Watching media coverage of last week’s Hamas victory, one cannot help but internalize its preponderant sense of apocalyptic hysteria. For some, genuinely surprised at this sudden, seemingly irrational shift in Palestinian attitudes towards an organization that is on virtually every government’s terror list, Palestinians have set back the clock on negotiations. Their conclusion is that Palestinians have once again chosen the path of terror and are simply not to be reasoned with.
Yet this position represents a fundamental misreading of the election’s significance. Only with a better understanding of its results will a more complete reading of the situation be possible.
The election was not a referendum on forms of resistance to the Occupation, or on the existence of the state of Israel. The majority of Palestinians (69 percent, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research) desire a two-state solution and have expressed a desire for a negotiated settlement. Rather, last week’s elections were a rejection of Fatah and a demand for change: Much of Hamas’ support was in protest against the corruption, incompetence and unresponsiveness of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority to popular will.
To fully understand this, one must understand Hamas does not represent to Palestinians what it represents to viewers of American or European news. Whereas abroad one hears of suicide bombings and rallies, Hamas’ face at home is entirely different. To the average Palestinian, Hamas represents accountability, leadership, incorruptibility. Hamas single-handedly raised funds unmatched by the PA for schools, playgrounds, health clinics and social welfare programs though the PA receives billions of dollars in funding. Given much of the Palestinian population’s devastating poverty, Hamas’ efficiency was important to voters. It made it very difficult for any other party to compete.
At home over winter break, I encountered many Palestinians who, despite being liberal, secular or supportive of another party, respected Hamas for its honesty and productivity. As Hamas’ heavy campaigning made its electoral success increasingly likely, some of its most vociferous opponents conceded that “they worked hard for it.” That Hamas received the votes of many Palestinian Christians underscored that the appeal was more than just religious.
I do not deny Hamas’ strong stance against Israel as a factor in the elections. In recent years, Palestinians watched Israel ignore their every objection to systematic land seizures, home demolitions, acts of aggression against a civilian population and construction of an illegal barrier. Representatives in the PA merely issued vague promises to crack down on terror. In light of this, Fatah victory was highly unlikely.
Hamas, for Palestinians, is considered a hard-line, but not necessarily violent, alternative. As of the election, Hamas had largely respected its ceasefire with Israel for over a year, reducing the prominence of terrorism in the party’s public image. Fresh in voters’ memories was Hamas’ relative non-violence this year, juxtaposed with Israel’s continual violence. In the past week alone, Israeli soldiers have shot and killed two Palestinian children.
Needless to say, Palestinians have taken a significant risk that could turn very sour. Many of us have good reason to worry about Hamas’ unprecedented ability to dictate civil liberties and personal status legislation. The prospect of living under the double oppression of the Occupation and religious extremism is nothing to look forward to. Still, there are some reasons for optimism. While Fatah party members have stormed the streets, refusing to respect the elections’ outcome, Hamas remained composed, and instructed members to stay at home and not allow themselves to be provoked.
More importantly, Hamas’ newfound responsibility is likely to turn it from an opposition party into one accountable to the majority of the Palestinian population, which has repeatedly expressed a desire for negotiations and a two-state solution. In undergoing this transformation, Hamas will have to accept some measure of compromise. Its more radical elements, at least, long since realized that, which is why they opposed election participation in the first place. Given that Hamas does not benefit from international support and derives its current legitimacy entirely from its popular mandate, it is likely to moderate its platform, since it eventually must face re-election.
The ultimate outcome is beyond anyone’s power to predict. But rather than seeing the election as proof of the Palestinians’ refusal to be reasonable, it should be viewed as a rejection of what for too long the world has expected them to swallow: an impotent leadership, merely cosmetic changes and Israeli impunity. The election’s outcome was determined in large part by recent Israeli actions and by frustration with the Palestinian Authority. The trend they represent is not irreversible. But reversing it will require more than empty promises.
Diala Shamas is a senior in Berkeley College. She is the co-president of the Arab Students’ Association.