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Hamas’ surprise victory over Fatah in January 25 legislative elections raises many questions for the future of the Middle East. Experts are still trying to figure out the implications of the unexpected, and unprecedented, event. "This is a very complicating development for everyone involved: Palestinian Authority (PA) President] Abu Mazen [also known as Mahmoud Abbas], Fatah, Israel, the United States, and the Quartet [European Union, United States, United Nations, and Russia]," says Michael Herzog, a brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Other experts agree. “The election results were nothing anyone anticipated,” says Rachel Bronson, senior fellow and director for Middle East and Gulf studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
How large was the margin of victory?
Hamas won by a convincing margin. With 95 percent of the votes counted, Hamas had taken 60 percent of the vote and won 76 seats in the 132-member parliament. Fatah, the dominant force in Palestinian politics for forty years, won forty-three seats, and thirteen went to smaller parties and independents. While many experts had predicted a strong showing for Hamas, their huge win shocked the world. "People took into consideration a Hamas victory, but no one expected a landslide," Herzog says.
Why did Hamas win?
Experts say Palestinian voters were sick of the corruption and incompetence of Fatah, which has run the PA for the decade since it was founded. Fatah leaders skimmed off much of the billions in foreign aid the international community has given to the PA, leaving ordinary citizens living in desperate conditions. The 2000 intifada and its reprisals, both military and economic, from Israel devastated the PA economy, yet Fatah leaders refused to reform the Palestinian security services and crack down on suicide bombings and other militant attacks against Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, has steadily built a reputation as a clean, non-corrupt party that could deliver results. Its network of hospitals and schools provides social services to Palestinians that the PA did not, and a string of victories in local municipalities in 2005 showed Hamas members to be more effective administrators than the Fatah old guard.
Is this the first time a U.S.-designated terror group has won a majority in an elected government?
Experts say yes. The closest thing to a precedent, Herzog says, would be the Algerian elections of 1991. The Islamist fundamentalist group Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) looked as if it would win a sweeping victory, but was prevented from taking power. Subsequent government actions—including dissolving parliament and canceling the second round of the vote—set off a civil war that left 150,000 dead.
Are there similar groups currently in world governments?
In Lebanon, the U.S.-designated terror group Hezbollah has several elected members in government, including one minister. Members of Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein party joined the political process even as their armed wing, the Irish Republican Army, continued to threaten violence. But those politicians joined existing governments; the Hamas case is more complicated because the group won outright. "Hamas will form the government," Herzog says. "Others will have to join them."
How will this affect relations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel?
Israel has stated it will not deal with a Hamas government. "On a political level, I don’t expect any relations between Israel and Hamas," Herzog says. In addition, ongoing security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian security services will likely end "because if Hamas controls the government, they control the security forces," he says.
What will happen to Israel’s practice of targeted killings?
"The rationale behind targeted killings [of Hamas members] is the ticking bomb," Herzog says. "If there is an impending terror attack and there is no other way to stop it with arrests or any other action, the IDF will take him out." In addition, some targets—including Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and former leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi—were killed because they inspired and encouraged suicide attacks, Herzog says. Should a current Hamas politician do the same, "Israel will take whatever measures necessary to protect its security," he says. But Herzog also says Hamas will likely split into separate political and militant factions, and that Israel would probably hesitate before killing a PA politician. "I expect Israel will be more careful about individuals in government and concentrate on [militant] activists," Herzog says.
How will the Hamas victory affect Israeli elections?
"It might add some votes to the Likud party, but generally speaking, I don’t expect it to have a dramatic effect on Israeli politics in terms of taking away many votes from Kadima [the centrist, pragmatic party formed by former Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shortly before his debilitating stroke]," Herzog says. He and Bronson both say the Hamas victory will likely strengthen Israelis’ desire for unilateral action. "Kadima is running strong based on unilateralism," Bronson says. "[Likud leader Binyamin] Netanyahu’s position is that Israel must wait for Palestinians to make concessions, which most Israelis consider futile." Instead, she says Israelis will likely follow acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into more actions the Israelis deem necessary for their security, such as withdrawing from certain areas of the West Bank and continuing to build the security wall.
