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Shock wave or, maybe, not

Posted by Helen Friday, January 27, 2006

As all the world knows, Hamas has done better in the Palestinian elections than expected, pulling ahead of Fatah. Understandably, this has caused a great deal of commentary.

The BBC called it a “stunning victory”, going so far as to describe Hamas as Islamic, a term they tend to omit when writing about suicide/homicide bombings. With slightly more understanding, perhaps, Deutsche Welle referred to a “shocking victory”.

The Guardian this morning wrote of a “shock victory” but it would, perhaps, be more of a shock to people who have been publicly proclaiming that the so-called peace process was stalled repeatedly solely because of Israel’s supposed intransigeance.

All the news services have been quoting various people, some named, some anonymous or semi-anonymous, in Arab countries, who were rejoicing in what they saw a victory to the people who had given their blood (and other people’s, of course). All of these are countries and people who are prepared to fight for the cause to the last drop of Palestinian blood and why the Palestinians allow themselves to be manipulated in this way has always been a mystery to me.

But is this really such an enormous change? In the first place, it was clear that Hamas will do well, as the splintering and quarrelling groups in Fatah had only barely managed to come together to produce a single list of candidates.

It appears from today’s coverage that numerous Fatah supporters had decided not to vote or to vote for Hamas “to teach Fatah a lesson”. The trouble with tactical voting is that the tactics might not achieve the results you wanted.

In the second place, what exactly is the difference between Fatah and Hamas? Hamas sends in suicide/homicide bombers and fights other Palestinian groups for ruling position. Fatah’s side group, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade sends in suicide/homicide bombers and the whole group fights other Palestinian groups for ruling position.

So far equal, more or less. It is true that Mahmoud Abbas made it clear that he was prepared to negotiate with Israel but he had been unable or unwilling to disarm the militant terrorist groups (I bet, he is sorry now) and merely wrung his hands after every outrage and demanded that Israel desist from retaliation.

Furthermore, Abbas recently announced that money would be given to the families of “martyrs” or, as most of us would call them, terrorists.

Hamas, of course, does not even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and has already announced that negotiations are not on the cards.

The Daily Telegraph (and other newspapers and news agencies) reports that Sheikh Said Syam, “one of Hamas’s leading strategists in Gaza” has explained:

“Talks with Israel are not on our agenda, and our military wing will not lay down its arms.”
Interestingly, he has also added:
“Nor will our fighters become part of the Palestinian security forces. They will remain separate.”
Clearly, his strategy does not envisage a peaceful Palestinian state either. The seeds of a very nasty civil war lie in that statement.

In a way, that is quite useful. At least we can dispense with the charade of the peace process or peace negotiations. (That was my first reaction and I am delighted to see that Emanuele Ottolenghi, who teaches at the Middle East Centre in Oxford and is an international expert on the subject, said more or less the same thing in the National Review Online.)

Not that we shall. As the shock of Hamas victory dies, we shall see the same people popping up to tell us that, no matter what, Israel must make concessions and it is unreasonable of her to demand that the terrorist groups disarm or that they acknowledge her right to exist.

We are already hearing voices telling us that the EU should not just acknowledge Hamas (nothing else to do, after all they were elected) but continue pumping large amounts of money into the Palestinian Authority.

The voices on the other side of the Pond are more muted, though I understand former President Jimmy Carter, one of the least successful American politicians of the twentieth century, has been making similar comments.

According to Deutsche Welle, on the other hand, German politicians are questioning whether the EU should continue to pump the annual half a billion euros into the organization.
“Either Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist "or we'll think about letting the finances dry up," Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy expert of the SPD told daily Berliner Zeitung.

"We can't give taxpayers' money to such a government," said Elmar Brok, a CDU member and head of the Foreign Council in the EU Parliament.

Other politicians have underlined that Hamas must fulfill the twin requirements of renouncing violence and recognizing Israel's existence before there can be further cooperation with the EU.

In addition, Hamas must formulate a concrete plan for disarming its various factions, others said, saying that future German future financial help to the region would hinge on the factor.”
Others, such as the Daily Telegraph leader, have encouraged politicians to separate Hamas leadership, that had decided not to boycott the elections from its hot-head “activists”. I must admit I do not remember the Telegraph making the same distinction between Sinn Fein and IRA but that was our problem. (Still is.)

On all sides we are told that Hamas must now abandon its violence or, more optimistically, that being in government will bring it to its senses and violence will gradually be abandoned. Both those arguments seem to me to be nonsensical.

It is the Hamas leadership and the many “activists” who stood in the election and are now in the Palestinian parliament, who are assuring us that they have not the slightest intention of abandoning the fight of sweeping Israel into the sea. If that involves missile attacks, bombs, explosions, so be it. If retaining power means violence towards other Palestinians, who do not obey the rules as laid down by Hamas, so be it again.

In the wake of the election results being announced, Reuters published a piece, entitled “Arabs see US changing stance on Hamas”. It was not so much a question of seeing as assuming.

“Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the Egyptian Islamist movement, told Reuters that the vote for Hamas meant that Palestinians had opted for the choice of "resistance."

"(Israel and the United States) will have no alternative but to deal with Hamas ... The Americans will submit to this, especially as Hamas does not want to monopolize power," he said.

