Few events are as badly misunderstood as the 2006 election that brought a stunning victory for Hamas.
The factors that led to that electoral victory were:
- The perception that Fatah had failed utterly to make any significant gains for the Palestinian people
- The widespread corruption that was the norm for Fatah at that time
- The in-fighting in Fatah which caused not only disillusionment, but also led to more than one Fatah candidate in numerous districts, splitting the vote
- Only the smallest factor was a moderate rise in religious nationalism among Palestinians
Hamas enjoyed a certain temporary popularity, more as an alternative than anything else. Much of the current dilemma involving Hamas arises not from their electoral victory but from the coup that the US and Israel attempted to engineer, backing Fatah in Gaza, which was thwarted by Hamas’ pre-emptive strike and led to Hamas ejecting much of
Fatah completely from Gaza and taking unilateral control.
I bring this up because a friend asked me how Hamas might be undermined today. The answer is both pragmatic and involves no devious tricks or the use of force.
The first step is easing the Gaza siege so that the people can rebuild destroyed homes and business, and resuscitate their economy. Already, even Israel has conceded this can be done without compromising security measures. And that it can be done while largely bypassing Hamas.
From there, Fatah and Hamas must be pushed toward forming a unity government that would have only one purpose—facilitating new elections for the Palestinian Authority. Polls have consistently shown that Fatah would emerge the winner, while Hamas would be a significant minority party. The most recent poll shows that the gap between the two is widening as Salam Fayyad’s popularity is increasing significantly.
Israel really has no choice but to accept that Hamas is a part of the Palestinian body politic. The issue is not the conditions that Hamas accepts; it is what conditions the Palestinian government will accept. The current Israeli government includes such parties as Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit HaYehudi, Shas and the National Union coalition, all of whom have platforms which are just as offensive and frightening to Palestinians as Hamas’ is to Israelis. The issue is the stance of the government, not any party within it.
The one condition Hamas would have to accept is to renounce independent violence. That is, they would have to agree that it is the PA government that, like any other government, legally controls the means of violence.
But if Hamas would lose such elections, why would they accept them? Hamas is, in its natural state, a revolutionary opposition movement. They need popular support in some measure, and certainly at least popular tolerance. This is one of the key ways the siege has helped maintain Hamas’ power; as any populace does, when they perceive they are being forced to change governments by an outside power, they rally around even a hated leader. We saw similar dynamics in Serbia and Iraq in recent years.
If real pressure is applied on Hamas to consent to new elections, by the Arab League and its individual nations, Hamas will find it hard to resist. And if they do so, they will find growing resentment among the Palestinian people if they perceive it is Hamas alone that is refusing re-unification out of fear of losing a new round of elections.
The time to start on this process is now. The PA is at one of its highest points, with both Fatah and the independent Fayyad enjoying some successes. Fayyad’s state-building plan is due to reach fruition in a little over a year. If unified elections could be held around the same time, this could be a huge factor in rescuing the dying hope of a two-state solution.
There really are few options. The siege on Gaza has failed, and Hamas is a permanent part of the landscape. They must be recognized as part of the Palestinian people. But a legitimate way must be found for their policies not to lead the Palestinians. Today, that is something that can be done through straightforward democratic means. If the parties delay, however, who knows what tomorrow may bring?
Things change a lot faster in the Middle East than they do in the West. Too many moments have already been missed. Let’s hope that list is not lengthened.