News Analysis

The landslide victory of Hamas in the Jan. 25 Palestinian legislative elections sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and beyond.

The official tally showed Hamas’ Change and Reform slate winning 74 of the 132 seats. The Fatah Movement, which has dominated the Palestinian Authority for 13 years, won 45. The remaining 13 seats were divided between independents backed by Hamas (4), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (3), Mustafa Barghouti’s Independent Palestine list (2), Hanan Ashrawi’s Third Way (2), and The Alternative list (2), a coalition that included the Palestinian People’s Party and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Turnout was high, around 78 percent. Several observers pointed out, however, that two-thirds of the Palestinian people — those in refugee camps, the diaspora and Israeli prisons — were excluded from the vote. And those who voted did so under the harsh conditions of military occupation, particularly in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But over 981,000 Palestinians turned out and they voted big for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which has a history, among other things, of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. Why?

Hamas’ election platform called for resisting the Israeli occupation, defending Palestinian rights, ending corruption and cronyism in the Palestinian Authority (PA) and helping the poor. Its slate included some Christians, women and professionals known for service to the community.

Hamas has built up considerable good will among Palestinians in the occupied territories through its network of schools, clinics and other welfare institutions. Its leaders have acquired a reputation for incorruptibility.

All this earned them support.

While Hamas’ founding charter calls for Israel’s “obliteration,” its election platform didn’t include that demand. It offered to observe a 10-year ceasefire if Israel agrees to withdraw to its 1967 borders. In addition, Hamas has abided by a PA-brokered ceasefire for about a year, something acknowledged, but not matched, by the Israeli authorities.

Polls and interviews suggest that voters may have been motivated less by devotion to Hamas — one poll shows under 3 percent of the population supports its advocacy of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine — than out of deep disappointment with the PA and Fatah.

Palestinians are clearly fed up with 38 years of Israeli occupation, particularly since the 1993 Oslo Accords. Massive unemployment, poverty, hunger and lack of housing have grown, and only a handful have benefited.

Israel’s relentless policy of targeted assassinations and armed incursions, and its annexationist apartheid wall along the West Bank, have multiplied Palestinian outrage.

This unbearable status quo is strongly associated with the governing PA, along with Israel and the United States.

It is important to note that the PA’s work has been routinely sabotaged by the U.S. and Israel. From its inception, the PA was dependent on Israel’s whims about whether to open its borders for trade and on aid from U.S.-dominated institutions like the World Bank.

The PA’s leadership was frequently humiliated. For more than three years, both Israel and the Bush administration refused to negotiate with Yasser Arafat and later Mahmoud Abbas. (Thus, Western talk about not negotiating with Hamas is nothing new.)

At the same time, the Bush administration tried to keep Fatah in power by giving the PA at least $2 million, directly or indirectly, in the run-up to the election to spend in ways that might boost Fatah’s vote.

It is unclear how Hamas will handle its new responsibilities. It offered to form a coalition government with Fatah, but was spurned. Hamas, known for a pragmatic approach to politics, also offered posts to prominent independents. Abbas remains the PA’s president.

Israel and the U.S. said they will not deal with Hamas until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist, and threatened to impose a virtual economic blockade on the territories. Both Hamas and Fatah protested such a move, which could be catastrophic for the already impoverished Palestinian people.

Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group, urged Israel to negotiate with Hamas. The Communist Party of Israel warned that Israeli authorities could use the Hamas victory as a pretext for intensifying the oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Israel. It reiterated its longstanding call for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders and for establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state — a two-state solution.

Some pundits said the election results will strengthen the hand of anti-Arab extremists in Israel and benefit the right-wing in Israel’s upcoming elections.

In the 1970s the Israeli government supported Hamas as a counterweight to the more secular, nationalist and left-leaning Palestine Liberation Organization. Ironically, one consequence of the Hamas victory may be the revival of the PLO. That, combined with reaffirmation of international law and relevant UN resolutions, may ultimately be a path toward peace.