Frequently Asked Questions
1. What was the voter turnout for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006? (Back to top)
Voter turnout for Palestinian Legislative Council elections in Palestine was an impressive 77% of 1.3 million registered voters, including 74% in the West Bank, 82% in the Gaza Strip, and 46% in Arab East Jerusalem despite harsh Israeli restrictions there. Forty-seven percent of registered voters were women. There was almost no violence or intimidation against voters. The results can therefore be said to represent the will of the Palestinian people—a stunning victory for the concept of democracy in the Middle East.
2. How many votes did each party receive? (Back to top)
Palestinian elections law was overhauled in the summer of 2005 in response to demands for reform in the Palestinian Authority. It divided the Legislative Council’s 132 seats into two bodies: one in which each party list is given a number of seats based on nationwide proportional representation, the other filled by individuals voted for in each of 16 districts. Each district has a number of seats proportional to their respective populations.
It has been widely overlooked by both the Arab and international media that Hamas’s win as a party was actually quite narrow. Their list did not, in fact, receive an absolute majority of the Palestinian vote. As a movement, their share of the vote was 44.5% compared to Fatah’s 41.5%. The remaining 14% or so was divided between secular and Leftist parties.
In the proportional body, which stresses parties and platforms, Hamas won 29 seats to Fatah’s 28—a narrow win indeed. But in the districts, where personality and local loyalty were stressed, and competing Fatah candidates split many votes, Hamas claimed 45 seats compared to Fatah’s 17. This is where the image of a ‘landslide’ victory for the Hamas party took hold.
Independents, Progressives, and Leftists took 13 seats. Six were reserved for Christians regardless of their party affiliation. In accordance with the new elections laws, all tickets had at least one woman in the top three candidates on their lists, and 17 women took 13% of the seats, including eight from Fatah’s list, six from Hamas’s, and three from the four other slates. These numbers compare favorably with the American Congress, where women hold 13.5% of seats, and the Israeli Knesset, where 15% of representatives are women.
3. Why is Hamas popular? (Back to top)
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.
Fatah’s top men, in stark contrast, were largely out of touch with ordinary Palestinians, having long enjoyed privileged lifestyles, fancy hotels, lax VIP checkpoints, flashy cars, and the freedom to travel anywhere in the world. Many Fatah politicians had never so much as entered a Palestinian farming village or refugee camp nor participated in a single non-violent popular demonstration against occupation policies.
Hamas’s victory was also a response to Israel’s policy of unilateralism and the international community’s double standards, which demanded endless concessions from Palestinians while Israel remained free to expand settlements, build an illegal and devastatingly divisive Wall inside the West Bank to annex those settlements and the land around them permanently, and inflict daily violence and crushing collective punishments upon the Palestinian population as a whole in violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions. The United States has also vetoed more than two dozen UN resolutions against Israel. Palestinians were tired of enabling Fatah to facilitate their disenfranchisement.
Hamas also discusses issues that Fatah apparently considers taboo, such as the unresolved injustice of the massacres and mass expulsions that took place in 1948, a catastrophe (called al Nakba in Arabic) that is seared indelibly into the Palestinian and greater Arab consciousness. This injury will fester indefinitely unless directly acknowledged and adequately addressed by the world community. At the very least, Hamas retains these as leverage or bargaining chips rather that conceding or ignoring them before negotiations even start.
Palestinians elected people who were known for helping the poor, resisting occupation, and being fair and transparent. Between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas’s position is more consistent, more accountable to its people, and more strategically cogent. Its armed forces are better able to enforce truces and ensure law and order, and its fiscal management, at least up until this point, admirably sound. Without a real possibility of fair negotiations with Israel, and without Israel agreeing to honor its commitments, such as freezing settlement expansion and releasing political prisoners, Fatah had little to offer the Palestinian people.
4. Will Hamas make Palestine an Islamist theocracy? (Back to top)
Hamas has made no secret of its wish to make Palestine an Islamic republic, and it has hinted at incorporating Islamic Sharia law into the Palestinian constitution.
But more than half of Palestinians voted for secular parties like Fatah, the PFLP, and the Palestinian National Initiative. Hamas is well aware that a large number of their votes were protest votes against Fatah rather than support for Hamas’s Islamist vision. Hamas understands that they do not have a mandate to turn Palestine into an Islamic republic. The deputy political bureau chief of Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzook, was careful to point out in the Washington Post, “Alleviating the debilitative conditions of occupation, and not an Islamic state, is at the heart of our mandate.” As the ruling party, it is accountable to the entire body politic, most of whom would rather see Palestine become more liberal and democratic rather than less.
If Hamas does try to implement a social agenda more conservative than they have a mandate for, they will have to contend with a public backlash, vocal opposition parties, and a secular President who is also the leader of the PLO. They understand that they are in power mostly because of the incompetence of Fatah, and that they have everything to lose if they do not moderate their stance to conform to the wishes and expectations of the majority of Palestinians, who can vote them out in four years if they are not satisfied.
Hamas has said in interviews that it has no plans to create an Iranian-style theocracy or interfere in people’s daily lives. Instead, they say they will lead by example, and in this way encourage people to respect Islamic traditions. They will not prohibit alcohol or force women to wear headscarves. Doing so would be difficult and controversial, both because Palestinian Basic Law is difficult to change and because it would alienate Christians, professionals, leftists, progressive Muslims, and foreign journalists and aid workers, who are fond of Ramallah’s liberal atmosphere and lovely beer gardens.
The fundamentalism of a society often increases in direct proportion to the amount of existential threat it feels. An end to the occupation of Palestine will knock a lot of the wind out of the sails of calls for political Islam in Palestine and around the world.
Nonetheless, Hamas’s socially conservative agenda is a legitimate worry that deserves scrutiny by Palestinians at home and abroad who do not wish to see their nation sink into fundamentalism, repression, and intolerance. Hamas won municipal elections last year in Qalqilia, and when it chose to cancel an international folk festival in the city because it would feature mixed men and women dancing, it hurt Qalqilia’s economy and alarmed moderates all over Palestine.
As in any democracy, Palestinian advocates for civil rights and personal freedoms must remain vigilant, whoever comes to power.
5. Can Hamas maintain law and order and prevent terrorism? (Back to top)
Hamas has proven to be the only organization in Palestine both willing and able to rein in terrorism. It has a disciplined armed unit that responds to a chain of command. Under Hamas’s orders, the organization has not committed a suicide bombing on Israeli soil since August 2004 and has been responsible for only one Israeli death since then, according to Israeli intelligence. This was despite scores of provocative violations of the ceasefire by Israel, including 23 assassinations, many aimed at Hamas, which also killed 8 innocent bystanders. Hundreds of Hamas candidates who were running for local municipal and nationwide elections were also arrested or detained by Israeli soldiers shortly before they were to run for office.
During the so-called ceasefire, Israel refused to allow the Palestinian police to arm themselves adequately, regularly bombed and invaded civilian areas, killed dozens of civilians, and forced Palestinian police to pass through checkpoints on their way to work or the scene of a riot or crime.
Even in the U.S., law and order broke down in New Orleans in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane. In an atmosphere of debilitating poverty, rampant unemployment largely due to Israeli closures, frequent raids and assassinations by Israel, and broad-daylight land theft and destruction by settlers and soldiers, with a badly armed and badly trained police force that felt little loyalty toward its corrupt government, the amount of chaos in the territories was entirely unsurprising. If anything was surprising, it was how relatively calm things were given all these factors.
But Hamas respected the ceasefire of its own accord, and this decision only increased their popular support. Now, because they need both a space to speak on the world stage and foreign funding and support in order to satisfy the aspirations of their people, it would be suicidal for them to begin targeting Israeli civilians again.
On the other hand, Israel has stepped up its assassination policy since the election, killing about a dozen militants from various factions. Groups like Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are likely planning their responses. Israel has promised more assassinations in response to the responses to come.
If Hamas is forced to confront intransigent militant groups while Israeli violence and settlement expansion are ongoing, rubbing salt into very raw wounds, it will have a difficult battle ahead of it.
But ending the cycles of violence is not a one-way street. Israel bears at least as much responsibility as Hamas and other factions to show restraint. Vitally important and relatively easy ways for Israel to show restraint include halting settlement expansion and curtailing the excessive use of deadly force in civilian areas, both of which are illegal under international law and ultimately detrimental to the security of Israel.
If Israel does so, and Hamas maintains its discipline and its message, and the Palestinian public supports their efforts, intransigent local Palestinian militia leaders will be isolated and increasingly powerless. This can only be good for any peace process.
6. Does Hamas want to destroy Israel? (Back to top)
Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist sounds, on the face of it, belligerent and absolutist. After all, no one debates France’s right to exist, or Cuba’s. Why Israel?
Palestinians argue that if Israel has a fundamental right to exist as a Jewish majority state in the land of historic Palestine, then it must have had the right to expel 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and prevent them from returning, destroy over 400 Palestinian villages, and import millions of Russians, Europeans, Ethiopians, and Americans to take their places. Without these actions, there would be no Jewish majority state inside what is now Israel.
While Israel demands that Palestinians respect Jewish rights to life, liberty, and property in Israel, Palestinians sense no reciprocal respect for their rights in either Israel or the Palestinian territories. Israeli soldiers and settlers often take innocent Palestinian lives for no justifiable reason, and very few of the killers are brought to trial. Palestinian liberty is subjugated under the expansionist Israeli military authority in the West Bank and Gaza. And Israeli bulldozers illegally destroy Palestinian private property, including homes and land, on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, when most Hamas supporters today speak of “destroying Israel,” they don’t imagine killing or destroying the physical reality of Israel. Instead they are referring to the implementation of UN Resolution 194, which upholds the rights of the refugees of 1948 to return to their homes and land inside what is now Israel if they wish to. Such an action would destroy the Jewish monopoly on power inside Israel. Instead of an overwhelmingly Jewish-dominated state, the land and political power would be shared.
While nearly all Palestinians believe that this would be the most just result in theory, most understand that Israel, with its vastly greater power, will not allow such an outcome in the foreseeable future. Most are willing to accept this reality in exchange for their rights within the 1967 borders and fair restitution for refugees. To Palestinians, this represents an enormous compromise.
A poll released shortly after the Hamas elections victory by the Near East Consulting Institute of Ramallah found that 84% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza—including 77% of Hamas voters—want a peace agreement with Israel based on two states for two people, while 86% want Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate PA leader, to remain president. Seventy-three percent of respondents believe that Hamas should “change its position on the elimination of the state of Israel.”
As the lead editorial of The Guardian said on March 8, “It would be a mistake to fetishise the recognition question. The fact is that Israel has F16s, nuclear weapons, UN membership and international legitimacy. None of that will be taken away whether or not Hamas… amends its founding charter.”
Hamas has in any case stated several times that it is ready and willing to extend a de facto recognition of Israel in exchange for a de facto Israeli recognition of Palestine based on ‘67 borders. It is true that Hamas cannot recognize Israel de jure for religious reasons, any more than Ehud Olmert or a Zionist rabbi could sign a statement that said Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and large areas of Jordan are not part of Eretz Yisrael, the Biblical Land of Israel. But both sides are composed overwhelmingly of rational actors who are tired of violence and willing to compromise and live together.
Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told CNN recently that a long-term truce (hudna) with Israel would be possible if “we can… establish our independent state on the area before ‘67 [the West Bank and Gaza, including Arab East Jerusalem].” He said that if Israel “is ready to… withdraw from the occupied area [in] ‘67; to release our detainees; to stop their aggression; to make geographic link between Gaza Strip and West Bank, at that time, with assurance from other sides, we are going to accept to establish our independent state… and give us one or two, 10, 15 years time in order to see what is the real intention of Israel after that.”
On January 24, 2006, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at an address at the Herzliya Conference, “We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria [northern West Bank] and every valley in Judea [southern West Bank] is part of our historic homeland. We do not forget this, not even for one moment.”
Such sentiments are expressed openly at the highest levels of Israeli government. Past Israeli Prime Ministers have even refused to admit to the existence of a Palestinian people. The sense of exclusive Jewish entitlement to the West Bank, where Jewish people dwelled thousands of years ago, is no less extreme than the Palestinian people’s sense of shared entitlement to the part of historic Palestine that is now called Israel, where many of them personally lived and worked only a few decades ago.
But following his statement, Olmert went on to say, “However, the choice between the desire to allow every Jew to live anywhere in the Land of Israel [and] the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish country… obligates relinquishing parts of the Land of Israel. This is not a relinquishing of the Zionist idea, rather the essential realization of the Zionist goal—ensuring the existence of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel.”
Unfortunately, he did not specify what part of the Land of Israel he was willing to relinquish. Later he told a combat soldiers’ convention, “We’ll fight [Hamas] if necessary and we’ll dictate the terms and timetables.”
Hamas and the Palestinian people are willing to relinquish 78% of historic Palestine in return for a long-term, negotiated truce based on international laws and treaties. In the course of negotiations, Hamas will undoubtedly be forced to compromise in many ways, including changing its charter, and Israel will be forced to dismantle most settlements, contribute to a just solution for the refugees, and recognize a sovereign Palestinian state within viable borders. But without negotiations, and without parallel compromises by Israel, Hamas will have no incentive to moderate its stance, and the conflict will likely continue for decades to come.
Israel did not demand that Jordan, Egypt, or the PLO recognize Israel as a Jewish state before they negotiated important and, in the case of Jordan and Egypt, lasting peace treaties. Claiming that such recognition is a precondition for talks to begin is recognized by thoughtful observers as a stalling tactic by Israel. Talks should begin as soon as is practicable, and without preconditions. Such conditions are part of what should be negotiated, not something to be demanded before talks even begin.
7. What should the Israeli and international response to Hamas’s victory be? (Back to top)
Less than thirty years ago, Israel’s now-mainstream Likud party was considered wildly extremist. According to journalist Bradley Burston of Haaretz, Israel’s mainstream center-left newspaper, ten years after Israel’s takeover of the West Bank and Gaza, leaders of the right-wing Likud party were still clinging to the idea of a Greater Israel, which included all of historic Palestine as well as most or all of the Kingdom of Jordan.
The Likud was derided as a group led by terrorists like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir who had roots in pre-state Zionist militias like the Irgun and Lehi. These paramilitaries had engaged in cold-blooded killings of civilians, including the Deir Yassin massacre, which killed over 100 unarmed Palestinian villagers, and the King David Hotel bombing, which killed 91, including 28 Britons, 41 Palestinian Arabs, and 17 Jews.
But the old ruling party, Labor, had grown corrupt and complacent, and in 1977, Likud defeated it. Six months later, the first leader of an Arab nation publicly set foot on Israeli soil. And it was the Likud who returned the entirety of the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt. In their final move as the party in power, Likud took the settlers out of Gaza.
Likud achieved necessary tactical results that Labor would have found difficult or impossible given the power of Israel’s right-wing constituencies. Likud also demonstrated that if both Israel and its Arab partners could claim victory in the same exchange, they both might be able to leverage that claim to their people and bring about a peace of equals.
Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is a strategic necessity because Israel cannot be a Jewish democracy while it rules four million Palestinians who have no citizenship or civil rights. If the Palestinians in the occupied territories were given citizenship in Israel, Israel would no longer have a Jewish majority and thus would become a mixed democracy rather than a Jewish-dominated one. The occupation is also an expensive drain on Israeli lives and treasure, and many Israeli voters do not believe the price is worth it.
If Hamas’s guns are used to keep order in Palestine and enforce a truce with Israel, and Israel halts its expansion of settlements, negotiations can take place leading toward an end to the occupation, final borders, and long-term peace and security. Both sides can claim this as a victory. If given the chance, Hamas might also play the same game the Israeli right wing has played to good effect: namely to stake out such a hard-line position that even modest compromises turn into major events.
Hamas has used terrorist tactics in the past to achieve its nationalist aims, just as Likud’s predecessors did. But since August 2004, Hamas has desisted in these activities. And now it has participated in democratic elections and named Ismail Haniya, one of its most moderate and media-savvy members, as Prime Minister. Should the world give them a chance to moderate their stances and be legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people?
The UN, the European Union, and Russia, three of the four members of the Quartet, believe so.
“We are prepared to work with any Palestinian government, if this government seeks peace, using peaceful means,” said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external relations commissioner, who spoke for the majority of the international community.
Alvaro de Soto, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, said “Let’s judge the participants in the government by what they do, not by what they have said in the past.” And President Putin of Russia invited Hamas for talks in Moscow in hopes of convincing them to moderate their stance.
But members of the US Congress immediately drafted legislation to punish the Palestinians for voting for Hamas not only by cutting off US aid to the cash-strapped and impoverished Palestinians but also by auditing all committees, offices, and commissions focused on the Palestinian agenda at the United Nations and recommending their elimination.
Bush issued this ultimatum to the Palestinian government: “The leaders of Hamas have a choice to make. If they want the help of America and the international community to build a prosperous, independent, Palestinian state, they must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace.” In other words, Hamas must unilaterally give up its few bargaining chips with no parallel Israeli concessions before discussions even begin. America’s prejudicing of negotiations with ultimatums given only to one side highlights America’s one-sided arbitration of this conflict.
Israel, likewise, has violated the Oslo terms by withholding PA tax revenues, which it collects on behalf of the PA. These revenues, which do not in any way belong to Israel, amount to around $50 million per month, about a third of the PA’s operating budget. Israel is also hindering the movement of elected Hamas Legislative Council members through the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints inside the West Bank, has refused to allow the new Prime Minister to enter the West Bank at all, has ceased all contact with the Hamas-led PA, and has closed vital border crossings in an effort to strangle commerce, damage the economy, and pressure the PA to fall.
When the Israeli government decided to intensify the already extremely harsh economic siege on the Palestinian population, Prime Minister advisor Dov Weissglas quipped, “It’s like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die.” Such offhand threats of forced starvation were leveled against an impoverished and ghettoized civilian population, many of whom already suffer debilitating food insecurity due to the Israeli strangulation of their economy and theft of their land, instead of a call for dialogue. This despite the fact that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he is willing to talk to Israel at any time about any subject.
How does the Israeli public feel about these extreme measures? Polls conducted shortly after the elections revealed that 67% of Israelis are ready to talk to Hamas: 40% if it renounces its determination to destroy Israel and 27% with no conditions based on the “Road Map” peace plan. Only 29% favored cutting off all contacts with the Palestinians and resuming targeted killings of Hamas leaders. Another poll in the mainstream Yediot Ahronot newspaper showed that 48% of respondents said Israel should negotiate with Hamas, while 43% were opposed.
Israeli citizens understand what the American and Israeli governments are loath to admit: Hard-line positions by America and Israel will have two primary effects. The first will be to indicate to the Arab world that America’s calls for democracy have been disingenuous, because while the Bush administration has called for democratic reforms in the Middle East, they in fact have no interest in respecting the Arab vote. The second will be to hand the extreme right of Hamas a propaganda coup and compel them to seek comfort, aid, and philosophy from Tehran, Damascus, and Riyadh. America’s influence in Palestine will wane while Iran and Syria will gain leverage. It will give Hamas no chance or incentive to moderate its stance vis-à-vis Israel.
While nobody has a right to blow up women and children inside cafés and discotheques, an occupied people does have the right, under international law, to resist belligerent foreign occupation by force of arms. The world’s call on Hamas to cease terrorism is entirely correct, though one-sided, as it hasn’t given Israel a parallel ultimatum to cease its policies of targeting civilians and imposing collective punishments in violation of international laws and treaties.
But calling on Hamas to disarm entirely in the face of ongoing threats to the existence of their nation, such as the divisive Wall and expanding settlements, is not any more reasonable than calling on Israel to disband its army before talking to the Palestinians. Israel has killed dozens of Hamas members, and even more Palestinian civilians, during the so-called ceasefire while Hamas has killed only one Israeli. So why, Palestinians wonder, is the world calling on Hamas alone to renounce all violence?
Palestinians are weary of such double standards. As Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, “The Quartet should have demanded an end to [Israeli] occupation and aggression… not demanded that the victim should recognize the occupation.”
A short time earlier, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that a Hamas-led Palestinian government must commit to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of existing peace agreements if it is to maintain its level of financial support. He said Hamas must set up a government that is committed to the rule of law, tolerance, reform and sound fiscal management.
But it has not demanded that Israel respect the rule of law, cease its expansion of illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land, adhere to the International Court of Justice decision regarding the Wall, end its illegal practice of targeted assassination, reign in its endemic corruption, or release the hundreds of ‘administrative detainees,’ including women and children, who have been held for months and even years in deplorable prison conditions without charge or trial in violation of the Geneva Conventions, to which Israel is a signatory.
And while Israel and America have demanded that Hamas accept the central tenets of Zionism, including the establishment of a Jewish state in historic Palestine, there have been no reciprocal demands on Israel’s Kadima party—not even a recognition of Palestinian rights within the 1967 borders.
The world says Hamas cannot be a partner unless it accepts all current peace processes. But those processes have only resulted in a worsening of conditions on the ground, as prospects for peace are dimmer now, with hundreds of thousands more Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, than they were in 1993. In any case, Israel has long abandoned Oslo and has systematically ignored the Road Map, for which it had 14 reservations in the first place that rendered it practically meaningless.
Palestinians voted for Hamas hoping to find an alternative to one-sided, open-ended, humiliating ‘peace plans’ with no mechanism for enforcement and no guarantees of Palestinians’ most basic human rights. Hamas demands what all Palestinians demand: immediate negotiations resulting in a final status solution based on international law and mutual recognition and respect.
“If Hamas is to recognize Israel, will Israel recognize Palestine?” one Palestinian asked in an online Israel-Palestine forum. “If Hamas is to honor previous signed agreements with the PA, will Israel? And if Hamas is to end the armed resistance, will Israel end the belligerent military occupation? Without any answers to these three questions the position of Hamas is clear and has been voiced already. There is nothing to talk about.”
Israeli advisor to the Prime Minister’s office David Levy advocates negotiating with Abbas, probably with the acquiescence if not open facilitation of Hamas leaders, and agreeing to put any negotiated outcome to a referendum among the Israeli and Palestinian public. This would give a terrific boost to the flagging Fatah party and at the same time offer Hamas an easy way out of a choice between principle and pragmatism.
Additionally, Israel can test the limits of Hamas’s capacity for moderation. Performance benchmarks for Hamas must be tough but fair, with no premeditated failure imposed by untenable economic restrictions and/or provocative military attacks. Initial focus should be on deeds rather than words, particularly the maintenance of the ceasefire. Hamas will only respond to targets that make sense, are reasonable, and are leading to a political endgame acceptable to a majority of Palestinians. And they will only respond if Israel also abides by concrete steps like halting settlement expansion.
