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Satloff: Hamas Likely to Gain Considerable Strength in Next Week’s Palestinian Parliamentary Elections

Interviewee: Robert Satloff, Executive Director, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 19, 2006

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Robert Satloff, an expert on Arab and Islamic politics, says the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories next week are expected to give the Hamas party—which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel even while running an extensive social welfare network for Palestinians—"at the low end, a quarter, at the high end, just under half of the vote."

Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that "there's a great deal of internal upheaval within the Palestinian Authority [PA] generally and within the ruling party, Fatah, specifically." He says "in Gaza, and to only a slightly lesser degree in the West Bank, anarchy now reigns. The rule of law has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared."

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 19, 2006.

The elections for the Palestinian parliament take place January 25. Could you give us an overview right now about the respective roles of Hamas and Fatah?

There's a great deal of internal upheaval within the Palestinian Authority, generally, and within the ruling party, Fatah, specifically. It's important to describe the context first. In Gaza, and to only a slightly lesser degree in the West Bank, anarchy now reigns. The rule of law has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. Even President Mahmoud Abbas admitted in an Al-Jazeera interview this week that he may have issued political orders to impose civil order over the last year, but they've largely been ignored by security forces that are either unwilling or incapable of implementing them.

So there's a huge degree of disorder. Within that context, the ruling party, Fatah, had itself been ridden with internal conflicts. Some of these conflicts are generational, some of them are political, some of them have to do with good, old-fashioned local politics with factions trying to get better slices of the pie. It's not necessarily that the younger generation is more moderate. It is not necessarily that the older generation is more corrupt. There are cleavages that run throughout the party. Last month the party even went through a formal cleavage, and for a number of days, some of the leading lights of the party broke away, and formed their own separate party.

Who led that breakaway faction?

Well, at the top of the list of that faction was a man named Marwan Bargouti, who is currently serving five life sentences in Israeli jail for his role in the terrorist attack that led to the death of five civilians. Marwan Bargouti is widely recognized as the founder of the Tanzim, which is one of the armed wings of Fatah youth. Tanzim really means "organization." It's not a catchy title, but it's the organization of young Fatah.

Now, after much to-ing and fro-ing, led by the president, Mahmoud Abbas, who's also the head of the Fatah party, that breakaway group was convinced to come back to the fold with some concessions and different placements of people on candidates' lists, the usual politicking back and forth. The end result is that, to Palestinian public opinion, it was a visible message that not only had the overall system broken, but the political parties that represented the overall system itself had come apart. Now they're trying to portray an image of unity in the run-up to the election, but clearly that image is severely tarnished by what has occurred.

Talk about Hamas, now.

Hamas was born in the first intifada in 1987-88. Hamas was originally the West Bank and Gaza branches of the international [fundamentalist group] Muslim Brotherhood, the local branches of which wanted to get engaged in the violent confrontation against Israel without risking the Brotherhood's status, a movement that controlled schools and mosques and the religious hierarchy in local Palestinian society, and so to create this self-protection mechanism they created a new organization called Hamas.

Hamas has developed over the last eighteen years militarily, politically, and economically, into an organization which has a very efficient—but not nearly as large as some people think—social-welfare network through something called Dawa, which literally means "the call." This is social and economic outreach to people to bring them into the larger Islamic fold. Hamas has a very important military component, which is the essential raison d'etre of the organization, which has undertaken numerous terrorist attacks against Israelis both within the Green Line [the line that demarcates Israel from the Palestinian territories seized in the 1967 war] and outside the Green Line in the territories.

Hamas did not participate as a political party in the one previous Palestinian legislative election in 1996. There were really two reasons for that. One, because they didn't want to, and two, the system didn't allow it. At that time, Palestinian legislative elections were governed by the Oslo Accords, which specifically banned political parties that have either racist intent or that espouse violent means to political change. Hamas didn't want to legitimize the Oslo process by participating in an election under its rules.

