The Democratic Resistance: Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Elections

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VOL. 35


No. 3
P. 20
The Democratic Resistance: Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Elections


ON 25 JANUARY 2006, candidates fielded by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) won 72 seats in the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) 132-member parliament. The result is little short of epochal. For the first time since taking over the reins of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1968, the nationalist Fatah movement was replaced as the dominant force in Palestinian politics, and in a free, fair, and internationally approved elections to boot. Whatever the eventual consequences of this event, two are already apparent: the Palestinian national movement is going to be dominated henceforth by two political forces, not one, and the movement’s nationalism is going to be laden with a greater religious, Islamist content.


The election result also blew apart the Israeli-American paradigm, consecrated since 9/11, that the parameters for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict were Israel’s security, the U.S.-led “war on terror” (directed primarily at radical Islamist movements and/or truculent nationalist ones), and a scaled back Palestinian “statehood” in which Jewish settlements would remain on occupied territory and Palestinian refugees would have to forego the right of return to their lands.


Responding, finally, to the deal that appeared to be emerging, the Palestinian electorate voted for a movement that champions armed resistance, invokes political Islam, does not seek negotiations, and does not recognize Israel, not only as an occupation beyond the 1967 lines but as a Jewish state behind them.


Finally, the election result exposed the black hole at the heart of Washington’s democracy mission in the Middle East. The mission had been sold publicly as the cure for all the ills that beset the region: authoritarianism, corrupt government, and political extremism. In practice, democracy (or more precisely elections) was promoted to grant retroactive license to U.S.-driven policies of regime change in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian occupied territories. How, when, and at what pace democracy happened was, for the United States, to be determined by circumstances. In Iraq, it was brought forward to keep the Shi‘a religious hierarchy quiescent toward the occupation. In Lebanon, it was framed by the U.S.- and French-sponsored UN Resolution 1559 of October 2004, though made possible by the hurried withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. In the occupied territories, it became possible with the death of Yasir Arafat in November 2004 and the need to entrench popular legitimacy for his successor. But in all cases, the political aim of democracy was to consolidate the new American order in the Middle East, even if, in each case, there were sizeable domestic constituencies demanding democratic change.


So far, democracy has served to undermine the order, though not the demand. Wherever Arabs have been given a free vote, they have used the ballot box not simply to improve “governance” but to strengthen opposition to authoritarian and corrupt regimes (as in Egypt and the PA) and/or foreign occupations that control their lives, as in the PA, Lebanon, and even Iraq. Democracy here has not turned out to be a substitute for national liberation, but an essential tool. For better or for worse, the most credible handlers of the instrument today are the region’s Islamist movements.


Yet overwhelmingly, Palestinians were not voting for political Islam or even armed resistance. There were three reasons for Hamas’s success: Palestinian disillusionment that peace or meaningful political negotiations with Israel were anywhere on the horizon, despite a clear majority in favor of such a future; appreciation for Hamas’s civic role as service provider, especially during the harsh years of the intifada, and for its vanguard position in the armed Palestinian resistance, widely seen among Palestinians as the catalyst for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last summer; and, above all, revulsion from a decade of Fatah’s misrule of the PA, capped by its failure to bring law, order, economic recovery, and political progress after Israel’s Gaza disengagement.


“Hamas presented an alternative,” said Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad. “We said negotiations alone are not enough to achieve our rights. What is needed is a Palestinian-led strategy, with a genuine consensus over aims and a proper balance between political and military struggle. But we also said the priority was reform and change in the way we are governed. How can we promise Jerusalem and the right of return when we can’t deliver our people a loaf of bread?”


The question is how Hamas will cope with a triumph that exceeded its wildest predictions. Its initial stance was to shed some of the responsibility. It called for a national coalition government with all the Palestinian parties, primarily Fatah. Ostensibly this was to remain true to pre-election pledges. In fact, unity was necessary to help shield Hamas from the enormous pressures it knows will accrue from unalloyed triumph.


The “alternative” promised by Hamas, running as the party of “Change and Reform,” is clear, at least in aim. It seeks to restore the Arab-Israeli conflict to its “proper character,” away from the hegemony of Israel’s security needs and U.S. regional ambitions and back to the paradigm of an illegal occupation and an occupied people’s unqualified right to resist it, “including by armed resistance.” It also wants to “emphasize the Arab and Islamic character of the Palestinian issue, and act to enlist Arab and Islamic support for the Palestinian people in every sector,” according to one of the “basic principles” of the next Palestinian government.


It is the means to that end that are so difficult. For Hamas to be able to effect such change, it will have to recast its adversarial relationship with Fatah; navigate Israeli and international pressures upon it without appearing to abandon its core ideology; and reconnect the Palestinian cause to its Arab and Islamic hinterland in a way that sustains the struggle while at the same time providing cover for any political accommodation.




Fatah’s loss in the parliamentary elections was the worst political defeat of its 47-year history. It was also inevitable, even if few actually foresaw it. Fatah has been in a simmering crisis since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, and arguably since the establishment of the PA in 1994 when it was compelled to somehow preserve its mantle as a national liberation movement and be the ruling party of government, including what was widely interpreted as an obligation under the Oslo accords to quell all forms of armed resistance.


