A New Political Landscape in Palestine

by SAMAR ASSAD

Palestinians overwhelmingly voted for the Islamic movement Hamas in yesterday’s 25 January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, giving it absolute power to form the next Palestinian government. The vote also served to marginalize Fateh, the historically dominate party in Palestinian politics.

Wednesday’s vote is seen as a "wake-up" call for the current Palestinian leadership, which has been unable to deliver on its promises to improve the lives of Palestinians at both domestic and international levels. Local expectations abound that Hamas will carry out a stalled reform agenda within the Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions, specifically within the judicial branch and on the issues of government mismanagement, corruption and performance.

However, when Hamas enters the fray of international politics, the difficulties and impediments will differ little from those that plagued Fateh and President Mahmoud Abbas, specifically in relation to political action from Israel and the United States. Notably, Israel’s unilateralism, dictates toward the Palestinian leadership and race to create facts on the ground before negotiations together led to Fateh’s downfall and continue to hinder the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.


The Power of the People

Preliminary results released today by the Palestinian Central Elections Committee (CEC) show that Hamas won 76 of the 132 seats in the legislature as compared to Fateh’s 43 seats (33 percent). This is a blow to the party, which formerly held 62 of the 88-seat legislature over the past ten years (70 percent). Four independent candidates have announced that they will join Hamas, raising the group’s control to 80 seats (61 percent).

According to the CEC, 77 percent of the 1.3 million registered voters cast their ballots in 1,100 polling stations throughout sixteen districts yesterday. Voter turnout reached 74 percent in the West Bank, 82 percent in the Gaza Strip and 46 percent in the suburbs of East Jerusalem. Some 13,000 Palestinian security personnel were assigned to polling stations, along with 47,000 election workers, international and local observers and party representatives. Final results are expected no later than Friday, January 27.

The CEC reports that Mustafa Barghouthi’s "Independent Palestine" slate won two seats in the legislative vote, as did Hanan Ashrawi’s "Third Way" slate and the "Alternative" slate, a coalition of leftist groups. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) won three seats.

Fateh has said it will not join a government led by Hamas and that it will hand over all cabinet positions. This leaves Hamas, which has no experience in running national institutions—especially those that function through cooperation with Israel—responsible for the governing of every aspect of Palestinian life.


How did we get here?

Israel and the United States have said that they will not deal with Hamas unless the group recognizes Israel’s right to exist, disarms its personnel, and renounces what they call "terrorism." Hamas does not seem to have any immediate plans to act on those demands. Hamas’ holdout gives Israel the international seal of approval it has sought for continuing its unilateral policies toward the Palestinians. Israeli officials have already said that Hamas’ new dominance of the Palestinian legislature means their government will accelerate construction of the separation Wall. This action, which is in direct contradiction to international law, will make permanent a de facto border that deprives Palestinians of their land, natural resources and the contiguity needed for a viable state and puts any international attempts to revive a peace process on hold.

Israel and the United States must consider what role they have played in Hamas’ victory. Israel has undermined Abbas’ power by disregarding its obligations under the Road Map and Sharm el-Sheikh understanding and by pursuing a policy of unilateralism, military might and territorial expansion. On its part, the United States allowed the weakening of Abbas and his government despite warnings that such action would push the Palestinian people to choose a different leadership.


What the Coming Steps Are

For Fateh, the defeat is a lesson that its mistakes can no longer be ignored out of loyalty or deference to its history of a decades-long struggle for Palestinian liberation. Fateh must reinvent itself, remove those persons or circumstances responsible for its corruption and rebuild the party by reexamining its membership, leadership and political strategy. Fateh officials have acknowledged that issues of corruption and internal party divisions over leadership were the primary causes of their declining support and ultimate defeat in yesterday’s tight race.

For Hamas, the road ahead is difficult. Now adding legislative representation to its resume of public services, the group needs to prove that it can effect change that Fateh could not if it is to be a sufficient alternative to the Fateh-led PA. To do so, it will need to balance its religious and political ideology and bring itself closer to the reality of the political situation in terms of its means of challenging occupation, improving Palestinian daily life and creating a viable Palestinian state.

Rising support for Hamas in the months leading up to the election shows that it has proven itself astute in its challenge to Fateh. The question remains whether it has grasped the need for political moderation at an international level. Its campaign platform projects a party that is somewhere in the political center and wants to attract international powers. Hamas will soon realize that there are realities that if it chooses to ignore, it will find itself equally unable to implement domestic campaign promises such as its economic development projects. The implementation of such projects will require negotiation with Israel on the issue of borders and the movement of Palestinian people and goods and funding from the international community.

One way or the other Hamas’ victory brings a new political reality in the region. The test for the international community is its dedication to democracy and the changes that it brings.

SAMAR ASSAD is Executive Director of the Palestine Center.

 

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