Hamas: The Perils of Power


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.


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.

Such an arrangement has undeniable appeal. Hamas would be spared the dilemmas that would accompany participation in government, let alone control of it: whether to deal with Israel, recognize and abide by past agreements, and meet the conditions for receiving continued outside aid. And it would be spared the internal tensions that making any of these decisions inevitably would provoke between the more radical and more pragmatic wings of the Islamist movement. In short, it would preserve its ideological purity while gaining additional freedom to carry out its program.

But another inclination exists, which is to exercise power commensurate with the Islamists’ electoral success. Inside the movement, and among its constituents, pressure surely exists to reap the fruits of a well-earned, if unexpected, victory. To some, the notion of passing up this unique opportunity and leaving key ministries, the security forces, and the overall program for the future in other people’s hands is unthinkable, particularly at a time of increased polarization between Fatah and Hamas. It is a betrayal of the trust placed in Hamas by those who elected it. The dust has yet to settle, the various affinities have yet to be consolidated, and the divisions within the movement, between the more radical and the more pragmatic, or between the leadership within the occupied territories and the leadership in exile, have yet to play themselves out.

Power confronts Hamas with other uncomfortable choices and uncertain prospects, for example how to respond to future attacks against Israel carried out by more radical groups, such as Islamic Jihad, or less disciplined ones, such as Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades. What methods to employ to secure the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails? What should Hamas do if Israel resumes targeted assassinations, builds more settlements in East Jerusalem, or completes the separation barrier? How is Hamas to handle the roughly 70,000 armed security forces who are loyal to Fatah and are not about to report to a Hamas command?

Nor does the power Hamas has gained look quite so considerable now that it has it. The Islamists may hold the Palestinian Legislative Council, but that means they control only a little over half of one of five branches of power, and not the most influential one at that. The presidency remains in Abbas’s hands, the security forces are allied with Fatah, the Islamists’ status in the Palestine Liberation Organization is still unclear, and, for now at least, they have no part in the government. Even in terms of the popular vote, Hamas’s victory is less than it may seem, for more Palestinians cast ballots for Fatah and Fatah-leaning independents than they did for the Islamists. In a sense, Hamas’s electoral success may highlight its political and structural weakness. The Islamists triumphed over Fatah but only in the battle between two organizations, and organization never was Fatah’s strong suit. Rather, Fatah derives strength from the loyalties it elicits, the memory it evokes, the paramount leader it once had, and the inclusive ideas it still espouses. Those strengths, Hamas is likely to find, will be far harder to vanquish.

But the headache is not Hamas’s to bear alone. How others react undoubtedly will influence what it ultimately will do. Early reactions by Fatah reflected shock and anger, but, more than that, a thirst for revenge. In voting for Hamas, as some 45 percent did, Palestinians were expressing the belief that the Islamists could succeed where the nationalists didn’t. As many in the nationalist movement see it, it is important to prove them wrong. The last thing to do would be to give Hamas cover, allow it to control a technocratic government from afar, benefit from its successes, and profit from its international support. Rather, Hamas should be forced to confront hard choices. If it sticks to a hard line against recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, it will lose international support and fail. If it agrees to compromise, it will be exposed in public eyes as hypocritical and flounder. Either way, so goes the logic, Fatah will gain.


In a sign of bewilderment that was unusual even by the standards of the Bush administration, the United States all at once pressed for the recent elections, warned that armed militias such as Hamas should not participate, and opposed Israeli efforts to keep Hamas off the ballot. After the elections, President Bush both praised the Palestinians’ exercise in democracy and hinted they might be punished for their choice. US perplexity is the price, perhaps, of years of chasing an illusion, the so-called Fatah young guard that was supposed to democratize, reform, and stabilize the Palestinian Authority, while also enjoying the necessary legitimacy to disarm militias and compromise with Israel. The occupation weighs too heavily and Palestinian society is too traditional, traumatized, and dispersed for people who lack deep, authentic roots ever to achieve that. Having waited in vain, and at heavy cost, for the nonexistent young guard to emerge, the US inherited instead the Islamists. It now must figure out what to do with them.

