The End of a Political Fiction?

Hamas’s landslide victory in the January 25 elections for the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) is an unprecedented turning point for politics in both Palestine and the broader Middle East. Arguably for the first time since the establishment of Israel in 1948, an official administrative power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has strong popular support and is not directly beholden to Israeli or Western interests.

Pre-election polls had consistently forecast a tight race between Hamas and the ruling party Fatah. Hamas was expected to win approximately 1/3 of the seats in the PLC, with 40% going to Fatah. The Independent Palestine list of Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent NGO-figure in the West Bank was predicted to emerge as the third largest party, significantly ahead of the secular left Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Smaller parties like Badil, a coalition of smaller Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) factions, and the Third Way, led by former PA Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and Hanan Ashrawi, director of the Palestinian NGO Miftah, were also expected to gain several seats each.

Defying predictions from both participants and observers alike, final results gave Hamas 74 seats compared to 45 for Fatah. The PFLP managed three seats with two seats each going to Independent Palestine, Badil and the Third Way. Independent candidates achieved four seats. The high voter turn-out of 78% can be considered a definitive mandate from the Palestinian electorate.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the shift that has taken place. The Palestinian Authority under Fatah rule – with a few notable exceptions following the uprising that began in September 2000 – was generally marked by little more than verbal disputes with the Israeli government. PA security forces coordinated with the Israeli military, arrested political opponents and activists, responded to Israeli actions on the ground with little more than muted, rhetorical opposition, and routinely repeated the mantra of the ‘violence on both sides’. This role facilitated the demobilization and confusion of the Palestinian national movement. The real fear that the victory of Hamas brings to Israel, the US and EU is simply this: who they will call upon to control the Palestinian population now that the old PA – however ineffective and unreliable it was from their perspective – has crumbled?

Rejection of a ‘Political Fiction’

The popular vote for Hamas is principally a rejection of the disastrous negotiations process that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Countless voices have criticized the Oslo Accords as a fig-leaf for the ongoing colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, far removed from the avowed goal of a genuinely independent Palestinian state. Under the cover of ‘peace’ negotiations, Israel continued to encircle and isolate Palestinian towns and villages with its network of settlements, bypass roads and checkpoints. The Israeli military controlled Palestinian transit with a complicated system of permits and movement restrictions. These isolated population islands were given the trappings of autonomy but effective control remained in the hands of the Israeli state. Oslo (and the subsequent agreements) aimed at having Palestinians police themselves while allowing Israel to deepen this system of apartheid. Peace has simply acted as newspeak to mask the apartheid blueprint.

Hamas’s victory is a striking indictment of this so-called ‘peace process’. Promoted with the deliberate deceit of Western governments and the corporate media, the myth of negotiations was fully shared in by the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, most particularly by individuals such as Palestinian President Abu Mazen and Prime Minister Abu Ala. The PA leadership came to represent submission and surrender under the banner of peaceful negotiations and empty condemnation of violence. Indeed, immediately prior to the Legislative Council elections, Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal pointed out that “the experiment of fifty years taught us this road was futile and Hamas wouldnot continue to deceive the Palestinian people with this political fiction.”

Corruption: Not Accidental but Systemic

Understanding the nature of the Oslo process is central to explaining the Hamas victory. Most commentary has pointed out that popular sympathy for Hamas is based upon rejection of the corruption, nepotism and profiteering of the ruling party Fatah following the establishment of the PA in the mid-1990s. While this fact is certainly true, it provides little explanation of the root causes of this corruption. What usually goes unstated is that this systemic corruption was a direct and deliberate outcome of the Oslo process itself.

Oslo established a system in which the Palestinian Authority became completely reliant upon foreign funds for its continued survival. Israel guaranteed the subservience of the Palestinian Authority through control over border crossings and movement between cities, a campaign of massive land confiscation that devastated Palestinian agriculture, and severing the city of Jerusalem (which provided 40% of the Palestinian economy) from its West Bank hinterland. Electricity, water and communications remained firmly in Israeli hands. This control was codified in agreements such as the 1994 Paris Economic Protocol which restricted what goods Palestinians were permitted to export and import.

