Gaza City, Asharq Al-Awsat- The election success of Hamas heralds a new chapter in Palestinian history. For the first time since the Oslo accords in 1993 and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has taken part in national elections across the Occupied Territories and used the ballot box to cement its position as the most popular Palestinian factions.
Back in 1997, the situation was radically different. Dr. Yehya Moussa, Secretary General of the al Khalas Islamic Party, affiliated to Hamas, held several meetings at the party’s modest offices in Nasr street in Gaza City, but failed to convince other in attendance that Hamas ought to join the political process.
Earlier this week, on the eve of the Palestinian legislative elections, the charismatic leader and candidate appeared relaxed and denied that Hamas’ participation in the polls were a sign the Islamic resistance movement, to use its real name, had undergone a radical transformation. In 1996, the group had boycotted the elections and watched from the sidelines, as a Fatah led by Yasser Arafat emerged victorious. What has changed in the last decade? How did Hamas transform itself from a slogan onto reality? What are the positive and negative aspects of its participation in the political process?
“Circumstances have changed”, Moussa told Asharq al Awsat. Ten years ago, Hamas declined to take part in the elections to highlight the illegality of the Oslo accords that infringed on the rights of the Palestinian people. The current situation, he added, was markedly different and more complex. “After the [Israeli] settlements were evacuated across the Gaza Strip, one can no longer say that the Palestinian territories are still completely under occupation under the stipulations of Oslo [accords]. Concurrently one cannot claim that they have been totally liberated.”
He indicated that amongst the movement opted to take part in the election, scoring a historical victory, because “The talks with Israel have been practically at a standstill for seven years. The economic conditions have deteriorated badly. Financial and administrative corruption is rife in all organs of the Palestinian Authority and its executive, to an unprecedented degree. Unemployment exceeds 60% and Palestinian debts are huge, so much so that every child is born already owing 400 dollars in debts. The security situation is dire and Palestinian citizens no longer feel safe and secure.”
Moussa did not accept that the conditions set by the Oslo accords would obstruct Hamas from performing its role as a resistance movement, saying, “We do not understand politics as the art of what can happen. We see it as a conflict of wills, and it is no possible that we will surrender to the current reality and we work to develop Palestinian reality and reform it.”
At the present time, he believed, two currents were competing in Palestinian politics, one that seeks to co-exist with the occupation and its conditions and the other that prefers to create events and strengthen the Palestinian people and reinforce its position.
Meanwhile, Dr. Abdul Sattar Qassem, who teaches political science at al Najah University in Nablus in the West Bank , pointed out that Hamas was greatly mistaken in its refusal to take part in the legislative elections in 1996 and the presidential elections in 2005, since it was evident that no Palestinian faction would succeed in overthrowing the Oslo accords. Hamas was right to stop “standing on the sidelines and producing opposition bulletins”, he said.
Commentators have tended to argue that Hamas’ decision to participate in the polls signaled a possible shift in its ideology. However, Nuhad al Sheikh Khalil, a specialist researcher in Palestinian Islamic movements, rejected this and revealed that the Islamic movement was not opposed, in principle, to taking part in the political process through the ballot box.
Sheikh Khalil, in his conversation with Asharq al Awsat, said Hamas had taken part in elections in the past, such as when it chose a leadership in the al Zahar initiative in 1988 and held discussions about whether to join the PLO in 1990. In 1996, he said, Hamas had refused to participate in the legislative elections purely for political considerations. At the time, Fatah was strongly in favor of normalizing relations and coordinating with the Israelis in security matter and it believed that a real partnership with the occupier would allow the emergence of a Palestinian state. Hamas held contradictory views.
But being in the opposition is markedly different than assuming power. Now that Hamas has emerged victorious, will the movement be able to transform itself and succeed where Fatah has failed?
Dr. Qassem emphasized that a Hamas win means the Islamic movement can now play a bigger role in supervising the Palestinian cabinet, given that the legislative council is capable of bringing down the government. On the other hand, he cast doubt on the ability of Hamas representatives to enact the laws they had promised voters. Palestinian laws give the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) the right to reject any laws the legislative council proposes and grants him the power to run government affairs by administrative enactments, if the cabinet were to be brought down by the legislative council.
A Hamas government would also pose a grave dilemma for the international community, Qassem indicated. European governments might carry out their threats to cut off aid to the PA, which would only serve to complicate matters further. But Moussa refused to be pessimistic, revealing that several European governments had apologized for the statements of Javier Solana, the EU High Representative, where he indicated the international body would suspend aid to the PA in case of a Hamas win. “Politics are not based on absolute convergence neither are they based on an absolute discrepancy. Europe’s interests demand that it recognizes the Palestinian reality as it is,” Moussa said.
Hamas has recognized that the upcoming period requires it to adopt a flexible political approach, enabling it to maneuver on the international, regional and local stages. This is why the election program of the movement did not include any mention of the destruction of Israel, even though the covenant calls for this outright. The Islamic movement has justified this omission by indicating that its election manifesto corresponded to the group’s vision of a solution at this stage. It discussed the resistance as a choice for liberation but from a realistic and practical, angle the group has demonstrated its ability to suspend military activity for a long period. Israel admits that Hamas has effectively adhered to the truce between the two sides and halted all military activity against Israel targets.
The last few years have revealed that the activities of the Islamic resistance are always linked to political considerations. At the same time, Hamas recognizes that, after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and the evacuation of all settlements and military outposts, it was no longer justified to keep thousands of armed fighters, known as the Ezzedin al Qassam Bridges. However, this does not mean that Hamas will dissolve its military wing. On the contrary, Hamas will retain its military capabilities as a deterrent.
On the social level, Hamas has displayed more pragmatism and realism that many would admit. For example, many candidates did not treat the statements by Um Nodal Farhat, the female candidate who vowed to pass a law obliging women to wear the hijab (veil), seriously. They were more focused on gathering support for their political aims, which many across the Palestinian territories share with them.