In Washington, there is palpable temptation to be tough, and require of Hamas wholesale ideological conversion before economic or diplomatic benefits can flow. That conversion, it readily is conceded, is unlikely to happen. But for some, setting the experiment up for failure is not the worst one could do. Hamas should not be let off the hook easily; its intolerant Islamist outlook should not be sanctioned; and, besides, there is more at stake than Palestine alone. Throughout the region, radical Islamists already have been emboldened by Hamas’s victory; if the experiment is allowed to succeed, they may become unstoppable. Hence the need to maintain a coherent, united, and solid international front demanding that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel as a precondition for engaging with any government it would back.

Here too, however, there are disadvantages, and the assumption that putting pressure on Hamas will necessarily benefit the US is open to question. To begin with, such pressure is unlikely to work. The Islamists benefited mightily in the election from Palestinian hostility to outside interference, and they are not about to fritter that capital away by reneging on their principles in response to foreigners’ demands. Should Western aid to Palestine be cut off because of the election results, then Hamas will no longer have the responsibility to keep it flowing. The organization will be less constrained and freer to revert to past practice.

The Islamists, searching for substitute funds, might turn to other, more troubling sources or, convinced that their political gambit was a trap, declare they were victims of fraud. They would then return to the world of social work, economic charity, and violence—a sphere that is more familiar, less exacting, and, judging from Hamas’s political fortunes, unquestionably advantageous. A nonfunctioning Palestinian Authority, so a certain logic goes, will expose the Islamists’ failure and rehabilitate their secular rivals. But despair is what helped to radicalize Palestinians in the past, and it is hard to see by what logic it would moderate them in the future.

Israel faces the same dilemmas and then some. Some may see advantages in engaging Hamas and in so doing moderating its behavior and ensuring that quiet endures. Most will see this as granting undue legitimacy to an organization that rejects Israel’s existence. In both Hamas’s and Israel’s eyes, paradoxically, the practical benefits of dealing with the enemy may be outweighed by the ideological compromises this would entail. Some Israelis may want to demonstrate to the Palestinians the costs of bringing the Islamists to power. Others will realize that driving the Palestinian Authority to bankruptcy will not hurt Palestinians alone. For Israel will then be compelled to do what it heretofore has been spared: finance an occupation that, anomalously, has been subsidized by the outside world. Any instability or violence arising in the West Bank and Gaza would, sooner rather than later, spill over into Israel. And should Israel take an aggressive position toward Hamas, starving the PA of funds or targeting Islamist leaders, it may not take long before suicide bombings recommence.

Hamas will be sensitive to the reactions of Arab neighbors. During the last year or so, the Cairo government acted as midwife to the Islamists’ integration into the Palestinian political system, and, more than most, the Egyptians ought to be interested in its success. But, as much as any, they were taken by surprise by Hamas’s showing, and not pleasantly so. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood recently registered a notable success at the polls and it would have been far more notable still had it not been for the Islamists’ electoral self-restraint and the regime’s electoral shenanigans. In view of Hamas’s loyalty to the Brothers, there is far more wariness in Egypt now and a far greater problem on the regime’s hands.

As for Jordan, prospects there may well prove at once more tentative and tantalizing. The close ties between Hamas and the kingdom’s Muslim Brotherhood are magnified by the demographic reality that most Jordanians are of Palestinian descent. Hamas’s victory might possibly help overcome entrenched suspicion and animosity between Palestinians and the monarchy. It may even open up interesting new possibilities for future links between the two. All this belongs to the realm of the implausible and the uncertain. But the implausible just happened. And uncertainty is about all there is left.