Now that has changed. The second uprising has come and gone. Oslo, in most practical senses, is no longer the governing set of rules, even though it exists in a certain political and diplomatic sense. Hamas also sees the weakness in Fatah, and senses that its moment has now arrived to make a claim for the real leadership of the Palestinian movement, something that it wasn't really able to do so long as [former PA President] Yasir Arafat, even a weakened Arafat, was still alive. Hamas will do well in these elections. "Well" is a matter of some debate, but I would say somewhere between, at the low end, a quarter, at the high end, just under half of the vote. So we're talking a sizeable vote. Hamas is very powerful in Gaza [and] strong, though less powerful, throughout the West Bank. It will be a major force to be reckoned with if it isn't brought into the government by President Mahmoud Abbas.

Talk a bit about the relative strength of the Palestinian political entities.

Mahmoud Abbas was elected last January, just about a year ago, in a multi-candidate race. He received 62 percent or so of the vote, running on a platform that was based on the idea that violence is inimical to the Palestinian cause. Now ironically, the Palestinian political system was compelled to undergo a change in the late Arafat era, when the United States and the international community pressed upon Arafat a change in basic Palestinian law, which forced him to appoint a prime minister who would be empowered with some executive authority.

The whole idea of that was to limit the authority that Arafat had, and to allow a different leader, the empowered prime minister, to have more freedom, more ability to govern. The first Palestinian prime minister was Mahmoud Abbas, and he was in 2003, for several months, that empowered prime minister. As it turned out, he resigned because Arafat in the end found ways to undermine even the greater authority that Abbas had. So now as president, Abbas himself is in the same situation that Arafat was, namely that he doesn't have the authority that the president of the Palestinian Authority once had. He, too, will have a somewhat powerful prime minister he will appoint. That prime minister is traditionally the leader of the largest party. It doesn't have to be, there are some candidates out there. But the key blind card, really, is how well Hamas does and whether Abbas decides that in order to form a government he needs to bring Hamas within the tent and thereby pay whatever price he has to pay internationally and politically for trying to incorporate this extremist group.

Is there a clear leader of Hamas?

No, there is no single clear leader. The head of the Hamas movement is named Ismail Haniyeh. The leaders of Hamas over the last number of years have progressively been killed in targeted action by the Israelis. A lot of the Hamas candidates are not themselves associated with terrorist acts, even though they may support the Hamas mission to destroy Israel. Hamas has tried to run recognized civic leaders—doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, academicians, etc.—to underscore their anti-corruption message.

Tell us more about Haniyeh.

Ismail Haniyeh is a professional Hamas activist. He is one of the few who has been associated publicly with Hamas almost since the beginning. Hamas in general tries to find independents who are sympathetic to the Islamist message but that may not have been activists in movements for many years, and they put a lot of these people on their electoral list. Now the vote will be divided between national lists and district lists, where some of the elected candidates will come from individual districts, and some will represent the proportional vote that parties get in the overall Palestinian election, which is a recent innovation.

And how many people altogether in the parliament?

I believe the number is 132.

Talk a bit about the election process. Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Palestinians could vote in Jerusalem. Is this a significant move?

I think it's important to make three different distinctions, to divide the Palestinian territories into three types of areas. One is Gaza, where there are no Israelis, no Israel soldiers, no Israeli settlers; all the rules are set by Palestinian authorities in whatever manner they see fit. The second is the West Bank, outside of Jerusalem. This is an area in which Israel maintains its role as the military authority.

In September, Ariel Sharon said Israel would not facilitate Hamas candidates running in areas under its control. He was referring principally to the West Bank, obviously not to Gaza. Israel has since relented on this issue, and is not putting up any special roadblocks to Hamas candidates or to the election throughout the West Bank. This was the result of considerable pressure from the United States and Europe. Now, before he fell ill, Ariel Sharon put down a marker in terms of Jerusalem. He said he was putting down his foot in Jerusalem, that Palestinians were not going to be allowed to vote because Hamas cannot come into Jerusalem, Jerusalem being Israel's capital, separate and apart from the West Bank according to Israeli law. And of course, the Palestinians claim part of Jerusalem, too.

