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Rise of the Green Crescent?
Reflections on the Palestinian Legislative Elections

Date to be added   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

The Hamas landslide is the direct outcome of the utter frustration felt by Palestinians at the failure of anybody to do anything about the abject poverty and oppression under which they spend every day of their lives.

Western politicians were gullible enough to believe that the Gaza withdrawal was a stage in the road map that would bring about a two-state solution. Palestinian voters, living in their hopeless predicament, knew better. Their vote for Hamas tells the world: "If we can't have our state, we will opt for armed resistance."

Gerald Kaufman, MP, in The Guardian , on 28 January 2006

Nablus, a green-valleyed and beautiful Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, was for a while considered by some Israeli and international commentators as a traditional Fatah-based bastion of militant radicalism. So those same commentators were 'astonished' when the people of Nablus changed their political allegiances and elected a Hamas-friendly mayor, 'Adli Ya'ish, in the Palestinian municipal elections of December 2005, and then also tipped their ballots last month in favour of Sheikh Hamed Bitawi and Hamas deputies in the legislative elections.

Why? To answer the question, I would invite the reader to consider the following facts. Nablus is surrounded by 6 Israeli checkpoints and 53 other physical obstacles to travel, and by 14 Israeli settlements and 26 settlement outposts. Getting permission from Israel to travel out of Nablus is a huge challenge - to put it mildly. With the constant Israeli curfews and military incursions (which have admittedly declined in the last few months), is it any wonder that the residents of this city were fed up with their daily constraints? Seeing no solution brought to the table by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, witnessing the corruption and inefficiency of the system, and listening to the strident demands emanating from the USA and Israel, nobody should be unduly 'astounded' that they became more 'militant' and decided to 'throw caution to the wind' by turning their backs on the Fatah movements that had controlled their city for so long.

What has been happening in Nablus has also been replicated across much of the Palestinian territories. It is the same story, with the same causes and effects: a debilitating status quo , corruption and ineptitude trailing on for years within Fatah ranks, lawlessness in Gaza, unemployment in Nablus and despair amongst young people in Jericho. The situation was ripe for the picking, and as a result Hamas picked up an outright majority of 74 seats out of 132 in the Palestinian Legislative Council - with six of those being women who ran on the Hamas list.

Israel too had heightened the drama through its uncompromisingly suppressive policies and its unwillingness to assist Mahmoud Abbas, the democratically-elected president of the Palestinian Authority, with his efforts for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Israel was far more interested in implementing its unilateral separation from the Palestinians than in a just peace. There was a feeling amongst Palestinians that the national project was under threat, and they provided a resounding answer when 78% of them turned out for this election. The USA, having trumpeted democratic ideals abroad, cannot now ignore the popular will of Palestinian voters. More so since the ascendancy of Hamas mirrors a brand of political legitimacy that has been rare in the modern Arab world: a historic and peaceful transfer from what has effectively been a one-party state run by Fatah to an opposition that came to power through the voters' urns. So welcome to Palestine today - seemingly more radicalised, more fearful, more fearsome, but also more democratic!

Irrespective of the electoral results, I still maintain that only a minority of Palestinians back the hard-core Islamist positions of some factions within Hamas. My own long experience in the region suggests that most fellow Palestinians continue to oppose this hard-line political outlook. Disaffection was indubitably the key factor in this result: the Hamas electoral size considerably inflates its actual influence in Palestine today. As Ewen MacAskill, diplomatic editor of The Guardian , wrote on 26 January 2006, 'The Hamas success does not mean that the Palestinians, one of the most secular populations in the Arab world, are heading headlong towards Islamisation. In many places, the vote was not for the Hamas agenda but against Fatah, stemming from disillusionment with the years of corruption.'

But what is Hamas exactly, and where does the future lie? A great deal has been written about Hamas in recent weeks. An offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood, this movement had as its first priority the Palestinian people's social and religious transformation. Violence was not its only tool, any more than independence was its sole objective. Even at the apex of the armed confrontation, Hamas kept one eye firmly focused on its religious, social, cultural and domestic legitimacy as it rallied the faithful in mosques, and tended to their needs through charitable institutions.  

Throughout the campaign, Hamas fought on a platform that attacked corruption, as well as promoted the establishment of good governance and the restoration of the rule of law. In fact, the manifesto of the party made no mention of the Hamas charter calling for the destruction of Israel and the liberation of Palestine "from the river to the sea". As Mohammed Ghazal, a Hamas leader from Nablus told Israeli Khadashot online news (also reported by Reuters news agency), 'the charter is not the Quran' and could therefore be amended if the political circumstances warrant it. Furthermore, those rushing to qualify Hamas as nothing more sophisticated than a mean terrorist organisation who excel only with indiscriminate suicide bombs should remember that the PLO was equally born as a 'terrorist' organisation. Yet, it has been viewed for years as the Palestinian interlocutor par excellence on peace.

