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Hamas: The Perils of Power

1.

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 get results through talks. The most significant change on the ground, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, was decided before his election; it would have occurred without him, and it resulted from unilateral decision-making rather than from bilateral negotiations.

Abbas’s ties with Washington were strengthened, yet he had precious little to show for it. Helping Abbas became Washington’s exclusive and hollow rallying cry. An empty slogan backed by hesitant and feeble measures, it also was a meaningless one, for the US never bothered to make clear what precisely Abbas was being helped to do. And throughout, the Palestinian Authority acted as the powerless supplicant, rejoicing in friendly visits in Washington and patronizing platitudes (“Abu Mazen is a man of peace”) which, with no visible supporting policy, further eroded the Palestinian Authority’s credibility back home.

But the vote was more than a rejection of corruption, an expression of frustration with the peace process, or even an act of defiance. It was an expression of deeply felt, if unarticulated, anger at years of lost dignity and self-respect, coupled with a yearning to recover a semblance of both. As many Palestinians saw it, they had been on the receiving end of constant demands while Israel still occupied their land with impunity. For years, the Palestinian Authority stood by helplessly during Israeli military incursions. It was asked to defend Israelis from Palestinian attacks, but prohibited from doing the reverse.

At Camp David in July 2000, Palestinians felt under pressure to accept what practically all of them deemed unacceptable. When they turned down what for them was a virtual proposal, they were vilified, depicted as an affront to civilization, members of a culture of liars and killers. The imprisonment of their historic and democratically elected leader, Yasser Arafat, who for decades had personified the Palestinian people and cause, prompted barely a yawn from Western leaders; his death was greeted with unconcealed glee. Through the years, the US and Europe compounded their neglect of Palestinian suffering with degrading lectures about how they should behave and whom they should elect, and with threats to cut off aid if they did not oblige.

Because of all it did, said, and stood for, a vote for Hamas became one way to exorcise the disgrace. The Palestinian Authority had been unable to protect its people, and Hamas evidently could do no better on that score. But though its brutal attacks on Israelis did not provide safety, they provided revenge, and, for many Palestinians, in the biblical land of primal urges, that was second best. While not condoning every Hamas operation, for vast numbers of Palestinians, the Islamists’ current position on Israel and the use of violence against it also rang as a truer, more authentic expression of their feelings. In this, Prime Minister Sharon displayed greater discernment than the Israeli left: deep down, most Palestinians, though ready to accept Israel’s existence, have not accepted its historical legitimacy; though supportive of a mutual cease-fire and peace agreements, they will not relinquish the right to fight for their land. At the height of the peace process, when statehood seemed within reach, they were prepared to live the lie, and go along with their leaders’ ambivalent concessions. But most Palestinians felt otherwise, and the dissonance between what was believed and what was stated added to the indignity of their position.

Unlike Fatah, Hamas did not succumb to international pressure to alter its views, which explains both why the West warned against voting for it and why, as hope for a peaceful settlement disappeared, Palestinians did so nonetheless. Hamas’s performance was made possible, evidently, by acute dissatisfaction with the Palestinians’ material situation, but its roots lay deeper, in their psychological condition. Voting for Hamas was not merely an act of rejection. It was, in the only way many Palestinians knew how, an act of self-determination.

2.

Hamas’s leaders were counting on an honorable defeat, and they looked forward to the prospect of making the most of it. Coming in a close second, their options would have been wide open. They could have joined the government, or stayed out. Either way, they would have remained in the safety of the fringes, keeping a watchful eye on domestic issues, seeking to demonstrate that Hamas’s presence, including the services it provides, could improve daily life, reduce corruption, and deal with lawlessness. Hamas would have concentrated on its long-term goal of Islamicizing Palestinian society, doing so doggedly, though in increments. It would have kept to its conditional truce, reserving the right to respond to Israeli attacks on Palestinian population centers and against its own leaders.

Best of all, from Hamas’s perspective, it would have been under scant pressure to change its outlook or mode of operation. Naturally, it would have faced demands for disarmament, which Abbas had promised to carry out. But Hamas felt little cause for worry. It knew that Abbas opposed taking forceful action against fellow Palestinians which would risk a schism in Palestinian society, along with considerable loss of life, so long as Palestine remains under occupation—or at least so long as the end of that occupation is nowhere in sight. And Hamas knew that what mattered most to Abbas was preserving calm and restoring law and order, two objectives for which the Islamists’ cooperation was required.

In the hope of controlling Hamas through legislation and curbing its freedom of military action, Abbas had put forward the slogan “one authority, one law, and one gun.” But Hamas was ready with a post-election catchphrase of its own, one equally blunt and, to militant ears, far more appealing: “under occupation, no law is above the law of resistance.” Although Hamas was ready to discuss the possibility of integration of its militia into the PA security forces, it believed that what began in talks would end with talks. It would keep its military arsenal.

If Hamas had come in second, there would, in short, have been much pressure on Abbas to maintain a cease-fire, improve conditions on the ground, and show he could deliver results; pressure on the new Israeli government to take reciprocal steps; and pressure on the US to demonstrate that its diplomacy could yield fruits. Hamas, meanwhile, could sit back, take credit, and heap blame.

How swiftly victory can spoil the best-laid plans. Hamas’s leaders had hoped to hide behind Fatah and the PA; they are now on the front lines. The burden that was supposed to be on others is now squarely on them. In the days just after the election, Hamas suddenly sounded more modest, restrained, and dependent on third parties. This was not a matter of choice. It had to reassure Fatah members and Fatah security forces that were knocked off balance by their loss, as well as donors hesitant to bankroll a Hamas-led PA, and Arab neighbors apprehensive about having an Islamist stronghold at their doorstep, doubly so about witnessing an Islamist success at the polls. The calm and quiet that Israel once requested has become a necessity for Hamas: if it is to consolidate and maintain its popularity, it will have to live up to the promise of reform and good governance. Renewed violence would lead to swift, devastating, and unrestrained Israeli attacks, thwarting any chance for the Islamists to have a successful domestic policy. Paradoxically, Hamas’s electoral sweep has curbed its freedom of action far more than defeat would have.

Along with victory, there is confusion and puzzlement. Within Hamas, one senses several trends, from the impulse to exercise power subtly to the inclination to exercise it absolutely, and everything in between. There is a temptation among some to ignore the actual electoral results, treating them as if they were as Hamas had earlier imagined they would be. Islamists would participate in the government, but occupy only second-tier ministerial seats (social affairs, health, or education), leaving ultimate decision-making to Abbas and others, claiming a right to oversight but no more, and emphasizing the limitations rather than the scope of their power. Some within Hamas would take such a position a step further, relinquishing any role in government now that it has won, even though it may not have done so had it lost. In that case, Hamas would support a government of independent-minded technocrats, with names familiar and acceptable to the West, that would maintain access to international support.

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