It has been about a week since the Palestinian Authority elections handed a surprise victory to Hamas, the terrorist group that swears to destroy Israel and that killed the bulk of the 1,000-plus Israelis, mostly civilians in cafes and buses, during the Second Intifada. Now we are left with the onerous task of deciphering what this means. Here is a look at five prominent theories:
1. “A mandate for Hamas is not a mandate for the Intifada. Palestinians voted for Hamas not for terrorism, but for their social services. Fatah is notoriously corrupt.”
Hamas’ charities have risen in prominence, while Fatah, the more moderate incumbent party of President Mahmoud Abbas, squandered international aid, leaving the Palestinians destitute. Not all Palestinians necessarily voted for Hamas to support terrorism. But neither could they have voted for Hamas to protest terrorism — Hamas is its chief perpetrator. If Palestinians were as disillusioned with Hamas’s terrorism as they are with Fatah’s corruption, then turnout would have been low, revealing worn-down indifference. But turnout reached 73 percent. A solid majority of Palestinians seem either to support their people’s continued slaughter of Israelis, or to have tuned it out as political background noise.
2. “The Israelis brought this on themselves with the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. By ceding territory without negotiating with Abbas, Israel strengthened Hamas, which believes Israel responds only to violence.”
Hamas’ strength did not start with Israeli unilateralism. Israeli unilateralism, rather, responds to Hamas’ strength and Abbas’ weakness in the face of it. Moreover, the pullout could have helped Abbas had he not floundered in newly freed Gaza, but taken charge.
Hamas marketed the pullout with posters: “Four years of violence brought us more than 10 years of negotiations.” But Hamas could have marketed equally well the lack of any pullout, as evidence that Israel is a bully; or a negotiated pullout, as evidence that terrorism keeps Israel crawling back. Also, their poster is incorrect. In 1995, after negotiations, Israel pulled out from the major Palestinian cities, re-occupying them only to quell the Second Intifada. In 2000, Israel and Bill Clinton put peace packages on the negotiating table, but then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat rejected them.
Israel’s Gaza pullout was an attempt at good will, and a sensible security and demographic move. It is sad, but not Israel’s fault, that Hamas marketed it advantageously.
3. “The Israelis brought this on themselves with repeated arrest raids and strikes in Palestinian territory, making Abbas seem weak.”
Israeli raids do inflame tensions, leaving Palestinians feeling disempowered, such that Hamas may seem appealing. But a country facing a terrorist threat must protect its citizens, and raids fight terror successfully. This would not be an issue if Fatah had punished terrorists, but it failed to do so.
4. “The Israelis brought this on themselves by allowing Hamas to participate in the elections.”
The Palestinians deserve a national voice. The elections gave them one. Without open elections, they would have raised their voice another, less constructive way, as in the Second Intifada. If enough Palestinians support Hamas that Hamas could win so big, there would have been problems no matter what.
These four theories have one thing in common: the hope that Palestinians watching Hamas’ terrorist war on Israel, and long-term plan to annihilate it, could not actually be blase, or worse, supportive.
The Palestinians have a reasonable claim to the entire Holy Land. Of course, so do the Israelis. About 80 percent of the places in the Jewish Bible lie in Palestinian territories. The point of the 1990s peace process was that claims do not make peace, which at some point has to be more important than land.
The majority of Israelis have reached this state of mind. A majority of Israelis would even give the Palestinians half of Jerusalem for peace. (This is excepting the extremist minority who demand the entire “promised land.”) It is a terrible sacrifice for the Jewish state to give away the lands where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are entombed, where Joseph and his brothers pastured sheep, where King David played harp and penned psalms, and where for centuries Jewish peasants harvested farms. The hope was that if the Palestinians made the same painful sacrifice, the pain would be worth it, because it would lead to peace.
Arafat savagely cast that hope in doubt when he walked away from the 2000 peace offers to preside over a terrorist war against Israel. Hamas’ win marks as big a betrayal.
But let me turn with optimism to a fifth response:
5. “This is without a doubt a step back for the peace process.”
There is a small chance Hamas will disarm and recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. There was an even smaller chance the impotent Fatah could have forced Hamas to do so. The alternative to Hamas under Fatah was more sporadic terrorism. To break out of this standstill, Hamas must change from terrorists into rational political peacemakers. The only force that can change Hamas is Hamas itself.
Meanwhile, Hamas’ step into the limelight may heighten pressure on it. That the Arab League recently called for Hamas to recognize Israel, and the United States and the European Union are considering withholding aid to the Palestinian Authority until Hamas does so, is encouraging.
This is a game of double-or-nothing. Hamas’ political leader recently called for a Palestinian army, adding, as if to moderate his stance, that he cannot “cancel Israel in moments.” Brutality and patience are a terrifying pair.
I am reminded of a joke: An Israeli pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse.” What does the Israeli optimist say? “Sure, they can.”
Noah Lawrence is a freshman in Saybrook College.