"Stunning" and "spectacular" are just two of the adjectives used to describe Hamas securing 76 of the 132 Palestinian Legislative Council seats to Fatah's 43. For some, Hamas' showing came as a surprise.
In November whilst visiting the region, I interacted with Palestinian NGOs, which estimated that Hamas's support base was no more than 30 percent. On the eve of the elections, Birzeit University, a respected Palestinian university, predicted Fatah securing 46.4 percent of the vote to Hamas' 39.8%. This would translate into 63 seats for Fatah and 58 for Hamas. What accounts for this Hamas victory?
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Two reasons account for it. First, voter turnout was a massive 77 percent of the eligible 1.3 million voters and these came out in force to punish Fatah. One Hamas voter, when asked about her choice, bluntly responded: "Fatah hasn't done anything for us, for our children."
Second, Hamas did not just capitalize on the failures of Fatah, but essentially engaged in a new-look Hamas, which took on board Palestinian fears. For instance, realizing that voters might be scared off by its radicalism, Hamas put forward new, moderate leaders such as Ghazi Hamad, the editor-in-chief of Al-Resalah
newspaper. Moreover, the destruction of Israel, which appears in the Covenant of Hamas, did not appear in Hamas' election manifesto.
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Realizing that secular and Christian Palestinians would be turned off by its Islamist policies, Hamas put forward Christian candidates like Hussam Al-Taweel. Hamas also proved that it could run a modern electoral campaign by bringing in people like Nashat Aqtash, their resident Karl Rove whose job it was to rebrand the movement for Western consumption. Aqtash's job was to re-package Hamas - a kinder and gentler Hamas was sold to the voting public and to Western media agencies.
This raises an interesting question - which Hamas did Palestinians buy into - the image pushed out by the Hamas spin-doctors or the real Hamas? Even during the election campaign the 'kinder and gentler' Hamas image was being contradicted by Hamas action on the ground - vigilante punishments for 'immoral behavior' and Hamas campaigners threatening that if voters did not vote for them, God would punish them. As a result, Hamas may soon experience a credibility crisis amongst Palestinian voters arising from the gap between promise and performance.
There are other contradictions as well. Hamas is now in control of a political entity, the Palestinian Authority, which is the creation of the Oslo Accords that it rejected. As such, Hamas' participation, let alone victory, in the elections signifies a de facto recognition of Israel and a two-state peace deal that was the very basis of the Oslo Accords. Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, in an interview with journalists, did raise the possibility of negotiation with Israel, but when asked if Hamas would recognize Israel, he replied, "Never." How does one negotiate with a state you do not recognize? The contradictions keep adding up.
However, the contradictions do not stop there. Ismail Haniya, Hamas' leader in Gaza, informed the media that Hamas has no desire to disarm: "The Americans and the Europeans say to Hamas: Either you have weapons or you enter the legislative council. We say weapons and legislative council. There is no contradiction between the two."
I would, however, beg to differ with Ismail Haniya, and the contradiction is patently obvious. In October last year, Palestinian police protested outside the Palestinian Legislative Council after Hamas militants attacked various police stations. Last weekend Hamas again ambushed Palestinian police. As a result, police have taken over government buildings in Gaza in protest against Hamas actions.
It is for this reason that President Abbas has been trying to disarm the various militant groupings, noting that there can only be one legal weapon in a democratic state. One of the key political science definitions of a state is one that controls the monopoly of force within its territorial boundaries. The existence of armed Palestinian gunmen undermines Palestinian sovereignty and weakens the state. Where the state loses its monopoly of violence, there is lawlessness and anarchy as is characteristic of Gaza - a 146 square mile area that has been in Hamas de facto control ever since the Israeli withdrawal. Over ten days in early January in Gaza, CNN correspondent Guy Raz noted that there had been:
Three Palestinian government offices occupied by gunmen
Explosives detonated by armed militants in a United Nations club
Three British nationals kidnapped at gunpoint
An Italian man abducted
A Palestinian police officer killed in a shootout between police and militants
The Palestinian-controlled border crossing shut down by police angry at the death of their colleague
Air strikes launched by Israel against militant targets
What exactly is the relationship going to be between Palestinian security forces and Hamas gunmen, especially in the light of their ongoing enmity?
Moreover, while Hamas' Ismail Haniya may reject EU and US demands to disarm and to recognize Israel's existence, he and the rest of Hamas would soon find out that all politics is about compromise, reciprocity and flexibility. Holding an inflexible position on demands from the EU and the US could come at great cost. The PA is heavily dependent on aid from the US and the EU. Washington spent more than $1.7 billion in the West Bank and Gaza since 1993 to combat poverty, improve infrastructure and promote good governance. What happens if that aid is slashed as both the US and Brussels threatens? What happens to Hamas' promise of a better
life for all Palestinians - two-thirds of whom live on less than $2 per day? As socio-economic conditions deteriorate, would popular anger not be directed at Hamas? In an incisive article in the Mail and Guardian, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley note: "â€¦ so long as Hamas is not in charge, Palestinians will be grateful for every service it provides; once in power, Palestinians will blame it for every service they lack."
On the basis of these local, regional and international constraints, some argue that Hamas will be compelled to reject the politics of extremism in favor of a more pragmatic policy. Proponents of this argument point to how Hamas-controlled municipalities such as Kalkilya have embraced this pragmatism, working with Israelis on shared water resources and the like. Should Hamas at a national level demonstrate such pragmatism, it will find that it would have a partner for peace in Israel and have the support of Washington and Brussels.
An opinion poll in the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper found that 48 percent of Israelis favored talking to a Hamas-led Palestinian government, while 43% were opposed. Both Washington and Brussels have embraced the democratic process that brought Hamas to power. However, both have stated that they will not talk to Hamas in its current configuration; that Hamas would need to revisit its 1988 Covenant, which explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel and goes on to state that: "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."
The EU's External Relations Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, speaks for the international community when she said: "We are prepared to work with any Palestinian government, if this government seeks peace, using peaceful means."
However, should this more pragmatic Hamas arise, it would mean the death of the old rejectionist Hamas.
On the other hand, should Hamas stick to its policies of securing Palestinian rights by force and the non-recognition of Israel, it will mean the death of Hamas in another way, and with it the hope of a Palestinian state. As Nashat Aqtash admitted:
"We don't have the money, we don't have the means to take back Palestinian lands by force."
Professor Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria and is Director of the Centre for International Political Studies.