If Hamas is given a chance, and it defers to public opinion by negotiating toward a peaceful two-state solution, everybody wins. If Hamas is given a chance and it fails to moderate, prevent terrorism, or provide law and order, the Palestinian people will blame Hamas and, presumably, re-elect Fatah or another party. But if Hamas is given no chance by Israel and the international community, the Palestinians will blame Israel and America, no peace will be achieved, and the bloodshed and misery will continue. Israel must face up to the fact that there are simply no easy, unilateral options. The Palestinians deserve, and will have, a voice in the final outcome of this conflict. Reaching out to Abbas while exploring Hamas’s capacity for moderation is Israel’s best option for protecting its soldiers and citizens.
“Starving the prostrate and utterly dependent Palestinian economy of aid in order to bring the incoming government to its knees is bound to backfire,” said a recent Financial Times editorial. “The past decade offers no evidence that sanctions or intensified repression have broken the will of the Palestinians, or imposed peace on Israeli terms. Three years ago, Moshe Yaalon, then army chief of staff, said: ‘The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.’ Well, whatever it was the Palestinians internalised it came back out as Hamas.”
Further extreme collective punishments will only lead to further extremism. Taking concrete steps toward negotiating in good faith and ending the occupation will embolden moderates, dull bad memories, and save many more lives than the alternative.
8. Is peace between Israel and Palestine possible with Hamas in power? (Back to top)
Just as it took a hawk like Ariel Sharon to implement the withdrawal from Gaza when it became a strategic imperative, it may also take the likes of Hamas to make the tough but necessary compromises that will be acceptable to the entire Arab and Muslim world—compromises Fatah may no longer have the mandate to make.
It would have been suicidal for Fatah to sign a peace deal that did not satisfy the minimum of Palestinian aspirations, just as it would have been suicidal for the Israeli left to impose the Gaza disengagement on the powerful right-wingers and religious fundamentalists in Israel.
For Sharon it was difficult but doable—after all, there was no serious party to the right of Likud. What other option did Israel have? If even Sharon, the Bulldozer, the champion of settlement expansion for decades, recognized that there was no hope in that particular example of absolutism, the majority of Israelis felt comfortable following his lead.
Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s exiled political bureau head, wrote shortly after the elections, “If [Israel is] willing to accept the principle of a long-term truce, we are prepared to negotiate the terms. Hamas is extending a hand of peace to those who are truly interested in a peace based on justice.” He understood as well as Sharon that total victory was simply not possible. Certain compromises must be made in order to prevent an even worse defeat.
Hamas will not tolerate Israeli unilateralism based on Israel’s overwhelming power but is interested in bilateral negotiations based on international law. And for the first time, they can sit at the negotiating table with two valuable things to offer: a mandate to compromise based on Palestinian public opinion and the willingness and ability to put a stop to the horror of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli civilians.
When America and Israel insisted on democracy in the Middle East, they were foolish to believe the Arab public would respond by voting for American and Israeli interests and ideals instead of their own. Arabs are just as patriotic and nationalistic as Westerners, and above all they desire the basic right to self-determination, which is fundamentally at odds with foreign military occupation.
Haaretz’s Aluf Benn notes that until now, Israel has been able to “do business with Arab dictators, a barrier protecting it from the rage of the ‘Arab street.’ That was the basis of the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, Yasser Arafat and his heirs and the rules vis-à-vis Syria and Lebanon. But those days are over. Henceforth Israel will have to factor into its foreign policy something it has always ignored—Arab public opinion.”
Because of the triumph of democracy in Palestine, Israel will have to take the Arab street into account and will be increasingly unable to ignore Palestinian wishes for a negotiated two-state solution based on international law.
But what was the alternative, if Fatah had won?
Based on past experience and statements made by Israeli leaders, most Palestinians and observers believe that the most likely scenario under a Fatah-led Palestinian government would have been the completion of the Wall in a year or so, which would largely determine the eastern border, the fortification of major settlements and the land and water resources around them that Israel wishes to keep, and the complete isolation of the Jordan Valley from the rest of the West Bank. Israel would also engage in occasional unilateral withdrawals from minor West Bank settlements on land with high concentrations of Palestinians that Israel does not want, always done with great fanfare and much soul-searching and weeping.
Palestinians would undoubtedly break the ceasefire under these conditions, which Fatah would not be able to maintain at a time when the last of the Palestinian homeland was being carved up irrevocably and tens of thousands of farmers forced off their land. This would result in harsh counter-attacks by Israel, which would result in further terrorism. The end result would most likely be hundreds or thousands more deaths and a Palestinian “state” whose borders were drawn unilaterally by Israel on little more than half of the West Bank and most of the Gaza Strip.
