Hussein Agha is a senior associate member of St Antony’s College, Oxford. Robert Malley is Middle East programme director at the International Crisis Group and was a special adviser to President Clinton (THE GUARDIAN, 24/01/06):
There is more uncertainty than clarity surrounding tomorrow’s Palestinian elections, though this much is plain: Hamas, the Islamist movement designated a terrorist organisation by the US and Europe and considered a mortal enemy by Israel, will be joining the legislature. Riding an unprecedented wave of popularity and having exceeded expectations in recent municipal elections, it is on course to capture a sizable portion of votes and, who knows, a seat at the cabinet table.
Hamas’s decision to enter the political realm was long in coming but hardly a surprise. Like Fatah, the dominant secular nationalist organisation, Hamas is an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike Fatah, its agenda was not national liberation through armed struggle and diplomacy alone. Its first priority was the Palestinians’ social and religious transformation. Violence was not its only tool, any more than independence was its sole objective. Of the two, paradoxically, it is Fatah that has the more militaristic pedigree. And, in the absence of armed struggle, it is Hamas that has a political agenda to fall back on.
True, violence came to Hamas, and brutally. Its first targets were soldiers and settlers. Later, it extended operations to suicide attacks against civilians, justifying them as retaliation for the killing of Palestinian civilians. On various occasions Hamas offered – in proposals Israel dismissed as disingenuous – to stop the killing of civilians if Israel did the same. Resort to violence itself also displayed political intuition, as attacks were carefully calibrated to the public mood.
The Palestinian Authority was failing miserably to protect its people. Unable to provide security, Hamas aimed for second best. It provided revenge. Even at the armed confrontation’s height, Hamas kept one eye focused on the religious, social and cultural, rallying the faithful in mosques, tending to their needs through charitable institutions. Its leaders trusted in the ultimate payoff. Discipline and ideological coherence, coupled with inevitable public disenchantment over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, would yield dividends. Payback time, by all accounts, is now.
Vindicated by the breakdown of the peace process, the expiry of the Oslo framework, the outbreak of the intifada, and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas can now join a new process without endorsing the authority’s past policies. Politics offers a welcome respite from a taxing conflict with Israel that has cost most of its historic leadership.
Besides, the Islamists’ popularity has reached unmatched heights: Fatah is in disarray; the withdrawal from Gaza established in the public’s mind that the Islamists’ violence, not the nationalists’ negotiations, produces results; and their reputation for efficiency and integrity contrasts with the authority’s dismal record.
In the west, as in Israel, the prospect of Hamas’s rise to power has provoked angst and anger. Its record and pronouncements certainly give reason for pause. But other factors are at play.
Over the past year, Hamas has on the whole adhered to a cessation of violence with Israel; its elected municipal representatives coordinate with the Israeli administration; rather than oppose the principle of future negotiations, it disputes the basis of those held in the past; and, not unlike Sharon, it favours a long-term interim agreement, albeit on terms different from those he supports.
Furthermore, Hamas may be growing, but there’s a limit. A minority of Palestinians back its hardcore Islamist positions and most oppose its outlook. Impressive as they are, its recent gains reflect disaffection with the authority rather than support for its political programme, and its electoral size inflates its actual one – so long as Hamas is not in charge, Palestinians will be grateful for every service it provides; once in power, Palestinians will blame it for every service they lack.
The Islamists also are well aware that improving daily life depends on relations with Israel, and that little can be achieved without the west’s involvement. Should they take action that fundamentally jeopardises either, Palestinians will suffer and Hamas will shoulder the blame.
All the same, Hamas is unlikely to drop its rejection of Israel, its military arsenal or – if it believes they will enjoy popular backing – armed operations. The best clue to its future lies in its past: it will seek to demonstrate that it can improve daily life, reduce corruption and tackle lawlessness, while maintaining its long-term objective of transforming society.
From the sidelines, whether in or out of government, it will criticise the authority’s relations or negotiations with Israel without blocking them, and maintain its calls for armed resistance without necessarily implementing it. Further unilateral redeployments by the Israelis would fit neatly with the Islamists’ worldview – Hamas will attribute such achievements to its steadfastness and argue that territorial withdrawals do not require ideological compromise. But over time, particularly if the experiment is successful, Hamas’s transition may provoke disagreement in the organisation between the militant and more pragmatic, and eventually, perhaps, a split.
With Sharon’s stroke, the Israeli political scene has lost a central actor. But the Palestinian political scene is gaining a new one. An already impossibly complex situation is about to become more complicated still.