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February 2, 2006

Hamas Ascendance Was Years in the Making

by Stephen Zunes

The reaction in the United States to the surprise victory by Hamas in last week's Palestinian elections appears to have ignored the role that Washington played in bringing the radical Islamist group to power.

Both Congress and the George W. Bush administration are on the record insisting that Hamas' virulent anti-Israel stance and the history of terrorist activities by its armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, gives Israel the right to refuse to engage in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

However, Israel had already suspended peace talks with the Palestinians nearly five years ago without any apparent objections from U.S. officials. A majority of Israelis, according to public opinion polls, had supported a resumption of negotiations when Fatah was in power, but the Bush administration and Congress continued to back the right-wing Israeli government's refusal to talk with its Palestinian counterparts on the implementation of the peace "Road Map," a formula backed by the "Quartet" consisting of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Exit polls appear to indicate that if Palestinians had believed that reelecting the more moderate Fatah movement would have allowed for the resumption of peace talks, they would not have backed the hardline Hamas.

Israel cut off negotiations with the Palestinians when right-wing prime minister Ariel Sharon came to office in February 2001, just one month after Israeli-Palestinian talks in Taba, Egypt, came tantalizingly close to reaching a final peace agreement. The Israeli government, with apparent U.S. backing, has refused to resume negotiations ever since.

British MP Gerald Kaufman, writing in the Guardian, reminisced about how the U.S. once warned then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, "If you don't talk to the PLO, you'll be left with Hamas." He noted that "Rabin learned. Sharon did not want to learn."

Sharon has been in a coma since early January, and acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out any talks with "an armed terror organization that calls for Israel's destruction," referring to Hamas.

Given that the first responsibility of any government is the protection of its people, the Fatah-controlled Palestine Authority proved itself incapable of doing so in the face of the overwhelming power of Israeli occupation forces, backed by the world's one remaining superpower.

Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority a little more than a dozen years ago, Israel has killed hundreds of civilians, expropriated large tracts of land and bulldozed thousands of homes, built a 30-foot barrier bisecting large segments of the West Bank, and destroyed orchards, vineyards, and other farmland.

The Bush administration and Congress also went on record supporting Israel's devastating spring 2002 offensive in the West Bank, which severely damaged the civilian infrastructure of the territory, including much of the Palestine Authority's buildings and resources.

Administration officials and congressional leaders of both parties have also defended the Israeli government's assassination policy against suspected Palestinian militants despite its violation of international legal norms, and denounced the International Court of Justice for its 2004 ruling against the construction of the Israeli separation barrier deep inside occupied Palestinian territory.

Faced with endemic corruption and incompetence in PA-controlled areas of the West Bank under the leadership of Fatah's old guard, Palestinian voters apparently felt they had little to lose in electing Hamas. Though only a minority of Palestinians supports the terrorist activities of Hamas' armed wing or its reactionary social agenda, they were apparently propelled by a perceived need to clean house.

Also greatly appreciated was the network of schools, medical facilities, and social services provided by Hamas for the population suffering from the Israeli military occupation and the often incompetent local governance under Fatah.

To appeal to more moderate voters, Hamas dropped references to the destruction of Israel from its campaign platform, though it remains in the group's charter. Hamas has also largely observed a unilateral cease-fire against Israel despite a series of assassinations of suspected Hamas leaders by Israeli forces.

In reaction to the Hamas victory, members of the Quartet meeting in London on Monday declared that a Hamas-controlled Palestine Authority would face the prospect of cuts in aid if it did not renounce violence or recognize Israel.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared on behalf of the group that, "All members of the future Palestinian government must be committed to nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the roadmap."

The Quartet statement appeared geared toward insisting that Hamas accept the principle of recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence as part of a future peace agreement, unlike the U.S. insistence that such steps be immediate and unilateral.

It remains to be seen whether the responsibility of governance will serve as catalyst for the group's transformation to a more pragmatic and moderate orientation. Just as Hamas gained credibility with the Palestinian population through its social service programs funded primarily from supporters in the U.S.-backed monarchies of the Gulf, it is possible that European and other support of secular civil society organizations might enhance transparency and democracy.

At the same time, a suspension of Western aid could lead the Palestinian government to become more dependent on the support of Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have backed radical Palestinian Islamists for decades.

The refusal of the United States to deal with the elected government will likely add to the cynicism within the Arab and Islamic world that the United State supports democratic elections only if the results support U.S. policy aims.

In December, the U.S. House of Representatives, with only 16 dissenting votes in the 435-member body, denounced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for even allowing Hamas to participate in the election – another indication of the selectivity of U.S. support for democracy in the Arab world.

The core issue, however, remains the U.S.-backed Israeli government's refusal to allow for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. Hamas and radical Islam was never a feature of Palestinian politics until after years of Israeli occupation.

Hamas never came close to a majority support until more than a dozen years since after Oslo, when Palestinians saw the hope of a negotiated settlement under U.S. auspices fade.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.


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