The West Bank part of the “state” would have no international border except with Israel, no territorial contiguity, conditional control over movement within the “state,” no control over water resources, minimal arable land, and minimal productive capacity. It would be a ghetto and a prison with no meaningful sovereignty and no hope of viability.
Palestinians who already live inside tiny caged-in areas and see major border terminals being built deep inside the West Bank can see this plan being implemented daily. Many already have or soon will be forced to move from outlying villages to city suburbs, slums, and camps, or to Jordan or America, just to survive—a process called ‘voluntary transfer’ by Israelis and ‘ethnic cleansing’ by Palestinians.
Israel would unfailingly find an excuse to declare the Palestinians “no partner.” There would be no negotiations, no East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital, no restitution for refugees, and nothing close to a return to the ‘67 borders.
Israel, because of its military superiority and alliance with the U.S., would be freely able to violate UN Security Council Resolutions 194, 242, and many others. The message to the world would be that only weak states like Iraq and Syria, not powerful states like America and Israel, must respect international law. This will go a long way toward rendering international law meaningless and illegitimate throughout the world.
If this is what one means by ‘peace,’ then it is true that Fatah would be more likely than Hamas to deliver it. But as this scenario could never lead to a true and lasting peace, and would ultimately be disastrous for Israeli security, the ascension of Hamas is an opportunity to provide a much-needed wake-up call for Israeli policymakers.
In light of these facts and projections, and assuming, as most Palestinians do, that Israel is interested only in unilateralism, what kind of leverage or deterrent does Hamas have to get Israel to the negotiating table? Since violence will only be an excuse for more unilateralism, its best recourse will be to call Israel on its own rhetoric.
By reining in corruption, curbing violence, and unifying Palestinian demands based on international law, Israel will have to search ever harder for an excuse not to negotiate, including inciting violence above and beyond the ordinary incitement of settlement expansion, crippling movement restrictions, arrest raids, assassinations, and land theft.
Hamas has always negotiated with the EU, the US (indirectly), and Arab mediators. The ceasefire it has respected since last February is a negotiated outcome. While the US, Israel, and Hamas may wish to avoid negotiating openly given their past rhetoric, the EU, Egypt, and others can act as proxies. Hamas, most importantly, can promise what Fatah never could: an end to suicide bombings, rocket fire, and other attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians.
In order for Hamas to function on any level in its new role, it will have to rethink its perspective, its politics, its tactics, and its attitude. It will have to mature quickly or fail just as spectacularly as Fatah did to make swift and tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians. And it will have to think of face-saving means to moderate its stance in proportion to how Israel moderates its stance.
The end result is a collision course to the only solution even minimally acceptable to both sides: A negotiated solution with a basis in international law, particularly UN Resolution 242, resulting in a return to the 1967 borders (with equal and agreed-upon land swaps not to exceed a few percent), Arab East Jerusalem returned to Palestine (minus sites such as the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter, and the Hebrew University), and fair and negotiated return or restitution for Palestinian refugees. Israel will be recognized as a secure and sovereign nation by all Arab countries in the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.
But if Israel succeeds in finding excuses not to negotiate for very much longer, the only remaining recourse for Palestinians will be to adopt the models of south Lebanon and Gaza and prepare for a bloody and protracted conflict designed to wear down the resolve of Israelis who will presumably become tired of dying for the sake of West Bank real estate. The result will still be along the lines outlined above. Otherwise a horrific amount of violence, repression, and further displacement will have to take place in order to subdue the Palestinians totally and make the denial of their rights complete and permanent.
If Israel refuses to negotiate a fair two-state solution, Palestinians will have the patience and the discipline to suffer and struggle for a long time to come. Khaled Meshaal, head of the political bureau of Hamas, said, “We have seen how other nations, including the peoples of Vietnam and South Africa, persisted in their struggle until their quest for freedom and justice was accomplished. We are no different, our cause is no less worthy, our determination is no less profound and our patience is no less abundant.”
If all possibility for two viable states is destroyed, Palestinians will have to change their slogan from “two states for two peoples” to “one state, one vote.” Israel must be willing to give the West Bank and Gaza back to the Palestinians, sovereign and intact, or else face the possibility of what they have most dreaded all along: shared sovereignty in the whole of historic Palestine.
Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas is nothing new; it is simply a continuation of its refusal to negotiate with Fatah. As Haaretz’s Aluf Benn asked rhetorically, “What remains to be done? Freeze the tax revenue transfer, a step that has U.S. backing; reduce the entry of workers from Gaza, who anyway aren’t coming; and postpone once again operation of the Gaza Strip-West Bank crossing, the sea port and air port, whose opening Israel has done everything to prevent in any case.”
