What explains Hamas’s performance? Most observers argue that the Islamists profited from Fatah’s poor record, its mismanagement, costly internal divisions, and all-around ineptitude. They have a point. Hamas ran on a platform of good government and earned the respect of voters in local districts by displaying greater integrity than its predecessors had in keeping its promises and avoiding corruption. Its candidates campaigned not under Hamas’s banner but under the slogan “Change and Reform,” a phrase that was not intended to fool anyone but that played well to popular sentiment. Fatah’s corruption estranged even the most secular-minded Palestinians, and not a few of them cast their vote for the Islamists in the hope that they would wipe the slate clean.
Hamas ran a remarkably disciplined and professional campaign, putting together an impressive list of academics and professionals, many unaffiliated with the group, some Christian and some female. It underplayed the religious planks of its platform, and even the struggle against Israel figured less prominently and less violently in its literature than in Fatah’s—in part, no doubt, because it felt it had less than Fatah to prove. Not all or even most of Hamas’s voters subscribe to its political program, yet the organization fed on the resentment and alienation that had built up during the decade-long rule by the Palestinian Authority. Hamas acted as a catch-all movement, bringing together a loose assortment of the devout, the dispossessed, and the deprived. It offered an answer for everything, and for nearly everyone. Several answers, in fact. And for the time being, at least.
But if Hamas benefited from a typical protest vote, it did so under highly atypical conditions of occupation, a situation that magnified Hamas’s gains because it added to the list of things against which Palestinians were protesting. Voters showed their dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority, which had failed to meet people’s daily needs, ensure elemental security, or achieve independence and statehood. In voting as they did, the Palestinians challenged Israel, whose persistent occupation, military attacks, and settlement expansion merited, they thought, a more forceful and effective response. They also reacted to the positions of the US and other nations, which, in their eyes, had made possible Israeli oppression and perpetuated their own sorry fate. And they rebelled against a “peace process” which, after thirteen years and on almost all counts, had landed them in a worse position than when it was first launched.
Certainly, the experience of the past few years gave little cause for them to reconsider these views. The world, Israel included, warmly greeted President Abbas’s election in January 2005 with promises of swift progress. Abbas counted on renewed negotiations with Israel and closer relations with the US to deliver genuine improvement to his people and prove that his diplomatic approach worked. In both respects, he fell short, and by quite a distance. Israel’s insistence on acting unilaterally devalued his principal currency, which was his presumed ability to …