It failed on both counts. Hamas assumed the mantle of resistance to a peace process that was rapidly seen by most Palestinians as a new mode of colonial dispossession as Israel took more and more land and stepped up its expansion of settlements. Meanwhile Israel, backed by the United States, invoked the PA’s failure to deliver “security” as the reason for its refusal to proceed with its commitments under the accords, a stasis that became pronounced with the 1996 election of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led government. In Palestinian eyes, immobility in the peace process focused attention on Fatah’s monopoly of power in the PA and all the flaws associated with it: lack of accountability, corruption, lawlessness, authoritarianism, and—ultimately—lack of legitimacy.


The crisis of representation became acute with the intifada, the violent terminus of Fatah’s core policy of a negotiated peace with Israel. And with the death of Arafat—the last, and it seems only, unifying figure the movement had—Fatah was left teetering on the brink of disintegration, both as an organization and as a political project. Its only residual unity was the grip its cadres had on various parts of an increasingly fragmented National Authority. As Palestinian analyst George Giacaman remarked in early 2005, “Fatah today is less a coherent movement than an amalgam of groups tied to this or that power center.”


Mahmud Abbas’s preferred remedy was institutional change and democratic reform. From the outset of his presidency in January 2005, he vowed that he would proceed with the municipal elections authorized by Arafat and hold new parliamentary elections “within six months.” He also promised to convene the Fatah General Conference (FGC), the supreme body empowered to elect Fatah’s Central Committee (FCC) and Revolutionary Council (FRC), which formally execute the movement’s policy decisions.


In taking this step, Abbas put himself at the head of the “democratic stream” within Fatah. Broadly, this consisted of “insider” cadre, mostly born and bred in the occupied territories, who had come to leadership in the first (1987–1993) and second (2000–2005) intifadas, and who wanted to transform Fatah from an amorphous movement to a modern political party. But it also included some “outsiders”—or those who had returned with Arafat in 1994—who had advocated democratic change as the solution to the PLO’s political and organizational paralysis. For at least a decade, Fatah’s “democratic stream” had been demanding the FGC’s convention.


They had good reason. The last FGC had been held in 1989, when Arafat was at the zenith of his powers and used them to staff the FCC and FRC with cronies. In other words, the supreme policy making body of the largest faction of the PLO—and ruling faction of the PA—had not met despite the 1991 Gulf war, the Madrid peace conference of the same year, the 1993 Oslo accords, the 1994 establishment of the PA, the 2000 Camp David summit, and the al-Aqsa intifada. The result—which had suited Arafat perfectly—was a movement whose leadership was not accountable to its base. But it was also a movement whose policy bore no relation to its practice. As Taysir Nasrallah, a Fatah leader from Nablus, remarked: “Everyone knows Fatah is committed to a two-state solution and the recognition of Israel. Programmatically, however, the FGC says we are committed to armed struggle, people’s war, and the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea.”


In January 2005, Abbas agreed to convene the FGC. It is emblematic that he did so after consulting Marwan Barghouti, Fatah’s imprisoned West Bank general secretary and the most charismatic leader of the “new generation.” One reason for the pledge was Abbas’s desire to ensure a smooth succession to the PA presidency, which Barghouti had threatened to contest as an independent candidate in the absence of promises for a new FGC and parliamentary elections. But Abbas was also motivated by conviction. Like Barghouti and the majority of Fatah’s grassroots cadre—especially those outside the FCC and FRC—Abbas believed that new blood was necessary to replenish a movement grown sclerotic on the old.


Yet Abbas always faced obstruction to the “perestroika,” as it was derisively dubbed by the FCC and its allies on the FRC, who saw Abbas’s plans as evoking less Gorbachev’s policies of reform than their consequence—the collapse of the U.S.S.R. The obstructionists have been erroneously equated with the so-called “old guard,” or those cadres who had spent most of their political lives in exile; had come to leadership positions in Amman, Beirut, and Tunis; and are dogmatic in their adherence to Arafat’s top-down, “revolutionary” structures for Fatah. These cadres comprise an absolute majority in the FCC and a working majority in the larger FRC. But the old guard are not alone in resisting change. They have been joined, post-Oslo, by “insiders” with a vested interest in preserving the PA’s existing structure and who likewise feared Abbas’s reforms. These include Arafatist civilian leaders within Fatah, security chiefs, and PA functionaries, as well as numerous al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (AMB) militias in their pay. Certainly, there are—or were—AMB members who sought reform, but their ranks have been diminished by Israel’s assassination and arrest campaigns. Today, the AMBs cannot be characterized as a coherent body or even a semi-official militia. They are warlords, whose guns are far more often used to preserve their or their masters’ privileges than to resist the occupation.


Abbas exhibited an almost visceral reluctance to take on his opponents in Fatah, and still less to disarm their militias. His preferred road to change was through elections, both for the parliament and for the FGC. He figured—probably accurately—that in any straight electoral contest the opponents would lose out to his supporters, especially as his core policies of ceasefire, reform, and negotiations with Israel enjoyed majority support in Palestinian opinion. “Abu Mazin [Abbas’s nom de guerre] doesn’t want to destroy Fatah—he wants to destroy those parts of Fatah opposed to his policies,” said Palestinian analyst Mamdouh Nofal. Through local and parliamentary elections and the convening of the FGC, the aim was to forge a new “Abbasian” Fatah out of the debris of the old “Arafatist” one.


But Abbas’s road went nowhere. Despite a grudging mandate from the FRC in February 2005—prompted by Fatah’s dismal showing in local elections— the FCC tarried in organizing primaries for either the parliamentary elections or the FGC. Obstruction was strengthened by the 17 March Cairo Declaration, where Abbas extracted a year-long and unilateral “atmosphere of calm” (tahdi’a) fromHamas and the other Palestinian factions in return for assurances that parliamentary elections would be held in July.


