Monday, April 25, 2005

Hamas — political revolution

April 25, 2005
Hamas and elections: A sweeping political revolution in the making

pv vivekanand

Hamas, which boycotted the last elections to the Palestinian legislative council, has announced it will field candidates in the next polls and will stake a claim to power based on the results. The group, which describes itself as a wing of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood -- "a universal organisation which constitutes the largest Islamic movement in modern times" -- is confident of winning between one-third and half of the seats in the council.

Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, once the strongest and most influential among the Palestinian factions that make up the PLO, won presidential elections in February without serious challenge only because Hamas stayed away from the elections. Fatah could not hope for a repetition on the victory in the council elections.

Apart from being the best organised group in Palestinian politics with a strong foundation of committed activists, Hamas could also count on the votes of Palestinians frustrated over the chaos and in-fighting in Fatah and administrative and financial corruption in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

Most Palestinians want Abbas to lead the political process, but they also want clean governance, an end to corruption, and personal security, and they see that only Hamas could offer them these.

Recent opinion polls have put popular support for Fatah at 36 per cent, down from 40 per cent in December, and backing for Hamas has increased from 18 per cent to 25 per cent, with 33 per cent in its Gaza stronghold.

Elections to city and local councils in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent months have produced impressive success for Hamas and other Islamist groups.

The rising popularity for Hamas is coupled with doubts about the PNA's ability to make good on its promises to improve conditions and produce achievements in the talks with Israel.

One of the key difference between Fatah and Hamas is simple: Fatah represents Palestinian nationalism and is secular, whereas Hamas draws its strength from Islam and wants to set up a state based on Islamic teachings and laws. Fatah is willing to negotiate peace with Israel on the basis of the 1967 lines held by the Jewish state, whereas Hamas wants the 1948 lines -- meaning an end to the existence of Israel -- although that stance is seen more tactical than substantial.

The Palestinians elected their first legislative assembly in 1996; the late Yasser Arafat postponed elections that had been set for 2000.

Hamas boycotted the earlier elections, saying they were part of the process launched by the 1993 Oslo accords, which it vehemently opposed because they recognise Israel.

At present the council has 88 seats. Fatah accounts for 49 of them, with affiliated groups having 15; the others include 20 independents and four Islamist affiliates.

Under Abbas-proposed amendments to the election law, the number of seats will be raised to 132, but it is not clear whether the dominant Fatah members would approve it since many of them see Abbas as easily succumbing to Hamas demands. They are also aware that approval of the law means the starting of the electoral clock for chiming in three months from that date.

They see Abbas' insistence that the polls be held as scheduled on July 17 as playing into the hands of Hamas because of the expectation that the Islamists will emerge as a dominant power in the elections if held in July. The Fatah dissidents want the polls to be postponed until September and they hope to use the intervening period to rally its forces and strengthen their prospects in the polls.

In public statements, Hamas leaders maintain hard-line rhetoric that they would never recognise the state of Israel and are committed to regaining pre-1948 Palestine. Some of them say that all Jews who migrated to Israel should return to where they came from and the Jewish state should cease to exist in historic Palestine.

The group says: "The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: It, or any part of it, should not be given up.

"Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organisation nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that. Palestine is an Islamic waqf land consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgment Day. This being so, who can presume to speak for all Islamic generations to the Day of Resurrection?"

However, Hamas is a realistic and pragmatic group and its leaders are aware that they would have to make compromises and they would do so if and when they feel the time is right, but they would not give up the struggle for the whole of Palestine. After all that is the group's raison d'être.

Hamas's senior leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Al Zahar, has called Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza as a victory for his group's armed resistance.

"Very simply, nobody can deny that if Israel is going to leave the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, that was because of the intifada, because of the armed struggle, because of the big sacrifices of Hamas for this goal," he said in a recent interview.

"It was not because of negotiations, or the goodwill of Israel, or the Americans or Europeans."

Zahar refused to commit Hamas to peace in Gaza once Israel withdraws its 9,000 settlers.

