Our Life and Times by Kevin A. Barry and Mitch Weerth
Significance of the Hamas victory
Called a “tsunami” by many, the Hamas victory in the Jan. 25 Palestinian elections is a major turning point in Middle East politics. In a stunning upset, this well-organized Islamist party, often linked to suicide bombings, but also known for its network of social service organizations, defeated the nationalist Fatah movement, obtaining a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Fatah has dominated the Palestinian liberation movement since the 1960s.
Above all, the Hamas victory symbolizes the long-term shift in the Middle Eastern and Muslim world away from secular nationalism or socialism, and toward various forms of Islamism. Given the importance of the Palestinian cause to Arabs and Muslims everywhere, the defeat of secular nationalism by Islamists in Palestine is sure to strengthen Islamism elsewhere. Moreover the Hamas victory comes on the heels of the strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent Egyptian elections.
Even before the Hamas victory, the other Palestinian tendencies had made many concessions to Islamism. To take one example, there is by now only a single movie theater operating in the Palestinian territories. Therefore it will be very hard for Palestinians to see Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now,” the brilliant film about the Second Intifada and its contradictions.
The Hamas showed how years of Israeli repression and murder have backfired. Take for example Israeli President Ariel Sharon’s “brilliant” decision to assassinate the elderly and infirm Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmad Yassine with a missile in 2004, after which he boasted that Hamas was finished.
The Israeli government used the Hamas victory as a pretext to lay siege, March 15, to a Palestinian prison in Jericho on the West Bank and seize six prisoners charged with killing an Israeli cabinet minister in 2001. They said they feared the six would be freed.
The size of the victory in January seemed to stun even its leadership, who, like the rest of the world, had expected a Fatah victory with a strong Hamas showing. It later emerged that the large parliamentary majority masked a popular vote of only 44% for Hamas, largely because the fractured Fatah movement often ran multiple candidates in the same district.
Most international discussion since the election has turned on whether Hamas will moderate and negotiate with Israel. On the Right, the Bush administration and the Israeli political establishment say Hamas must be pressured into changing its rejectionist stance toward Israel and renouncing terrorism. Such tactics, including Israel’s illegal impounding of Palestinian tax money, will increase support for Hamas.
Progressives and pro-Palestinians claim that Hamas is ready to moderate and that, in any case, its victory was an expression of anti-corruption and democratic sentiment, as well as disgust with the failure of the Oslo framework to bring about a viable Palestinian state. According to this view, Hamas is more a radical nationalist party in Islamist garb than a deeply Islamist movement. This may turn out to be illusory.
To be sure, the Hamas electoral campaign concentrated on corruption, gangsterism, and authoritarianism inside the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, while downplaying its denial of Israel’s right to exist and its reactionary stances on culture and gender. Nonetheless if Palestinian voters were merely rejecting corruption, gangsterism, and authoritarianism, they had many other choices, such as the secular leftist party of Mustafa Barghouti.
While Hamas is not as fanatical as many other Islamist movements, its overall program includes many restrictions in the spheres of gender and culture. Progressive and secular Palestinians may resist such measures. It should be noted that in Qalqiliya on the West Bank, where Hamas has governed locally for a year, not a single Islamist won this time around. This stemmed from their banning of a popular cultural festival because it did not segregate men from women.
Published by News and Letters Committees