Two Years after Hamas's Election Victory

Is the Movement Now Politically Irrelevant?

For years, the Palestinians were encouraged by Israel and the West to hold free and democratic elections. When they finally did so the result was not what had been hoped for: instead of the moderate PLO it was the Islamist Hamas movement which emerged as victor. Peter Philipp looks back

Hamas followers in Gaza city (photo: AP)
A shock for both the PLO and the West - the Hamas election victory two years ago

​​According to the view of the USA, the EU and Israel, the elections were supposed to give the Palestinians the opportunity to show themselves ready for the responsibility of founding a new state. The poll would give them the chance to show they wanted peace - the peace which had been made possible by the Oslo accords and subsequently by Palestinian autonomy over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

On the Palestinian side, this path had been made possible by the PLO under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. From the start he had been opposed by Hamas, a radical Islamist movement with roots in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Following Arafat's death in 2004, his successor, Mahmoud Abbas felt that the time was right for elections. That was a misjudgement: the PLO were defeated by the Islamists, who had only decided to take part fairly late in the game.

The shock for the PLO, who had felt sure of victory, was considerable. But it was well known that the PLO had been defeated, not because of the peace process, but because the movement was worn out and riddled with corruption. The Palestinians wanted a new leadership.

Suffering from stagnation

Abdallah Frangi, former PLO emissary to Germany and now a leading member of Fatah and the PLO, drew a sober balance of the elections shortly afterwards:

"We need reforms," he said. "We suffer from a certain stagnation. People have been spending the last ten years more worried about their jobs in the government than about the work of the party. And that's the reason our movement has been neglected and why we are living in such miserable conditions."

The shock in the West was perhaps even greater. It had been hoped that Palestinian society would have become more liberal. Now there was the threat of an even greater polarisation, especially since Hamas had made a commitment in its statutes that it would never recognise Israel and would work towards its destruction.

Negotiations advisable

Hamas is regarded by both the USA and the European Union as a terrorist organisation, and, as a result, it has been out of the question for them to have any relations with a Hamas-led government.

More significant, however, was the fact that official aid was no longer being channelled from government to government, but was being given direct to those in need, as far as that was possible while avoiding the government. Even Abdallah Frangi saw that as a serious mistake.

"If you punish the victors in this way because they have won - and that means in this case Hamas - then you are smothering the democratic process in its infancy," he said. "I think the best thing on the part of the Europeans would have been to have continued negotiating with Hamas. That would have put them under pressure, so that they would have had no other option than to take over the political line which had already been laid down."

Blockade policy

The Europeans - and even more, the Israelis - paid no attention to such advice. They were convinced that Hamas would not be ready to change its policy and to take a conciliatory position towards Israel.

They had reasons for their scepticism, not only in the organisation's statutes and in the statements its leader, Khaled Mashal, was making from his exile in Syria, but also in the interviews and speeches of Hamas politicians in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

Above all, although the elected prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has usually refrained from making radical statements, he told a gathering of thousands of people in Gaza in Autumn 2006 that Hamas would never recognise Israel.

According to Haniyeh, Hamas supported the establishment of a Palestinian state on Palestinian territory - a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as capital, the release of all prisoners and the return of refugees - but was only prepared to offer a ceasefire with Israel and not recognition. "We will never give up the land of our fathers and forefathers," he said.


Palestinian prime minister Hanijeh (photo: picture-alliance)
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh: "We will never recognise Israel!"

​​The new Hamas government was neither prepared neither to respect the Oslo Accords nor to agree to a peace process. One does not need much imagination to see that there could be no relaxation of the situation with Israel under such a government, and that peace would be impossible.

As a result there were increasingly frequent power struggles and public arguments between the PLO and Hamas.

This was especially the case in the Gaza Strip, from which Israel had withdrawn in 2005 and where Hamas traditionally had more support. Armed clashes with Israeli troops, the kidnapping of a soldier, repeated Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip - as well as the increasingly frequent rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza - led to a worsening of the situation.

This turned into open conflict between Hamas and the PLO in mid-June 2007. Hamas took over control of Gaza and threw out the representatives of President Abbas of the PLO. He in turn set up his own government in the West Bank and tried to restart the peace process.

The rest of the world supported him, but Israel did little to help. The expansion of settlements on Palestinian territory undermined peace efforts, as did the massive restrictions which Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli government, under its prime minister Ehud Olmert, hoped, as so often, that it would be able to enforce a solution; instead it pushed the population of Gaza in their desperation even further into the arms of Hamas.

And the Israeli government has even made things difficult for President Abbas, who is courted by Olmert, the US President George W. Bush and the Europeans as the man on whom they pin all their hopes: the greater the desperation in the Gaza Strip, the less faith there is in the peace process.

Peter Philipp

© Deutsche Welle/ 2008

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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