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Ira Sharkansky


Good and bad news of Hamas
winning Palestinian election, January 26, 2006

By Ira Sharkansky

There is good news and bad news in the Palestinian election.
The good news is that the process scored well on criteria of democracy. More than in other Arab societies, there was freedom of competition, more or less law and order on election day, and the opposition is noted as having won the election. Some Palestinians may say, as they have on other occasions, that they have learned the lessons of democracy from Israel.
Assuming the rest of the process goes well (i.e., the actual sitting of the winning party), the bad news is that Hamas is the winning party. Current reports are that it took 70 out of 132 seats in the parliament.  Pre-election polls gave a 5-10 percent margin to the ruling Fatah Party of Mahmoud Abbas. It is not unusual for individuals intending to vote for an "anti-establishment" party to avoid pollsters, or to answer questions with something thought to be acceptable.
During the campaign, Hamas leaders engaged a public relations firm and indicated that it had turned its face to peace; that it could serve in a Palestinian government and negotiate with Israel. However, one of the candidates (a mother who had blessed her son's suicide in the name of Palestine), appeared on television to say that the party would pursue both a course of violence and a course of politics in order to free all of Palestine from Israeli occupation. She included Jaffa, Haifa, and the rest of Israel in the areas to be liberated. Another candidate, somewhat more sophisticated, indicated that a Hamas government could arrange a cease fire with Israel, even though it would not recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
Neither option is anywhere close to being good enough for any of the major Israeli parties.
Currently Israeli opposition parties to the left and right are accusing Ehud Olmert of not doing enough to prevent a Hamas victory. What could he have done? The victory is consistent with what we have been seeing in a number of Palestinian opinion polls in recent years. While majorities indicate their desire for peace with Israel, majorities have also indicated their support for violence. The election is another indication of the population that we face as neighbors. An unknown (and perhaps unknowable) proportion of the vote reflects substantial anti-Fatah, anti-corruption sentiment. Palestinians want the billions in outside aid to help them, and not only to line the pockets of those close to power.
It may take a while to see how this works itself out. There are several possibilities for the near future.
Fatah finds reasons not to relinquish power, and the West Bank and Gaza revert to the violent chaos that preceded the few days of quiet before the voting.
Hamas forms a government that leads Palestine further into the mire of paying the price of pursuing an extreme nationalist dream of having a monopoly of what they call Palestine.
The United States and European governments reduce, if not eliminate altogether their financial aid to Palestine. The inflated personnel roles of Palestinian government and security forces will face some payless paydays.
Israel continues to build the barrier, with the government employing the intransigence of the Palestinians as an argument in Israeli courts against those who view the barrier as imposing intolerable burdens on the Palestinians.
In response to acts of violence, Israel closes the gates in those barriers to Palestinians wanting to work, sell things in Israel, pray, seek health care, or visit relatives, or takes other actions that increases the suffering of Hamas voters and other Palestinians.
Who knows what comes next?

Sharkansky is an emeritus member of the political science department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem