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.