04 February, 2006

Hamas & Palestine

I went to an interesting lecture yesterday by Dr Francesco Cavatorta. He specialises in the study of political Islam, and was talking about the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections. Here is my attempted summary of what he said, interspersed with occasional opinions of my own. Sorry if it goes on a bit or accidentally distorts Dr Cavatorta's opinions.

Hamas are in some ways like other Islamist groups in the Arab world. They seek to change the behaviour of individuals, in order to build a better society more in tune with Islamic principles and ultimately to seize control of the state apparatus. Like other Islamic parties they are happy to advance their goals through the political process - engaging in elections and so on.

However, Hamas have one major difference with other Islamist parties - they see themselves as engaged in a national liberation struggle against the Israeli state. As well as striving to Islamise Palestinian society, they seek to liberate all of historic Palestine from the perceived occupation of the Israelis. That is to say they seek to build a Palestinian state in all of pre-1948 Palestine.

While Hamas has an uncompromising charter, in practice they have shown themselves to be more flexible and pragmatic. In particular, they have prioritise the national liberation struggle over the goal of Islamising society. They have done this basically to build and maintain Palestinian unity in the face of Israeli power, and thus have refrained from attempts to impose their social vision.

One interesting thing about Hamas is how internally democratic it is, with the rank and file being closely involved in the formulation of policy. This is a virtue born of necessity. Israel has systematically exterminated the leadership of Hamas, so it is necessary to keep the rank and file fully onboard with all policy decisions so that there are no discontinuities when the next cohort take their brief turn at the top.

In the elections a couple of factors contributed to their victory over Fatah. Fatah is seen as having failed to deliver on bread and butter issues while engaging in corrupt cronyism. Hamas has made populist promises on economic issues, and as an opposition group it has not hitherto been able to engage in serious corruption. More generally, though, Hamas has profited from Palestinian disenchantment with the whole Oslo process; this has also seen Fatah itself move towards a rejectionist position.

So now what? There is no real likelihood of Hamas formally abandoning its campaign of violence against Israel, nor is their any likelihood of Israel and a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority engaging in face to face talks. However, Israel and Hamas have in the past had low-key indirect talks, and these are likely to continue [I have read an interview with a senior Israeli army officer, where he said that the Israeli army routinely meets with Hamas members when they hold local political office, so it is possible that Dr Cavatorta is underestimating the possibility of direct discussions between Hamas members and the Israeli state].

The West will probably choose not to talk to Palestine's new elected leaders. Western aid donors may well punish the Palestinian people for choosing Hamas, but this will not matter as much as people think. Western aid is not enormous in absolute terms, and could readily be made up by private and public donors in the Gulf and Iran. Hamas would probably prefer western money, but it will take what it can get.

Beyond that, a lot depends on whether Hamas succeeds in enticing Fatah into a national unity government. The populist promises of Hamas are probably undeliverable, so if Hamas governs on its own, it could see its popularity ebb, with Fatah staging an electoral return to power in a couple of years. By then Israel will have lengthened and strengthened its wall, and will be in a position to offer a take-it-or-leave-it Palestinian state of disconnected enclaves.

A solo Hamas government may find itself drawn toward imposing its social vision on Palestinian society as a compensation for lack of progress on the economic and national liberation fronts. This will probably further contribute to an erosion in Hamas popularity, as the Palestinian people have shown surprisingly little enthusiasm for the Islamist social project, and have punished Hamas at the polls in areas where they have attempted to enforce it.

What do I think? Well, if Fatah have the interests of the Palestinian people at heart they will join a national unity government, but if they are self-interested they will stay out. In a couple of years they could return to power, but whether they will accept the job of being Israel's bantustan enforcers remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, there is another possibility entirely - that Israel, dissatisfied with elections that produce leaderships that won't play ball, may simply shut down the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian electoral process.

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