Shortly after Hamas won Parliamentary elections in 2006, I wrote an essay that addressed frequently asked questions about the Hamas election victory. I thought now would be a good time to link to it (read the full essay here), given that it looks like Hamas and Fatah have finally closed a unity deal — to remind people what got us here in the first place.
It should go without saying, but this should not be read as a personal endorsement for Hamas. It’s nothing more or less than a description of the atmosphere in Palestine in 2006.
3. Why is Hamas popular?
After the results were announced, many in the West were worried that the Palestinians had elected a rejectionist terrorist organization and that the will of the Palestinian people was endless warfare or even collective suicide.
But polls consistently reveal that a solid majority of Palestinians are anxious for a negotiated peace with Israel based on international law, and that most desire a secular democratic state alongside a sovereign Israel. So why was there so much support for an Islamist movement?
Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas as President of Palestine in January 2005 as a vote of confidence in his pragmatic message of peaceful negotiations toward a two-state solution. Palestinians gave him a chance despite Fatah’s long history of corruption, nepotism, undemocratic methods, and counterproductive political calculations. Hamas also respected the ceasefire that Abbas brokered in Sharm el-Sheikh on February 8, 2005, in deference to public opinion. Hopes for peace after the election of Abbas were enthusiastic and genuine.
What did the Palestinian people receive in return? From February 2005, after Abbas was sworn in and the ceasefire was brokered, until January 2006, when the Hamas elections took place, more than 150 Palestinians were killed, including 38 children, at least 23 men assassinated by Israeli soldiers, and 8 innocent bystanders killed in the course of assassinations. Thousands more were arrested, making a mockery of Israel’s agreement to release Palestinian prisoners as stipulated by the terms of the ceasefire.
In the same period, 37 Israelis were killed, most in suicide bombings conducted by a rogue faction called Islamic Jihad. Scores of homemade rockets were also launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel both before and after the disengagement, causing very little damage or injuries but a great deal of fear. It is unclear whether Abbas was unwilling or unable to stop them. Israeli closures and refusal to allow necessary equipment and ammunition into the Palestinian territories weakened and splintered Abbas’s police force, and Israel’s failure to abide by the terms of the ceasefire weakened his political mandate.
Israel also continued to expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank at such a rate that the number of settlers actually increased in 2005 despite the Gaza disengagement. Settler terrorist attacks against unarmed Palestinian farmers and villagers continued and intensified, with their usual near-impunity from the law. Hamas, though not responsible for any suicide attacks on Israeli soil since August 2004, was constantly targeted, and Abbas was soon declared “no partner.”
When Israel refused even to negotiate the terms of the Gaza redeployment, Hamas was able to take credit for the withdrawal and Abbas, his party, and the PA were made to look irrelevant and foolish. Palestinian hopes that Israel would negotiate in good faith plummeted. Meanwhile conditions in Gaza only worsened with constant Israeli bombardments, sonic boom attacks, and closures that made it even more difficult for Gaza’s goods to reach world markets than before the disengagement.
When it became clear that even Fatah, which was supported by the West, could not bring Israel to the negotiating table, even symbolically in the case of the disengagement, the party lost its biggest selling point. Business as usual continued even under a pragmatic leader while most factions respected a ceasefire. The occupation had no end in sight.
With these and many other statements and actions, the Israeli establishment made it clear that its vision for a two-“state” solution was a unilateral one, not a negotiated one, no matter who came to power in Palestine. It would be based on the route of the Wall, which annexes 10% of the West Bank, including most of the so-called “settlement blocs,” and Israeli control over the Jordan Valley—another 30% of the West Bank. Settlement blocs Israel plans to keep include Ma’ale Adumim, which severs the West Bank’s north-south contiguity; Ariel, which splits the northern West Bank in two and sits atop an important fresh water aquifer; and Gush Etzion, which steals much of Bethlehem’s land and strangles several Palestinian villages.
An Israeli journalist summarized the ruling party’s plans: “Kadima’s practical diplomatic program, as elucidated by Ehud Olmert, adds up to no more than direct Israeli control over approximately one-half of West Bank territory, and the splintering of the remainder into cantons.”
To Palestinians, the resulting series of non-viable, non-contiguous, Walled-in ghettoes on the remaining 60% of the West Bank, devoid of any real sovereignty, with Arab East Jerusalem and its surroundings illegally annexed to Israel, and with no control over water or borders, would be no more acceptable as a “state” than the Bantu Homelands were to black South Africans under Apartheid. Ariel Sharon openly used terms like ‘cantons’ or ‘Bantustans’ to describe his plans for Palestine. Though Olmert has been slightly more discreet, he is committed to the same agenda.
Into this fray, and after 18 months of refraining from attacks on Israel, Hamas ran in the first elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in a decade under a ticket called “Change and Reform” — not “Islamism and Terrorism.” Because Palestinian voters understood that Fatah could not deliver peaceful negotiations anyway, they voted based on other considerations. According to Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, “The two most important issues for the voters were corruption… and the inability of the PA to enforce law and order.”
Hamas was elected because it was seen as a disciplined and clean-handed organization that provided a social safety net for some of the poorest and most vulnerable Palestinians when the Palestinian Authority was unwilling or unable to do so. Its charitable organizations include schools, food distribution centers for the needy, and community centers upon which tens or hundreds of thousands of Palestinians depend. Many of these people have, in real and measurable terms, been better-served by Hamas than Fatah.