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Rabbi Moshe Reiss

The Israeli - Palestinian conflict: Part B

Palestinian Politics: Everything has changed and the results are unknown!


Note correction to Part A, see below.



In the Palestinian area municipal elections took place in four parts ending on December 15. Hamas won sweeping victories in these elections.  According to Mark Heller of the Tel Aviv Universities Political and Strategic Development in Middle Eastern Hamas now controls the population of one million Palestinians while Fatah controls 700,000 (December 26, 2005).


On January 25, 2006 the Palestinian Authority held legislative elections for the first time in ten years. The election was for the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council or Parliament. The election took place in

Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem.


Fatah today is a fractured amalgam of coalitions and personal networks

without a clear head or a transparent decision-making process. Abbas heads the old wing and very popular Marwan Barghout, jailed for five life terms (+ 40 years) heads the new wing. As Mouin Rabbani, senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, points out, "The battle within Fatah is waged by multiple antagonists, not two, meaning that rather than the possibility of a neat split, the fragmented party is facing the prospect of disintegration."


The competing party is Hamas whose incorruptability is legend (especially compared to Fatah) and social service function are well known. In the West they are more well known as a result of their military wing. Hamas claims to want to destroy the State of Israel as a western interloper into the Middle East.


Hamas won 76 seats while Fatah won 43; Hamas succeeded beyond all expectations. Hamas will have to adapt to a new role of responsibility.

They will almost certainly have to accept a negotiated, two-state solution with Israel (even if it insists that Israel will be gone in the fullness of time).

While it is highly unlikely that Hamas will disarm, if they join the Palestinian cabinet it is also unlikely they will continue to foster suicide bombing.


Even in Jerusalem Palestinians are ruled by the government of Israel and live in much better circumstances than the cities of the West Bank. The latter have problems surviving, in Jerusalem the people wish to improve their standard of living. The West Bank cities are in economic and law and order chaos. Even in Jerusalem the four seats were won by Hamas (two seats were reserved for Christians). They were not voting for Hamas terrorist resistance – which would only harm there only life styles - but rejecting the corruption, ineffectiveness and inefficiency of Fatah.


Sheikh Mohammed Abu Tir, second on the Hamas national list for the Palestinian parliamentary election, told Haaretz “We'll negotiate [with Israel] better than the others, who negotiated for 10 years and achieved nothing," He did not dismiss future negotiations with Israel. Hamas will play by new rules. “In the past, it was said that we don't understand politics, only force, but we are a broad, well-grounded movement that is active in all areas of life. Now we are proving that we also understand politics better than the others."


Umm Nidal also won as a Hamas candidate in the election. She is the mother of three Hamas terrorists who were killed while taking part in "martyrdom" operations, (interviewed, December 21, 2005). She has always declared: 'My sons did not commit suicide. My sons went and fought. None of them intended ­ even accidentally ­ to kill civilians, children or the elderly. They all resisted and confronted the enemy. They had achievements and they were martyred.'



It is difficult to see how the Israel, the U.S. or the E.U can recognize or negotiate with Hamas given their unwillingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist.


Javier Solana the EU foreign policy chief announced: "It would be very difficult for the help and the money that goes to the Palestinian Authority to continue to flow [if Hamas won a majority]. The taxpayers in the European Union, members of the parliament of the European Union, will not be in a position to sustain that type of political activity." The PA relies on the EU for approximately one third of its annual budget.


The American administration has stated it will not recognize any Palestinian government in which Hamas until it recognizes Israel. It had in fact helped finance Fatah’s political campaign through the United States Agency for International Development.


Given that even these subsidy does not save the PA from its perpetual financial crisis, an abrupt halt to EU funding could sound the death knell for the Authority.



Abbas had made a strategic decision to co-opt Hamas into the political system and grant them power sharing. This was probably a wise choice given their popularity and military power. His only choice may have been to fight them and begin a civil war which he was as likely to loose as to win. This was a great gamble for Abbas and Fatah. Hamas won overwhelmingly; not I believe what Abbas had in mind. If Hamas had won 40-50 seats a coalition with Fatah was likely. It has been as noted by many an earthquake in Palestinian politics. The results on the impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will take years to determine. Either the internal working of Palestine can only be improved or chaos will ensue.


