—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
4 February 2006

Checkmate: the Hamas victory

Winston Churchill once described democracy as 'the worst form of government, except for all the others'. Following last Wednesday's crushing victory in the Palestinian occupied territories by Hamas, President Bush might have ruminated dolefully on this remark. An electoral process that was validated by no less than a former American President to be truly free and fair has just given a huge mandate to a militant Islamist movement. In short, 'democracy' - the very thing the Bush administration has been clamouring for years about bringing to the middle east - was very well served. But the result has given the ascendancy to the very faction defined as the enemy in Washington's 'war on terror': violent Islamic radicals. Bush had hoped to impale Islamic fundamentalism on the javelin of democracy: now he finds that the availabilty of the latter has led to the acendancy of the former. Suddenly, the world does not look so Manichean. It is a disaster for the US. And a body-blow to Bush's simple-minded Weltanschauung about 'freedom' and 'democracy'. The nightmare question now is: could the same happen in Iraq? Is the future of the world's third most oil-rich country safe to leave in the hands of its people?

For Israel, the outcome is also dire: so much so that the government literally did not know what to say. Ehud Olmert's cabinet immediately went into no-comment lockdown and called a hermetic meeting. The mandate from the Palestinian population they brutally oppressed for years has been given to Isarel's most implacable ideological opponents. Can the Israeli government really say that they are blameless? There are now barbarians at the gates, and Israel had a lot to do with putting them there.

In terms of brutal and uncompromising anatgonists, the events of January 2006 will almost represent a changing of the guard in the Levant. Sharon, the greatest hate-figure in the Palestinian world, is gone. Almost at the same time, Hamas, the Palestinian organisation most feared and detested in Israel have triumphed at the polls and risen to the apex of Palestinian political life. All this occurred right through US/Israeli attempts to have Hamas excluded from the elections entirely. How idle those threats now sound that the US and Israel would not negotiate with a government which includes Hamas: today they are faced with the stark fact that the government is Hamas. They can neither pretend that the election was fraudulent, nor can they ignore the mandate from the populace. It was easy to envisage an Israeli government secretly hoping that enough of Hamas would trickle into the Palestinian parliament to provide them with a rejectionist excuse any time they needed it. And of course there is nothing quite so useful to the continued process of the Judaisation of East Jerusalem and the settling of the West Bank than a Palestinian leadership that is divided and quarrelsome. None of that will happen now. Israel faces, perhaps for the first time since before the first Intifada, a Palestinian front united in opposition.

How would Sharon have taken this news? That the militant organization who gave him the most trouble during his premiership, whose leaders he blew up as a farewell gesture before pulling the Israeli settlers out of Gaza, have now arrived at the helm of Palestinian political life? It is a salutary lesson to the Israelis that they simply cannot hope to bomb a grassroots movement out of existence. Suddenly, Sharon's Gaza pullout is looking a lot less like great statesmanship, and a lot more like the retreat under fire (from Hezbollah, another Islamist party) that Ehud Barak carried out in south Lebanon in 2000. The historical revisionism is beginning already: now Sharon's withdrawal is seen as strengthening the hand of the militant Gazan organisation which did the most to drive Israel from the Gaza strip, and thus help to propel it to victory at the polls.

The clamouring about Hamas not recognising Israel is something of a red herring (how many times have you heard Israel recognise Palestine's 'right to exist'?). This clause in Hamas' political programme is not the proximate reason the Palestinians have placed them in power, and should not therefore be regarded as a populace-wide endorsement of the extirpation of Israel. It seems that the motives for voting Hamas were far more pragmatic than ideological. For some time, there has been considerable disenchantment with the corruption and cronyism of the PA under Arafat - to say nothing of its willingness to repeatedly sign away Palestinian political and national rights under protestation. And now that the Che Guevara of Palestine (once aptly described by Robert Fisk as 'revolution gone to seed'[1]) is no more, Palestinians have turned to those who are demonstrably looking out for their interests. As with Hezbollah, Hamas has a strong system of social support, extending through charities and educational programs, which has contributed to its popularity.

So what happens next? It's easy to be a no-compromise revolutionary when you're in opposition. Now that Hamas have arrived in power, they have responsibilities. Will they moderate? Much depends upon the United States and Israel. If both these parties decide not to deal with Hamas, it means that the Palestinian 'government' will be facing a dual rejectionist front, and will likely wind up continuing its bloody resistance struggle at the first provocation. There is at least one positive precedent, however: during the mooted March 2002 Saudi Peace Plan (which envisaged a comprehensive, pan-Arab recognition of Israel and full normalisation of relations in exchange for withdrawal from the occupied territories), the San Francisco Chronicle conducted a two-hour interview with Hamas spokesman Ismail Abu Shanab during which Shanab 'said the Hamas covenant calling for "every inch of Palestine" from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is "theoretical," and that Hamas must now be "practical."' [2] Please bear in mind that Hamas are the Palestinian equivalent of Ariel Sharon: they have a reputation as tough, no-compromise zealots. If we subscribe to the theory that only someone such as Sharon (whose Israel-first colours were so plainly pinned to the mast during a career of state brutality) could win enough trust to secure a real peace, then we might also want to entertain the same idea about his nemeses in the occupied territories.

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1 Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (Third Edition), Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 173
2 Robert Plotkin, 'Hamas would accept Saudi peace plan, spokesman says', 28 April 2002, San Francisco Chronicle