Foreign inflows, principally from the US and EU, became the sole means of liquidity for the Palestinian Authority. These funds, however, came with a political price and were designed to buy compliance with ongoing colonization. Patronage and corruption were the obvious and logical consequences of such a system. With little opportunity of sustaining a livelihood, individual survival became dependent upon the disbursements and personal contacts in the Palestinian Authority or Fatah. Around half a million Palestinians are reliant upon the PAfor their livelihood.

Moreover, prominent figures in the Palestinian Authority held control over the large Palestinian monopolies that directly conducted business with Israeli and foreign companies. Their profiteering depended upon the continued status quo. Perhaps the most notorious example of this was the cement companies owned by the Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Ala, later found to be directly involved in building the apartheid wall.

An increasingly wide gap between the vast majority of the population and the wealthy elite in and around the Palestinian Authority turned into a vast chasm following the onset of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Poverty levels reached 70% in areas such as the Gaza Strip while the conspicuous consumption of an increasingly small elite reminded the general population that the brunt of Israeli attacks against the Palestinian society was not being borne equally.

In contrast, Hamas activists are seen as honest, reliable and committed to the interests of the poor. The elections were conducted with two votes: one for a WB/GS wide party list (66 seats) and one for individual candidates running on the district level (66 seats). Striking confirmation of how Hamas candidates were perceived by the communities closest to them is shown by the district level vote. Hamas took 45 out of the available 66 seats elected at the district level.

What Next?

The election heralds an enormous shift if a Hamas-led PA fulfills its promises to act in accordance with popular interests. To take one very concrete example: currently, around 100 Palestinians are held as political prisoners in Jericho prisons by the Palestinian Authority. These activists are drawn from all political factions. Perhaps the most notable are leaders of the PFLP who are being held for the assassination of the far-right, Israeli tourism minister Ze’evi in response to the killing of the PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa. Their imprisonment was ordered by the Israeli, US and British governments and was hugely unpopular across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, Ahmed Saadat, the General Secretary of the PFLP, won a seat to the Legislative Council at the head of the PFLP list while detained in Jericho. It appears highly unlikely that Hamas would continue to comply with measures such as these, and, indeed, one of the first announcements made by Hamas following its victory was that it would release Saadat.

If Hamas makes good of its promise not to sustain these structures of occupation then this will be a huge setback for Israeli and US interests in the region. The situation, however, defies simplicity due to the labyrinthine network of factions and interests located throughout the PA apparatus. The Legislative Council is a weak body and considerable power officially remains in the hands of Abu Mazen and the Presidential Office. The security forces – in particular the Preventative Security branch – remains a Fatah-led body under the nominal control of Abu Mazen. Hamas itself, particularly in the Gaza Strip, maintains a strong network of armed cadre.

A number of commentators have raised the fear that the election results could herald a repeat of the 1991 Algerian experience, where the election victory of the Islamic party FIS was overthrown by a military coup and led to prolonged civil war. Any repeat experience in the Palestinian context would undoubtedly see the involvement of the Israeli military and security apparatus in both provoking and maintaining internal armed strife. There is no doubt that Hamas is cognizant of this threat, repeatedly stating that it supports a government of national unity and refusing to being drawn into armed clashes with other Palestinian factions. Nevertheless, covert Israeli support for such an eventuality is a real and concrete possibility.

The push to keep the Palestinian security forces under the control of Abu Mazen could perhaps lay the groundwork for such a scenario. US support for key PA security chiefs such as Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub is an open fact and both have been prominent in the post-election armed demonstrations by Fatah supporters in Gaza and the West Bank. These demonstrations have condemned the Hamas victory and called for the resignation of Abu Mazen and the Fatah central committee. Nevertheless, in a statement released on 28 January, Fatah’s armed wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, described these demonstrations as a populist grab for power by particular Fatah leaders. In a none-too oblique reference to Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, the AMB sharply criticized the organizers of the demonstrations as “ones who spread corruption and greatly contributed to the humiliating Fatah defeat.”

