Digesting Hamas -
Time To Grow Up

By Terrell E. Arnold
This week the Palestinian insurgent group Hamas exceeded predictions for its political debut by winning an absolute majority in the Palestinian parliament. Not only did it sweep Fatah strongholds such as Ramallah; it also won in Bethlehem and Jerusalem where the Israelis refused to allow Hamas candidates to campaign. The victories did not happen because Hamas had acquired political skill without even practicing. They happened because Palestinians were demanding change; because Ariel Sharon and his supporters had worked unceasingly to keep Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas from ever succeeding; because anyone watching the so-called "peace process" on the ground knew it was going nowhere.
Hamas leadership may have been as surprised as anyone that they won the election. However, for the past several months a new kind of reality had been descending on Palestine. Younger Palestinians, even within Fatah, were fed up with the old guard. They were unhappy about Fatah cronyism, about the millions of dollars--provided by various donors to the Palestinian people--that had disappeared into private coffers of the Fatah inner circle. They were fed up with the political bankruptcy, the moral and monetary corruption of Fatah. Start with the fact that before his death Arafat may have been virtually under house arrest in Ramallah, but his wife lived in luxury in Paris. Abbas, known by his Fatah name as Abu Mazen, himself apparently occupies a house in Gaza that cost over a million dollars to build. These odious comparisons are not lost on ordinary Palestinians.
The reality is that a time for change in Palestinian leadership truly had come. Abu Mazen had failed to transform Palestinian leadership after the death of Yassir Arafat. He failed not because he was weak or incompetent, but because he had no help. Bush applauded him as a head of state on his visit to the United States, but Bush continued to deliver total support to his friend, Ariel Sharon, on all issues that mattered to the Palestinian people. Sharon did everything he could to assure Abu Mazen's failure, including construction of new settlements, continued building of the wall, targeted assassinations of Palestinian insurgent leaders, and continuing, often brutish, occupation of Palestinian territory. All of those factors contributed to a realistic Palestinian sense that Fatah could do nothing for them.
But now the question is where do things go from here? The Bush administration has averred it will not work with Hamas in the government. Secretary of State Rice has said she will continue to work with Abu Mazen; that, in a narrow sense, is correct, because he has three more years of his term as President, but how will he be able to work with a Hamas-led parliament? The Israelis have said they will not negotiate with a Hamas government. The New York Times suggests the Israelis will respond by increasingly unilateral action, although how that will differ from what they have been doing for years--building the wall, confiscating Palestinian lands, building new settlements, hogging available water, and killing Palestinian insurgents--is not clear. Europeans do not appear overjoyed by the prospect, but they have not been so categorical in reaction. Middle Eastern supporters of the Palestinian Intifada are jubilant. Everybody has to wait for real indications of what Hamas might do with its opportunity for leadership.
Meanwhile the Bush administration assertion that it will not work with terrorists poses some challenging problems. As Secretary Rice has put it, Hamas cannot "have one foot in politics and the other in terror." That posture may have standing as an expression of the US policy of "no concessions to terrorists". However, it ignores the reality of the change in Hamas political standing; Abu Mazen has no choice but to recognize the Hamas parliamentary victory. He knows that and has asked Hamas to form a new government. Outsiders, whoever they may be, actually have no real choice but to recognize the change in Palestinian political reality: Its leading insurgency has won a political victory.
The smart choice would be to help Abu Mazen walk Hamas through the transition from insurgency to political party. The alternative is to continue trying to prevent Hamas from reacting to the persistent pattern of Israeli provocation. Efforts of outsiders to suppress or ignore Hamas will almost certainly retard any conversion.
The thing about insurgents is that, if they are successful, they are unlikely to arrive at the political table with clean hands. The IRA until recently had been an enduring bad example. In his youth Ariel Sharon, along with other founding Israeli politicians, was a terrorist with the blood of many Palestinian villagers on his hands. Their transition was easy because outsiders, especially the US, did not hold them to account.