Hamas has for years been not only a terrorist organization but equally a social service organization. It helps the Palestinian poor with medical, educational, welfare, housing and other social services. Hamas seems to represent a substantial body of the popular will in Gaza and the West Bank. In addition they are known to be honest and incorruptible. There platform motto was ‘reform and change’.  Voters likely preferred them to help solve the internal Palestinian problems; improving the level of teaching, health care, welfare services and improving the level of police and the judicial system. Whether they can improve the economy, a key problem is unclear.


The election is more a rejection of an old tired corrupt and inefficient party – Fatah – than about the peace process. As Mahmoud Zahar the leader of Hamas in Gaza stated after the election: "We are going to change every aspect, as regards the economy, industry, agriculture, as regards social aid, health, administration, education." That is exactly why they were elected. Hamas did not run on terrorism or destroying Israel. They were elected to accomplish exactly what Zahar stated they would change. Zahar is also an Islamist. "We will join the Legislative Council with our weapons in our hands. . . . In the Islamist Palestinian state, every citizen will be required to act in accordance with the codes of Islamic religious law".


Except for relating to Israel in terms of implementing the changes noted Hamas may be uninterested in the peace process. Very few Palestinians or Israelis expected Fatah or Hamas to solve, in the short term, the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Most Palestinians like most Israelis have little expectation that peace was around the corner.


Some believe that the end of one party rule in Palestinian politics and the reduction of corruption will reorganize and moderate Palestinian politics and make a negotiated settlement more likely (Haim Malka, The Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in The Washington Quarterly of autumn 2005).  Can a Hamas controlled government control the lawlessness in Gaza and some of the West Bank cities? The lawlessness is controlled by Al Aqsa, a Fatah renegade brigade, and local war lords. Hamas as a government can not allow lawlessness.



Can Hamas change over time to be less a terrorist organization and more a political organization. There is one clear example of an organization that has so converted – the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein. Every situation is different. The political wing began in the early twentieth century. It was unsuccessful and in 1969 it established its terrorist wing. The combination of terrorism and politics eventually succeeded and a semi-independent government established in Northern Ireland. In 1998 on Good Friday an agreement was signed. This required the IRA to disarm. It took until the end of 2005 but they did disarm. The right wing, led by the Reverend Ian Pailsley continue to oppose Sinn Fein. The problems have not miraculously dissolved but terrorism had essentially stopped.


Hizbollah is a terrorist organization funded by Iran and Syria with the most powerful militia in Lebanon. They terrorized both in Lebanon itself and in Israel. They have at the same time been actively politically for more than a decade holding Parliamentary seats. Since the Israel military withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 Hizbollah has used very little terrorism into Israel. With Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon Hizbollah seems more like a political party and less like a terrorist organization. Discussions with the U.N. about Hizbollah disarming continue.


The Muslim Brotherhood (the original Islamic party and the father of Hamas) in Jordan chose the political route and rejected violence. They supported the Monarchy is the crisis against armed Palestinian groups in 1970-71 and the al Qaeda bombings in Amman in November 2005. Since entering the political system and running in the parliamentary elections beginning in 1989, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has elected as much as a third of the seats in parliament.


I recognize the differences between Northern Ireland and Israel and Lebanon and Israel. The IRA does not claim to want to destroy Britain, only throw them out of Northern Ireland. But the IRA does not have the ability to remove Britain from Northern Ireland and Hamas does not have the ability to destroy Israel.  


Unlike Hizbollah who is a small minority in the Lebanese Parliament, Hamas will control the Palestinian Legislative council. Can they be considered more like the Turkish Islamic Party which won their elections? Turkey has a long history of secularism and a military committed to secularism. There is no comparison to any other Islamic situation and thus the future is unknown.


Can a Pariah become a political Player? Hamas changing its stripes should be viewed with skepticism, but not rejected.


What will happen to Hamas when it forms a government? Does Hamas need to recognize the State of Israel? Does the IRA recognize the validity of the British government in Northern Ireland. Of course not. It may take decades, if ever for Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to be in the Middle East. The key is their behavior; stop terrorism and join the political process.  Hamas on the whole has adhered to the truce it negotiated with Abbas regarding Israel and its locally elected municipal representatives have coordinated with the Israeli administration. Improving the daily life of Palestinians depends on relations with Israel and the West's funding.