Now since he suffered his stroke, there's been a considerable exchange between the United States and the Israelis, and the Israelis have since modified their position and have said Palestinians can vote in Jerusalem as they voted in the past, namely in Jerusalem post offices, rather than in separate election booths. But the Israelis say Hamas candidates can neither campaign in Jerusalem, nor can their names appear on the ballot in Jerusalem. It remains to be seen the extent to which the latter two prohibitions are carried out in practice, but there was a unanimous decision taken by the inner Israeli cabinet to accept the idea that Palestinians will be allowed to vote in Jerusalem.

Whether there will be a Hamas candidate on the list is still up in the air?

What is somewhat unclear is whether the ballot that will be posted in Jerusalem will include Hamas candidates. I think the answer is probably not.

Now has Hamas been engaged in terrorist activities in recent months? Or have they abided by a ceasefire of sorts?

Earlier in 2005, Hamas and Fatah, under the auspices of the Egyptians, reached an understanding, whereby there would be something called a tahdiye. A tahdiye is less than a ceasefire, it's less than a truce; it's the Arabic word for "a calming down." In previous years there had been truces, but this is formally less than that. Hamas has by and large kept to its tahdiye commitment, because what it gets in exchange for that commitment was a promise from Abbas that the elections would be held under a certain set of rules with Hamas fully participating.

That was the essential deal. On those instances when Hamas has violated tahdiye commitments, it was partially because an even more radical group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad—which has not committed itself to the calming down—has decided to "out-extreme" Hamas and they launched their own attack on the Israelis. Hamas, not wanting to appear that they can't keep up with the jihadists, had also followed suit, and then things calmed down. But generally, Hamas has kept to its tahdiye commitments. It is important to note that no Hamas leader has ever suggested that Hamas has moderated on its strategic objective, in any sense, whether through a truce offer, or tahdiye. The strategic objective, the destruction of Israel, remains very clearly the Hamas goal.

It looks like, from what you've said, that Hamas will get a very significant proportion of the new parliament. Will that moderate Hamas' policies at all, do you think?

It's important to differentiate between tactical flexibility and strategic objective. I think Hamas, for example, if they are invited into the parliament, into the cabinet, is likely to say yes. I think they may even keep the tahdiye for a certain amount of time, the objective here being to take firmer control, at least to be able to block any other initiative without their assent with the Palestinian government.

So I think one's definition of moderation is the key issue here. If Mahmoud Abbas says, "I want you guys to disarm," Hamas will say never. But if Mahmoud Abbas says, "I want Hamas to fold its military units into the Palestinian national military units and you can keep your weapons as independent brigades within the Palestinian security forces," well, then Hamas may say yes. But then I don't think that this, by any stretch of the imagination, is what anybody expects disarmament is all about. So really, this question of moderation will be tested by how Hamas acts after the election.

Well, now the pressure will be heavy on Abbas, I guess, not to let Hamas into his cabinet for fear the Israelis won't deal with him, right?

Yes. It won't only be the Israelis. Last month Europeans also warned against doing this and threatened that international assistance to Palestinians will be at stake. But there are so many other ways for Hamas to have authority, it's sort of silly. You could have Hamas be the No. 2 in every ministry, you could have Hamas be the speaker of the parliament, you could have Hamas be the deputy head of every agency, and they'd exert much more authority than if they were ministers. But we have to recognize that this is a fundamental challenge to everything we thought the Palestinian Authority was all about. And my other view is that all of us who are interested in the success of this process, have failed in the last period of time to do everything we could to prevent the emergence, or the takeover in many respects, of Palestinian politics by this extremist movement.

What could "we"—I assume you mean the United States and Israel—have done?

Well, there are a number of things we could have done. One, it is true that we could have invested greater energy in the success of the nationalists, or the non-Islamists. Two, we could have laid down conditions for participation in legitimate politics, much the same way as we laid down conditions for our recognition of the PLO [the Palestine Liberation Organization, the main umbrella organization of the Palestinian national movement]. I mean, we're going to certify Hamas as legitimate political players without having them meet the tests that we forced the PLO to meet twenty years ago, namely recognition of Israel, renunciation of terror, and commitment to diplomacy as the means to resolve this conflict. I mean, we're going backwards twenty years in how we're dealing with major Palestinian political players.

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