On Gaza’s Omar El-Mukhtar Street a Palestinian boy lobs rocks at an election banner posting Gaza City’s five victorious Hamas candidates. Down the road thousands of activists from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement storm Gaza’s parliamentary building, venting their rage at an institution and a leadership they hold responsible for an abject defeat. The violent implosion of Fatah is one consequence of Hamas’s triumph in the Palestinian Authority (PA) parliamentary elections on January 25. There are many others.
One week before the poll a Hamas leader told me “fifty-five seats for us would be an achievement.” Hamas won seventy-six seats (seventy-eight if Hamas-backed independents are included) against Fatah’s forty-three in the 132-member chamber, a rout compounded by the fact that seventy-four independent Fatah members stood against their movement’s official list. Hamas was united behind one list.
Three factors contributed to Hamas’s victory: Palestinian disillusionment that peace or a return to meaningful negotiations with Israel were anywhere on the horizon; appreciation for Hamas’s record of clean and selfless service providing as well as its role in the armed resistance, widely seen as the cause of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza this past summer; and, above all, profound antipathy generated by a decade of Fatah’s misrule of the PA, capped by the PA’s failure to bring political progress, economic recovery, law or order in the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal.
What does Hamas do with “an election win that is bigger than its capabilities?” asks Gaza-based Palestinian analyst Nasser Aliwar. Its first moves suggested a desire to shed at least some of the responsibility. Hamas leaders have called for a “national coalition” government consisting of “all Palestinian forces,” especially Fatah. But Fatah is opposed, violently so.
Fatah’s protests in Gaza are widely seen as the work of former PA security chief Muhammad Dahlan. They are not only a challenge to the Fatah leadership. Above all, they are a warning to Hamas not to tamper with Fatah’s control of the PA, especially its security personnel, most of whom voted for Fatah. “Hamas is a general without an army,” says Abdel Hakim Awad, president of Fatah’s Shabiba youth movement in Gaza. “Hamas can establish a government, with Hamas ministers, but the PA has 70,000 men in the security services. These will not be subordinate to a Hamas interior minister.” Abbas has tried to defuse this threat by reiterating that all PA security forces will remain under his control. But the specter of an armed power struggle between the newly elected PA government and the party that, in Dahlan’s phrase, is “the first and only movement of the Authority” is the worst thing imaginable for ordinary Palestinians.
It could happen. The PA is near bankruptcy and may not be able to pay salaries, including those of the security forces. Should the money run out, the conditions could be created for a Fatah-engineered coup. Is this a scenario Israel and its allies seek? There are reasons to fear it might be. Israel has said it will not transfer value-added tax and other custom duties to the PA, a vital source of revenue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said there will be no US aid to a Hamas government, though she has not ruled out humanitarian relief on a “case by case” basis. The current stance of the European Union–the biggest PA donor–is to continue to provide funding until Hamas forms a government, with the heavy implication that it would prefer technocratic and/or Fatah ministers to Islamist ones.
The purpose behind this economic pincer is to make Hamas submit to Israel’s terms for engagement. These are three, says acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: A Hamas-led PA must disarm its military wing and those of the other factions; amend its founding charter calling for the “obliteration” of Israel; and recognize all agreements between Israel and the PA. The idea that Hamas will agree to these conditions is “imaginary,” says Ziad Abu Amr, a Hamas-backed independent candidate who is widely tipped to become a minister in the new government. “Hamas has already said that it recognizes the de facto reality of the Oslo agreements and clarified that it is prepared to continue its cease-fire with Israel,” he said. “But it is not going to make political concessions, at least not until Israel commits itself to ending the occupation.”
The prospect of economic sanction, Fatah-inspired disorder and external political pressure is fraught with risk. One consequence could be the PA’s institutional collapse, with the vacuum filled by violence, both intra-Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian. Some in Israel’s political and military establishment would not be averse to the PA’s violent demise. But throughout the region and internationally, it could only be seen as a total failure of US policy, especially after the pressure Washington exerted on Israel and the PA to hold the elections. Nor would the EU be indifferent. Whatever misgivings it has about the new PA government, Brussels still sees the continued existence of the PA as the condition for a return to negotiations and the basis of a future Palestinian state.
A second outcome could be containment, or what some have termed “coordinated unilateralism,” in which Israel and Hamas would eschew “strategic” issues regarding diplomatic negotiations and recognition in favor of practical arrangements over aid, service and violence. Hamas would run the PA while Israel would unilaterally build its eastern borders, most of them deep in the heart of the occupied West Bank. But as a long-term solution this too is imaginary, and one suicide bomb could wreck it. “And I’d like to see Hamas arrest those who carried it out,” says Awad.
An alternative future is the least likely but is palpably there if one understands the true significance of the elections. Palestinians did not vote for political Islam or the destruction of Israel. A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows that while Fatah and the secular parties gained a minority of seats, they won the majority of the popular vote (55 percent). That survey reveals that 75 percent of Palestinians support reconciliation with Israel based on a genuine two-state solution, including 60 percent of those who voted for Hamas. What Palestinians voted against was not peace but PA maladministration and a political process that has consistently suborned their right of self-determination to Israel’s security and colonial ambitions in the occupied territories. “Hamas presented an alternative to Oslo,” says Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas candidate. “We said negotiations alone are not enough to achieve our rights. What is needed is a new Palestinian strategy, with a genuine national consensus over aims and a proper balance between political and military struggle.”
What if the West responded to Hamas’s victory not with sanctions but a commitment to resume negotiations from the point where they were left at the start of the intifada in 2000? The answer of one Hamas man would surprise many. “I think Hamas would have to respond positively,” says Atif Adwan, a newly elected Hamas member for northern Gaza. “We are aware that both peoples want a fair solution. But we would want to see real Israeli gestures to strengthen negotiations, like the release of prisoners, the lifting of checkpoints and the easing of our lives.”
One of the supreme ironies of the PA elections is that the Palestinians have never been more unified, or moderate, in their view of what constitutes a fair solution to the conflict. Nor could any peace agreement command greater legitimacy than one signed by a democratically elected Palestinian government that is also a constituent member of the regional Muslim Brotherhood. For such a peace Hamas would have to recognize an Israel confined to its 1967 borders. But Israel would also have to withdraw to those borders, including from Palestinian East Jerusalem.
Everything about the Israeli, the US and the EU response to the PA elections suggests that such an initiative is the last road that will be taken. Everything about Hamas’s victory–and the enormous Palestinian frustration that caused it to happen–suggests there is no longer any other road.