Hamas at the Helm


Christia, Fotini, and Sreemati Mitter. 2006. “Hamas at the Helm”. Copy at http://www.tinyurl.com/y45ffz79

Date Published:

Jan 1, 2006


Nablus, West Bank

THE crescent has risen. The militant Islamic group Hamas won an astonishing 76 of 132 seats in the Palestinian legislative elections this week. The United States and the European Union must finally recognize Hamas's ascendance as a fait accompli.

Until now, these key third parties have equivocated: they pressed Israel to allow Hamas to participate in the elections but threatened to cut aid and ties to a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority. The practical reality, however, is that Hamas is a pivotal player in Palestinian politics, and no peace process can succeed without at least the tacit acceptance of its leaders. Moreover, Hamas's participation in Palestinian politics is not necessarily a bad thing, and resisting it will very likely do more harm than good.

As a political party, Hamas revealed itself to be disciplined, pragmatic and surprisingly flexible. It fielded well-regarded candidates, including doctors and academics. In some cases, Hamas aligned itself with independents once affiliated with the secular Fatah party. And although the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the liberation of Palestine “from the river to the sea,” the party's campaign manifesto made no mention of these goals.

Instead, when asked about making peace with Israel, Hamas representatives offered nuanced, if evasive, answers. As Ziad Daiah, a Hamas representative in Ramallah, told us: “We are not interested in the Oslo-type peace process that went on for 10 years and wasted time. But if Israel will start new negotiations, with direct benefits for Palestinians in a useful time frame, we will accept that.”

Judging from the thousands of green posters plastered around the West Bank and Gaza, external matters like the peace process were not central to Hamas's electoral agenda. Rather, its campaign focused on popular concerns like fighting corruption, establishing good governance and restoring the rule of law. Hamas's victory speeches have emphasized the need to revamp public services.

To be sure, we should be careful not to read too much into Hamas's electioneering. The Hamas charter retains poisonous language toward Israel, and the group has yet to renounce its views on the place of violence in the Palestinian resistance. And Hamas's Islamist agenda continues to alarm many secular Palestinians, even those who welcome its entry into politics.

Still, Hamas statements indicate that these attitudes are not set in stone. As Mohammed Ghazel, a Hamas leader in Nablus, told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, “The charter is not the Koran.” And Hamas has done more than any other armed faction to honor the truce that President Mahmoud Abbas brokered in February. Although Israel continues to arrest its members, Hamas has done little to retaliate. Such restraint might have been an electoral strategy, but it still proves that if the incentives are right, Hamas can hold its fire.

In any case, the United States and Europe cannot trumpet democratic ideals abroad and then ignore the popular will of Palestinian voters, 78 percent of whom turned out for this election. Refusing to engage with Hamas, however skeptical one may be of its intentions, will only further legitimize the party; it could even give rise to violence. Moreover, cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority, which is already in a fiscal crisis and enormously dependent on foreign aid, could bankrupt it, further destabilizing the region.

Hamas has indisputably become the force to be reckoned with in Palestinian politics. Even Israel seems to have awakened to this reality. A radio reporter recently asked Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister, about negotiating with Hamas. “We are not fighting against a name,” he said. “We are fighting against a situation. If the situation changes, then what difference does a name make?”

If the Israelis are contemplating engagement, it's time the Americans and Europeans did, too.

Fotini Christia is a fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard. Sreemati Mitter works for the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy in Ramallah, West Bank.