Abbas and Israel struggle to find ways of limiting Hamas’s power in Palestine

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmad Musa

Dhu al-Hijjah 01, 1426 2006-01-01

Occupied Arab World

by Ahmad Musa (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1426)

As Crescent International goes to press, it remains uncertain whether the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) that are due to take place on January 25 will actually go ahead. Israel made a clear attempt to sabotage them on December 21, when it announced that Palestinians in Jerusalem would not be permitted to vote if Hamas were allowed to take part in the polls. The Palestinian authorities, led by Mahmud Abbas, responded by saying they would postpone the elections, something which also suits them as Abbas’s Fatah group is in political disarray and expected be defeated. Other Palestinian groups, however, insisted that Israel should not be permitted to set the timetable for the Palestinian political process, putting Abbas in a difficult position. A few days later, Israel changed its position, evidently not wanting to be blamed if the elections are cancelled. Israel’s latest position is that it will decide whether or not to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote only after it is confirmed that the elections are taking place.

The elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, effectively Palestine’s parliament, have already been postponed once; they were originally scheduled to take place in July last year. Abbas is now under increasing pressure to postpone them again, for precisely the same reason: the fear that Hamas, Palestine’s main Islamic movement, will confirm its emergence as the most popular and credible political force among Palestinians. This is a prospect that terrifies Abbas, because it would mark Fatah’s eclipse in Palestinian politics, and also his American and Israeli backers, whose plans to impose a settlement on the Palestinians on their own terms would become significantly more difficult.

Israel’s latest attempt to sabotage Hamas’s political progress comes after it has become clear that its campaign of assassinations and arrests has not succeeded in destroying the Islamic movement. Some 1,200 Hamas leaders and activists have been arrested in the last few months, on top of the hundreds assassinated in the final years of the intifada, which the Israelis had hoped would destroy Hamas. Such is the depth and solidity of Hamas’s political organization and its popular support, however, that it has maintained its work and consolidated its base despite these restrictions. It is well established as the dominant political group in Ghazzah, and is now widely recognised as reflecting the political instincts of the majority of Palestine's people, as shown in its success at setting the agenda for Palestinian political discourse at the Palestinian national dialogue talks.

However, it is in the political offices of the West Bank that formal political power lies, and the danger that Hamas poses to the established political elites there was demonstrated in municipal elections in the West Bank in December. Despite restrictions and political pressure, Hamas made significant gains in a number of cities which Fatah, traditionally Palestine's dominant political faction, had previously regarded as its strongholds. In Nablus, the West Bank’s most populous city, for example, Hamas took 73 percent of the vote, compared to 13 percent for Fatah. It also made massive gains in Jenin and al-Bireh, an important suburb of Ramallah, the West Bank’s commercial centre. Fatah also lost its majority in Ramallah itself, although there the beneficiaries were the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) rather than Hamas. Overall, Fatah won 6 seats on Ramallah’s council, the PFLP 6 and Hamas 3.

Although Hamas is best known outside Palestine for its leadership of the military struggle against Israel, particularly during the al-Aqsa Intifada, it is also a well-established and respected political and social group, which is responsible for a significant part of Palestine’s welfare and education provision. Its activists and institutions have a well-earned reputation for honesty and diligence, compared to the factionalism, corruption and nepotism that characterise the Palestinian Authority’s formal political institutions. In the past, Palestinians routinely supported Hamas’s resistance against Israel while voting for other parties in the formal political process as Hamas deliberately remained largely aloof from domestic politics. This has changed since the death of Yasser Arafat, and Hamas’s announcement in March that it would run candidates in the PLC elections was widely welcomed among ordinary Palestinians, even as it caused consternation among both the PA and Israel.

The 66 names on the Hamas candidate list for the elections, published before the formal deadline of December 14, reflects its broad support in all sectors of Palestinian society. It includes both leaders who are imprisoned in Israel, such as Hassan Youssef, and established political figures in Palestine, such as Mahmoud Zahar, who is tipped to be Palestine’s next prime minister after the elections, Ghazi Ahmed, editor of al-Resalah newspaper, Mushir al-Masri, one of the movement’s best-known spokesmen, and Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University. Rasha al-Rantisi, the widow of Abdul Aziz Rantisi shaheed, had been expected to run but decided against doing so, although she is supporting the campaigns of other Hamas candidates. The Hamas list includes three women and a Christian, and Hamas leaders have confirmed that they have agreements with other Islamic groups in Palestine to ensure that no two Islamic movement activists run against each other in the same district.

Fatah in disarray

This impressive degree of organization and coordination is in marked contrast to the disarray within the Fatah movement as the elections approach. While Hamas’s candidates were smoothly selected by a series of primaries, using a ranking system based on potential candidates’ qualifications for office, Fatah’s selection of candidates has been marked by bitter infighting, thuggery and, in some cases, gunfights between supporters of rival candidates, although no casualties have been reported.

The selection of candidates for these PLC elections appears to have become the issue on which the longstanding political fractures within Fatah seem to have terminally split the party. The problem is rooted in the long-established power-struggle between the “old guard” and “young guard” in Fatah. The old guard, or establishment leaders, are largely those who were exiled with Yasser Arafat before the Oslo Accords of 1992, who subsequently established themselves in power in the institutions of the PA. The “young guard” consist largely of the Fatah leaders who emerged in Palestine during and after the first intifada, who recognise the need for reform in the PA and are strongly critical of the position taken by the old guard. This camp is led by Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli prison.

Fearing for their positions after the elections, many establishment members of Fatah insisted on their right to be on the candidates list regardless of the results of the primaries. For this reason, the Fatah leadership refused to confirm until after the primaries had taken place whether it would accept their results or reserve the right to replace elected candidates with its own figures. When it became clear that reformist leaders had done well in the primaries, such as they were, the established leaders insisted that they would replace some of the candidates elected in the primaries with names from their own list. This angered the young guard, with the result that Barghouti’s group announced a split from Fatah and put forward their own candidates on a separate list called al-Mustaqbil (“the future”).

Whether this split will become a permanent schism in Fatah remains to be seen; indeed, as Crescent goes to press, it is not yet clear whether it will even survive as far as the elections. Although the date for the finalization of lists has passed, the Fatah leadership, aware that a split in its support would destroy its chances of defeating Hamas in the polls, has wrangled a delay from the Central Election Commission to give it more time to reach an agreement with the reformist camp for a unified list. Even if this is achieved, however, the Fatah camp will remain deeply divided; in several areas Fatah members who were not selected for its list are running as candidates against the official candidates, hoping to protect the interests they have established in office. The highly public and embarrassing politicking has also damaged the group’s credibility and standing, making Hamas appear all the more respectable in contrast.

If the elections do go ahead, and if Hamas emerge as the largest single grouping in the new PLC (the nature of the Palestinian system makes it unlikely that they will achieve a majority, although that is not impossible), the impact on Palestinian politics is impossible to predict. How Israel and the West will react is unclear, although there are hints that they may accept the new reality for the time being; Hamas has confirmed that it has had talks with representatives of the US and some European countries, although publicly they refuse to deal with it. Hamas has indicated that if it takes office in Palestine, it will continue to deal with the Israelis to serve the Palestinians’ short-term interests, while maintaining its principled position on the right to armed resistance and the right to call for the total destruction of the zionist state in the long term.

Such an election result would, however, constitute a permanent, possibly decisive sea-change in the shape of the Palestinian struggle.

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