Many in Fatah—and not just the FCC and FRG—believed that Abbas had conceded too much to Hamas in the agreement, granting the Islamists participation in the PA without demanding from them any reciprocal endorsement of the PLO’s “strategic choice” of a negotiated peace with Israel based on a Palestinian state in the 1967 occupied territories. This was seen as all the more serious in that the Cairo Declaration also committed Hamas to “begin discussions” for joining the PLO. Aware of Hamas’s rising electoral appeal, Fatah leaders could envisage the Islamists challenging their hegemony not only in the PA, but ultimately in the national movement as a whole. Their response was to stonewall, with Fatah deputies blocking the passage of a new election law in parliament (though eventually they passed it). The deputies were also alarmed by Abbas’s attempt to introduce an electoral system based on proportional representation, believing (wrongly, it turned out) that a district or partially district system would strengthen their chances of re-election. They were joined in the deliberate impasse by Egypt, which, with the Gaza disengagement and Israel’s ostracism of both Arafat and Abbas, had become the main broker in Israel-PA relations. 


“We advocate postponement of the elections,” said an Egyptian intelligence official in June 2005. “This will allow the PA to benefit from the achievement of the [Israeli] disengagement [from Gaza], manage an orderly disposal of the [settlement] assets, and put an end to the existing chaos. The public will then support the authority against Hamas.”


But the management was not orderly. On the contrary, AMBs and PA security personnel were often involved in the theft of the now public assets they had been authorized to guard, as well as in other acts of brigandage. Nor, postdisengagement, did the hoped for international aid arrive or was Israel’s rigid closure of Gaza alleviated, the two keys to any tangible sense of economic and

political recovery. Instead—with the world riveted on Ariel Sharon’s “political courage” in implementing the disengagement—Israel deepened its policies of separation in the West Bank, sealing off Jerusalem; encircling Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Nablus; and effectively annexing the Jordan Valley. With every brick in the walls that enclosed it, the Palestinian public swung further behind Hamas, with Islamist lists winning a string of municipal elections in December 2005, including Nablus and very nearly Ramallah.


Due to the parliament’s failure to pass a new election law in May, Abbas reluctantly agreed to postpone the July poll. But he made clear that he would brook no further delays, whatever the disrepair of his movement. Despite entreaties from the FCC and FRC, he threatened to resign if elections were not held on their new date in January 2006. One reason for this was to preserve what was left of his public credibility and political program. Another was the awareness that without elections, the one achievement of his leadership—the tahdi’a, which Hamas (unlike Fatah) had more or less adhered to—would go up in flames. On this issue Egypt agreed. So did the Americans, who, convinced that Fatah would still win the poll (albeit with a reduced majority), saw no reason for another delay.


Abbas’s only compromise to the FCC had been to agree to postpone the FGC until after the parliamentary elections because “we don’t want people to claim that Fatah is paralyzed by its internal problems and that these are paralyzing the political system,” according to FCC member Abbas Zaki. In return, the FCC in November agreed—or seemed to agree—to organize primaries for Fatah’s parliamentary list.


Held first in the West Bank, the primaries appeared to mark a triumph for the reformers, with Barghouti taking 90 percent of all votes in the Ramallah district. But while the West Bank vote seemed to herald the new generation, the Gaza primaries saw the revenge of the old. Prompted by the FCC and its allies in the PA—who feared that the West Bank success would be repeated in Gaza—polls were rigged and Fatah militias stormed polling stations. Confronted with evidence of massive fraud, Abbas suspended all primaries, including those already held. Rival militias attacked his presidential compound in Gaza, this time in protest at the suspension.


The Gaza rebellion wasn’t the only one. Outraged by the denial of his mandate, Barghouti—joined by former PA security chiefs Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajub—threatened to run an independent “Future” list against any official Fatah list in the parliamentary poll. Abbas understood what this meant: in effect Barghouti and his allies were threatening to form a new party, forcing him to choose between change and loyalty to the existing Fatah leadership. Abbas chose both. He persuaded “Future” to fuse its list with that appointed by the FCC. Barghouti would head the 66-seat national list, followed by FCC stalwarts Intisar al-Wazir (Um Jihad) and former foreign minister Nabil Shaath. It was also decided that members of the FCC, FRC, parliament members, ministers, and heads of security forces would have to contest the elections in the districts rather than the national list.


The compromise over the lists satisfied few and alienated many. “At the start of the primaries we were told that only those chosen in direct elections would get onto the list. In the end only those appointed by Abu Mazin and the FCC got on the list. We didn’t have primaries in Fatah—we had complete chaos,” said Nasrallah. ‘Abd al-Hakim Awad, president of Fatah’s shabiba youth movement in Gaza, was scathing. “The FCC deliberately wrecked the primaries in order to keep its hold on the organization,” he said. Predictably, those scorned exacted revenge.


One week before the elections in January, there were 120 “independent” Fatah candidates standing against 130 “official” Fatah candidates, with most of the independents running in protest at the way the official list was chosen The rebels were eventually whittled down by a few dozen, less from organizational discipline than by promises of cash, PA positions, and, in Gaza, land recently evacuated by the Israelis. But those who remained massively fragmented the Fatah vote, particularly in swing districts like Khan Yunis, mid-Gaza, Ramallah, Salfit, and East Jerusalem.


