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What set the stage for Hamas' victory?

February 3, 2006 | Page 4

TOUFIC HADDAD, the co-editor of a forthcoming book on the Palestinian Intifada, explains what the Hamas election victory will mean for the struggle for Palestine.

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LESS THAN 24 hours after the sweeping Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, it is clear that the consequences of this event are likely to be so profound that they are capable of bringing about a political tsunami. The full impact remains to be seen, and many questions are unanswered--how will Hamas form a governing coalition, what does this mean for the "peace process," how will this affect the political relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, as well as the rest of the world?

But already, the ideology of the U.S. "war on terror"--and Israel's role of enthusiastic junior partner in this "war"--is shaping how the story gets told: the Hamas victory has resulted in the definitive "Islamization of the conflict."

From this point of view, Israel--and indirectly "all Western countries"--are engaged in a war for "elementary values of democracy and sacredness of life"--a war "against religious extremism and a war to preserve the values that "separate us from them." After all, who can reasonably expect negotiations with those who send suicide bombers and "call for Israel's destruction?"

Tragically, the dehumanizing effect of the racism directed at Islamist movements since September 11 across the world has been so successful that whole sections of the U.S. left have become prisoners of a similar logic.

It is therefore necessary to come to a clear understanding of what the Hamas victory means--both for the powers that be as well as for activists concerned with the fate of the Palestinian national movement and all other antiracist, anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movements.

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HAMAS WON a resounding victory, commanding 76 seats in the 132-person Legislative Council. Together with the support of four additional independent candidates who were backed by Hamas, Hamas garnered a total of 80 seats--60.6 percent of the high voter turnout (75 percent of the eligible voters) and almost double the 43 seats of Fatah.

What does this represent in the algebra of regional and world forces? No doubt the clearest message from the election results is that the Palestinian electorate resoundingly said "No more!" to the ruling Fatah party.

Fatah's extended 40-year hegemony over Palestinian national decision-making and financial resources, its undemocratic methods, poor political calculations and corruption created more enemies than friends within Palestinian society.

Ever since the beginning of the new Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, in 2000, and particularly after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, the glue that once kept Fatah together has dissolved, as the contradictions it oversaw bubbled to the surface.

Hamas was formed in the late 1980s within the vibrant theater of Palestinian politics that accompanied the beginning of first Intifada in 1987. It acted as the political wing of the traditionally nonpolitical Islamic Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza. Ironically, the Israeli state tolerated the rise of the Islamists because it thought they would be a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization, dominated by Arafat's Fatah.

Over time, Hamas was forced by circumstances to make changes that resulted in its growth into a dynamic and disciplined party. Its evolving political platform addressed all the concessions negotiated by Fatah during the 1993 Oslo "peace" accord with respect to Palestinian national rights--the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, and the unity of the Palestinian people.

Palestinian voters finally punished Fatah for its cynicism, corruption, doublespeak and defeatism--despite Fatah's advantages as the largest employer in the Occupied Territories, the only major Palestinian party not on the CIA's top 20 list of international terrorist groups, and the one Palestinian political entity with "international legitimacy" from Western governments.

But the Hamas victory wasn't just a rejection of Fatah. Nor was it about the often-cited social welfare network that Hamas oversees. These were factors in Hamas' success, but it is a simplification to assume that Palestinians are so desperate that they vote for whoever feeds them, and have no political aspirations.

The most important aspect of the Hamas victory is that it represents a rejection of the idea that Palestinians must be "partners" in a "peace" process that takes place on terms set by Israel and the U.S.

Throughout the twists and turns since Oslo, Palestinians were the ones who had to prove that they weren't terrorists--and "Israeli security" was accepted as a legitimate justification for the violence, repression, house demolitions and detentions carried out by Israeli forces.

Hamas has won support not only because it stands upon ground from which Fatah retreated, but also because it has articulated an alternative strategy to what it saw as the dead end of Oslo. Hamas preserved--and implemented at times--the Palestinian right to resist. In the eyes of its detractors in the U.S., Israel and the European Union, this was its gravest sin.

Although Hamas' resistance may have taken controversial forms, including suicide bombings, the organization was never unique among the Palestinian factions in employing these methods--and often proved itself more disciplined in using them.