What is likely to happen to diplomatic relations between the Palestinian Authority and other countries?
Experts say the situation is much more complicated now than when Fatah ran the PA. The United States is prohibited by law from negotiating with terrorists. As a result, Bronson says the United States will probably not deal with Hamas officially, but will likely use Abbas as a conduit to the Hamas government. "It’s clearly important for American policy for Mahmoud Abbas to hold onto his role," she says. The European Union, despite similar restrictions, will likely find a way to deal with the political wing of Hamas while shunning the armed militia wing—as they do with Hezbollah in Lebanon. "The Europeans are now actively reassessing their views on Hamas," Bronson says. "I think they will look for a way to cooperate, and the Palestinians will look for a way to keep European support." Hamas is dependent on international aid to realize its campaign promises to improve social services in the Palestinian Authority.
What will happen to EU or U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority?
Diplomatic experts say the United States is unlikely to cut off its aid—some $100 million last year—to the Palestinian Authority entirely. Instead, U.S. officials will figure out a diplomatically acceptable way to continue funding the area, particularly humanitarian projects. "People don’t want a humanitarian crisis to take place in the PA," Herzog says. He says Israel, despite its ban on dealing with Hamas, will continue its contact with low-level officials to distribute items like food and medicine to avert any potential humanitarian crises.
Will the elections lead to violence?
Experts say violence is likely, both among Palestinian factions and between Palestinian militias and Israel. First, Fatah members jealous of their turf will oppose handing it over to Hamas. "The young, violent Fatah activists who forced Abu Mazen to put them on the security services payrolls will likely resist with force," Herzog says.
With Israel, some Hamas members have tentatively proposed extending a nearly year-long ceasefire. “Hamas is a politically astute organization,” Bronson says. “They tend to read the pulse of the Palestinian people very well.” Polls show most Palestinians favor a two-state solution and a cessation of violence with Israel. However, Bronson says that even if Hamas calls an extended ceasefire, it cannot necessarily prevent other armed groups like Islamic Jihad from attackingIsrael. Israel would respond immediately with force, since Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—himself heading into elections himself in March—needs to show that he is tough on terrorism. Hamas would then respond to the Israeli response with more attacks. In many ways, Bronson says, the ball is inIran’s court. SinceTehransupports Islamic Jihad, it remains to be seen whether Iran will try to reduce violence by Islamic Jihad in order to help Hamas, or set them loose to bring more turmoil in the region, she says.
Will Hamas be able to control its militants?
"Hamas usually has very tight control over its militants," Herzog says. "If they decide on a temporary ceasefire, they’ll probably abide by it. But they may allow other groups—like Islamic Jihad—to carry out terrorist activity, or subcontract it to other groups, which they’ve done in the past." Bronson says the real security challenge for Hamas is how to integrate two separate armed forces: the Palestinian security services and Hamas’ militia. No one planned for what to do in this situation, she says, because they assumed Hamas would be the opposition party and Fatah would be trying to disarm its members. Now, "Hamas won’t disarm, but it has to decide what to do with the security services, which are dominated by Fatah," she says. Until those questions are settled, she says, it’s very hard to say how much control Hamas will be able to exert over the larger security situation.
What will happen to Mahmoud Abbas?
Abbas’ positions—normalization of relations with Israel, halting the intifada, and resuming peace talks—clash with the Hamas platform to such an extent that he may be forced to resign, experts say. Although the president appoints the prime minister, both the prime minister and the cabinet must be approved by a majority of the legislature, all but ensuring that Hamas, as the victorious party, will fill the prime ministerial post with one of its own members. If Abbas does resign, the PA has sixty days to appoint a new president.