"The Americans will start secret contacts with Hamas and in fact they have already started. But in the first moments they will exert public pressure to try to make Hamas change some of its ideas," added Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian specialist on Islamist movements in the Middle East.”
What is so interesting about the various comments, apart from the already noted readiness on the part of Arab politicians and commentators to fight the battle to the last Palestinian, is the tendency for expressing views that echo those of the left in the West.
“The (Palestinian) voters have answered Israeli extremism with a Palestinian counterpart and I believe only those more extreme sides will produce peace," said Anani.

"We want hardline politicians in the face of the Israeli hardliners. We need that in order to deal with Israel, which gave nothing in return for ... concessions. We need an Arab Sharon," added political analyst Dawoud Sharayan, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud, a Qatari columnist and political writer, said Hamas was in a strong political position after winning elections while retaining its armed wing.

"But they are also humans who want to live in peace, so I believe they will start negotiations with Israel, but as equals, not like the Palestinian Authority that gave so many concessions which were not returned by the Israeli side," he added.”
Fascinating. What were those concessions, one would like to know. And what happened to the withdrawal from Gaza, the dismantling of the settlements, all carried out in the teeth of a great deal of Israeli opposition? Forgotten, apparently.

A Jordanian official commented more soberly:
“The Hamas victory could have enormous implications for the peace process and Hamas must now act responsibly to ensure the Palestinians don't lose more.”
But then, Jordan, unlike Qatar, has had her own problems with Palestinian militants and dealt with them in a ferocious fashion.

Which, of course, brings us to the question of what will be Israel’s reaction. There is an election coming there, as well. We can be reasonably certain that the half-hearted suggestion of withdrawing from the West Bank and, even East Jerusalem, made in the last few days by the acting Prime Minister, will now be put on ice.

The withdrawal from Gaza was made for various practical reasons but, also, in the hopes of changing the political situation. Now Israelis, who opposed it, can proclaim that nothing had been gained – quite the contrary. Those who had supported the withdrawal are likely to turn away from more concessions until something practical is given in return.

Many Israeli “doves” voted for Sharon because of Arafat. How many will vote for Netanyahu because of Hamas?

Well, what now? Is the fight for democracy over because it can produce anomalous results? As I see it, there can be several reactions when terrorists and extremists are elected in a hitherto untried democratic system.

One can try the Algerian method and call off the second round. That resulted in a bloody civil war, massacres and something like 150,000 dead.

One can abolish democracy completely and, indeed, that is usually what happens, though it is done by the victorious party. It is not clear whether Hamas will call any more elections, particularly if they cease to be popular. The late unlamented Chairman Arafat did not, after all.

The outside world can do little, beyond accepting the decision and watch warily how the new government treads. Handing over money without being able to monitor it sounds like an extremely bad idea.

What will actually change under the new rule? Very little, I should have thought. Despite the assurance of British journalists from the BBC to the Telegraph, nothing much has changed in the local districts Hamas had taken in the last lot of elections.

It is true that it will be difficult for the organization to keep its glamour and mystique when they have to deal with unemployment of rubbish collection. On the other hand, they are unlikely to wind up their security services, much of whose activity is directed against Palestinians brave enough to defy them.

An almost immediate set of victims will be the women of Palestine. While the religious aspect of Hamas is not always clear – many of the terrorist groups grew out of Marxist movements – they will undoubtedly use religion to impose controls.

How will they deal with the economy? After all, the Israelis are hardly likely to open the borders to let in Palestinian workers if an unknown number of them might be carrying explosives. What else is there?

A great deal of money from the West, of course, and I predict that it will start flowing again after a certain amount of foot-shuffling, particularly from Europe, both the individual member states and the EU. After all, they were rarely fazed by evidence that money to the PA in the past went astray.

The United States may hold out longer. There the decision will have to be taken by Congress and that body, unlike the State Department, say, is reasonably capable of understanding that Hamas does not intend a two-state solution.

Will the money help the ordinary Palestinians? Don’t be silly. Whether siphoned off to terrorists and their families or to individuals, little will change in financial terms. And Israel will go on being painted as the cause of the poverty and hopelessness.

How soon before the Palestinian people realize that they have made another mistake and try to correct it, and what will happen then, are all things that are impossible to predict. On the whole, they have not been lucky with their leaders.

Gaza has been sliding steadily into chaos and that is unlikely to stop. The fights between Hamas, Fatah, local chieftains and the Palestinian security services will, one assumes, continue, as will the burgeoning kidnap and ransom business. There is some indication that the existing security services are aware of what is going on and are not uninvolved.

The same might happen in other parts of the Palestinian territory.

(Rather nastily, I must admit that I cannot summon up any anger while the victims are dumb peace activists and their equally dumb relatives.)

The one thing, however, is clear: we cannot really be surprised by the results. This is the bloody legacy of Arafat, who had oppressed his people, stole their money, destroyed their economy and made any kind of a normal political life impossible. With the best will in the world – and we do not know if he had the best will in the world – Mahmoud Abbas could not have turned the PA or Fatah into viable political entities.

The EU bears its share of responsibility. Its blind and insane support for Arafat, no matter what happened, simply to annoy the Americans, has contributed to the bloody mess he left behind him and the even bloodier future.

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