In the past two days both the President and the Congress have expressed a typical knee-jerk US alliance with the Israelis on refusing to accept Hamas as a political player. Thus, the US appears unlikely to extend much considered acceptance of political growth by the Palestinians. Yet it is in everybody's interest to make the effort.
Hamas is already showing signs that it knows this is a new ball game. It is also a new ball game for the US, Israel, the Europeans, and numerous Arab supporters of the Palestinian people. Failure to recognize that and to accommodate the likely changes that are needed will assuredly lead to more violence, and even a successful transition may not occur without incident.
After an intensive and politically disruptive effort to suppress the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the US had to accept, if not admit defeat. The Sandinistas quite successfully made the transition to political maturity, but there remains an enduring trail of bitterness. They also transformed Nicaraguan political leadership without US help, but after the collapse of the contras, they were not threatened by the neighbors.
No matter what they do, the Palestinians face a hostile neighbor and a continuing prospect of conflict and attrition from the Israelis, many of whom want all the rest of Biblical Palestine. The US has signed on to that Israeli agenda, perhaps explicitly, given the Bush letter to Sharon that was endorsed by the Congress. Hamas, therefore, will have to be persuaded to expect any positive gesture from the United States. In that respect, the administration is not off to a good start with its public rejection of a political Hamas.
If not a transition to Hamas, then some other, equally profound change had to occur in Palestine. Under Arafat, Fatah had pretty well suppressed any evolutionary political succession. Abbas may be too much a part of that history to lead the way. The sustained lack of orderly political evolution portended either collapse or abrupt change, but the change is not as abrupt as it may seem.
Hamas has been far more useful than the names usually pinned on them--insurgent, terrorist, or Islamic extremist--would imply. For more than a decade Hamas has responded effectively to the economic and social needs of many Palestinians. In the districts where it was politically successful, as well as elsewhere, people have looked to Hamas for human level support (welfare, security, food, medicine, and defense). In fact, Hamas has been the only organization effectively to provide these services in Palestine, even including creation and support for a thoroughly modern hospital in the Gaza Strip. Unspecified Arab donors have made this possible, and no doubt for many Palestinians, Hamas provision of such services has been a constant reminder of the decay and incompetence of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.
Now that Hamas has won an election, the key to this situation is its transitional nature. That is potentially dangerous in two senses. If Hamas is not assisted and encouraged through the transit to full political maturity, if it is rejected as the legitimate voice of a large segment of the Palestinian people, it can easily be provoked to regroup around its insurgent personality and return to violence. To be sure, it has not yet rejected violence altogether--that, to be realistic about an occupied Palestine, is part of its political appeal.
By running successfully for political office Hamas has started down a non-violent path. Failure to encourage it further in this direction will be a foolish move on everybody's part. At the same time, if the people who voted for Hamas are disappointed by rejection of what they think is a promising political development, any reversion to insurgency by Hamas will be reinforced by new recruits and new sources of support.
This prospect actually gives the Israelis, the US, and other interested outsiders two choices: (a) Help the new generation of Palestinian politicians, including Hamas, through this process of change, or (b) reject the change and invite the bloody consequences of failure. Unless the goal is unending warfare, it is time to think about how to make this work.
There is no question that Hamas poses an unwanted challenge for some. Too bad. It is time we grew up. Don't tout the virtues of democracy if you are not prepared to live with the results.
Several countries of Latin America are rubbing our noses in that lesson. The dominant political results in Iraq have delivered the same message: Given a choice, the Iraqis voted their ethnic and religious preferences, despite the secularizing changes Saddam had introduced in his long rule.
People in a democracy are free to decide who will rule them. In many cases, that may not be the people we would like to see elected. Hamas challenges us to have the courage of our own democratic convictions. The alternative is regime change imposed by outsiders, which, of course, is undemocratic.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, _A World Less Safe_, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counterterrorism, and as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at



This Site Served by TheHostPros