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Hamas’ Role in the Palestinian Elections

Author: Esther Pan
December 30, 2005

Introduction

Hamas is expected to poll strongly in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for January 25, 2006. Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, has done well in three rounds of local elections this year and is expected to make further inroads against Fatah, the dominant Palestinian political party headed by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel, which opposed Hamas' participation in the poll, had threatened to prevent the elections by leaving roadblocks and checkpoints in place during the campaign and preventing Palestinians in Jerusalem from voting. However, under pressure from the United States, Israel has mostly backed away from these threats. That decision is "very important," says Alon Ben Meir, a professor of international relations at New York University. "It signifies Israel's willingness to see that if Hamas joins the political process, it's conceivable [Hamas] might also moderate their positions."

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How serious a political threat does Hamas pose to Fatah?

Considerable, experts say. In local elections, Hamas has posted strong results—winning 74 percent of the municipal election vote in the city of Nablus, for example. Palestinians are dissatisfied with the performance of Fatah, which has run the PA since it was established in 1995. Under longtime leader Yasir Arafat, corruption and cronyism ran rampant, and Palestinians saw little improvement in their lives or prospects. Arafat's death in November 2004 and the election of Abbas as president in January 2005 seemed to indicate the arrival of a new era; yet since then, Fatah has been rent by internal divisions. A younger generation of Palestinian leaders urged the longtime Fatah chiefs around Abbas to step down in favor of a new generation. This restive younger group split from Fatah in mid-December and united behind jailed leader Marwan Barghouti—one of the most popular Palestinian leaders—to form another party, al-Mustaqbal (the Future). After intense negotiations that included personal appeals by Abbas, al-Mustaqbal members agreed December 28 to reunite with Fatah and run one slate of candidates—with Barghouti and other faction leaders at the top—in order to maximize Fatah's chances of success.

What are Hamas’ goals?

Hamas is seeking to join the political process but not become the ruling party, experts say. "Hamas wants to have a strong showing, so they're in a place to influence the debate, but not to win a majority, so they're not responsible for the failures of the PA," says Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Palestine Studies. Ben Meir says the fact that Hamas is even participating in the election suggests the group may be willing to moderate its positions to reflect public opinion. Polls show the majority of Palestinians are weary of violence and want to return to peace talks with Israel. In such a climate, "Hamas is moving toward joining the political process to ensure its survival as an organization," Ben Meir says. If Hamas joins the Palestinian Authority—itself a product of the peace process created by the 1993 Oslo Accords—"implicit in that is the acceptance [by Hamas] of a two-state solution," he says. While the group still opposes Israel, they are becoming more pragmatic. Ben Meir says a Hamas leader recently told him, "Our goal is still to destroy Israel. But we can delay it for one hundred years."

What is Hamas’ platform going into the elections?

Hamas won seats in local elections this year in large part because it is viewed by many Palestinians as being honest, in contrast to the pervasive corruption of long-serving Fatah administrators. Abbas has tried to crack down on corruption by firing dozens of Arafat loyalists, but much more needs to be done, experts say. Hamas has also established a comprehensive network of schools and hospitals that provide services to Palestinians that the PA does not. Mahmoud Khalid al-Zahar, a prominent Hamas leader, told al-Jazeera the group also advocates:

  • Cutting all ties with Israel, and instead strengthening relations with Arab countries through contacts in Egypt and Jordan;
  • Building an independent Palestinian economy;
  • Building an effective education system;
  • Reconstructing the Palestinian infrastructure; and
  • Establishing an efficient healthcare system.
Has Hamas made the transition from an armed protest party to a political one?

Not entirely, say experts, who note that Hamas seems to be following a strategy used by many armed resistance groups in the past, including the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and Hezbollah in Lebanon, who used both the ballot box and the gun. The political wing of these parties would negotiate in the political arena, experts say, but the armed wing would continue to threaten or even use violence as another means to reach the party's goals. Hijab says the evolution of Hamas from an armed militant group to a political party is following the pattern of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, headed by Arafat before the PA was created. "Hamas seems to be going on the same route," she says.

Will Hamas be disarmed?

Not right away. Abbas has moved cautiously on U.S. and Israeli demands to disarm militants. After meeting U.S. President George Bush in Washington October 20, Abbas promised the disarmament would happen after elections. Abbas has been trying to establish PA control over armed militants by co-opting them into the Palestinian Security Services, which he is also trying to reform. The PA announced in October that it would set up five new training camps for members of the Fatah-linked militant group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Al-Aqsa members will be trained as police officers in Ramallah, Nablus, and other cities in attempts to deter them from terrorist activity. Experts say this approach will likely be used with members of Hamas as well. "Abbas can only move as fast as he feels safe, and his safety net depends on the security service reform and how loyal they are to him," Ben Meir says.

