A Role for Hamas?

David Dreilinger and Israel Policy Forum Staff, 2/3/2005

February 3, 2005/Volume 3.04

While the Iraqi elections have dominated the headlines the past few weeks, an impressive series of democratic elections have been taking place in another Arab locale: the cities and towns of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In late December the first small group of cities held municipal elections, electing local council members and mayors. A few weeks later, a Presidential election was held and just last Thursday, another group of ten cities and small towns went to the polls. More municipal elections are scheduled for April and throughout the year, with national legislative council elections on July 17.

The municipal elections, the fairness of which was certified by international monitors, produced some results that might have been surprising to outside observers. For instance, women were elected to one out of every six local seats in the West Bank, including some mayoral posts. On a less encouraging note, Hamas fared very well in these elections. In the January 27 round of voting in municipalities in the Gaza Strip, Hamas candidates captured 76 out of a possible 118 seats, dominating the voting in large towns like Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. It should be emphasized that these were local elections, fought on local issues. Hamas did not win support based solely on its terrorist history; the main issues it campaigned on were an end to the corruption, patronage, and mismanagement of their Fatah predecessors.

Thus, unlike the Jan. 9 Presidential election which endorsed Mahmoud Abbas and his decision to lay aside the intifada in favor of negotiations these elections did not focus on national issues.

In any case, the United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization, and the designation is well-earned. Despite reports of a ceasefire, there are some elements within Hamas that are continuing their efforts to launch attacks and could in fact strike at any time. But in the US State Department briefing on January 28, spokesman Richard Boucher refused to rule out a political role for Hamas, though he repeated the US demands for an end to violence and terror. On that point, everyone from Ariel Sharon to Mahmoud Abbas is in agreement.

Still, even in Israel, there was little uproar over Hamas electoral success. Many serious policymakers and pragmatic observers believe, to differing degrees, that one of the most realistic ways the terrorist wing of Hamas can be silenced is by incorporating the organization into the Palestinian political structure. Since its almost impossible for Israel or even the PA at this moment in time - to destroy Hamas terrorist capability entirely, the next best alternative would be to see Hamas adopt a political role. Whether the terrorist wing of Hamas should face constant military pressure and assassinations from the IDF or should be offered rewards for joining the political system is a matter of debate. But many agree that Hamas realistic future is as a non-violent political opposition operating within the governmental system and the confines of Palestinian law, with the terrorist wing integrated into the centrally controlled PA security forces.

And their electoral success could be a harbinger of that transition. Alex Fishman, the military analyst for Yediot Ahronoth and consistently tough-minded on the issue of terrorism, argued that we need to be pleased that Hamas is running in these elections. Once elected, he emphasized, Hamas politicians will be politically accountable. And they will have to deal directly with the Israelis on mundane civilian matters, like road-building and water, something they have been loath to do. Fishman wrote that this could create a new dynamic of positive dependency, which creates joint interests in stability.

Turning Hamas into a political party appears to be Abbas goal, too. Throughout the last fifteen years Hamas has played two roles in the Palestinian territories. The first is that of a social services organization providing housing, food, health care, and Islamic schooling to a downtrodden population. The second is that of an armed resistance movement, rejecting the existence of Israel and using terrorism as a tool to derail political progress. From Abbas perspective, both of these roles are problematic. The social services provided by Hamas siphoned political support from the weaker sectors of society away from the PA, strengthening a political organization that was not part of the governmental structure (indeed Hamas refused to recognize the PA). It also imbued an Islamic bent to a nationalist movement that had previously been dominated by the mostly secular PLO. On top of that, Hamas terrorism repeatedly destroyed any political progress that the Palestinians were making.

But Abbas apparently believes that one of the reasons Hamas succeeded in filling these roles is because they were not accountable to voters. They could organize a horrible terror attack and stop diplomatic momentum without facing the political consequences of Israeli retaliations and stalled negotiations. Nowhere was this more apparent than in 1996, when Hamas launched a string of murderous terror attacks that killed almost sixty Israelis. The peace process was dealt a harsh blow to the detriment of the Palestinian people, but in the end Hamas did not pay a price because they were an extra-governmental organization, a permanent opposition.

That is why their participation in elections, albeit small local elections, is so important. It is still too early to tell what kind of role Hamas will carve out in the political arena, and the ceasefire negotiated with Abbas is still tenuous (Hamas continued to fire mortars and rockets at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip this week). But it appears that they will participate in the July 17 national legislative elections.

Under this dynamic the results of the Palestinian Legislative Council elections will play a significant role in determining the direction of Palestinian politics. Hamas role in the process is of critical importance. How will the Palestinians deal with the new situation created by the disengagement plan? Will they engage the Israelis in bilateral dialogue and negotiations, or will the moment of opportunity simply pass as the terrorists return to violence as soon as they find it convenient to do so? The makeup of the legislative assembly will have an important say on these issues, especially if Hamas should fare well.

Hamas is a potent force in Palestinian politics and its opposition would make bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians harder. To make any progress toward a negotiated peace, Abbas would have to overcome a larger and more powerful minority in his parliament, much like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must deal with the hard-line minority in the Knesset that is dead-set against the disengagement plan. Violent opposition to any peace deal would still come from smaller groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and external organizations like Hezbollah, but muting Hamas rejectionist voice would be a major accomplishment.

If an agreement with Israel were ever to be reached, it would have a better chance of being accepted among the Palestinians were Hamas to play a positive role. As Alastair Crooke, a member of the Mitchell Commission, and Beverley Milton-Edwards, an academic, argued in an article published last summer, a meaningful and inclusive Palestinian national unity [government] is necessary for a negotiated peace.

Bringing Hamas into the decision-making process on a political level could help neutralize opposition to a peace agreement. This would be a decisive break from the Oslo process, where discordant voices like Hamas were suppressed or ignored, rather than voted down. Therefore Abu Mazens apparent plan to integrate Hamas into a political faction that shares power within the framework of a legitimate democratic government may be, in the long term, not only the way to stabilize the security situation in the West Bank and Gaza, but possibly a way to lay the groundwork for an acceptable negotiated settlement. Along these lines, it is significant that some Hamas leaders from the West Bank have made it known in recent months that they would be willing to recognize or at least tolerate - Israel in its pre-1967 borders.

But that day is a long way off and the threat of Hamas terrorism, especially in the days leading up to disengagement, is quite real, as some within Hamas would like to portray Israels disengagement as a withdrawal under fire. Israel will not relax its pursuit of ticking time-bomb targets. But Hamas participation (and success) in last weeks elections demonstrated that the political landscape is changing. Perhaps it will be the democratic process that Palestinians seem to have energetically embraced that will hasten the end of terror and lead both sides back toward the negotiating table.
The views expressed in IPF Focus are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Israel Policy Forum.