Abbas’s gamble was that integrating Hamas into Palestinian politics would moderate its behavior. To a degree, it already has. During the past eleven months, Hamas has demonstrated its willingness and ability to honor a cessation of violence, and Israeli officials regularly credit its discipline for the sharp drop in attacks. Elected in record numbers to municipal positions during 2005, local Hamas officials have maintained practical coordination with Israel wherever necessary. Throughout the campaign, the Islamic movement dropped repeated hints of possible flexibility. Its leaders did not rule out changing their charter (“It’s not the Koran,” they whispered), negotiating with Israel, or accepting a long-term truce based on Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Since the elections, the pattern has continued. Hamas has indicated that it is prepared to extend its truce, integrate its forces into a Palestinian army, and accept some past arrangements between Israel and the PA. There are serious caveats to all these positions and the ideological aggiornamento still will have to wait. But if it is a trend one is looking for, it is there.

Even on the diplomatic front, there are interesting signals. Concerns that Hamas will hinder the “peace process” seem oddly misdirected in the absence of a process to derail in the first place. Instead, the Islamists’ approach is more in tune with current Israeli thinking than the Palestinian Authority’s loftier goal of a permanent peace ever was. In its preference for unilateralism and for a long-term interim deal, Israel may have found its match in Hamas’s reluctance to talk to the enemy, its opposition at this stage to a permanent agreement, and its willingness to accept an extended truce. Their initial reactions suggest that Israelis may view things in this way. One might have expected Hamas’s victory to give the right-wing Likud its long-awaited boost. Not so. The government displayed restraint, the centrist Kadima registered a slight uptick in the polls, and a majority of the public expressed backing for engagement with a Hamas-dominated PA. In their hearts, Israelis already have given up on the notion of a reliable Palestinian partner; they are eager to disengage from the Palestinians, and are gravitating toward unilateralism. Hamas’s victory did not challenge any of these trends. It validated them.

The electoral results sent shockwaves that are still reverberating, and even the abstemious Islamists must have been left with something like a hangover. Still, there is the possibility of hopeful developments in which all, Hamas, the US, Israel, and Fatah alike, display flexibility and pragmatism. Hamas would name a government that includes independents and technocrats. The government would recognize the PA’s past agreements and commitments and continue to deal with Israel. Hamas would maintain its truce, seek to convince other political and rogue groups of its wisdom, and press for a program of good governance and reform. Donor funds would continue to flow and keep the Authority afloat. Israel would proceed with the second phase of its unilateral withdrawal, this time from the heart of the West Bank.

Indeed, insofar as the burden has shifted to Hamas, the US and Israel could achieve their objectives at less cost than had the old regime prevailed. With Hamas eager for quiet and stability, Israel will not have to pay a high price; nor will Washington have to invest much diplomatically to obtain them. Hamas faces pressures of its own making now, and they are likely to be far more effective than anything emanating from the outside.

The leader who stands most to gain from this new setting is President Abbas, the man who appeared most vulnerable on election’s eve and whom the US vainly sought to prop up over the past years. Unable to take action when his unruly party was in control, his hands are freer now that Hamas has won. For he has become the central figure upon whom all depend: the Islamists, who need him as a conduit to the outside world; Israel, which will see him as the most palatable and reliable interlocutor on the Palestinian scene; the US and Europe, as they seek to shun Hamas without turning their backs on the Palestinians; and, of course, the Palestinian people themselves, who look to their leader as the symbol of national unity and last rampart against looming domestic strife.

All of which may make for a respectable balance sheet, especially when compared to what might have occurred in the event of a Fatah victory: Hamas would not have been disarmed; the reform program probably would have been stalled; the truce would have been more fragile; and, between Israel’s unilateralism and Abbas’s preference for a comprehensive agreement, there still would have been little room for a genuine peace process.

There is, of course, plenty of reason to fear that things will go wrong. Pressures will build within Hamas to adopt an inflexible position, and pressures in the US and Israel will push them to do likewise. Fatah members, both in the movement and in the security forces, may be spoiling for a fight. Working out delicate relations between parties that do not communicate, or not well, will require an abundance of patience and dispassionate judgment. Over the years, impatience has been the norm. And there is more than enough passion to go around.

—February 8, 2006