Post-election surveys showed the price of this disunity, a distortion magnified by an electoral system under which half the seats were won in district races and the other half—the national list—were allocated according to the list’s proportion of the national vote. Thus, Hamas won 29 seats (against Fatah’s 28) in the 66-seat national list with 44 percent of the vote. The non-Hamas vote (56 percent)was divided between Fatah and the four other PLO or “Third Way” lists. But while Hamas candidates won 45 (68 percent) of the 66 district seats in parliament, they did so with 36.5 of the vote. Sixty-three percent voted for non-Hamas candidates, the vast majority dispersed between Fatah’s official and independent candidates. In the end, Fatah won a mere 17 seats in the districts. On the basis of these figures it is difficult to refute Awad’s conclusion. “Hamas did not win the elections—Fatah lost them.”




Aside from one act of violence—where militiamen associated with a Fatah “independent” candidate shot dead a campaign worker employed by an official Fatah candidate in Nablus—the elections passed smoothly and were certified as “free, fair, and honest” by international as well as local monitors. The turnout was 77 percent, demonstrating again Palestinians’ hunger for democracy. But once the results were known, the mood among Palestinians went from satisfaction to apprehension: satisfaction because they had ousted a party that had failed in every arena, and apprehension about a future now shaped by an Islamist movement most had not voted for. Hamas caught the mood precisely. As one district after another went green, Hamas leaders were told to stay at home. Where there were victory parades, they were modest, peaceful, and disarmed. “The time now is not for celebrations—it’s time to get to work,” said Mushir al-Masri, a newly elected MP for northern Gaza.


Fatah’s response to the debacle was disbelief in the West Bank and violent rejection in Gaza. In Gaza City, activists and PA security personnel stormed the parliament building, trashed Hamas election placards and, briefly, laid siege to Abbas’s residence. The protests were widely seen as the handiwork of Dahlan, whose stronghold is Gaza. They had two political aims. 


The first, directed at Fatah, was that the movement should use the reprieve of a spell in opposition to “complete what we should have done before the elections. And that is to turn Fatah into a modern political party with a leadership trusted by and accountable to its members,” said Usama al-Farra, a Fatah official in Gaza. The loudest exponent of this view is Dahlan. He is also the most phobic to Fatah joining any national coalition government with Hamas. “I will not join a Hamas government even if Fatah does,”was his acerbic comment after the election. “The priority now is to rebuild Fatah.” His “reform” program has been aired more by his supporters than himself, but all are aware that it carries his imprimatur.


The reform program has three main elements. First, the FCC and FRC should collectively resign, “since when an army loses a war it is the generals who must be blamed.” Second, an “interim emergency leadership” should be established with the sole purpose of democratizing the movement “from the smallest cell to the largest region,” said Awad. Finally, the FGC should be convened so that a new leadership can be elected. “Fatah’s base will then be able to influence its leaders, whether in the parliament or on the FCC and FRC,” said Farra. Only then should the issue of participating in a Hamas-led government be addressed, he added.


But the Dahlan-inspired demonstrations in Gaza were not simply to denounce a failed leadership. Their second—unspoken—aim was to send a warning to Hamas not to tamper with Fatah’s hegemony over the PA, especially its security forces, most of whom are Fatah cadre (70 percent of whom voted for Fatah in the elections). “Hamas is a general without an army,” said Awad. “Hamas can establish a government, appoint ministers, but the PA has 70,000 men in the security services. These will not be subordinate to a Hamas interior minister.” Thus, Fatah’s tapparent reluctance to share power with Hamas in government runs parallel with a refusal to cede power within the PA, for the last 12 years the main source of its wealth, patronage, and



With regard to Abbas, at least, Dahlan’s intimidation worked. On 29 January 2005, Abbas met with his former civil affairs minister. He knew Dahlan’s supporters had been involved in the turmoil accompanying the Fatah primaries in Gaza. Many in Gaza also detected Dahlan’s hand behind a wave of militia violence, including the abduction of foreigners in the Strip just before the parliamentary elections, which had cost Abbas dearly in Palestinian and international opinion. While relations between the two men historically had been amicable, these events cooled them, with Dahlan said to be unhappy with Abbas’s leadership and Abbas viewing Dahlan as excessively ambitious. After the crisis meeting, and perhaps at least in part in an effort to defuse the incipient revolt threatened by Dahlan, Abbas decreed that the PA’s security forces, as well as its information and finance ministries, would be directly answerable to the president.


But the “bloodless coup” did not end there. Over the next three weeks Abbas issued presidential decrees creating the new position of general-secretary to head the PA’s personnel, salaries, and comptroller institutions—all crucial departments if Hamas is to bring “change and reform” to Palestinian governance. Under the decrees, the positions were to be appointed by and report directly to the president, essentially placing control of the hiring of PA staff in his hands; indeed, Fatah loyalists were immediately named to the new posts. Finally—in a move of dubious legality sanctioned by the outgoing, Fatah dominated parliament—Abbas was given the authority to appoint a new nine judge constitutional court with the power to resolve any dispute between the presidency and parliament, including the right “to cancel any law approved by parliament on the grounds that it is unconstitutional,” said a PA legal advisor.


