Although it is still unclear what the future holds for Israelis and Palestinians, a few things can be said about the processes that enabled Hamas to win a landslide victory in the January 25 democratic elections and how the organizationís triumph will likely affect the local political arena.
Founded in Gaza at the beginning of the first Intifada (December 1987) by Sheik Ahmad Yassin, Hamas is a direct extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although in the media Hamas tends to be identified with its military arm, Izzeddin al-Qassam, which is well known for its suicide attacks against Israeli targets, the organizationís popularity in the Occupied Territories actually stems from its being seen as the voice of Palestinian dignity and the symbol of the defense of Palestinian rights at a time of unprecedented hardship, humiliation, and despair.
People who voted for Hamas emphasize not only the heroic acts of its combatants, but also its reputation for clean conduct, modesty, and honesty, which have been pointedly contrasted with the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. Many of its followers do not subscribe to religious fundamentalism, but rather support the organization due to its pragmatic approach characterized by support for the short-term objective of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, while still maintaining the long-term goal of establishing an Islamic state that would replace Israel and offer a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
Most importantly, perhaps, Hamas acquired much of its political credit from its charity and social service networks. It built kindergartens and schools (that offer free meals for children), education centers for women, and youth and sports clubs. Its medical clinics provide subsidized treatment to the sick and the organization extends financial and technical assistance to those whose homes had been demolished as well as to refugees living in sub-standard conditions.
In other words, Hamas was elected not only because it is considered an alternative to the corrupt Palestinian Authority, but also because Israel created the conditions that made it an indispensable social movement.
Allow me to explain. According to the United Nations, the poverty rate, defined as those living off less than $2.20 a day, climbed to 64 percent in the Occupied Territories in 2005. Even this figure, however, is inaccurate considering that half of the 64 percent, or some 1.2 million Palestinians, live not on $2.20 a day but on $1.60 or less. Impoverishment of this proportion has produced new populations that need assistance just to sustain life, or as one member of an Islamic charity stated, the past few years ìhave engendered new types of need, which has increased the number of eligible beneficiaries and diversified the social groups requiring such assistance.î These new groups currently include landowners, shopkeepers, and those whose homes have been demolished by Israeli bulldozers; in other words, they are not just the traditional poor.
As Israel destroyed the infrastructure of existence in the territories, it also engendered an institutional vacuum by targeting the Palestinian Authority. Hamas took advantage of these dire developments and used them as an opportunity to promote its own agenda.
The organization adopted a policy of providing assistance on the basis of socio-economic need rather than religious or political criteria, so that families in economic distress did not need to be Hamas members or even practicing Muslims in order to qualify for aid. Rapidly its charitable institutions became the second largest food donor in the occupied Palestinian territories after the United Nations Relief and Work Agency. As the chairman of one Islamic charity pointed out already two years before the elections, ìThe expansion of poverty has vastly increased the pressure upon our organization, because we are receiving many more applications than before.î
In its report on Hamas, the International Crisis Group concludes that while it is impossible to measure the impact of Hamasís charitable work on its popularity, the organizationís positive image is significantly related to the efficiency of its social services, particularly when compared with the ineffectiveness of the Palestinian Authority.
Although this is surely the case, the Crisis Groupís conclusion substitutes the symptoms for the causes. The question is not whether Hamasís social welfare organizations have helped it garner popular support, but rather why Hamasís charity network has been so successful. Indeed, the claim that Hamasís popularity results from its social welfare network conceals the fact that Israel has produced a situation where there is desperate need for charity institutions. Accordingly, Israelís efforts to undermine the Palestinian Authority alongside its success in destroying the infrastructure of existence in the Occupied Territories has not only made Palestinian life miserable, but has empowered its most lethal adversary, the Hamas.
So what lies in store for those of us living in this neck of the world now that Hamas has won the elections?