What is the state of the ceasefire?

Shaky. The nearly year-long ceasefire with Israel declared by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in early 2005 will expire December 31, and there are no plans to renew it. Abbas has urged both sides to extend the fragile peace and has repeatedly appealed to militants to cease the rocket attacks on Israel that bring brutal Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reprisals against Palestinian towns and refugee camps. But the armed groups refuse to halt their attacks. "Renewing the truce will give [Israel] an opportunity to attack the resistance," an Islamic Jihad leader told the BBC December 28.

Are these elections particularly significant?

Yes, experts say. "It's important for the democratic process of the Palestinians," says Adrien Wing, the Bessie Dutton Murray professor of law at the University of Iowa and a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority. It's been nearly ten years since the first—and so far, only—Palestinian Legislative Council was elected in January 1996 as a product of the Oslo II or Taba agreements. Fatah won a majority of seats. That council was supposed to serve until the end of the transition period in May 1999, but the start of the second intifada, and the subsequent Israeli military presence in many of the Palestinian territories, caused the elections to be indefinitely postponed. They were rescheduled for July 2005, but Abbas put them off again; he wanted Israel's withdrawal from Gaza to happen in August and help him build support for Fatah before the vote.

Daniel Levy, an Israeli policy adviser who helped negotiate the Geneva Accord, says any more delays would anger Palestinians. The elections are needed to legitimize the reforms Abbas is undertaking and affirm that Palestinians support his strategy of peaceful, nonviolent negotiations toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The Palestinian street thinks violence worked" to drive Israelis out of Gaza," Levy says. "Abbas must show otherwise." In addition, Abbas is under tremendous pressure to deliver real improvements to Palestinians' quality of life. "All Palestinians want elections," Hijab says. "It's the one area of their lives they can control. They're fed up with the frozen state of the legislature."

How strong is Abbas?

His reforms are widely supported and he is gaining personal popularity. An October opinion poll from Birzeit University showed Abbas' approval ratings at 45 percent in Gaza and 40 percent in the West Bank after the Gaza withdrawal. Eighty-two percent of Gaza residents support Abbas' attempts to improve security and end lawlessness, and 83 percent of the residents—74 percent of all Palestinians—support a truce with Israel. Even though Hamas was credited for forcing Israelis out of Gaza with violence, the group's popularity dropped after the withdrawal. "The Palestinian public does not want the resumption of violence under any circumstances," Ben Meir says.

How is the United States supporting Abbas?

In a lukewarm fashion, experts say. These experts criticize the Bush administration for not making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of its top priorities, saying it is hurting prospects for peace with its lack of attention. "Unless this administration gets seriously active in a decisive way, things will not move in the way we need them to," Levy says. Experts also say the United States is not doing enough to pressure Israel to fulfill its obligations—including halting the building of new settlements—under the Road map peace plan. "How can [the United States] speak of a two-state solution if you don't put your very considerable weight behind the road map?" asks Hijab.

Is Israel supporting Abbas?

Sharon is not actively subverting Abbas, experts say, but his administration is doing other things—continuing construction of the separation barrier, expanding West Bank settlements, not releasing Palestinian prisoners, and continuing its much-despised system of checkpoints and road closures—that weaken and undermine Abbas' reform efforts. James Wolfensohn, the special envoy sent by the Quartet—the United Nations, Britain, Russia, and the United States—to work on the disengagement process, wrote in an October 16 letter that Israel is refusing to give up control over checkpoints and border crossings in Gaza and "almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal," the Israeli daily Haaretz reported. In his defense, some experts say Sharon—who recently split from his Likud party, suffered a stroke, and is preparing to contest early Israeli elections in March 2006 as the head of his new party, Kadima—can't make any major moves before consolidating his own power base. Still, many experts say the Israeli public is clamoring for peace, and will not allow Sharon to undermine it. According to an October 23 Haaretz editorial, "Abbas' intention to achieve calm through democratic means is deserving of trust and support at least for a limited period. Israel's role at this stage is not to disturb."

What are the prospects for peace?

Not great at the moment, but showing some small improvements, experts say. But "the Palestinian elections don't have anything to do with peace," Hijab says. "That has to do with Israel ending its occupation of the West Bank, and the United States and Europe making sure that happens." Analysts say both sides know the shape of a final settlement, but are delaying the process of getting there. "At this point, it's very clear what a negotiated two-state solution would look like," Levy says. Others see reason for optimism. "I absolutely feel that, even with all the obstacles and problems, the Arab world is very slowly concluding that Israel is a reality they must reckon with," says Ben Meir, adding that this is a critical attitude shift in key areas in the Gulf region, North Africa, and Egypt. "So yes, I think the prospects are good, but not this year or next year," says Ben Meir. "Perhaps in three to five years. But no one knows."

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