What does Abbas want with such an Arafatian concentration of powers? He appears to be laying the groundwork to resurrect a presidential PA system the better to quarantine the Hamas-dominated parliamentary one. This would certainly square with current U.S., European, and Egyptian schemes, all of which want to strengthen Abbas and his presidency as a “counterweight” to Hamas. It may eventually be the eye through which the United States and the European Union (EU) can thread diplomatic relations with the PA, getting around their current laws banning contact with Hamas. It is of course supremely ironic—though wholly consistent with the U.S. vision of democracy in the Middle East—that, having coerced Arafat into adopting a prime ministerial system to diminish his powers, Washington now wants Abbas to recreate a presidential one to strengthen his.


But Abbas may also be seeking leverage less to exclude Hamas than to domesticate it into accepting his program. On 28 February, Abbas gave Hamas’s prime minister designate Ismail Haniyeh the letter of appointment to form the next Palestinian government. The letter lays out three “considerations” which Hamas should note in determining its government program: (1) It should accept all UN resolutions pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict; (2) it should accept all Arab League summit resolutions, including its 2002 peace plan; and (3) it should accept all agreements signed between Israel and the PLO since the Oslo accords. Fatah has said these are also the conditions for it joining a Hamas national coalition government.


Taken together, they implicitly mean acceptance of a two-state solution to the conflict, eventual recognition of Israel, and an end to armed resistance—all positions at odds with Hamas’s “Basic Positions for Government,” which, it insists, the Palestinian electorate had just endorsed. It remains to be seen whether negotiations between Abbas, Fatah, and Hamas can bridge these distant shores, or whether the Palestinian government is heading for a constitutional clash with its president and a political one with Fatah. 


Hamas protested Abbas’s post-election moves, noting (accurately) that information, finance, and three of the PA’s dozen or so security forces—the police, civil defense, and Preventive Security Force (PSF) intelligence agency—that Abbas had decreed would henceforth answer to him, constitutionally fall under the remit of the prime minister. Hamas was also lucid about the political implications of the new constitutional court whose members were to be appointed by Abbas: according to the movement’s new parliamentary speaker, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Dweik, the move would effectively give “full powers to President Abbas to dissolve parliament any time he wishes.” At the inaugural session of the new parliament on 8 March, Hamas deputies overturned the constitutional court as well as the appointments.


Haniyeh has also said there will be ministerial control over the civilian police, “to restore a sense of personal security to our people.” But he has waived for now the prime minister’s right to hire and fire commanders for the PSF. There is one very sound reason for this. The PSF is seen as Fatah’s, and in Gaza Dahlan’s, most organized base within the PA security forces and potentially the most lethal point of resistance to a Hamas-led government.


Dahlan is seen by Hamas as “the leading representative of the American stream within Fatah,” said Hamas MP Atif Udwan, a stigma he does not attach to Abbas. But “now is not the time for confrontation,” he added, not with Israel or Washington, even less with Fatah. In answer to what were clearly Fatah inspired revolts in Gaza, Haniyeh too was conciliatory. “These problems will be resolved through dialogue once we are in government. For now all I will say is that not a single police officer’s job will be lost or police salary cut,” he said.


For Palestinians, a violent polarization between Fatah as the hizb al-sulta (party of the authority) and Hamas as its newly elected government represents the worst future imaginable. The problem is that it is entirely imaginable. Fatah officials in Gaza speak openly of Hamas being unable to form a government or of the PA collapsing under the weight of Israeli and international sanctions, so that new elections will return them to their “old role” as the natural Palestinian party of government. Other Palestinians warn that Fatah’s financial dependency on the PA is now so entrenched that some cadre may be tempted to help engineer a coup or sow domestic disorder, either in concert with Israel and the U.S. or through stepped up violence against Israel. One commentator talks of the “Algerian model” and its allure, especially if it were to enjoy American sanction. At the very least, few expect Fatah to join a Hamas-led government. “Fatah will work to sink it,” is the common refrain.




Israel received Hamas’s victory with shock. Guided by Palestinian preelection projections, it was aware that Hamas would be a formidable opposition in the next parliament, perhaps receiving a ministry or two. But it never believed Hamas would be the party of government. Once reality sank in, however, Israel’s policy was clear. It was propounded by Ehud Olmert, acting prime minister for the comatose Ariel Sharon, before an Israel-European conference in Jerusalem on 6 February.


“There will be no recognition of a Palestinian government with the participation or under the control of Hamas,” he said, “unless three conditions are met: the Hamas charter is changed to recognize the state of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state; total dismantling of all weapons and a total cessation of terrorist activity; and acceptance of all agreements signed between the PA [sic] and the State of Israel.”


These conditions have been accepted by the United States and (much less resolutely) by the EU and UN, three of the members of the Quartet. The very public exception was Russia, the fourth. While agreeing to the conditions in principle, it said a total severance with a Hamas-led government on pain of their fulfillment would be “counterproductive.” To ram the difference home, President Putin invited a Hamas delegation to Moscow, the first non-Muslim state to do so. He was tacitly supported in the move by France. The Russian move had been preceded by an invitation from Turkey, which is not only a Muslim country, but also a member of NATO. It was followed by another from South Africa.


