The Lost Palestinians

Barring an unforeseen development, Palestinians will vote in their second post-Arafat national elections this summer. Unlike the presidential balloting, in which the election of Abu Mazen was entirely predictable, the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council are clouded in uncertainty. Fatah, the secular, nationalist organization which has thoroughly dominated Palestinian politics for decades, enjoys the advantages of incumbency, the support of state-like institutions, and the unconcealed backing of all major international actors. Hamas, the radical Islamist organization, has never before participated in national elections, lacks governmental experience, and is branded a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union. Yet it is Fatah that is worried and Hamas that is gaining ground.

The uncertainty has generated odd reactions. With the implicit encouragement of some Israelis and Westerners who usually advocate Palestinian democracy, Fatah is seriously toying with the idea of postponing the ballot to forestall a poor showing. If elections are held several months after their scheduled date in July, it is believed, Fatah will be able to take credit for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, for the Palestinian Authority’s economic recovery, and for its restoration of law and order. Meanwhile Hamas, traditionally skeptical of Western-style politics and hostile to foreign intervention, has been calling for international observers to monitor the vote.

The elections will reflect popular judgment on the current situation. As of now, opinions are mixed. There is greater calm and normalcy in the lives of Palestinians and, for an exhausted people, that is no small achievement. But improvements have been made at a painfully slow pace. Israel has maintained its military presence in most of the West Bank, roadblocks have yet to be lifted, settlement construction continues apace, and, of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners, only a few hundred have been released from Israeli jails. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon still intends to withdraw from Gaza, but the future remains vague. There has been some change in the US position but the Bush administration is still tepid about becoming seriously involved in peace efforts. All in all this hardly is enough for the new Palestinian leadership to claim a clear success.

Should this murky situation remain essentially unchanged by July, the elections are likely to be as much a referendum on the shape of internal Palestinian politics as a referendum on the state of Israeli–Palestinian affairs. That should be of concern to Fatah. Arafat’s death, the collapse of the Oslo Accords, endemic internal divisions, and a reputation for corruption have badly weakened the Fatah movement. Hamas, viewed as uncorrupt, efficient, and equipped with a more focused set of political goals, stands ready to pick up the spoils. Can Fatah survive these elections unified and intact? Will Hamas change Palestinian politics and be changed by them? And how much should the rest of the world care?

Understanding what Fatah has become requires recalling what it once was. Yasser Arafat and his colleagues founded it in 1959 in the hope of revitalizing the Palestinian …

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