Ever since the start of the first Intifada in December 1987, Hamas has been building itself up as a counterforce to the PLO. At that time the latter agreed to recognize the State of Israel. In 1993 it entered the Oslo adventure, in the course of which the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established. Today, more than a decade after the Oslo accords – and after five years of a bloody, second Intifada – the PA has reached the end of its rope. Hamas, meanwhile, has succeeded in undermining the status of Fatah as the main representative of the Palestinian people.
But Hamas is caught in a deep contradiction. Through the years it shaped itself as an intra-Palestinian alternative, but not as a realistic political alternative – not as a body that could represent the Palestinian people vis-à-vis Israel and the rest of the world. During the second Intifada, we recall, Hamas proclaimed repeatedly that its new “strategy,” the suicide attacks, would destroy the Zionist entity within five years. No need for negotiations! The movement has never presented a political platform or a plan for peace. On the contrary, the 11th article of its charter declares all of Palestine to be waqf land – a sacred Muslim trust – not subject to negotiation.
Even on the economic plane, Hamas offers no real alternative. Here the sole difference from Fatah is hygienic. Like Fatah, Hamas encourages the forces of the market, that is, capitalism. True, it has been free from corruption. It has even conducted an exemplary network of charitable institutions. But charity is no substitute for a functioning economy, especially in the complicated reality created by the Occupation.
When we analyze the election results in detail, the Hamas victory does not appear quite as big. According to the system established by Fatah, one half of parliament is chosen in a single nationwide election, the other half in district elections. Nationwide, 430,000 (45%) voted for Hamas; 400,000 (41%) for Fatah; and 14% for other candidates. It was in the district elections, rather, that the landslide took place. Here Fatah failed to act as a unit. Within each district, various Fatah candidates ran, disregarding the call for internal party unity. Hamas, on the other hand, was smart enough and disciplined enough to field one candidate per district. In this way Fatah votes went to waste while Hamas votes did not. Otherwise, Fatah would probably have won enough seats to form a coalition with other secular parties.
Hamas, in fact, had assumed that Fatah would form the coalition. It had even counted on this. Throughout its campaign it stressed that it had no intention of replacing Fatah at the helm. All it wanted was to receive legitimacy as a respectable political movement while retaining its identity as an armed, fighting opposition – like Hizballah in Lebanon. Hamas did not want the keys to the innermost sanctum of power.
But democratic elections, like the schemes of mice and men, “gang aft agley.” The Palestinian people has spoken, and now it’s the turn of Hamas to supply answers. As a first indication, in order to calm the street and the international arena, it chose to hold its leadership summit (including external leaders like Khaled Mashal) in Egypt rather than Syria. This was a conciliatory gesture: the Hamas charter criticizes Egypt because of the 1978 Camp David Agreement. The choice was a hint to Israel and the world that the movement is prepared to work, in effect, beneath the American umbrella.
Various facts have prevented the outside world from taking a monolithic stand against Hamas. First, there isn’t any concrete political process underway, such as would require Hamas to take a position. Second, Israel is developing a policy of unilateralism, refusing to view even the most moderate Palestinians as partners. Third, the PA elections, closely observed by the international community, were remarkably clean. These facts have contributed to the Russian and French openness toward Hamas, which causes great discomfort in Washington. The latter is getting a taste of what can happen when it imposes democracy in the Middle East.
Elections in this region yield only one victor: Islam. This is due, in part, to a lack of liberal parties with western-style agendas. During the Cold War, we should recall, the US helped eliminate secular alternatives throughout the region, nurturing Islamic parties as a buffer against them.
The results of the PA elections reflect a historical process that had to happen. The second Intifada, we recall, began in September 2000 as a popular uprising. Its motive was to punish both partners in the Oslo Accords: not just Israel, but the PA too (which had let its people fall into deepening poverty while its leaders – and Israelis – thrived). The uprising didn’t have the necessary leadership, however, to punish the corrupt PA. The chance to carry out that punishment came in the form of the recent elections.
Both Israel and the PA were counting on the “common sense” of the Palestinian people. They were counting on its fears of utter abandonment if Fatah should cease to rule. Hamas, it was thought, would win a large number of votes but not a decisive majority; this would serve as a warning to Fatah to purge itself of corruption. But reality surpassed imagination. The voters reduced Fatah to rubble. The revolt that did not quite fulfill itself in the year 2000 came to a quieter completion through the Bush-backed elections of 2006. The force that buried Oslo and the PA was the Palestinian people itself. Hamas was its tool.