There were other cracks in the coalition against Hamas. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has affirmed that “the three conditions are not Israel’s but the Quartet’s,” but the Quartet has not entirely gone along with Israel’s policy of ostracism announced on 19 February, one day after the new Palestinian parliament was sworn in in Gaza and Ramallah. Declaring that the PA was becoming a “terrorist authority,” Olmert said Israel would henceforth freeze the transfer of about $50 million in monthly tax rebates it collects on the PA’s behalf, monies that legally belong to the Palestinians. It also would urge the world to end all financial assistance to the PA—and actively “prevent” any assistance to the PA security forces—“except for humanitarian aid given directly to the Palestinian population.” Finally, it would bar the movement of all Hamas officials, including MPs. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz soon made clear that these were only the opening salvos. Down the road—if Hamas continued to refuse the three conditions—Israel might bar the entry of all Gaza workers into Israel, terminate its economic customs union with the PA, and cut all water and electricity supplies. Mofaz also warned that, should Hamas be involved in violence, Israel would resume assassinations of its leaders, including Haniyeh.


The Quartet position with regard to sanctions, agreed to at its meeting in London on 30 January, was to continue to fund the PA until the next government was actually formed. Rice gave three reasons for the “transitional” policy: to stabilize Abbas’s presidency versus the future “Hamas-led government;” to prevent sanctions triggering Palestinian retaliation that could “bolster wrong elements” (code for Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-right Likud party) in the Israeli elections on 28 March; and to prevent “Iranian involvement” in the funding and politics of the PA. In the meantime, American policy would be one of “isolation and pressure” toward the next Palestinian government until and unless it adhered to the three conditions, said David Welch, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. In February, Rice went on a tour of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to lobby support for the U.S. line. She was refused by each country, and for one reason. They knew extortion would not work—and for the same reason it had not worked prior to the elections.


“Hamas has already said it recognizes the de facto reality of the Oslo accords and has indicated that it is prepared to extend the ceasefire with Israel. But it is not going to make political concessions on its program, not at least until Israel commits itself to ending the occupation,” says Ziad Abu Amr, a Hamas-backed “independent” MP.


Hamas has met the threat of sanctions with defiance. But the threat is genuine. The PA is teetering near bankruptcy, with a current deficit of $900 million, according to Abbas. In 2005, its $1.6 billion budget was sustained only by a $649 million subvention from the EU and $400 million from the United States, mostly dispersed through nongovernmental and international organizations. A small portion of the U.S. aid, however, was a direct grant to the PA to “give the Palestinians a sense that disengagement was worth it.” Once Hamas was elected, however, Washington demanded that this sum—$50 million—be returned. (The PA has so far managed to return $30 million, with the rest to follow.) The PA’s monthly payroll of $116 million to pay 135,000 public employees (with their 942,000 dependents) relies largely on the remittances from Israel as well as donations from Arab countries and loans from Palestinian banks (which, the day after Hamas’s victory, refused to lend). The termination of monies from all or one of these suppliers could tip the PA into freefall, with violence and institutional collapse filling the void.


There are some in the Israeli political and military establishment who would not be averse to this, believing the PA’s implosion would open the way to more “humanitarian,” less nationalist solutions. Israel Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, for example, believes one way to separate aid for the Palestinians from cash for the PA would be through the establishment of what is currently a vaguely defined “international body,” with the World Bank, reportedly, Israel’s preferred conduit.


Is the United States in line with this destabilization of a regime elected in one of the freest suffrages the Arab world has ever seen? According to a 14 February report published in the New York Times, some U.S. officials believe the most effective way of defeating Hamas is by covertly undermining the PA, perhaps in concert with “the American stream within Fatah.” But there are others who know that anything that smacks of a coup or sabotage would be read as a monumental failure of U.S. policy in the region, especially in its current “democratic” guise. Nor could the EU and UN be indifferent on this issue, any more than they were indifferent to the policy of regime change in Iraq. Whatever misgivings both may have about another Islamist government in the Middle East, both view the PA’s existence as the precondition for a return to political negotiations and the basis of a future Palestinian state. Their increasingly voiced fear is that even if the United States refrains from actively wrecking the new Palestinian regime, its policy of “isolation and pressure,” coupled with Israeli sanctions, will have the same effect.


There is also a sense that much of Israel’s current policy is electioneering, with Olmert eager to project ruthlessness equal to that of his predecessor. Should the PA survive the siege—with the world again stepping in to bail it out—the future following Israeli elections may be less confrontation than containment, or what some have called “coordinated unilateralism.” This is where Israel and the PA eschew “strategic issues” to do with political negotiations and mutual recognition in favor of “practical arrangements” to do with aid, services, and violence. It is a d´etente Hamas could live with. “We have to deal with the Israelis. We don’t have to negotiate with them,” said Masri.


It is possible that Olmert could live with d´etente as well. On 7 February he sketched the direction of any future Israeli government led by him. Nodding perfunctorily to the road map, he said Israel’s strategic goal was nonetheless to “separate” from the Palestinians while deepening its hold on Jerusalem, the main West Bank settlement blocs, and the Jordan Valley. He has also said that the final determination of Israel’s permanent borders will be completed by 2010 or within the term of the next Israeli government. There are some Israeli officials who believe that Hamas may be a better partner for this unilateralist project than a Fatah-led PA, since the Islamists also prefer a long-term hudna (ceasefire) to any permanent resolution of the conflict.


“Coordinated unilateralism” is a rehash of Sharon’s “long-term interim arrangement of non-belligerency,” the only port he believed the conflict could reach. It is also a continuation of Israel’s past and present policies toward Abbas, which paid lip service to the road map in theory but pursued unilateralist or non-negotiated actions in practice. But for the Palestinians, it is simply a longer road to perdition. Even if Hamas ignored annexation for governance, Islamic Jihad and cross-factional militias like the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees (many of whose cadres are disaffected and defected militants from Fatah and Hamas) would not. Resistance would again erupt, with high-trajectory missiles fired over West Bank walls and tunnels dug under Gaza ones being the likeliest modes. Regardless of whether Hamas was involved, sooner or later the outcome would be confrontation, reconquest, and collapse.


