View Full Version : Hamas Is Poised To Win Gaza Outright

01-18-2006, 06:03 PM
Hamas swaps bullets for ballots in attempt to sweep away old guard
Islamist movement poised to be the second largest party and win Gaza outright


Chris McGreal in Um Tuba
Wednesday January 18, 2006
The Guardian

The Israeli policemen who wrestled Mohammed Abu Teir off to jail for illegal election campaigning in East Jerusalem this week probably did more to pile on the votes for the red-bearded sheikh than all the handshakes and sloganeering. Sheikh Abu Teir is number two on the list of Hamas candidates for next week's election to the Palestinian parliament, but Israel has barred what it classifies as a terrorist organisation from campaigning, so the group appears on the ballot as the "Change and Reform" movement.

"The police told us we were Hamas. We told them we are Change and Reform. We went around and around. They wanted us to admit we were Hamas so they could charge us, but we didn't," said Sheikh Abu Teir.

The police would not have found it very difficult to have made the link. Sheikh Abu Teir was released from prison six months ago after the latest stint of a total of 25 years in Israeli jails for serving in Hamas's armed wing, for membership of a terrorist organisation and distributing weapons.

But locking up Hamas candidates - about a quarter are in Israeli jails - only bolsters their credibility among Palestinian voters, who generally see all security prisoners as political martyrs. It has helped fuel Hamas's surge in the polls to close to 40% of the vote, only marginally less than the establishment Fatah led by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. And the gap is closing.

After the election, the Islamist movement is almost certain to be the second largest party in the Palestinian parliament, and to win outright in the Gaza strip. That presents a dilemma for Israel, and the US and Europe, which must decide how to deal with an organisation they call terrorist but that has evident electoral support.

But it also poses a problem for Hamas, which has to define its role within a system built around a negotiated peace deal with a country the Islamist movement refuses to recognise.

To compete in the elections, Hamas has largely retreated from "armed resistance" - its strategy of murdering civilians in suicide bombings and shooting soldiers - in favour of a political pragmatism some Palestinian analysts believe will make it difficult for Hamas to return to a sustained violent campaign.

The Hamas manifesto hinted at the change when it left out any reference to the call in the group's founding charter for the destruction of the Jewish state.

"We were political since day one but the armed resistance was at the forefront," said Sheikh Abu Teir. "Now we studied the situation and we read the situation. There was a truce that ended at the beginning of this month and there is still quiet by us. That doesn't mean the possibility of resistance is ended but a political decision was made that political work is superseding the military work. That means we are investing in the present situation to the maximum."

Hamas boycotted the last Palestinian parliamentary election 10 years ago on the grounds that the Oslo peace accords were a surrender of Islamic lands, and menaced electors by declaring that anyone who voted was defying God.

But afterwards it increasingly infiltrated the political scene, building popular support by providing myriad social services as ordinary Palestinians grew increasingly disillusioned with the corruption and mismanagement of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

The decision to capitalise on burgeoning popular support among Palestinians increasingly weary of violence was not unanimous in Hamas, and Sheikh Abu Tier says the organisation's prisoners in Israeli jails were instrumental in deciding that it should run for election. "The prisoners tipped the balance in favour of political participation. They are well educated. Many are professors, engineers, doctors. That was the result of vision. They were a decisive factor and I was one of them in favour," he said.

Hamas did well in local elections last year and bolstered its support in the run-up to next week's vote with a reputation for efficient, clean government in the towns it now governs, such as Qalqilya and Beit Hanoun.

"I was called in for interrogation in Jerusalem," said Sheikh Abu Tier. "The [Israeli] interrogator said to me: you people have credibility with the people. This is the testimony of the enemy."

But the rapid growth in political support for Hamas leaves it with the dilemma of whether to go into government with Fatah led by Mr Abbas, who is committed to negotiation over armed resistance and a state built on the occupied territories with no claim to Israel.

"We are going to decide whether to join the government according to its programme," said Mahmoud al-Zahar, one of the most prominent Hamas leaders in the occupied territories. "Our aim is not to cooperate with the Israelis economically, politically, socially, on security. They are the enemy. They killed our people. They are responsible for the long-standing suffering of the Palestinian people. So how can we cooperate with them?"

Sheikh Abu Teir says the continued rejection of cooperation excludes the possibility of negotiations. "The PLO negotiated with them for years and recognised them, and what did it get the Palestinians?" he said. "When Abbas says the platform for negotiations is Oslo, we all know who destroyed Oslo. What happened after 2000 [and the outbreak of the second intifada] destroyed everything that went before it."

But for all the insistence on both sides that it would be impossible to work together, Israeli officials and the military and Hamas mayors and councillors are already cooperating in the administration of towns such as Qalqilya. Israeli officials are privately admiring of the elected Hamas leaders they deal with, regarding them as being efficient and businesslike. Dr Zahar said that if Hamas were to win the election, and in a position to determine the Palestinian government's policy, it would look to the Arab world. He said the aim would not be to fight Israel but to ignore it.

"We have to run very effective self-defence and take responsibility economically, politically and socially through cooperation with the Arabs, not with the Israelis," he said. "We will reform this system, we have to be rid of the corruption. We are ready to establish an independent state on one square metre, but at the same time we will not renounce one square metre. Our first priority is not Israel but Palestine."

Mr Abbas has warned Hamas that whatever its view of Israel, it cannot remain an armed group and sit in parliament. The acting Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has said that Hamas joining the Palestinian government would block peace efforts.

"There can be no progress with an administration in which there are terrorist organisations as members," he told the US president, George Bush, last week. The US has threatened to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas joins the government without disarming, and the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has warned that money will be withheld if Hamas joins the administration without recognising Israel's right to exist.

Hamas leaders say the problem could be resolved by integrating the movement's fighters into the Palestinian security forces. But persuading Hamas to drop its charter calling for the destruction of Israel, and recognising the Jewish state's right to exist, is a more complicated matter.

"It's our land," said Dr Zahar. "Nobody among our sons and grandsons will accept Israel as a legal state. Historically, they occupied this land as the British occupied it. Israel is a foreign body. Not in this generation, not in the next generation, will we accept it here."

But asked if that meant Hamas would continue to try to destroy Israel, Dr Zahar said that would be for the next generation to decide.

Hamas goes into next week's elections to the Palestinian parliament under the banner of the Change and Reform movement because, although it has the support of about 40% of voters, it remains a banned terrorist organisation in Israeli eyes. During the last year, Hamas has retreated from its campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians in favour of capitalising on its growing popular support by running for election. Much of its support is built on disillusionment over corruption and incompetence in the Palestinian Authority, led by old guard revolutionaries who were close to Yasser Arafat. Polls predict Hamas will be the second largest party in the parliament but that once-dominant Fatah will fail to win a majority.