the eve of the previous elections held in January 1996. With the sole exception of complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel continues to be in control of much of the West Bank as well as in control of sections between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There is no definite date in sight for the Palestinian state that many hoped would materialize by 1999.
Some of the principal figures in the P.N.A. were either tainted with rampant corruption or abysmal inefficiency. For a long time, Western governments have accused Arafat and associates of siphoning off funds for their private ends and were demanding political as well as financial reforms. Even the introduction of the office of prime minister in March 2003 did not alter the situation.
The leadership also failed to live up to the expectations of the Palestinians. At one level, it did not effectively handle Israeli threats and periodic incursions into areas under the nominal control of the Authority. At another level, the destruction of infrastructure, especially the security apparatus, prevented the Authority from showing any signs of efficient administrative capability. As a result, the P.N.A. failed to maintain law and order. This was more apparent in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal when masked men, often identified as Fatah, took over offices and other public institutions. The onset of kidnapping of foreign aid workers and violence against Palestinian officials, including attempts against Abbas, highlighted the increasing lawlessness.
After the early euphoria, the peace process did not bring any material benefits to the Palestinians nor did it improve their living standards. With Israel restricting the entry of Palestinian workers into its labor market, the P.N.A. had to rely on international donors increasingly for many of its welfare activities.
Such failures of the Fatah-led P.N.A. played into the hands of Hamas. At one level, the militant group had an interest in the failure of the Oslo peace process because, in its view, no accommodation is possible with Israel. At another level, it worked toward this objective by scuttling progress for peace and reconciliation. Its deadly suicide attacks against Israeli civilians were one of the major factors that contributed to the failure of the Oslo process. Through its corruption-free welfare activities, it has established itself as a viable alternative to not only Fatah, but also to the umbrella organization that led the Palestinian struggle, namely, the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). For quite some time, Hamas presented itself as an alternative to the P.N.A. With its January victory, Hamas has taken over the P.N.A.
Hamas Victory Spells Difficult Times Ahead
The victory of Hamas, however, comes with a host of problems. For one, the international community, including Israel, will have to come to terms with the election results. It is not possible for the outside world to ignore the choice of the Palestinian people.
At the same time, the will of the public also comes with a price. Palestinians who opted for Hamas cannot escape from the consequences of such a choice. Just as the international community will have to recognize the voice of the Palestinians, the latter will have to address the concerns of the wider world.
It is here that the Hamas victory might end up creating more problems for the Palestinians than for what they had bargained. If the outside world, especially Israel and its Western allies, were to accept Hamas as a negotiating partner, then the militant group will have to exhibit political maturity. It will have to move from being a militant group to a more political actor.
For more than a decade, Hamas built its reputation as a hardened opponent of Israel and the peace process. Its suicide attacks largely contributed to its popularity and success. It considers historic Palestine as Islamic property and hence is vehemently opposed to the existence of Israel. Many of the provisions of its charter call for the destruction of Israel. It will not be easy for Hamas to abandon its bloody past and present itself as Israel’s negotiating partner. Sudden shifts would be domestically controversial and externally hollow.
Without clear signs of transformation, even the international community will not be able to convince Israel to negotiate with Hamas. Indeed, it is often ignored that only Jordan recognizes Islamist parties and allows them to participate in elections. Egypt, for example, has banned the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological forerunner of Hamas.
Moreover, Hamas will have to establish, both to the Palestinians and to the outside world, that there is only one authority in the Palestinian areas, namely, the P.N.A. This may prove difficult for Hamas. In the past, it refused to accept the monopoly of the P.N.A. and often talked of an alternative arrangement. It will not be simple for others, especially Fatah, to accept the centrality of the Hamas-controlled P.N.A. Additionally, to be effective, Hamas will have to dissolve and disarm Izzedine al-Qasim, its military wing. The presence of a militant group and regular security forces, both under Hamas control, would be a recipe for civil war.
Even if the Hamas-led P.N.A. wants to control them, it will not be possible to rein in all militant groups. Despite all its attempts, Israel was unable to prevent small groups of militants from crossing the borders and blowing themselves up in streets and cafe houses of Israeli-controlled territory. If the post-election Palestinian “celebrations” are any indication, there is every possibility that the internal tensions between supporters of Hamas and Fatah will escalate into widespread confrontation and violence.
At least in the short run, the Hamas-led P.N.A. will be tied down to reinventing itself as a responsible political force that is both willing and capable of reaching a political settlement with Israel. The task is rather Herculean, and Hamas is a novice when it comes to negotiated politics. The Palestinians have spoken. It is now up for Hamas to transform itself from a militant organization into a political force that is capable of reaching peace. The transition from militancy to governance will be hard and painful.