Hamas’s counterweight to “isolation and pressure” is to appeal to the “strategic depth” it enjoys in the Arab and Islamic world. It is not mere rhetoric. Hamas has sound relations with most of the Arab states and historical ties to Saudi Arabia, for many years its main sponsor. It also enjoys enormous kudos in the Muslim world, and never more so than now. Following the elections, Khalid Mishal, the head of Hamas’s political department, toured Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. He won promises of mediation with Israel from Ankara, of cash from Saudi Arabia, and a worldwide fund-raising campaign led by Hamas’s “mother” Muslim Brotherhood organization, which with affiliates in 86 countries is no small constituency. He also won a pledge from Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa that a motion mandating monthly contributions to the PA to compensate the Israeli “theft” would be put to the next Arab League summit. It remains to be seen whether it will be ratified or, given Rice’s absolute opposition, submitted.


This is because the Arab coalition is even less united than the Western one. While opposed to the Israeli-led policy of sanctions, Egypt has largely joined the Western chorus on the three terms for Hamas’s entry into legitimate governance. Jordan has been more circumspect but has less leverage due to the poisonous relations that exist between King Abdallah and the Hamas leadership, caused by his expulsion of Mishal and others from Amman in 1999. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states may continue to provide funds (Saudi is the largest Arab donor to the PA) but are unlikely to do anything that runs too much afoul U.S. policy in the region. Syria, Lebanon, and Hizballah have their own problems and their own priorities.


That leaves Iran, which, according to PA sources, currently funds Hamas to the tune of $10 million a month. In February, Mishal asked for more. He received a pledge of a “financial aid package” from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with some reports mentioning the sum of $250 million a year. This alone was enough to stump the Rice plan of preventing a greater “Iranian involvement” in the PA. But it is not clear whether Hamas will ask for anything else.


Too close an association with Tehran—especially under the radical presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—would strengthen a U.S.-led coalition against the Hamas government and fit Israel’s defamations like a mask. It would also strain Hamas’s relations with Egypt, the Gulf States, and the Muslim Brotherhood, all of which view Iran as more of a Shi‘a regime than an Islamist one. Nor would a close embrace go down well with the Palestinians, especially those who did not vote Hamas in the elections. Hamas leaders are aware of the bear hug. “I don’t think it’s good to let Iran have the upper hand in this area [of PA funding]. We don’t want to be a tool of anyone’s policy. It’s not good for Hamas. It’s not good for the region,” said Udwan.


The question is not whether Hamas can rally the Arabs and Muslims to finance the PA against the Israeli and American policies of sanction. It almost certainly cannot. The question is whether that world can be mobilized politically to break the American and Israeli consensus on Hamas and on a range of other regional issues.




The precondition for any accommodation is going to be flexibility on Hamas’s part. And since the elections, Hamas has been shoveling out flexibility in spades. In a series of meetings with Arab diplomats in Cairo in February, one or another Hamas leader averred the following: Hamas seeks a national coalition government with Fatah and the other Palestinian factions; Hamas would not be averse to forming a technocratic government, with none of the ministers having an explicit party affiliation; Hamas reaffirms the presidency of Abbas and his right to pursue negotiations with Israel should he so wish; Hamas seeks to join the PLO and be bound by its decisions; Hamas “does not see the U.S. as an enemy and is open to a U.S. role” in the conflict and the region; Hamas proposes a “united Palestinian army” so that all the Palestinian militias would come under the PA’s authority, in line with Abbas’s dictum of “one authority, one law, one gun”; and Hamas will adhere to existing PLO-Israeli agreements as long as these do not conflict “with fundamental Palestinian national principles.”


It has also dusted off its longstanding proposal for a long-term hudna in return for a phased Israeli withdrawal to the 1948 armistice lines. But until Israel commits to such a program, Hamas will not renounce its right to armed resistance to an illegal occupation or recognize the Jewish state. “Hamas believes that historical Palestine—that is, all of Palestine—belongs to the Palestinian people . . . and . . . that they have a legitimate right to this land,” said Hamas political department deputy head Musa Abu Marzuq in an interview with Dream 2 TV on 13 February. 


Few Palestinians believe Hamas could ever recognize Israel as a legitimate polity as opposed to a “political reality,” which it already accepts. But Abbas is not asking for recognition. He is asking for the license to negotiate a permanent settlement, says Rajub, who is one of Fatah’s interlocuters in talks with Hamas. Marzuk has made clear that Hamas is “dealing realistically with this phase—an independent Palestinian state with full sovereignty over the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.” But he also makes clear that this is “a temporary and phased solution. It is not a permanent solution . . . but . . . nobody in Hamas said negotiations [with Israel] is forbidden from a religious perspective. We have rejected negotiations on political grounds. It has nothing to do with religious law. It has to do with interests. We believe it is in the Palestinian people’s interests not to hold negotiations until we generate a real change in reality” (emphasis added).


To what extent can such a position be squared with Abbas’s condition of endorsing negotiations as the strategic and only means to resolve the conflict? Rajub says—consistent with Abbas’s letter of appointment to Hamas’s prime minister designate—that Fatah could join a national coalition government if Hamas (1) accepts a two-state agreement; (2) complies with previous agreements; and (3) endorses the Arab League initiative as an end to the conflict.


