In January 2006, the terrorist group Hamas surprised the world by winning a majority in the Palestinian election. What does this mean for the United States, Europe, Israel and the greater Mid-East region? Will it lead to peace and stability—or result in more of the same rhetoric, desperation and violence?
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In this age of immediate information, polling, and computerized models and statistics, it is not often that the outcome of a democratic election comes as any great surprise. This, however, is often dependent upon the freedom and wealth of the society—neither of which are prominent in the Palestinian territories.
And so, on Wednesday, January 25, the Palestinian people shocked the world by giving the majority of their parliament’s seats to the terrorist group Hamas.
Many wonder why. Others expected it. But all should be concerned.
Based on the accord known as the “Declaration of Principles,” which was signed by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in Washington, D.C., Palestinian self-government began in 1993, administered by the then new Palestinian National Authority or Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Arafat and staffed with many Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) members.
A second agreement between the PLO and Israel, signed in 1995, extended Palestinian self-rule, and opened the way for PA’s first elections, which Hamas and other fundamentalist groups boycotted. This resulted in Arafat being elected president by a wide margin.
The progression continued in April 1996 with the PLO voting to remove the sections from its charter that called for the destruction of Israel. This, however, was followed by a drastic slowdown in negotiations during Benjamin Netanyahu’s years as Israel’s prime minister.
In 1999, Ehud Barak became the next prime minister. There were some signs of progress in the negotiations, but then difficulties arose, which ultimately led to the “second intifada,” or uprising, in September 2000 (the first being from 1987 to the early 1990s). The violence continued, escalating to the point that both Israel and the United States declared Yasser Arafat persona non grata in terms of further peace talks. The Palestinian leader eventually found himself and his government confined to their compound, essentially unable to oversee the territories.
With Arafat’s death in 2004, a political vacuum was created within the Palestinian government and society, as well as within Fatah, his own political party, which had ruled the PLO for several decades. Such were the circumstances that brought about the socio-political environment ripe for a change in government.
In the campaign leading up to the January 2006 election, Hamas made considerable political gains. Opinion polls early that month revealed that the gap between the ruling Fatah party and Hamas had shrunk to 6-8%. It was therefore expected that Hamas, which had stated it existed for the sole purpose of destroying Israel, would likely become a considerable political and somewhat “legitimate” force within Palestine. The international community expected that Hamas would do reasonably well, but viewed its involvement in the political process as a good thing, likely forcing the terrorist group to renounce violence. During the campaign, however, the leading candidate, Ismail Haniyam, stated that his party would cease all negotiations with Israel, and that any communication would take place only through the barrel of a gun.
In the hours following the election, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the rest of the Middle East were thrown into turmoil by a stunning Hamas victory: a clear majority, 74 of 132 seats. The resounding win in the Palestinian parliamentary vote immediately raised concerns about the Middle East peace process, and was quickly followed by statements from governments, such as Israel and the U.S., declaring that they could not—and would not—deal with a government led by a political party that advocated the destruction of another country. Much, if not most, of the Western world also threatened to eliminate financial assistance to the Palestinians.
Considerable unrest erupted within the territories, as supporters of the long-ruling Fatah party clashed with Hamas gunmen. Most of the 58,000 Palestinian security forces are allied with Fatah (which won only 45 seats, the voters’ reply to years of inept rule).
Foreign influence in the election was suspected, as has been the case in Palestine for decades; both Syria and Iran have long supported Hamas and other anti-Israeli terrorist groups in the region.
The geopolitical landscape in the Middle East essentially changed overnight. Some hope it will be for the better. Others expect the worst. In any case, with a new political party calling the shots, the world is suddenly interested in learning more about Hamas.
Hamas (Arabic for “zeal”; also an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement) is considered a radical political group with para-military activities, and is classed as a terrorist group by the European Union, the U.S., Israel and Canada. The group was created in 1987 as an offshoot of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood movement, and stands for complete Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian territories.
Following the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the Hamas leader in Lebanon declared, at a rally attended by local members of parliament, that the resistance would continue until all of Palestine—including Jerusalem—is “liberated.” With representatives of Hizbullah (another terrorist group) and various other Palestinian factions also in attendance, he said that this, not negotiations, was the only way to succeed.
It is suspected that Hamas primarily seeks to establish an Islamic theocracy in all of the area that is currently Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A Hamas co-founder reportedly stated that the movement’s goal is to “remove Israel from the map.”
In addition to its military wing, which carries out all the attacks and suicide bombings on Israel, Hamas also has a social wing, which operates mosques, schools, health clinics and social programs within the Palestinian territories. While Arafat and his Fatah party largely failed to deliver such services to the Palestinian people, Hamas succeeded, or at least appeared to in part. It therefore gained much of the grassroots sympathy that eventually brought it to power.
It also increased its support through its leaders' notoriety for politically challenging the old PA leaders. This led to periodic mass arrests of Hamas officials.
According to the U.S. Department of State Terrorist Group Profiles, Hamas receives some funding directly from the Iranian government. But most donations are from Palestinian expatriates from around the world, as well as from benefactors in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. In addition, there is evidence that some Hamas fundraising and propaganda activities take place in Europe and North America.
The uncertainty and unrest has come at a particularly troublesome time for Israel, as it awaits the results of an election of its own, scheduled for March 28. With the sudden near-death of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, one might wonder if anyone is willing to attack Israel in the meantime. On the other hand, one must consider whether Israel will react to the Hamas victory by turning its votes to a hardliner, such as Benjamin Netanyahu. Such an outcome will certainly ratchet up the tension in the region, especially in light of the Iranian nuclear threat.
The election is generally viewed as a three-way race for the seat of prime minister: Ehud Olmert, of the new Kadima Party (centrist); Amir Peretz, of the Labour Party (liberal); and Benjamin Netanyahu, of the Likud Party (conservative).
In a recent interview with Israel Radio, Mr. Netanyahu said, “We are in a struggle against Hamastan. Facing an organization of this sort, we need to switch diskettes. The concept of folding in the face of terror is what lifted Hamas.” He added, “The last thing that we should be doing is to [give] them more withdrawals for free.”
However, according to polls in January and early February, Kadima continues to hold a commanding lead over both Labour and Likud, indicating broad approval of recent history, such as the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Nonetheless, with Hamas in power, the game has certainly changed. “The main question now is whether unilateral withdrawal, which was the presumed favorite option of Kadima, is still viable,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research institute. “That’s because we’re not talking about handing over territory to a corrupt, anarchic, terror-supporting Fatah, but to an Iranian proxy that’s far more dangerous” (ibid.).
In the days and weeks following the election, the usual rhetoric continued. Just as this article was being written, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert imposed certain economic sanctions and other restrictions against the PA. According to a BBC article, these included withholding monthly tax payments to the PA; increased security checks at all crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip; banning the transfer of equipment to PA security forces; tightened restrictions on the movement of Hamas officials; and finally—and possibly most importantly—asking foreign donors to stop all payments to the PA.
While the White House has maintained a similar hard line, the Europeans have softened somewhat, though they still hold to a threat to stop funding unless Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces violence. Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniya stated that “the West is always using its donations to apply pressure on the Palestinian people,” and that the Palestinians had “lots of alternatives.”
“We have other Arab and Islamic countries and members of the international community who are ready to stand next to the Palestinian people.”
Consider the larger picture: Iran, a significant supporter of Hamas and a fellow proponent of the destruction of Israel, continues to fight the West over its nuclear program; the Islamic world has been rioting over the European press publishing derogatory political cartoons of Islam’s prophet Muhammad; Russia is taking an increasingly uncooperative stance toward the U.S., and immediately invited the new Palestinian leadership to visit Moscow for consultation; and Iraq and Afghanistan continue to fester, with serious and ongoing implications for the U.S., Israel’s primary (and perhaps only) ally. All this as Israel loses a strong leader, Ariel Sharon.
For the Middle East, the ultimate result of a Hamas-led PA will essentially be more of the same rhetoric, desperation and violence—at least for the immediate future, with only slight nuances in tactics and personalities.
As the end of this age quickly nears, a major increase in conflict in the region is certain. The Jews, descended from the Patriarch Jacob, and the Islamic Arabs, descended from Ishmael, have competed against each other in hatred, jealousy and strife for centuries. Instigated by the great arch-deceiver (Rev. 12:9)—the true source of human nature, evils, confusion and all wars (Eph. 2:2; Jms. 4:1-3)—the hatred between these two peoples will come to a boil in the not-too-distant future.
Following the end of this age, with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ as King and the establishment of the kingdom of God, genuine, lasting peace will exist in Israel, Palestine, the Middle East—and the entire world!