Officially, the world has been taken by surprise by Hamas’s overwhelming victory in Palestine’s parliamentary elections on January 25. Yes, there had been fears that Hamas would seriously dent Fatah’s long-established dominance of Palestinian politics, and might have to be accommodated in the Fatah-dominated political institutions, perhaps even to the extent of being given a ministry or two, but that was only to be expected, given the problems that Fatah has had in recent months. Nonetheless, the understanding of Palestinian politics that was promoted by Western establishments and the world media was that the Palestinian people remain committed to the peace process, recognise that Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader whom they elected to succeed Yasser Arafat, is the only man who can deliver peace, and would therefore continue to vote for his party. Hamas, on the other hand, is a extremist Islamist terrorist group, feared by most Palestinians for its hardline interpretation of Islam, supported only by a small minority because of its hardline attitude to Israel, and doing disproportionately well in the polls only because of the chaos within Fatah.
The actual results of the polls, however, were based on not what Western observers might wish the situation in Palestine to be, but on what Palestinans really believe. This is why Hamas, running on a ticket of Change and Reform, won 46 of the 66 constituencies and 30 of the 66 seats determined by party lists using proportional representation, a system designed to maximise the opportunities for minor parties. Among the constituencies, Hamas won all nine seats in the al-Khalil (Hebron) constituency, four of the six Jerusalem seats (despite Israeli attempts to prevent its participation there), four of the five seats from Ramallah, five of the six from Nablus, and 16 of the 24 seats from the five Ghazzah constituencies. Fatah, in contrast, won just 16 constituency seats and 27 of the party list seats, giving it 43 in total, compared to Hamas’s 76. Of Fatah’s 16 constituency seats, five (in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah/Al-Bireh) were reserved for Christians. The remaining 13 seats went to independent candidates or smaller parties, several of them supported by Hamas. This happened despite efforts to hamper the Hamas electoral effort by both the Palestinian authorities and the Israelis, to the extent of postponing the polls once (they were originally due to be held last July), and threatening to postpone them again.
As this article is written, it remains to be seen how Hamas’s electoral dominance will be reflected in terms of institutional power. Hamas leaders have been magnanimous in victory, talking about being willing to accommodate Fatah in government, although they will clearly seek to be in charge. Fatah leaders have, as ever, given mixed signals, with some refusing to work with Hamas and others saying that they will only deal with Hamas as equal partners in power. Mahmoud Abbas, the president whose role it is to oversee the appointment of a new government in line with the electoral results, has said that he will only appoint a government that will accept his programme of peace talks with Israel. Hamas has said that it is willing to deal withIsrael (an unavoidable reality, as Israeli military occupation remains the dominant factor in Palestinian affairs), but only about immediate, practical issues, not about a long-term settlement. Israel and its Western allies are trying to subvert the Palestinian election result by threatening to break off dealings with a Hamas administration, or withdraw the financial aid that the Palestinian Authority receives from the West as reward for cooperating with Israel’s plans for the region.
Hamas’s electoral success is indeed largely a recognition of its honesty and effectiveness in local government and its administration and provision of community services, especially compared to Fatah’s notoriously corrupt and inefficient administration. However, it is also an endorsement of its firm and principled stance against the zionist occupation over the last decade and a half. From the beginning of the Oslo peace process after the first intifada, Hamas has argued that the Israelis cannot be trusted to keep their word on any peace agreement, and are only seeking to maintain and strengthen their control over the Palestinians by political means. However, they gave the Palestinian Authority time to work the process, and refused to be drawn into internecine fighting, as the Israelis and the West wanted. During the second intifada, Hamas led the Palestinians in their return to resistance and established an enviable record for commitment and sacrifice, symbolised by Shaikh Ahmed Yassin shaheed. Now they have been given an entirely new set of responsibilities by the Palestinian people, who accept that Hamas’s approach of dealing firmly with the Israelis from a position of principle is more effective than Fatah’s record of working with them.
This brings with it a whole new set of challenges for Hamas. The danger is that its move into national politics will force Hamas away from the strengths for which the Palestinians have elected it, particularly its firm adherence to Islamic principles in its dealings with Israel. The pressures on it from all sides will be immense. The West has already made its position clear, by threatening to punish the Palestinian people for exercising the democratic rights that the West claims to uphold and champion. Ideally, Muslim countries would step in to offer the hundreds of millions of dollars that the West is threatening to withhold; the reality is that most Muslim governments, themselves beholden to the West for their survival, will help to exert the pressure on Hamas.
If any group has the record and reputation needed to achieve this enormous task, it is Hamas. At the same time, if Hamas fails to meet these challenges, and instead finds itself damaged and weakened by the stresses of political power in the almost impossibly difficult situation in Palestine, the Palestinian cause may be weakened far more than it has been by the decline of Fatah and the death of Arafat.
Such are the burdens of leadership facing the Islamic movement in Palestine at this crucial juncture in the history of the Palestinian struggle.