Despite some recent statements, notably from the likes of Dr Mahmoud al-Zahar, co-founder of Hamas in Gaza, as reported in the Italian Corriere della Sera daily, it seems Hamas would consider a long-term hudna (truce) with Israel but nothing more. I suggest that Hamas would have to recognise Israel's right to exist, renounce armed resistance as the means toward liberation and drop its opposition to a two-state solution. But I equally suggest that it is counterproductive for the USA, Israel and the EU to refuse engaging Hamas in negotiations. Boycotting this movement, let alone shutting off financial aid, would only worsen the situation on the ground and legitimise Hamas further in the eyes of many ordinary Palestinians. In fact, I would be surprised if quiet diplomacy away from the public eye were not already taking place with Hamas with a view toward its gradual integration. After all, they are pivotal to the peace process, and I hope that the EU Quartet do not repeat their past mistakes that actually gave rise to Hamas in the first place.

Today, the whole Middle East is witnessing Islamist victories, and the Hamas breakthrough follows the patterns set by Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia - and even Iran. But such a result could also offer a potential political opportunity if sober minds prevail and the world community works to ensure that this potential - very much a potential at this stage - for success does not relapse into another lost opportunity. As it negotiates to form a government in the next few weeks, Hamas will begin to experience the growing pangs that come with incumbency. As a democratically-elected governing authority, whether on its own or in coalition with Fatah and other Palestinian groups, Hamas will have to act in a manner that broadly reflects the views of the majority of Palestinians. This majority has clearly and consistently expressed a desire to negotiate a just and permanent peace with Israel and to coexist in peace with it.

It is also important to stress a self-evident reality: demanding from Hamas to jump unilaterally through the hoops of disarmament, recognition and diplomacy without pairing such demands with equal ones from Israel would get us back to the same nadir that we have witnessed time and again since the demise of the Oslo-led process. We would surely not be where we are today - in terms of political desuetude, economic perils and non-peace - if the international community, led by the USA, had insisted that Israel stop building settlements, colonising Palestinian land, walling its people and deciding upon its future without any recourse to legitimate self-determination and viable statehood, The Quartet, insistent on the survival of the roadmap, should facilitate the crafting of such a solution that identifies, and recognises, the legitimate rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. But US policymakers, armchair analysts and neo-con think tanks have a different take on the whole region - and it is not one I would usually qualify as irenic or helpful.

I am not naïve enough to minimise the risks of a rising 'green crescent' that could set Palestine even further back in its aspirations toward statehood. Nor am I totally dismissing the Islamist radicalisation of Palestinian society in the short term. But a new political landscape has now willy-nilly emerged, and with it come also new possibilities. The defeated parties should examine their performance and draw their own conclusions. As for Hamas, it should now evince more pragmatism and less intransigence. Palestinians as a people should also certainly avail themselves of the democratic process by making their representatives accountable and less prone to abuses of power. This, after all, is democracy too.

Has the time dawned for another lurch forward? Is there the hint of a promise that we should grab without prevarication? Or should we regurgitate the tired mantras of the past that we cannot negotiate with Hamas - just as we did not with the Fatah-led PNA either - and in the process destroy another potential opportunity for peace? As Robert Malley, Director of the Middle East and North Africa at the ICG, averred on 28 January 2006, '[The US is] telling them, either you become what we want you to be, or democracy is not for you. And the message [from Hamas] then will be, we are going back to violence because that worked, politics does not.' It would be a gross error of judgment if the dialogue of the deaf does not yield at some stage soon to a balanced assessment of the two-sided variables of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Talking with family, friends and colleagues in Israel and Palestine over the past couple of weeks, I admit freely to some trepidation about the outcome of this exercise in democracy. I am aware that it could easily swing both ways. We could have all the parties adopting constructive measures that would improve the governance of Palestinians, and in the process address the 39-year-old occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands. Or else, the scenario could tip the other way with further digging-in of heels, stasis, instability, radicalisation and violence. With the Israeli Knesset parliamentary elections due on 28 March 2006, could we not attempt to prioritise politics over mutual violence, through a policy of gradual re-engagement, which might usher in an era of peacemaking based on UN-based principles of land for peace?

Otherwise, as a Palestinian friend from a once-bustling Nablus confided to me over the phone at the weekend, we would all be "snookered", literally "snookered", for another painful period of dangerous brinksmanship, vacuous statements and violent tit-for-tats. But, I ask you, would that help Palestinians, Israelis or the international community?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   Date to be added


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