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West Asia: Challenge of Hamas

Challenge of Hamas The landside victory of the militant organisation Hamas in the elections to the Palestinian parliament is a new challenge that Palestine, Israel and the international community must confront. Israel will be once more in the dock if it refuses to negotiate with an elected government, which it says is headed by a political group that is blamed for a spate of suicide bombings that killed at least 430 Israelis. The US and the European Union (EU), the main backers of the now largely defunct peace process, have also threatened to cut-off financial assistance if Hamas does not renounce violence. The Palestinians themselves

WEST ASIA

Challenge of Hamas

T
he landside victory of the militant organisation Hamas in the elections to the Palestinian parliament is a new challenge that Palestine, Israel and the international community must confront. Israel will be once more in the dock if it refuses to negotiate with an elected government, which it says is headed by a political group that is blamed for a spate of suicide bombings that killed at least 430 Israelis. The US and the European Union (EU), the main backers of the now largely defunct peace process, have also threatened to cut-off financial assistance if Hamas

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

does not renounce violence. The Palestinians themselves – especially the president Mahmoud Abbas and the discredited Al-Fatah – will have to deal with the fact that the government they have elected is yet to formally recognise Israel’s right to existence.

The Hamas victory should have been expected. Early last year, the organisation had recorded impressive victories in local elections in Gaza and sections in the West Bank. However, the scale of its triumph – winning 76 of the 132 parliament seats in elections that saw a nearly 78 per cent turnout – has taken even Hamas by surprise. The immediate challenges before it now are to form a government, of which it perforce has limited experience, and to set plans in motion to resuscitate the Palestinian economy.

Hamas emerged as a resistance movement in Gaza during the first Palestinian intifada of 1987, inspired by Egypt’s relatively benign Muslim Brotherhood. (In a coincidence of victories, the latter too won a large number of seats in elections to the Egyptian parliament last December.) For much of its existence, Hamas has been consistent in opposing the peace process with Israel. Its resistance has been two-pronged. Hamas has built hospitals, provided vital medical aid, and run schools – gestures welcomed by the Palestinians who have suffered from Israeli occupation. However, the group’s undiminished antagonism towards Israel was demonstrated by the many suicide bombers it sent into Israeli public spaces that not only led to retaliation but conferred on Hamas the rather dubious aura of “martyrdom”.

Notwithstanding this history of resistance, Hamas’ election victory has largely been assisted by people’s anger against the Palestine Authority’s (PA’s) corruption, cronyism and obvious ineffectuality, especially in the years Yasser Arafat was in power, as well as the sheer hopelessness of everyday living that most Palestinians experience. Indeed, it was primarily to alleviate the worsening living conditions of most Palestinians that Hamas contested these elections on the platform of “Change and Reform”. That Hamas chose to embrace the electoral process, a stepping stone to Palestinian self-governance as envisaged by the Oslo Accord, was seen by many as a welcome “compromise”; Hamas has also adhered to the ceasefire it agreed to in February 2005, at the behest of PA president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Governance, however, poses altogether different challenges and those before Hamas are many and compelling. Dealing with disarmed Fatah factions and other questions of security is only the first of these. For long-term prospects of peace, it is essential that Hamas moves to some understanding with Israel, which will mean a willingness to abjure violence as a tool of resistance. Despite decades of violence, the two economies are now irretrievably intertwined. Much of the market for Palestinian agricultural products, mainly fruit, lies in Israel; most Palestinians have to “enter” Israel after stringent and humiliating gatepost checks to avail of work in Israel and electricity and water supplies are also densely networked. Moreover for Hamas to succeed in governance, international assistance is vital as the two separated wings of Palestine

– West Bank and Gaza – cannot stand on their own.

The peace process has long since stalled, the product first of Ariel Sharon’s intransigence, but also of Arafat’s inefficacy. The initiative to chart a new road to peace now lies with Hamas. But Israel must recognise that militancy thrives in Palestine because its government has never been serious about a peace that is honest, respects Palestinian dignity and restores to the people adequate control over land and natural resources (mainly water). The onus is on the international community too, that is, the UN, US, Russia and the EU, who have shown only an intermittent interest in finding a lasting solution in an admittedly very difficult situation. A new step for democracy in west Asia must conjoin with efforts made by the international community to negotiate with the many variants of democracy currently emerging in west Asia; it must also reengage with the peace process, with a degree of fairness and consistency, not seen earlier.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

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