If whatever government is formed stops Katusha rockets from Gaza into Israel and limits suicide bombing they will prove their pragmatism; if they focus on their ideology they will fail, funding will stop and the Palestinian people’s already poor standard of living will get worse.


As Mohammed Ghazel, a Hamas leader in Nablus, told Ha'aretz newspaper (January 27) "The charter [re the destruction of the State of Israel] is not the Koran." Isma'il Haniyya, first on the Hamas list of candidates for the Legislative Council and the leader of its moderate wing, said in an interview with the French news agency AFP that "Hamas supports the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital in the territories occupied [by Israel] in 1967 - as an interim solution. However, Hamas will continue to maintain its views regarding the boundaries of historical Palestine, and [in terms of] refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the occupation” (on January 22). (An interim solution is what Ariel Sharon wanted, but obviously with a different outcome.) Haniyya may be appointed as the Prime Minister. However if Hamas were to appoint Salam Fayyad, former Finance Minister in Palestine and formerly  from the World Bank as Prime Minister; that would be proving their pragmatic position.


If Haniyya is Prime Minister it will be difficult for Israel (who collects custom taxes for the PA) and the other funding sources who provide 120 million dollars a month to the PA to swallow. Direct payments from the United States are banned to Hamas by American law, and many European nations have said they will not continue to aid the Palestinian Authority until Hamas agrees to recognize Israel and disavow violence, which Hamas has said it will never do. The Arab League has already stated that Hamas will have to recognize the two state solution and the road Map.


Just as the PLO was a terrorist organization before Oslo, so Hamas will change as it obtains government responsibility. Arafat as I noted in my last column (from David Samuels ‘In a Ruined Country’) never did reject terrorism, but his successor Abbas did.


Daoud Kuttab, Professor at Jerusalem's Al Quds University and a political analyst stated "If Hamas respects the rules of the democratic game, we have to let the winners win.  . .  But now Hamas will have to face reality, and part of reality means dealing with Israel." Hamas built their identity on opposing elections and the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Now they will run these institutions.


Mahmoud Abbas remains President of the Palestinian Authority and will be a moderating influence. Abbas has stated in the past that the Palestinian need ‘one law, one government, one army’. This will now be Hamas’ responsibility. Can they and will they consolidate the various Palestinian security and intelligence services that Abbas could not? Unless the new Palestinian government establishes stability in Gaza and some West Bank cities chaos will continue to the detriment of the Palestinian people and Israelis. Will those holding the patronage jobs, monthly paychecks, corrupt slush funds willingly give them up? Will Mohammad Dahlan, the Fatah leader in Gaza give up his power? What role will the popular and jailed Marwan Barghout (who was number one on the Fatah list) play? Do they regret after setting up their own party agreeing to combine it with Abbas’ Fatah? Will the civil war Abbas’ so feared take place or will Fatah respect the people’s will?



It may take ten-twenty years for peace to come, but it would have if Fatah had won the election. There was no realistic expectation of short term peace. The victory of Hamas confirms that the resolution has a long way to go. (We will discuss this in future columns.)


The election was peaceful, free and fair – the most democratic in Middle Eastern history (the Palestinians have learnt about democracy from the Israelis). This is after all what George Bush has been preaching. A peaceful transfer of power between two opposing parties has never been accomplished in any of the 22 Middle Eastern countries. Bush cannot ignore the people’s will. The Palestinian people will lie in the bed they elected.


The impact on Israeli politics and its Parliamentary election on March 28 seems difficult to determine at this early time. But it is unlikely to help centrist parties such as Kadima and likely to help right wing parties like Likud. All Israeli political comments in the few days after Hamas’ remarkable victory have more to do with the Israeli elections than any understanding of the future. Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of Likud claims to expect ‘Hamastan’ a version of Iran and the Taliban, presumably meaning Sharia (Islamic) law, banning girls and women from education and the workforce and an increase in suicide bombing.


The future, even of the government coalition to run Palestine or its funding - is unknown! What will the government of Israel do; assassinate Hamas leaders?


Everything has changed and the results are unknown!




In Part A I quoted incorrectly Arik Sharon as having said ‘“We are tired of fighting. We are tired of being courageous. We are tired of winning. We are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies. We want them to be our friends, our partners, our good neighbors. And I believe that this is not impossible." It was Ehud Olmert; I apologize for my error and thank Daniel Pipes for correcting me.