Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: Hamas Democracy?

Aug 1, 2007 | Tzvi Fleischer

Tzvi Fleischer

Hamas Democracy?

Many commentators are postulating that Hamas remains popular with Palestinians despite recent events and could likely repeat last year’s plurality election win if new elections are held. At least one recent poll indicates this is unlikely. A phone survey of Gaza Palestinians done on July 10-12 by the Near East Consulting Group found that support for Hamas had dropped sharply.

Although most Palestinians agreed there was now less street crime, 56% of Gazans said that since Hamas took power, they felt unable to voice their opinion freely in public and 69% of Gazans said that the way Hamas had taken control last month was wrong. 63% of Gazans said they most trusted Fatah’s Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas) while 37% said they most trusted Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. If there were elections, 45% of Gazans said they would vote for Fatah, and 22% would vote for Hamas.

Strikingly, even among Hamas supporters, 60% said they would then support Fatah if the organisation reformed itself.

While this poll did not encompass the West Bank, where Hamas does not have significant support, Gaza has always been Hamas’ heartland. If they cannot gain a plurality there, they cannot win.

The only problem is, it is difficult to see any circumstances in the foreseeable future in which free elections can happen in Gaza now that Hamas is in charge.  

More from Poll-land

Another recent Pew poll showed some more good news about support in the Muslim world for Osama bin Laden. The percentage of the population expressing “confidence” in bin Laden has declined by 36 points in Jordan, 19 points in Lebanon and 18 points in Indonesia since 2003. A majority of Palestinians, 57%, still say they have “confidence” in the al-Qaeda leader, but even this is a major decline from 72% in 2003.

Yet another recent poll is relevant to the debate about policy to stop Iran’s nuclear program. It is often argued that Iranians from all factions strongly support the illegal nuclear program, and will rally round the flag and support the government if strong action is taken to try and stop it. A June nation-wide poll of Iranians commissioned by an American organisation called “Terror Free Tomorrow” contradicts this view.

It did find that 29% of Iranians said that developing nuclear weapons was an important national priority. However, this must be put into the context of other results – for instance, 88% of Iranians said developing the economy was a major national priority. Moreover, fully 80% of Iranians said they favour Iran offering full international nuclear inspections and a guarantee not to develop or possess nuclear weapons in return for outside aid.

The poll also found that as most observers have long said, most Iranians are deeply dissatisfied with their theocratic system of government. Fully 61% of Iranians were willing to tell a pollster over the phone that they oppose the current system of government, and 79% said they wanted a democratic system instead. Moreover, most Iranians, 70%, want normal relations and trade with the US and the West, and a majority was willing to recognise an Israeli-Palestinian two-state resolution, end all support for Iraqi militias, and provide full nuclear transparency in order to get this.

Iranians wanting democracy and a more democratic government would likely reflect the overwhelming belief of Iranians that it would be worth trading verifiable nuclear guarantees for benefits like aid and closer relations with the West. While it is far from obvious how to exploit this reality in policy terms, it does clearly open up new policy options for stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons drive.  

The Borders of Reality

Much is being written about the fact that the border crossings into Gaza are effectively closed at the moment, except to humanitarian supplies. Almost every day there is a claim made about looming disaster if this situation is not changed, even though Israel has pledged to see to it that enough food, medicine and basic supplies get through to prevent any humanitarian crisis. And the news stories always imply that Israel is wholly to blame for the closure of the Hamas-controlled strip.

But what has not been reported it that, according to Israeli news reports, neither of the major Palestinian factions want the crossings opened.

According to Haaretz (July 17), Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly requested that Israel and Egypt keep the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt shut so Hamas would not be able to import additional activists and fighters. While Abbas’ aides later denied this report, one would expect them to do this once it was reported, even if the story was accurate.

Meanwhile, in a story about which there is no dispute, a Hamas spokesperson protested the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing, at the Israel-Egypt-Gaza corner, to admit Palestinians trying to return to the Strip from Sinai. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Hamas opposed the idea and added, “This is a conspiracy against our people by Israel and the pro-American leadership in Ramallah.” (Haaretz, July 7).

Another thing seldom reported is that there have been repeated attacks on the border crossings, involving mortars, Qassam rockets and gunfire by Palestinian militants. Clearly they do not want the crossings opened either. While it is unclear which groups are responsible, it is likely that Hamas, exercising an increasingly all-encompassing control in Gaza, could probably stop such attacks if it wished. For instance, the Kerem Shalom crossing, used also for humanitarian supplies, was closed sporadically in the days preceding Barhoum’s statement, due to rocket attacks.

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