Hamas is prepared to negotiate a settlement based on the concept of a hudnah (a temporary truce). As Azzam Tamimi, the director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought points out, Hamas as well as the majority of Palestinians consider Israel as having been built on land stolen from the Palestinian people. ìThe creation of the state was a solution to a European problem and the Palestinians are under no obligation to be the scapegoats for Europe’s failure to recognize the Jews as human beings entitled to inalienable rights. Hamas, like all Palestinians, refuses to be made to pay for the criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust. However, Israel is a reality and that is why Hamas is willing to deal with that reality in a manner that is compatible with its principles.î
These principles are important. Hamasís victory appears to introduce a new dimension into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the conflict first emerged as a national clash between two peoples fighting over one piece of land, as the years passed a Jewish messianic ideology which believes in the redemption of the biblical land of Israel gained ground. Thus, the Zionist camp brought a fundamentalist element to the national-territorial quarrel, inscribing a strong theological strain into the nationalist fervor.
Hamasís triumph can be seen as the introduction of the religious dimension into the Palestinian side, thus strengthening the fundamentalist characters of the conflict. In many respects, the national clash over territory is being transformed into a religious battle between Jews and Muslims. If Hamasís pragmatic strain does not prevail over its religious drive, then we are heading towards very bloody times simply because reaching some kind of political solution between the two parties will be much more difficult.
The introduction of a fundamentalist worldview will no doubt affect Palestinian society as well. Already number two on Hamasís list, Muhammad Abu Tir suggested that the Palestinian school system will be changed; girls and boys will no longer study together and a more Islamic curriculum will be introduced. Abu Tir added that the first act of the newly-elected Palestinian Legislative Council will be to introduce sharia (Muslim law) as the source for legislation. Statements like these do not bode well for the future.
How, one might ask, should the international community respond to Hamasís victory?
Israelís acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked foreign leaders to boycott the new Palestinian Authority if it does not comply with three conditions: 1) the disarmament of Izzeddin al-Qassam and other paramilitary groups; 2) the annulling of Hamasís charter which calls for the destruction of Israel; and 3) and the acceptance of the agreements and obligations that the Palestinian Authority took upon itself when the Fatah party was in control.
While Olmertís first two conditions could easily be part of future negotiations rather than a condition for negotiations, his third demand puts Israel in a thorny spot. After all, Israel, not the Palestinians, has been using the separation barrier in the past three years to execute a unilateral plan which contravenes all previous agreements. Thus, according to Olmertís logic, the international community would need to boycott Israel in order to remain consistent.
Although the Quartet — the US, UN, European Union, and Russia — decided against immediately adopting Olmertís demands, it did warn that if Hamas refuses to abandon violence, recognize Israel and embrace the diplomatic ìroad mapî to peace it would cut off foreign aid.
This threat needs to be taken seriously, since the data suggests that if world leaders decide to cut off economic aid to the Occupied Territories, humankind will witness a social catastrophe. As mentioned, today 64 percent of the population lives under the international poverty line of $2.20 a day, while the World Bank reports that acute malnutrition affects 9 percent of Palestinian children. Taking into account that financial aid amounts to almost one third of the per capita gross national income in the West Bank and Gaza, a decision to cut it off would be tantamount to an experiment in famine.
Does Olmert really want the population living under Israelís occupation to starve? Is the international community willing to take on such a responsibility?
Questions like these lead directly to the most crucial point, one that has been frequently elided by the recent discussion concerning Hamasís successful ascent to power. Despite the threatening character of Hamasís victory, Israel continues to be the stronger side in this conflict — it is the occupier and oppressor and not the victim. Israel is unwilling to withdraw to the 1967 borders or offer a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, as required by United Nations resolutions 194, 242 and 381. And, finally, Israel is the one that has been implementing unilateral moves that are in direct violation of the road map and any other solution based on dialogue and mutual understanding.
Hamas, as Azzam Tamimi suggests, underscores Israelís breach of the UN resolutions and is willing to embark on a peace process based on the fact that Israel give up its sole ownership over victimhood and recognize that the Palestinians are the victims and have been victims since the state of Israel was established. All of which raises serious questions regarding who, at this point in time, is undermining the possibility of reaching peace in the Middle East.
NEVE GORDON teaches human rights at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and is the editor of From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights. He Can be reached at email@example.com.