One of the curious things about Hamas’ stunning victory in January’s Palestinian legislative election was that opinion polls all consistently showed a narrow to substantive win for the ruling Fatah party. This was even true of “exit polls” taken after Palestinians had already voted.
Evidently, many Palestinians were afraid to say they had voted for Hamas, even anonymously as they left the polling booths. This behaviour is a reflection of the extent to which the secular Fatah organisation failed to establish any reasonable level of governance in the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Much has been made of the endemic corruption of Fatah and the PA, and there is no doubt this official misbehaviour was real and pervasive. But the biggest problem is even more fundamental. There is almost no law and order in most areas of the Palestinian Authority. Real power on the ground is divided between warlords and terrorist gangs, many of which are little more than groups of heavily armed and ill-disciplined young thugs.
Both types of gangs intimidate people, extort money, and operate with almost complete impunity. Palestinians were afraid to admit their votes, even anonymously, because reprisals are a real possibility. Fatah was supposed to be a movement of national liberation, but proved a miserable failure. It turned down a state-on-offer by Israel and has proved incapable of providing economic development for the Palestinian people. Especially under Yasser Arafat, it became so obsessed with a narrative of victimisation and Palestinian “rights” that Palestinian compromise became impossible.
Yasser Arafat preferred to lead a “national liberation struggle” rather than a state, and started a five-year terror war whose only achievement was bloodshed and Palestinian impoverishment. Fatah was so in love with the “Palestinian cause” that it was utterly prepared to sacrifice the well-being and security of actual Palestinian people to an unachievable ideal of eventual total victory.
Is it any wonder that Palestinians voted against a movement that only worsened their material well-being?
Unfortunately, the Islamists they have chosen to replace the nationalists are unlikely to make things better. It is inconceivable that Hamas will do what the Israelis, the US, and EU, as well as Australia, are rightly demanding – to renounce terrorism and change its platform calling for the destruction of Israel. These stances are fundamental to the identity of Hamas. In their worldview, they are not very far from Osama bin Laden, seeking to use violent “Jihad” to make all of “Palestine” a part of a caliphate ruling all Muslim lands in the supposed style of the “pure Islam” of the years following the conquests of the Prophet Mohammed.
Moreover, Hamas regards listening to what non-Muslims say as utterly shameful. After the election, Khaled Mashal, the Damascus-based political leader of Hamas, told a television interviewer that Hamas was proud of its close ties with ultra-radical Iranian President Ahmadinejad, but people should be “ashamed” of any relations with Zionists or Americans. He has underlined the point with some very public recent meetings with Iran’s very hardline spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This does not mean the attempt to pressure Hamas to change their stances on terror and Israel should not be made. It may be very unlikely to succeed, but it does serve a purpose. It will serve to show the Palestinian public what achieving statehood will require.
Fatah was unable or unwilling to lead them to achieve these pre-conditions, spelled out in the internationally approved “Roadmap for Peace” and in fact, used the official media, the education system and other levers of government to incite Palestinians to support terror and reject Israel. Hamas almost certainly will not bring Palestinians closer to statehood, and their electoral victory will likely postpone an Israeli-Palestinian settlement for many years. But eventually it will happen, and Palestinians need a clear and consistent message from the international community about how they can ultimately achieve full self-determination, so that day will come sooner rather than later.
As part of this effort, no funding for any purpose should be directed through a Hamas-led PA. It is true that Palestinans have chosen Hamas to rule them, but it is does not follow that we therefore have to give them money, which is fungible, to use for terrorism and for attempting to further radicalise Palestinian society. We in the West are under no obligation to provide money to promote policies damaging to our interest in peace in the Middle East.
There is no doubt that, in the short-term, Hamas’ electoral win is a very negative outcome for prospects for Middle East peace. However, a period of Hamas rule may have a silver lining in the longer term if, after ditching the dissolute failures of Fatah, it can serve to clarify to Palestinians what they need to accept if they are to arrive at the viable and lasting two-state solution that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve.