Friday, May 20, 2005
The electoral rise of Hamas: a challenge for Fatah and Israel
commentary by RN Middle East editor Bertus Hendriks, 11 May 2005
The Hamas movement scored well in last Thursday's Palestinian municipal elections, a surprising and worrying development not only for the governing Fatah party. Israel's Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom has said his country should not pull out of the Gaza Strip if Hamas wins the coming parliamentary elections in July.
The results of the elections follow a trend which was already seen in the preceding municipal elections held in December 2004 and in January this year. Hamas, it would appear, can count on the support of roughly one third of the Palestinian electorate, making it a key player in the field of Palestinian politics. On this basis, It can look forward with confidence to the parliamentary elections on 17 July.
Meanwhile, the necessary degree of panic reigns within the ranks of Fatah. Its reputation has been severely tarnished by the corruption that is rife within the Palestinian Authority and the slow progress of the reforms promised by President Mahmoud Abbas, who has not yet been able to end the lawlessness of the rival Fatah militias. Hamas, on the other hand, has gained a reputation for being an honest and hardworking movement, whose many charitable institutions actually make life easier for people in need.
Many of Fatah's current parliamentary representatives therefore fear the possibility of losing their seat and have been calling for the elections to be postponed or for changes to the electoral law. In this way, they hope to stall the onward march of Hamas, or at least limit the electoral gains it seems likely to make. There is, however, one crucial problem inasmuch as Mr Abbas made a deal on this issue with Hamas in exchange for the movement's backing for a ceasefire with Israel. And that ceasefire is essential to his ability to get the peace process moving once again.
So, as things stand now, the July elections are to go ahead as planned and will probably see Hamas make a dramatic entrance in parliament. If that does occur, it will take some getting used to, not only for Fatah but also for Hamas itself. After all, you can't participate in the political process and, at the same time, continue an armed fight as if you have nothing to do with that same political process.
In such an event, it will be Israel that faces the biggest challenge. Israel has - with the backing of the US - continually demanded that democratic reforms be carried out before it talks to the Palestinians. True democracy, however, cannot be stage-managed, nor does it produce made-to-measure negotiating partners.
Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom has now called on the Palestinian Authority to prevent Hamas from taking part in the elections, and has been accused by the Palestinians of flagrant intervention in their domestic affairs. They also say his threat not to withdraw from Gaza in the event of a Hamas victory is an excuse, for he has been opposed to the plan from the very beginning. Meanwhile, Israel's Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon say the Gaza withdrawal will go ahead, come what may.
However, a Hamas election victory could pose another problem. If it does manage to gain the backing of a third of the electorate and take part in the political process, it will no longer be possible to make the movement out to be nothing more than a terrorist organisation which should be disbanded before it is possible to talk about peace, as Mr Sharon has always maintained.
In the event of a Hamas victory, Mr Sharon will probably announce once again - just as he did when Yasser Arafat was still alive - that he does not have a negotiating partner. Then he will press ahead with the unilateral creation of faits accomplis, such as expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, until there's nothing left to negotiate.
Ironically enough, that would mean the end of the two-state solution which Hamas, too, has always vehemently opposed.
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