So essentially, nothing has changed. The difference is that Hamas does not pretend to believe in the existence peace initiatives that were never taking place.
All Arab nations have agreed to recognize Israel as a sovereign and secure nation state if it withdraws to the 1967 lines, allows Palestinians the same degree of security and sovereignty, and provides agreed-upon return or restitution for refugees. In effect they have agreed to accept the UN Security Council Resolution 242 land for peace deal, which obligates Israel to do the same.
If Hamas were also to accept this deal, which it has said publicly that it is willing to do if Israel will do the same, and if Israel reciprocates, and if terms leading to a permanent two-state solution are passed through public referendums in Israel and Palestine (possibly going through the PLO and bypassing Hamas if it refuses to amend its charter), it would be the final nail in the coffin of anyone’s calls for Israel’s physical destruction.
9. What else should be considered? (Back to top)
Water issues are often overlooked when talking about final status negotiations. Many of the illegal settlements on the 10% of the West Bank enveloped by the Wall were built strategically over important water reserves. Israel currently uses 73% of the West Bank’s water and settlers use about 10%, leaving Palestinians with 17%. Water is a scarce and precious resource in the Middle East, and any negotiations must provide water security for both Israel and Palestine.
And any elections in the Palestinian territories are, it must be remembered, fundamentally a sham, carried out in an undefined area with no meaningful sovereignty that is living under a military occupation funded almost entirely by the international community. American taxpayers shoulder a good deal of the military costs while the international community provides “humanitarian aid” to Palestinians for services that Israel as the occupier should provide.
Because of this free aid money, Israel has a vested interest in the illusion of a Palestinian national entity, but one that is neither sovereign nor fit to negotiate with. The only acceptable Palestinian leadership is one that will be content with provisional rule over whatever scraps of land Israel leaves behind after it has satisfied its territorial and demographic interests.
But while Hamas has put a crimp in the Israeli government’s unilateralist plans, it still has an extremely difficult battle ahead to earn the trust of Palestinians, Israel, and the international community. It is never easy for a self-styled revolutionary guard to find itself in the position of authority as a ruling political party. When Hamas was not in charge, it was easy to blame Fatah for its mistakes. But if Hamas is unable to make good on its promise of security in the streets and a better life for Palestinians, popular anger will transition toward Hamas. Its social programs will no longer be seen as charity work, but rather as their job and their responsibility.
Hamas will make mistakes, just as Fatah did. But with strong opposition parties in the Legislative Council, they have much less of a free hand to drive a corrupt and partisan agenda.
Hamas’s victory was, in a sense, a victory for Israel, because for the first time Israel has direct leverage over Hamas. Hamas is no longer a free agent that answers to no one. Now it answers to a peace-supporting Palestinian public, to international actors who can threaten to withhold aid and support, and to Israel, which can threaten to withhold water, electricity, and crucial collaboration regarding everyday issues of movement and transfer of goods.
If stability and security increase under a Hamas regime, Israel will have a chance to withdraw peacefully from most of the West Bank and begin negotiations for a final status solution on the best possible terms while Israel has the upper hand and can appear to be generous. Or it can wait until Qassam rockets start landing in West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and thousands more Israelis and Palestinians die while Israel continues to pay the terrible moral, physical, and financial price of occupying another nation.
The West Bank is twenty times bigger than the Gaza Strip, and Israel could not prevent weapons smuggling along the ten-kilometer border between Gaza and Egypt or the launching of homemade rockets from Gaza’s tiny area. It is unclear how they will be able to do so for the entire 700-odd kilometers of the Wall, or how many more soldiers (and civilians) will be willing to die for the sake of the settlements and control over the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
Instability keeps everything chaotic and off-balance. It is very difficult to think about the future when anyone’s business or property might be blown up or confiscated at any moment, when anyone’s town might be invaded or besieged or surrounded by Walls at any time, when anyone’s movement might be blocked at any time, and when the border might be here, or it might be twenty kilometers away. And it is wrenching for Palestinians to carry on normal life when the spiritual and economic heart of Palestine, East Jerusalem, might be wiped off the map as a major Arab city if drastic measures aren’t taken.
Genuine negotiations about final status issues based on international law would remove this uncertainty and are the best available chance for peace and security in the region.
Then both sides can focus on making life livable instead of just possible.
Since this paper was written (February 27, 2006), information has come to light about the CIA’s role in an attempted coup against Hamas in Gaza in the summer of 2007. See: David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008.
Excerpt: “After failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current U.S. officials, the author reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.”
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