"It depends on what Israel does," he said. "Now Israel is talking about reorganisation. We do not accept reorganisation. We are looking for withdrawal, real withdrawal, and not to violate our sovereignty."

Indeed, Hamas leaders are also tactical politicians who are projecting the group both as an active armed resistance movement and as a party that seeks to influence the Palestinian political agenda. They remind everyone that Hamas could call off the current unofficial truce if Israel does not keep up its obligations but that they are maintaining the ceasefire anyway because they know that the people want that for now.

Hamas' pragmatism is also evident in Zahar's pronouncement that the group wants to join the PLO in order "to consolidate the resistance option in its capacity as the strategic option towards the liberation of Palestine."

According to the Central Elections Commission, a minimum of three months are needed between the time the election law is approved and elections. The three-month leeway expired on Sunday with no movement and Palestinian MPs are meeting this week on the issue.

Throwing a spanner in the works is an uncertainty whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would delay the planned Israeli evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip from July 20 to mid-August.

While the officially cited reason is a sensitivity to the date falling during a traditional three-week mourning period for what Israelis consider the destruction of ancient Jewish temples.

However, the actual reason, according to some accounts, is the shortcomings and delays in the logistics of the evacuation of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank.

On Wednesday, the Israeli army started moving out equipment of Gaza, signalling preparations for the pullout.

The July 20 date for the beginning of the evacuation was cited by Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath for the possible delay in the elections.

"The question really has to do with the Israeli pullout of Gaza during that time, and our fear that the Israelis might make it difficult for people to do real election campaigns and have real freedom of movement," he said early this week.

"This is really the only consideration," he said. "And this consideration will be discussed with Hamas and with everybody."

Caught in the crossfire between Fatah and Hamas is Abbas himself, who is being sarcastically described as a Hamas ally because of his insistence that the polls be held on time.

Abbas has drawn criticism for bowing to Hamas demands on many fronts since he took over as president following the death of Yasser Arafat. His strategy is delicately balanced between the need to keep armed resistance in check while remaining firm on his reform programme in the PNA.

His insistence on the July 17 date for elections and on amending the election law is seen as yet another concession to Hamas. For, it is taken for granted by many that Hamas would emerge as the winners if elections are held next month, and the suggested change to the election law is also deemed as benefiting Hamas.

Abbas is suggesting that the law, which was given preliminary approval on Wednesday by Palestinians legislators, should be amended to the effect that all members of the 132-seat assembly should be from national lists rather than the present arrangement of 88 from constituency lists -- meaning districtwise individuals -- and 44 from national lists.

Hamas, which is stronger in the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank, are more likely to benefit from fielding national list candidates than Fatah, and this only adds to the fears of the Fatah leaders.

If Abbas insists on changes in the election law at this stage, it would go to the parliamentary legal committee for debate and only then to the floor of the parliament for final approval. Election officials have said that any further delays would force them to put off the voting, because they need three months to prepare.

Fatah fears of a major election defeat at Hamas' hands were heightened when student elections last week at Bir Zeit and Bethlehem universities showed the Islamists were gaining strength in both universities. Both institutions are secular and attended by the sons and daughters of rich Palestinians, some of them Christian. Fatah had a majority of votes in both before the latest student elections.

The elections showed that Hamas is a powerful group that is continuing to gather strength at the expense of Fatah.

Abbas is under tremendous pressure from many sides. US President George W. Bush, who argues that a wave of democracy is going to take over the Middle East as a result of his invasion and occupation of Iraq, has ruled out any delay in Palestinian elections.

Bush insisted on the Jan.30 date for elections in Iraq. He is insisting on elections in Lebanon in May. He is insisting on election reforms in Egypt, and he is insisting that the Palestinians should vote on July 17.

