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Friday, January 27, 2006 

Hamas election victory: The revenge of Sheikh Yassin.

When two years ago, as Chris McGreal opens his Guardian report, Ariel Sharon ordered an Israeli F16 to fire a hellfire missile at Hamas's spiritual leader, a man who was disabled, blind and in a wheelchair, he described it as the beginning of the end of Hamas. How very wrong he was, and how ironic it must be as Sharon lies on his own death bed that the cowardly murder of Yassin was just one of the many things that helped Hamas win an astonishing election for the Palestinian legislature, winning 76 seats to Fatah's 43.

Such a victory has been an understandable shock to many people, as the only Hamas they know of is the one that sent suicide bombers into Israel, targeting civilians with the bodies of the young and impressionable. At the same time many forget that nearly every attack by the Palestinian armed wings was either in retaliation for an Israeli attack or action. That does not excuse them, nor does it excuse their ideology which is to create a theocratic state, and which does also not recognise Israel's right to exist. However, it's worth looking into what created Hamas itself.

During the 70s, when Israel was desperate to both stop the Palestinians from becoming the supposed victims of the conflict, it was also desperate to marginalise the PLO, headed by Arafat. Their idea? Allow Islamists to set up their own presence in the occupied territories, allow them to receive donations from abroad and to set up their own centres to deal with life under occupation. Israel even allowed Sheikh Yassin to serve only a year of his 14 year sentence for smuggling and hiding weapons, as they thought that he and his supporters would be a useful bulwark against the nationalist Fatah, which has always had a much more liberal social outlook. It was in 1987, with the launch of the first intifada against Israel that Yassin created Hamas as we know it today.

As a result, Hamas has always had more social funding from its partners in the Middle East and from other charities. This has enabled it to operate its renowned social centres and hospital, and create close to what is a minor welfare state. Arafat on the other hand had to rely on funding from the US and EU, after his funds were cut off from most other Arab leaders following his support for Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war. (Saddam returned the favour not to Arafat so much as to the families of suicide bombers, who he infamously rewarded.)

Of course, Hamas is by no means the first terrorist organisation to grace the land of Palestine. Israel itself was founded on terror, as is well known. Israeli right-wing extremists repeatedly threatened Sharon following the pullout from Gaza, and Yitzak Rabin paid with his life for daring to try reach peace with the Oslo accords. For a long time Israel itself did not recognise that the Palestinians even existed, and has recently itself decided upon a two-state solution, although not one based on the 1967 agreed borders.

And it's there where Hamas's real power has come from. Sharon's insistence that there was no partner for peace to deal with has propelled Hamas into the Palestinian conciousness as the real freedom fighters. They stood by and watched as Sharon invaded the West Bank in 2001/2002, devastating Jenin and bombing Arafat's headquarters. He was kept there until his death, a broken man who could only speak to the media in person when the Israelis let him. They watched as Fatah became more and more moribund and corrupt, with its leaders being arrested and imprisoned. Then came the final realisation that it was the armed resistance, not peace talks, that was what was freeing them from the occupation. The withdrawal from Gaza, where Hamas had taken over and where most of its leaders were stationed seemed to have been directly due to their shooting of Qassam rockets into Israeli border towns. While the real reason was undoubtedly the innate stupidity of protecting the homes of a few crazy Jewish settlers from hundreds of thousands of Palestinians surrounding them, mired in poverty, with Israeli lives being lost as the two clashed, it seemed as if Hamas had delivered the victory against the Zionists. Little wonder that along with all the other factors, as well as the media themselves constantly reporting about Hamas's rise, that the people voted for them in their droves. It became almost something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hamas now has to demonstrate that it can govern, and govern well. Since the Israeli withdrawl from Gaza, the enclave has become mired in kidnappings, shoot-outs and clan warfare. That must not happen in the West Bank. Hamas must make entirely clear that it recognises Israel's right to exist within the 1967 borders. It does not yet have to give up armed resistance by any means, but once you've turned to the ballot box it's increasingly difficult then to once more turn to the bullets. Once this has happened, the EU and the US must put pressure on Israel to come and talk to Hamas, whether it wishes to deal with "terrorists" or not. What must not be allowed to happen is further unilateral disengagements, with the excuse that there is no partner for peace. If further settlement withdrawals happen, Israel must not enforce the security wall as its new de facto border. All that will do is stir up the hatred for the next generation. Unless both Hamas and Israel makes some big compromises, the bloodshed will continue as it has done for 50 years. And with Hamas and the Palestinian demographic in the ascendent, it may be Israel this time that has the more to lose.

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