Jan. 26, 2006
Some initial thoughts on the political earthquake of a sweeping Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections:
Today, January 26, 2006, marks the official end of a fifty-year long period during which the Palestinian national movement was dominated by secular political culture and the beginning of a new phase of unknown duration dominated by an Islamist political culture. The consequences are huge, not just for the Palestinians, but for the Middle East and for global movements of change as a whole. This is because the question of Palestine has become a fundamental symbolic icon of the dark side of the modern condition and a weathervane for the nature of politics in the twenty-first century.
Minutes ago, Hanna Nasser, head of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission announced that Hamas won 76 out of the 132 seats of the Palestinian Parliament, with Fatah, the movement that has dominated Palestinian national politics since the late 1960s garnering only 43 seats. The final results might change slightly, but the basic picture is clear. On the internal Palestinian level Hamas’s land slide victory means that it will take over most of the institutions of the Palestinian Authority in the Occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Hamas will set the political agenda for that segment of the Palestinian population living under foreign military rule. Its victory will also reinforce the already strong position (if not dominant) position of Islamist political movements in the other two major segments: Diaspora Palestinians, the world’s oldest refugee population; and the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which constitute about fifth of the total Israeli population.
In terms of the relationship with Israel, nothing fundamental will change, but the mask will be off. Parliament and government are words that connote a sovereignty that is absent in reality. The “there is no partner for peace” mantra has been an iron clad law of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians since the days of the British Mandate. Sharon’s version was only the latest incarnation of “there are no Palestinians” of Golda Meir through “the PLO is a terrorist organization” of successive governments until Oslo in 1993, to “we will not negotiate with Arafat” of the post-Oslo era. Hamas did not just win, Abbas and Fatah were eviscerated by Israeli governments that engineered their failure of the “peace process” to produce any fruit, and by Fatah leadership’s own gluttony which blinded them to the consequences of their own failures. Still, the Hamas victory will make it much easier for Israel to sell the “no partner for peace” line.
On the regional level, Hamas’ victory is part of a larger trend of the ascendance of political Islam via the iconic vehicle of the secular liberal political order of the Enlightenment: the ballot box. The incredible scenes of women supporters of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt scaling walls in order to reach polling stations sealed off by police sent in to prevent a certain electoral defeat of the ruling government party, reveals a great deal about the determination of Islamist political parties that have swept to victories in many other countries, including Iraq and the limited municipal elections in Saudi Arabia.
The Hamas victory will lead to an even greater international isolation of the Palestinian national movement by governments in Europe and the United States and, potentially much more important, by the bulk of the international solidarity and civil society movements based, as they are, on the principles of secular humanism and non-violence. Ironically (again) Hamas won partly because it is the most effective organizer of grass roots civil society and self-help institutions, whereas Fatah depended too much on its ability to provide salaried jobs financed by regular contributions from donor countries. Well, the PA is already broke and the money transfers might very well dry up if the EU and the United States and Israel decide to impose a financial blockade. And even if the world deals with Hamas when it comes to the question of Palestine, little attention will be paid to changes on the social and cultural levels such as educational content in schools, personal status laws, public rituals of piety, and other forms of social discipline practiced through public control of the female body.
Elections are but a snap shot and there are a myriad of factors that can skew results. I can go on for a long time about specific case studies of what happened here and there. But there is a larger truth: Following Oslo, the daily life of Palestinians in the occupied territories has deteriorated to almost sub-human levels, largely due to Israeli policies. The best that people hope for is to keep their head above water and pray that their society will not suffer a complete and total collapse. At times like these, people turn to God and to each other. Hamas has helped them to do both, and they have something to show for it.
The saga continues.
Beshara Doumani is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is Academic Freedom After September 11.
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