Furthermore, in the course of the Intifada, it was not Hamas that began the hostilities--Ariel Sharon and Israel did that--nor was it the first Palestinian faction to initiate the Intifada's militarization, which was first carried out by Fatah.

This is the context for Hamas' network of social service organizations, which should be understood not as mere charity networks, but as instruments for political mobilization.

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BOTH THE U.S. and Israel would no doubt have preferred a Fatah victory.

U.S. and Israeli strategies since Oslo were built around the idea that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would act as Israel's security subcontractor, taking on the job of policing the Palestinian struggle. In exchange, Israel promised to reward Fatah with political and territorial concessions for becoming the movement's policeman--concessions that, of course, would never materialize.

After the 2000 Intifada broke out, the U.S. and Israel shifted tack, opting for unilateralism to get their way--for example, the construction of the checkpoint system, the mass separation wall and "disengagement" from Gaza.

A weak and politically impotent PA served this purpose. But the relentless abuse heaped on the PA by the U.S. and Israel wasn't intended to chase Fatah from power.

Although Israel and the U.S. have plenty of resources at their disposal to exploit the current situation, the Hamas victory is nevertheless a setback to the method used to run the show for the last 12 years.

Hamas' victory also flies in the face of the Bush administration's efforts to "bring democracy to the Middle East"--which never had anything to do with genuine democracy, and had everything to do with bringing to power moderate, pro-American regimes.

Instead, the opposite has taken place with Hamas' win. In Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and other notoriously repressive U.S.-backed regimes, the Hamas victory will serve as a model for social movements eager to push for representation that reflects their political demands.

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THE PALESTINIAN people voted resoundingly for a different future--despite the fact that these elections took place under a brutal occupation and that Israel made no serious concessions to facilitate them; despite the fact that Israel currently holds 9,000 prisoners, many of whom are pivotal national leaders in its jails; despite the fact that just months ago, Israel attempted to arrest the entire Hamas list of candidates and campaign organizers; despite the fact that millions of dollars were pumped directly and indirectly into Fatah's campaign by the U.S. and the EU in a last ditch effort to keep the "peace process" alive.

Hamas created a vehicle that expresses the desire among Palestinians for a departure from the dead end of the last decade.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that Hamas' victory also represents a failure of the Palestinian left and other secular forces, which have not organized an attractive or effective alternative to Islamic fundamentalism. With Hamas establishing a new center of gravity in Palestinian political life, all others groupings will be at pains to reorganize themselves if they are to one day seriously challenge Hamas.

For the moment, Hamas will likely be given time to prove itself. But the flood of new supporters that Hamas won at the ballot box will have raised expectations and a political diversity that the movement will find difficult to navigate.

Plus, the U.S. and Israel can be counted on to do anything and everything in their power to keep a Hamas-led PA, like the Fatah-led PA before it, from delivering any tangible gains. Israel has already announced that it is ruling out contact with a Hamas-led PA unless Hamas recognizes Israel, accepts the U.S.-backed "road map" and "renounces violence"--while simultaneously threatening violence against anyone deemed a Hamas militant.

Even more alarming was the pronouncement within hours of the election results by former Israeli Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, who said that the vote represented the creation of "Hamastan, Hizbullahstan and al-Qaedastan" in Gaza. The point of this statement is obvious--to justify in advance Israeli massacres of Palestinians on a scale not seen in the previous five years.

Hamas is certainly wary of this possibility, and will try not to provide Israel with any pretext to carry out such an offensive. Nonetheless, Israel will determine if and when to implement such an assault--though it's unlikely anything this bold would be undertaken prior to Israel's March elections.

A central task for Palestine solidarity activists is to challenge the racism and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims necessary for Israel to carry out this bloody scenario.

Likewise, we should defend the political principles at the heart of this election--that Palestinians have the right to self-determination, including the right elect political leaders of their choosing, and they have the right to resist the colonization of their land for the establishment of an exclusivist Jewish state.

And because Israel has long played the role of faithful watchdog for U.S. interests in the Middle East, opposing U.S. imperialism also means taking on U.S. support for Israel.

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