Hamas’s assumed incorruptibility vs. Fatah’s perceived failures

Hamas’s assumed incorruptibility vs. Fatah’s perceived failures

Herald News Op-Ed

Aref Assaf


I recall a recent casual discussion with a longtime Fatah operative in an Arab restaurant in Paterson, NJ, where I pointedly asked him about the mounting accusations of nepotism and cronyism and lack of transparency in the Palestinian Authority. ‘Dr. Assaf”, he began, “let the thieves steal what they want for this happens in any revolution, the time will soon come when they will have to answer for their crimes.” Was his answer a prophetic revelation of what would become of Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for almost half a century? For Fatah, the defeat is a signal that its mistakes can no longer be ignored out of loyalty or deference to its vast accomplishments towards Palestinian national goals.
It seems to be the case as we begin to digest the truly epochal massive victory scored by Hamas in the recent elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, PLC.

Several points need to be mentioned which will require further elaboration beyond the scope of this article:
• Most Palestinians voted for Hamas because of its assumed social and political incorruptibility and not because of its rejection of negotiations with or recognition of Israel. The elections were conducted while Palestinians remained languished under the suffocating Israeli military occupation, where freedom of movement is severely restricted and political expressions are not permitted. It is the end of occupation which the Palestinian people voted and an end to the expansion of illegal Israel settlements in occupied Arab lands.

• It is also important to note that whatever Palestinian government emerges, it is up to Israel, ultimately, to define the ability of the Palestinians to govern themselves. Israel remains in almost total control over security, borders, and resources. Besides, the Palestinian government will remain largely dependent on foreign assistance to deliver basic services to the impoverished Palestinian population. Absent such a source of funding, the potential for rebuilding a sustainable Palestinian society will soon fade away and with it Hamas’s promises of heralding the economic and political salvation of the Palestinian people. The world needs to know that cutting off aid to the Palestinians will actually strengthen Hamas political clout.

• Whereas the US and its allies, with UN assistance, exerted every effort to allow Iraqi “out of country voters” to participate in that country’s elections, the same powers have shown no interest in giving Palestinian refugees a voice. Thus, only one-third of the world’s 10 million Palestinians were entitled to vote. Unquestionably, if all the Palestinians were allowed to vote, and especially those where Fatah has its strongest roots, namely the refugee camps of Lebanon, the election results would not have been as decidedly in favor of Hamas.

• It remains to be seen how the American Palestinian community will respond to a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority. Thus far, the distinctions between the ruling government and the dominant Party were indiscernible. Most Fatah supporters and appointees will be in disarray as they along with other independent Palestinian-Americans- attempt to found a new relationship with Hamas. Importantly, US continued enlistment of Hamas as a terrorist organization might make it illegal for such a relationship to be developed. Of particular relevance is the almost defunct Palestinian American Congress, PAC,  which for years suffered from its perceived dependence on Fatah’s moral and financial support. This stigma has given a pretext to many non-Fatah American Palestinians to shun PAC as the grassroots entity which ought to embody their political and social narratives.

• President Abbas will continue to serve the four-year presidential term he won in a year ago, shortly after the passing of the late Yasser Arafat, the founder of Fatah. He is empowered to create national policy and control the security services, though he needs parliamentary approval for his budget and legislative proposals. A Hamas-controlled legislature will not rubber stamp his demands or wishes. He will also shape peace policy with Israel as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which, ironically, does not include Hamas. One wonders how can Hamas run the Palestinian government while it is officially excluded from the PLO, the main party that signed the Oslo Accords and the subsequent agreements with Israel.

Hamas’s electoral participation and surprising victory are due to form a convergence of seemingly disconnected imperatives. For President Abbas, securing the ceasefire, improving the Palestinians’ international standing, and putting the domestic house in order required a deal with Hamas. In exchange for cooperation, he offered power-sharing through political integration. Abbas’s gambit coincided with Hamas’s calculations: it had experienced a surge in popular support during the uprising, was eager for a respite from Israeli military assaults, and, with both Fatah and the PA in disarray, saw an opportunity to translate its success into institutional power.