Sharon, who obviously discussed the issue with Bush at the White House this month, could not actually care who wins the Palestinian elections. If Abbas's group wins, then he would seek to negotiate and force down his version of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement on the Palestinians. If hard-liners like Hamas win the elections, then Sharon would simply clam up on the negotiations front and impose his unilateral military-based solution to the problem.

In his meeting with Bush at the US president's ranch in Texas this month, Sharon is said to have presented intelligence reports indicating that there is complete breakdown of Abu Mazen's grip on authority and that hard-liners within Fatah plan to start armed attacks against Israelis in June and trigger Israeli retaliation leading to a situation that would not be conducive to elections.

Abbas is also apprehensive that Hamas would make good its threat to call off the de fact truce it has maintained since February if the elections were delayed.

Hamas is unlikely to move from its stand since it knows well that it stands to gain in July elections and it finds no reason to agree to a delay, particularly when it is clear that Fatah will use the intervening period not only to strengthen itself but also to weaken all rivals.

At this week's meeting of Palestinian legislators, Fatah is likely to seek to stall the endorsement of the amended election law.

Abbas's options are limited. His weekend visit to Egypt and Jordan was seen by his critics as a ploy to make himself absent from the Palestinian territories and thus abort a vote by Palestinian legislators on his proposals. The vote was supposed to take place on Sunday, but his absence pre-empted it.

Abbas has won a few more days before the crucial vote, but he cannot run from it. His choice is between postponing the elections and incur Hamas wrath and holding the polls on time and risking the loss of his power base.

Hamas sweeping the Palestinian elections and coming to power in the West Bank and Gaza is indeed a source of concern not only to the Palestinian leadership under Abbas but also to Arab countries wherever Islamists have strong influence among the people.

The very fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is banned as a political party in Egypt, where Hassan Al Banna set up the organisation in 1928, is the clearest indication of the group's influence among the people.

An example is Jordan, where the strongest and most organised and committed political grouping is the Islamic Action Front, which is the political arm of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The kingdom will be the first to be affected if Hamas sweeps the Palestinian elections.

Concerns over developments in Palestine have been heightened by intelligence reports indicating that the Abbas government is getting deeper day by day into disorder and revolt, and Hamas is taking advantage of the situation to strengthen itself at Fatah's expense.

The US and Israel, which hopes it could work out an agreement with Abbas that would protect Israeli interests, are considering means to support the Fatah leader. Two US officials, deputy head of the national security council Elliott Abrams and head of the State Department's Middle East desk David Walsh, will be visiting Ramallah this week to explore whether and how the US and Israel could help shore up Abbas.

However, there are contradictions in the approach.

If the American and Israeli support comes in the form of supporting a postponement of the elections -- from July 17 to Sept.25 as some reports suggest -- then Hamas would challenge it.

Sharon's move to expand Jewish settlements is not helping Abbas either.

An Israeli a government agency is inviting bids for the purchase of 50 plots for the construction of single-family housing units in the settlement of Elkana, some five kilometres inside the West Bank.

Bush says he opposes expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank but has endorsed the existing ones by saying it was unrealistic of the Palestinians to return to the 1949 armistice lines. But Sharon has given little heed to the American position and is continuing with his plans, and the impression that the Middle East gets is that the position adopted in public by Washington is only for public consumption.

In any event, Israel's one-track mind and refusal to recognise and respect the legitimate territorial and political rights of the Palestinians while also professing commitment to peaceful negotiations plays into the hands of Hamas against Fatah.

Again, notwithstanding the status of negotiations with the Palestinians -- or of the efforts to revive negotiations -- Sharon is also planning further "unilateral withdrawals" that clearly aim at setting Israel's "final borders" -- no doubt helped largely by the "separation wall" he is building along the occupied West Bank.

No doubt, Hamas leaders are closely watching Sharon's moves, but they seem to believe that the time for an all-out showdown is not here yet. They want to secure the political leadership of the Palestinian movement, and the elections to the legislative council is the first step towards that goal. Most importantly, they are determined to make the best of it, and the outcome of the elections would be a landmark in Middle Eastern history.