The key question will be how Hamas manages the contradiction between its commitment to the national struggle and maintaining the structures of the PA. The economic dependency of the PA will not disappear with the Hamas victory, although the political character of this relationship has been made strikingly obvious with threats by the US and EU to cut funding. It remains to be seen whether Hamas can find alternate sources of support, will attempt to implement some form of wealth re-distribution or strategy of popular reliance, or begins to redefine its politics to become more acceptable to the West. While the latter appears unlikely at this stage, it is certainly not possible for the situation to remain static.

This contradiction is not of Hamas’s making and is precisely a consequence of the structural limitations put in place by the Oslo process. The only way out of this bind is to break with the conception that the Palestinian struggle is principally about what happens in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A conscious aim of the Oslo process was to narrow the Palestinian struggle to a dispute over land percentages in the West Bank and to sever any link between Palestinians in the WB/GS, those who remained in 1948 historic Palestine as Israeli citizens, and those exiled outside of their homeland. Key to this was the destruction of the PLO as a national liberation movement and its replacement by the Palestinian Authority state building project.

The formation of the PLO in the 1960s was a critical step forward for the Palestinian struggle as it unified the dispersed Palestinian nation across many generations and countries. The bedrock demand of this struggle was the right of return: the insistence that Palestinians had the right to return to their homes and lands from which they had been exiled. A key feature of all negotiations since Oslo was an attempt to undermine this demand, reducing it to the symbolic return of a few thousand Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, despite the open willingness of individuals such as Abu Mazen to acquiesce to such attempts, Palestinians across the globe remain united behind a full return to historic Palestine.

In a show of tragic irony following the Hamas victory, Abu Mazen claimed that he would continue negotiations with Israel under the auspices of the PLO rather than the PA. Although this has technically always been the case, the neutering of PLO structures post-Oslo meant that the direction of negotiations was far removed from democratic or popular control.

Central to the coming period will be what happens to these broader Palestinian national structures and the possible reinvigoration of the right of return movement. Both Hamas and the PFLP campaigned around the importance of renewing Palestinian structures outside of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, the PFLP included in its election program that the Legislative Council elections should form the mandate for the West Bank/Gaza Strip representation for the Palestinian National Council (PNC). As the Palestinian parliament in exile, the PNC is the highest leadership body of the PLO and supposedly represents all Palestinians in exile. It has, however, been moribund in recent decades. The PFLP has called for elections across the world to elect the rest of the PNC and to re-establish it as the primary force for Palestinian decision making.

In an encouraging sign, Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal clearly identified this as an important strategic orientation of Hamas in an editorial published in the Guardian on 31 January. Mishaal stated: “Our message to the Palestinians is this: our people are not only those who live under siege in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but also the millions languishing in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria an the millions spread around the world unable to return home. We promise you that nothing in the world will deter us from pursuing our goal of liberation and return. We shall spare no effort to work with all factions and institutions in order to put our Palestinian house in order. Having won the parliamentary elections, our medium-term objective is to reform the PLO in order to revive its role as a true representative of all the Palestinian people, without exception or discrimination.”

In this context, the Palestinian solidarity movement is faced with important challenges. Given the disarray that Hamas’s unexpected victory has caused for Israeli and US plans for the region, we should fully expect a sustained ideological offensive against them in the mainstream media. This campaign has already begun with the predictable stories of the impending ‘Talibanization’ of Palestinian society. Such claims, however, must be treated with suspicion. Hamas’s victory expressed a political sentiment and desire for a real alternative to the Oslo straitjacket. The Hamas leadership clearly recognizes this and has shown little inclination to implement far-reaching social changes along religious lines.

The Hamas victory helps to dispel the myths surrounding the negotiations of the last decade. The Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has overwhelmingly stated that these negotiations have merely been a cover for the deepening of Israeli apartheid. The clear message of Hamas representatives in the week following the election is that the ‘peace process’ – as understood by Israeli and Western powers and dutifully regurgitated by the mainstream press – has nothing to do with a genuine, just peace. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the world will heed this message. •

Adam Hanieh is a professor in the Department of Development Studies at the University of London. His research interests include political economy of the Middle East; labour migration; class and state formation in the Gulf Cooperation Council; Palestine. He is an international advisory board member for the journal Studies in Political Economy. He is the author of Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East and Money, Markets, and Monarchies.