Now that the Palestinians have made their democratic choice, granting the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas its overwhelming majority of votes in January’s Palestinian Legislative Council elections, the time has come to see what this ‘movement-turned-government’ really has to offer.
In the March 29 swearing-in ceremony in Gaza and Ramallah, an outsider uneducated in the intricacies of Palestinian politics would find nothing out of order. All the trappings of a government were in place – the sharply-clad ministers, the distinguished President and the national flag propped neatly in the corner behind the Quran-toting table, where each and every minister took an oath of honor before being sworn into office.
Still, anyone more versed in the conflict will know that the new government, however smart it may look, has plenty on its new plate.
When Hamas decided to run in PLC elections, unlike the 1996 elections which they boycotted, it knew undeniably that it had a strong platform on the street. The relatively fledgling movement – officially established in 1988 in the early stages of the first Intifada – had gained considerable power among the people over the years. For one, it posed as the most viable alternative to the mainstream traditional leadership under Fatah, which for years has endured ebbs and tides in its popularity among the populace because of rampant corruption within the Palestinian Authority, historic political concessions and disunity in the movement itself.
In contrast, Hamas has been unified and disciplined albeit reactionary, setting unwavering goals for itself including the liberation of all of historic Palestine. In Hamas, many people found a voice for their aspirations and their frustrations. For years, the movement has played on the leadership’s – namely the PA and Fatah’s, – shortcomings, their failures and their mistakes, none the least being the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, which the Hamas leadership staunchly opposed.
On the street, Hamas also delivered, both in terms of the resistance and in social services. Controversial as they may be, Hamas’ suicide bombings in the heart of Israeli communities throughout the Aqsa Intifada became the antithesis for the Palestinian Authority’s more nonviolent leadership. Given the disillusion of the Palestinians towards the leftist factions, who for years, have failed to provide a strong and effective opposition, coupled with the inability of the leadership under Fatah to produce a final solution to the conflict, Hamas and Fatah found themselves at opposite ends of a polarized society. Eventually, the society had split in two – those with the Authority and those against, and the overwhelming majority of those against had become supporters of the strongest standing opposition, Hamas.
This dichotomy reached its peak in the PLC’s election last January. As the people became increasingly disenchanted with the PA’s performance, represented in Fatah, they gravitated more and more towards Hamas. Just how much people would express their dissatisfaction with the leadership, however, only became clear when the final votes were tallied. Hamas had swept the elections, winning a shocking 74 of the 132 seats in parliament, and landed themselves, surprising, even to them, at the helm of the very Authority they had so long criticized.
Now, after failing to form a coalition government with other political factions, which would have been their preferred option, Hamas is now faced with a government marred by a myriad of predicaments. The tattered and torn PA, the soaring unemployment rate, the rising poverty levels and the aggressive and ongoing Israeli measures have all been dropped in its lap, so to say. Moreover, the leadership must also now deal with the international community, which under the command of the Bush Administration, has launched all-out war on the new Palestinian government.
Years ago, the United States and later the European Union added Hamas onto their list of terrorist organizations. Now, with Hamas in power, their condemnation has taken on a particular vengeance. Funding from donor countries, which was relatively steady under President Abbas’ former government, has now been all but completely halted, save for humanitarian aid. The US administration has not only pledged to hold back aid to a Hamas-led PA, but has demanded that its diplomats and contractors hold no contacts with Hamas ministers. The European Union, although less severe in their positions than the United States, has more or less followed suit.
Israel, no doubt, is also cracking the whip. The PA’s tax revenues, which must pass through Israel before reaching the treasury has over the years been sporadically withheld from the Authority at various points. Now the transfer has been completely halted. If nothing else, the new government is looking down the barrel of an economic embargo much worse than anything seen so far.
To say the least, Hamas has its tasks cut out for them. They must prove that they are worthy of the responsibility entrusted to them by the people and that their votes did not solely come from the people’s knee-jerk reaction to the dysfunctional leadership. The question now is: can this newly elected government achieve what the former government under Fatah could not? It is unlikely that under the new government any final solution with Israel will be reached, not only for the seemingly radical positions Hamas has taken so far vis-à-vis the Jewish state but also because Israel it seems, is bent on carrying out its long-term plans for this land no matter who is governing the people. Evidence of this is the West Bank Apartheid Wall, the construction of which has continued regardless of the positions of the Abbas government or even international condemnation of it by the International Court of Justice in July 2004.
Whether the new government will be able to mend the internal damage done during the previous leadership, namely eradicating the widespread corruption within Authority circles remains to be seen. It is too soon to judge how the newly elected Hamas leaders will conduct themselves or whether the people’s choice will backfire. It was “reform and change” that the Palestinians voted for when they went to the polls and now they are looking to Hamas to see if they are up to the task.
It is unlikely that the Palestinians believe any viable state can be established in the near future, regardless of which government they are under. But if Hamas can prove that it can govern the people in a dignified and honest manner, than this is definitely a step in the right direction.