It is alms important for Israel to shoulder part of the responsibility for the rise of Hamas. Not only did Israel tacitly allow Hamas to emerge as an alternative to the PLO, Israel since 2000 destroyed the security and political structure of the Palestinian Authority. for most of the 70’s and the 80’s, Israel saw the religious groups opposing the secular nationalists, like the PLO, with which  Israel was more obsessed. They believed that allowing, and even encouraging Hamas to grow would create a thorn in the side of secular Palestinian nationalism, leading to infighting and blunting the Palestinians’ ability to mount resistance. And for a time, the prediction materialized. But the rise of groups like Hamas was the inevitable result.

The record of  Hamas over the last several months, as it faced issues of local governance and campaigned for national office, offers a preliminary, mixed picture of how political integration and grassroots participation might affect its outlook and overall behavior. In its pragmatism, and even willingness to deal with Israel on day-to-day operational affairs, Hamas rule at the local level has been almost identical to its predecessor. Local politicians emphasize themes of good governance, economic development, and personal and social security, leaving specifically religious issues and the conflict with Israel to the background. With only scant exceptions, they have yet to try to impose their vision of an Islamist society.

Nationally, too, signs of pragmatism can be noticed. Far more than Fatah, Hamas has proved a disciplined adherent to the ceasefire, and Israeli military officers readily credit this for the sharp decline in violence. In recent statements, Hamas leaders have not ruled out changing their movement’s charter, negotiating with Israel, or accepting a long-term truce based on an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Today, their electoral platform is in these respects closer to Fatah’s outlook than to Hamas’s founding principles.

There is a less encouraging side, however.  Hamas continues to straddle its public and clandestine wings, subject to competing views from different leadership elements, and at least partially susceptible to Syrian and Iranian pressures. Most Israelis, and not a few Palestinians, are worried about its armed potential, and there is widespread suspicion in Israel that the organization simply is biding its time, waiting for the post-electoral period to launch a new wave of attacks with a replenished and improved arsenal. Perhaps most significantly, it has neither renounced violence nor accepted Israel’s existence. Yet it is this writer’s belief that given the constraints of governance  Hamas will find itself with limited options: to stay in power, it must cease military actions against Israel.

Mounting support for Hamas in the months leading up to the election shows that it has proven itself skillful in its challenge to Fatah. It remains to be seen whether it has grasped the value of political moderation at an international level. Its campaign platform projects a party that is somewhere in the political center and seeks international acceptance. Hamas will soon realize that there are imperatives it must not ignore for it will find itself equally unable to carry out domestic campaign promises such as its economic development projects. The implementation of such projects will require negotiation with Israel on the issue of borders and the movement of Palestinian people and goods and funding from the international community. It will also require talks with the United States, and other international donors.

Without the prospect of political incorporation, diplomatic recognition and in the absence of a credible diplomatic process, Hamas – and, along with it, most other armed Palestinian organizations – is likely to resume sustained attacks against Israeli targets. What remains, for now, is the possibility that by thrusting Hamas more deeply into local and national governance, its stake in overall stability and the political costs of a breakdown gradually will steer it away from the military path.

One cannot overestimate the implications of Hamas running for elections. It should not escape us that Hamas has de facto accepted the Oslo Accords for it is the Accords which created the Palestinian Authority and without which Hamas lacks any legal mandate to represent the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.

Alas, Hamas’ victory presents a new political reality in the region. The test for the US is its continued and unconditional dedication to democracy notwithstanding the unintended consequences it may beget. It is imperative for the US to support the results of the democratic elections or it will risk insurmountable suspicion by other Arabs about its true intentions as relates to democratizing the Arab world. President Bush’s conciliatory tone towards Hamas’s victory leaves several options in dealing with Hamas and the peace process overall.

Strategically, this calculated approach will, we hope, impede and prevent a return to the 70’s and 80 when the US was the victim of its own conditions in dealing with the PLO which until 1988 did not recognize Israel and supported armed resistance. Hamas is being put to the same test, which I would argue is a reasonable one. But what conditions and concession are we demanding from Israel. If a peaceful and a just resolution is our goal, then both warring parties must be ready to make painful concessions.

Aref Assaf