All Writings
January 30, 2006

Hamas’ Options

Alon Ben-Meir has just returned from a second extensive trip in as many months to Israel, Egypt, and Palestine where he met with scores of government officials, political party leaders, academics and ordinary citizens. This article and the two others that follow reflect some of his findings.

The degree to which Hamas succeeded in the Palestinian parliamentary elections may have come as a surprise even to close observers of Palestinian political scene, but Hamas' credible challenge to the dominant Fatah should not really be a mystery. Hamas was able to fully capitalize on the dismal social, economic and security conditions that prevailed in the territories for the past 12 years. Hamas' rise to political prominence, however, needs not signal a doomsday scenario or, necessarily, an end to the peace process. Hamas, if nothing else, is a pragmatic organization and will not squander its historic political gains by making shortsighted tactical or strategic moves that will shorten its tenure in power.

Hamas' success was directly aided mainly by the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself: ordinary Palestinians had simply enough of a decade-long corruption and cronyism, as well as its dismal failure to provide them with basic social services. Hamas' victory was also indirectly aided by Israel when it failed to empower President Mahmoud Abbas by refusing to make important concessions to him, such as releasing prisoners, ending collective punishments, removing road blocks to allow for greater mobility, and curbing the expansion of settlements. The United States too contributed, directly and indirectly, to Hamas' rise to power by leaving the Israelis and Palestinians to their own devices, to slug it out at each other for five years of the Intifadah, a bloody confrontation that devastated the PA and its security forces and shattered the peace process. In addition, Washington pushed prematurely for democracy without allowing time for a strong, untainted, and liberal movement led by younger Fatah leaders to rise and counterbalance the far better organized Hamas. And by providing financial and political support while funneling weapons to sustain an effective resistance, sympathetic states like Syria and Iran also strengthened Hamas' position.

It is important to consider the reasons behind Hamas' rise to political prominence because they also point out the directions and measures that Hamas must take to fully capitalize on its stunning win. First, Hamas' victory must be seen as a vote against the corrupt, ineffective, and chaotic governance of the Palestinian Authority. This is important to understand because whereas Hamas has the solid ideological support of some 25 to 30% of the Palestinians, the rest of its support was simply a non-ideological vote of protest against the PA. Should Hamas fail to deliver on its promises of social and economic reforms that will produce immediate benefits, most of this non-ideological support is likely to quickly evaporate. Second, it is critical to understand that Hamas was elected during a sustained ceasefire with Israel and not when violence was raging. A substantial majority of Palestinian (more than 70%) do not want a resumption of violence, because it will slow or stop the social and economic progress they so desperately need. Quite simply, the Palestinian public is yearning for a non-violent atmosphere in which to prosper; Hamas was there to answer the call and must now maintain the calm. Third, Hamas has established a reputation of a clean, honest, and caring organization that puts to the forefront the welfare and well-being of ordinary Palestinians. Fourth, Hamas is a cohesive political organization with a unified agenda, which has provided it with a clear direction and tremendous impetus throughout the election campaign. Finally, Hamas already enjoyed a momentum generated from its successful municipal elections: this created an aura of success that begot another.

The reasons behind Hamas' rise to power, however, do not eliminate the numerous problems, some extremely daunting, that Hamas will confront unless its leaders heed the reality in which they must operate. Considering that the Palestinian treasury is basically empty, Hamas must first find a way to pay the salaries for nearly 136,000 government employees. It must also deal effectively with a restive, if not violent Fatah opposition, especially the Aqsa Brigade and the young political leaders, who feel betrayed by their elders. The leadership of Hamas also has to overcome the tensions between hardliners like Khaled Meshel in Syria who rule out any accommodation with Israel and more moderate and pragmatic leaders like Sheik Hussein Youssef in the West Bank and Ismail Haniya in Gaza who understand the need for some dialogue between the Israeli government and their own. In addition, Hamas is under time pressure to deliver immediate benefits that the people want and expect. The public could become seriously exasperated by Israeli restrictions of movement of people and goods and any impediments of travel between Gaza and the West Bank. Finally, there is always the possibility of initial confusions and mishaps stemming from a lack of experience in governing.

These conditions and Hamas' pragmatism are likely to shape its behavior for the foreseeable future and inadvertently foster moderation in both the organization's conduct and public utterances. Hamas' leaders understand that they cannot deal with the West, especially the United States, let alone receive financial aid, unless they renounce violence and, at a minimum, mute their public pronouncement regarding the destruction of Israel. Any resumption of violence against Israel will invite a massive, even disproportionate Israeli retaliation, which will bring to a quick end any social and economic development programs that Hamas and the Palestinian people have envisaged. This threat will compel Hamas to continue to adhere to the ceasefire with Israel, even if it means reigning in other militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Aqsa Brigade. Finally, Hamas' leaders fully realize that working harmoniously with other Palestinian factions, especially Fatah, could be a key to their success. Thus, they will spare no effort to do just this in the weeks ahead. To that end, they need to secure indirect Israeli cooperation, and so will lean heavily on Mr. Abbas to continue a dialogue with Israel; they may even appoint a moderate and untainted, prime minister to secure some concessions. And, although it is not likely to disarm any time soon, Hamas may incorporate its militia into the Palestinian security apparatus, while undertaking some major reforms to streamline the security forces. At the end of the day, Hamas' instinct for survival will govern decisions in these areas and its other future activities.

Hamas will sooner than later realize that the rules of the game change dramatically when it comes to governing rather than existing as a free revolutionary movement without the responsibilities and the burdens of running a state. If Hamas finds the path of moderation, renounces violence, and abandons the pipe dream of destroying Israel, as has Fatah, it may finally bring true salvation and redemption to its people. If not, its leaders will sow with their own hands the seeds of self-destruction and inflict on the people who put them in power more tragic losses and devastation.