Hamas’s Victory

26 January 2006

Hamas’s Victory

By Gwynne Dyer

Hamas did not win its surprise victory in Wednesday’s parliamentary election in the occupied territories because a majority of Palestinians are religious fanatics, nor because they believe that Israel must be destroyed. It won because the old mainstream liberation movement, Fatah, had squandered its credibility in ten years of corrupt and incompetent rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and because after 39 year of Israeli military occupation there is still no sign of a genuinely independent Palestinian state.

There is actually a small ray of hope in Israel at the moment. The political demise of Ariel Sharon has changed the dynamics of Israeli politics, and there is an outside chance that the Israeli elections in March could produce a government that was prepared to enter genuine negotiations with the Palestinians. Or rather, there WAS an outside chance, but most Israelis will see the victory of Hamas as evidence that Palestinians don’t want peace.

In fact, most Palestinians do want peace. They would quite like it if Israel were to vanish, of course, just as most Israelis would be happy if the Palestinians vanished. But as much the weaker party in the conflict, Palestinians have long been more realistic about what they would have to give up in a final peace settlement. For almost twenty years Fatah’s demand has been for a state in the territories that Israel conquered in 1967, not the other three-quarters of colonial Palestine that they lost to the new Israeli state in the 1948 war.

The problem is that for twenty years Fatah has made almost no progress in its pursuit of that goal through peaceful negotiations. Indeed, apart from the first three years after the Oslo accord of 1992, before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who feared that he would give too much away to the Palestinians, and a brief period around the turn of the millennium when Ehud Barak was prime minister, there have hardly been any real peace negotiations. Instead, Israel has been convulsed by an endless internal debate about how much of the conquered land it has to give back in return for a permanent peace with the Palestinians.

During this period the Jewish settler population in the occupied territories has grown fivefold to over a quarter-million people, average Palestinian incomes have fallen by more than half, and still there has been no substantial progress towards a genuinely independent Palestinian state. So it is hardly surprising that parties like Hamas, which reject the whole Fatah strategy of compromise with Israel, have enjoyed growing support among despairing Palestinians.

The fact that both Hamas and its smaller and more extreme rival, Islamic Jihad, are religious parties is simply a reflection of current political trends across the Arab world. Thirty years ago, it was secular parties like Fatah itself that were seen by the Israelis as the extremists and the rejectionists. In fact, back in the 1980s the Israeli intelligence services encouraged the growth of Hamas as a counter-balance to the secular radicals of Fatah. (To be fair, that was no more stupid than the CIA’s support for people like Osama bin Laden in the Afghan war at the same time.)

Now the Palestinians have given Hamas a clear majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Fatah-dominated cabinet have already resigned. Hamas will form a government which will not include any Fatah members — or at least Fatah leaders are currently proclaiming that they would not join such a government — and President Mahmoud Abbas, elected last year but also from Fatah, has announced that he too may resign if he cannot pursue a peace policy. So is the “peace process” finally, legally dead?

It certainly is for the moment. Hamas has reaffirmed that it has no intention of giving up the armed struggle against Israeli occupation (although its armed wing has largely respected a ceasefire negotiated with Israel by Fatah and Egypt a year ago), and it has said once again that it has no intention of negotiating with Israel. This really is a political earthquake. And yet…

And yet there is always hope, because having genuine political power and responsibility for the results of exercising that power is a crash course in realism. Fatah made the journey from rejectionism to negotiation; it is not inconceivable that Hamas can do the same. It may just take more time than remains for the current peace process, which is already fourteen years old.

In the meantime, don’t despair just because the United States, the European Union, and all their friends have officially branded Hamas a terrorist movement, and every news agency report dutifully describes it as a group that has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. So it has, but then the Israeli army is a group that has killed much larger numbers of Palestinian civilians. History has made these people enemies, and they behave accordingly.

But as Israeli general and politican Moshe Dayan once remarked: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” A Palestinian government led by Hamas and the government of Israel will end up in negotiations one of these days. This is not the end of the road.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“The fact…same time”; and “in the meantime…accordingly”)