None of these conditions is insurmountable. “Hamas is not against a political agreement based on a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and in line with UN resolutions. The question we are posing is whether Israel is for such an agreement,” said Hamad. As for recognizing prior agreements, Mishal gave Hamas’s answer in his first public address after the elections. “The PA was founded on the basis of the Oslo accords. We recognize that this is a reality. And we will deal with it with the utmost realism, but without neglecting our fundamental principles. . . . In other words, we will honor our commitments, provided they serve our people and do not infringe on our rights, but we will not accept dictates. This, very clearly, is our position.”


It is endorsement of the Arab initiative that poses the most ideological dissonance. Passed at the Arab summit in Beirut in March 2002, the initiative commits the 22 members of the Arab League to a “full normalization” of relations with the Jewish state in return for Israel’s “full withdrawal” from the Arab territories occupied in the 1967 war and a “just” solution of the Palestinian refugees’ UN sanctioned right of return. Israel has rejected the initiative. Hamas kept silent but, coincidentally or otherwise, it met the initiative’s passing with its single worst atrocity of the five-year intifada, when a Hamas suicide bomber murdered 30 Israelis at a Passover meal in Netanya on 28 March 2002. It was the final act that triggered Israel’s April 2002 reinvasion of the West Bank.


This is what Mishal says about the Arab initiative today. “We do not oppose the Arab position. The recognition of Israel is perhaps possible in the future were Israel to recognize the [national] rights of the Palestinian people. When that happens, I am sure there will be Palestinian and Arab cooperation to deal positively with such a step. But it can only happen after Israel reaches this stage.”


In other words, Hamas could accept the Arab initiative—either through Abbas’s prerogative as PLO negotiator or indirectly through a Palestinian referendum—on condition that Israel takes practical measures to recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination by “ending the occupation that began in 1967,” in George Bush’s phrase. Until that moment comes, Hamas’s strategy has been outlined by its newly elected MP for Nablus, Shaykh Ahmad Haj Ali. It is domestic in thrust, consensual in aim, but international in reach.


“Our aim is governance, and one can only govern through the institutions of government. But in all cases our priority now is to address the internal Palestinian situation rather than the confrontation with Israel. We would negotiate with Israel, since that is the power that usurped our rights. If negotiations fail, we will call on the world to intervene. If this fails, we will go back to resistance. But if Israel were to agree with our internationally recognized rights—including the refugees’ right of return—we would seriously consider recognizing Israel in the interests of world peace. If it does not, we would seriously consider issuing a fatwa calling on all Muslims—and not just Palestinians—to wage a jihad against the usurper.”


Shaykh Ali is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council, the body that grants religious license to the movement’s policies. The council is an affiliate of the brotherhood’s 700-member international leadership. As such, it renders Hamas more susceptible to regional dynamics than the “independent” PLO, whether the dynamics are the Arab initiative canvassed by the Arab states or an anti-Israeli jihad canvassed by certain Islamist groups. It is also the body that can give doctrinal cover to any peace agreement with Israel. 


And cover rests with the definition of interests, say Islamist scholars. If it is in Muslims’ “interest” to make peace with Israel, it can be endorsed. If it isn’t, it won’t be. “It has nothing to do with religious law,” said Abu Marzuk. And given the current reality, scale, and future reach of Israel’s colonial ambitions, especially in Jerusalem, there are precious few Hamas leaders who today could convincingly argue that it is not in the Muslim interest to cut a peace deal predicated on Israel’s withdrawal from all the 1967 Palestinian territories. 


In other words, the current Israeli-U.S. “iron wall” being raised against a Hamas-led Palestinian government is not actually about its refusal to recognize Israel or alleged desire to “throw the Jews into the sea.” Hamas has already massively signaled that it is ready to accept a two-state solution and the end of conflict that would go with it. De facto it already has. The Israeli-U.S. assault is actually to break down Hamas’s so far steadfast refusal to renounce the right to resist an imbalanced political process that, in the best of circumstances, will fall short of satisfying Palestinians’ internationally sanctioned rights of a full Israeli withdrawal, self-determination, genuine sovereignty, and the right of return. 


The “choice” posed by the Palestinian elections is thus not Hamas’s alone: it is Israel’s and, more immediately, the United States’s. And it goes right to the contradiction at the heart of U.S. regional policy, with its missionary zeal for Arab democratic reform on the one side and its unconditional defense of Israeli colonialism on the other. Does Hamas’s victory confirm the Sharonian thesis that the only future for Israel is one that unilaterally walls itself off from the region, fomenting in perpetuity a conflict that remains nationalist in source but increasingly religious in expression? Or do the elections sear into the American and European consciousness that there can be no greater guarantor of Israel’s security than a peace agreement signed by a democratically elected Palestinian government that is also a constituent member of the regional Muslim Brotherhood on the basis of an initiative that has the support of every Arab state?


Everything about the American response to Hamas’s democratic resistance says that the latter will be the last road to be taken. Everything about the Palestinians’ choice—and the enormous political rupture that brought it about—says there is no other road.


Graham Usher, a journalist based for many years in the occupied territories, is the author of several books, including Dispatches from Palestine: The Rise and Fall of the Oslo Peace Process (Pluto Press, 1999). Though he continues to cover Israel/Palestine, he is now based in Pakistan.


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