Despite the surprise that greeted Hamas’ election victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, the Islamic Resistance Movement did not come from nowhere. Hamas first emerged as a real player on the Palestinian social and economic scene during the first intifada that started in 1989. Even then it came from the ranks of the long-established Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which had remained relatively marginal until Hamas engaged in active resistance against the Israeli occupation. The movement strongly opposed the peace negotiations with Israel in 1991, the Oslo agreement of 1993, and all subsequent agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which was established as a result of Oslo. The movement also boycotted the 1996 parliamentary elections. Because of this opposition, Hamas gained three advantages that allowed it to steadily increase its popularity with the public. The first, and maybe most important, was its heavy involvement in fighting the Israeli occupation at a time when Fatah, which had initiated and led that struggle until the peace process, was no longer involved. Hamas, in other words, strove to replace Fatah as the leading resistance movement. In this regard, Hamas was helped immensely by Israel’s refusal to end its expansion of illegal Jewish settlements during the years of the peace process. Thus, Hamas’ second advantage was the failure of the peace process to achieve its declared objectives, whether in terms of ending the occupation or in terms of improving the lives of Palestinians and establishing the institutions of a future Palestinian state. Hamas took advantage of both the failures in governance of successive Palestinian governments, especially until 2002, and the reluctance shown by Israel to implement signed agreements. That reluctance left the Palestinian public in little doubt that Israel was trying to cheat the Palestinian leadership. It was taking advantage of the peace process to neutralize Fatah, while normalizing relations with the Arab world without at the same time fulfilling its obligations under the peace process. Finally, Hamas also received large amounts of money and support, first from state sources and then from unofficial sources, including individual, supporters throughout the region and the world. This allowed it to establish an infrastructure useful to promote its political position. In addition to these factors, the movement’s promotion of Islamic values also proved popular among an overwhelmingly Muslim population. In all, these factors helped lead Hamas to victory in last year’s elections. In response to this victory, the parties opposed to the Hamas government opted for different strategies. What had become the Fatah-led Palestinian opposition decided to allow Hamas to govern in the hope that it would fail to deliver on its election promises. Fatah rejected an early invitation by Hamas to join a unity government, and the strategy was based on the belief that, given the limited powers of the PA and the harsh measures of the Israeli occupation, any Palestinian government was bound to fail. The international community, however, led by the United States, adopted a different strategy. By imposing a political and economic embargo on the Palestinian government, Washington hoped to force the government out of power. Israel took a similar position and decided to stop transferring the tax monies it collects on behalf of the PA according to the Oslo Accords, which account for some two-thirds of the PA’s domestic revenue. But the international and Israeli strategy contradicted that of the internal Palestinian opposition. By boycotting the PA, the Palestinian public was led to understand that the international community, which had originally encouraged parliamentary elections, was punishing Palestinians for exercising their democratic rights. Consequently, Palestinians were easily convinced that the government’s inability to fulfill its obligations and meet its promises were the fault of the international community and Israel rather than Hamas. The movement did not suffer a public backlash. This, however, started to change in the last few months, when it became clear that in fact international aid and Arab financial support had increased in the past year, something Minister of Planning and acting Minister of Finance Samir Abu Eisheh was eventually forced to concede. It was a double-edged sword, though.
On the one hand, Hamas could not continue blaming only the international community for the dire financial straits in which Palestinian areas found themselves; but nor could the opposition blame Hamas for provoking international isolation. This development, combined with the collapse of the civil servants’ strike against the government, the gradual official Arab recognition of the Hamas-led government and the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, has left Hamas with little motivation to support a national unity government.
The stalemate on this issue, caused mainly by Hamas’ attempts to change the rules of the game by not recognizing the leadership role of the Palestinian Liberation organization and its international political commitments, has brought the situation to the brink of civil war. Hamas, at this late stage in the game, cannot both accept the parameters of Oslo by running in elections for control of the PA and want to change these same parameters by denying the legitimacy of the Oslo agreement that created the PA.
At the same time, all other interested parties, inside or outside Palestine, have to shape their policies around the fact that Hamas came to power through free and legitimate democratic elections. That must be the only way the movement loses power.
Ghassan Khatib is a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter.