Jan 30, 2006
The Palestinian parliamentary elections resulted in a landslide victory for Hamas, the main opposition to the ruling Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas. This outcome puts Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist party long identified with suicide bombings, in a position to form a new Palestinian government.
The mainstream U.S. media called the victory of Hamas “shocking” and a blow to the “peace process” in the Middle East. The Israeli government announced that it would not even talk with Hamas, because it is a “terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction.”
Certainly, Hamas has been responsible for terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings randomly targeting civilians. And it’s true that Hamas leaders speak about destroying Israel. But the same was true for Fatah, and the umbrella organization it belongs to, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). This certainly did not prevent the U.S. government from bringing the PLO and Israel together to sign the 1993 Oslo accord, which in turn led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority, led by the PLO.
So if the outcome of the election annoys Israel and its sponsor, the U.S., it’s not because Hamas has used terrorism. It’s because this election has failed to rubber-stamp the status quo in the Palestinian areas, as Israel and the U.S. wanted it to. In fact, before the election, Israel went to great lengths to help Fatah win – by preventing eligible voters from registering, restricting the movement of campaigning candidates and even arresting candidates belonging to Hamas and other opposition parties.
Palestinians did vote against the status quo anyway, and overwhelmingly. Fatah was able to win only 43 seats, about one-third of the 132 available. This is a strong protest vote against the ruling party – and not only because Fatah has become a symbol for official corruption, as the news media keeps repeating. The widespread corruption among Palestinian officials is only a symptom of a larger problem, that is, the horrendous conditions that Israel and the U.S., with the help of Fatah and the PLO, have imposed on the Palestinian population.
Just look at the Gaza Strip, from which Israel recently withdrew after nearly four decades of military occupation. This has been hailed in the media as a big step toward “peace,” but Gaza is still the same tiny, 140-square-mile area where 1.4 million Palestinians are trapped in perpetual poverty.
The Gaza Strip was initially set up as a collection of refugee camps after Jewish terrorist gangs carried out terrorist attacks and a full-scale war to take the Palestinians’ land from them and establish Israel. Gaza now houses the second, third and even fourth generation of refugees who lost their homes in what was then made into Israel. The area still lacks any kind of viable economy – there are simply no jobs there for the vast majority of the population. The Israeli army has sealed off the area, preventing the population from traveling to Israel or the other Palestinian area, the West Bank. In effect, the Gaza Strip is nothing but a huge prison camp for Palestinians.
The conditions in the West Bank are only slightly better. Israel has built walls and fences to cut the West Bank into pieces. The Israeli military has permanently blocked roads between – as well as within – the two Palestinian areas, preventing Palestinians from going to work or visiting their friends and family members.
This is the “peace process” that the results of the Palestinian election are supposed to have “endangered”!
Yes, endangered they are, that mockery of a “peace process” and the status quo. But not because Hamas, a party that uses violent tactics and a militant language, has won an election. What threatens the status quo, and thus worries the U.S. and Israel, is the anger of the Palestinian population that has carried Hamas to power.
That anger has already done things much more significant than handing election defeats to corrupt politicians. That anger has exploded into two broad, long-lasting uprisings in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, known as the First and Second Intifadas in 1987 and 2000.
It was because Israel was not able to contain the First Intifada that it agreed in 1993 to bring its arch enemy, the PLO, into the Palestinian areas to help calm down the anger of the population. But it didn’t take long for the one-time symbols of the Palestinian struggle, the PLO and its leading faction, Fatah, to discredit themselves by turning into corrupt cops doing Israel’s dirty work – hence the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000.
Everything indicates that Hamas is now ready to step into Fatah’s role. In any event, the leaders of Hamas haven’t wasted any time in making conciliatory gestures toward the U.S. and Israel. Hamas won a clear majority with 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Assembly, which allows it to form a government on its own. But as soon as the election results became known, Hamas proposed to form a joint government with Fatah, which Fatah rejected – for the time being. Hamas also proposed to merge all Palestinian militias into a Palestinian army. In other words, Hamas leaders are ready to share the task of policing the Palestinian people with Fatah.
This should come as no surprise. At times when the population is in a state of rebellion, politicians may use a militant language to ride the tide and come to power. That’s what Hamas leaders have done. But all along, their political choices, like those of the PLO and Fatah before them, show that they never intended to let the population independently organize itself, make its own choices and carry its struggle as far as people are ready to go.
One indication of this is Hamas’ religious fundamentalist ideology, which automatically excludes women, that is half of the population, plus anyone else who doesn’t subscribe to Islam, from playing any role. Another is Hamas’ use of terrorism, especially suicide bombings – that is, the notion that a select few, “worthy of martyrdom,” should carry out the fight in the name of the population, instead of the population collectively organizing and controlling its fight. Finally, Hamas’ choice of civilian targets for these “operations” shows what to expect from Hamas when it is in power. A political party that is ready to randomly attack and kill Israeli civilians, Jewish or Arab, is also likely to have no qualms about attacking Palestinian people who disagree with its rule.
This capacity of Hamas also explains the conciliatory tone of the U.S. toward the group that supposedly is way up its list of “terrorist organizations.” Both President Bush and Secretary of State Rice called on Hamas to renounce violence now that it has won the election – a hint that they would probably allow Hamas to form the new government, without officially recognizing it.
The U.S. will probably keep the pressure up on Hamas by refusing to talk to Hamas directly and cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority for a while. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. would not work with Hamas leaders unofficially, to see if they can control the population effectively. Nor does it mean that the U.S. couldn’t eventually reward Hamas with official recognition and direct support, as it did with the PLO before. This process can take many years – in fact, the transformation of the PLO from “terrorist” to “partner in the peace process” took several decades.
Perhaps Hamas’ electoral victory will calm down the anger of the Palestinian people for a while, but for how long? The U.S., Israel and their Palestinian partners, be it the PLO, Fatah or Hamas, are interested only in keeping the status quo – a status quo that has rendered the Palestinian areas unliveable, a status quo that has borne and fueled the Intifada, a status quo that leaves the Palestinian people no other choice but to continue to fight for a humane existence.
That fight, which has lasted for more than half a century, has proved, generation after generation, the resilience and determination of the Palestinian people. But working-class and poor Palestinians still have not been able to break the vicious cycle of oppression imposed on them. For that to happen, Palestinians will have to break the grip of the political parties that have come to lead their struggle – parties that represent the interests of a small, elite layer of the Palestinian population, not the interests of the workers and poor.
History shows that the Palestinian population is capable of doing that: it was neither the PLO nor Hamas that started and organized the Intifada – the population did it, especially the youth, the working class and the poor. The Palestinian workers and poor have kept the Intifada alive for nearly two decades. To win their freedom, they also have to take control of it.