Hamas came to the
Palestinian public with 'clean hands'
Hamas is coming into its own as
a force in Palestinian politics. Associated in the minds of Israelis with
brutal terror operations, and in the minds of Palestinians with
social-welfare activities, the movement boycotted the 1996 parliamentary
elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) on the grounds that
they were part of the overall Oslo peace process, which Hamas adamantly
rejected. This year the fundamentalist Islamic movement changed course and
decided to challenge the secular Fatah party's domination of Palestinian
self-government in two key tests of political clout. Hamas has run in the
elections for municipal, town and village councils, which began last
December and were completed on May 5. And having culled some 30 percent of
the overall vote - placing itself on a par with the Fatah party - the
movement has established itself as a player to be reckoned with in the
elections for the PLC on July 17.
But does Hamas's successful foray into formal politics signify widespread
support of its ideological platform, which rules out negotiating an end to
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Dr. Gershon Baskin, founder and Israeli
co-director of the independent Israel/Palestine Center for Research and
Information (IPCRI), a joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank, discusses some
hidden factors behind Hamas's electoral strength and what it bodes for the
The Jerusalem Report: Were the results of the local elections predictable?
Gershon Baskin: Although it boycotted the 1996 elections, Hamas has
contested control of civic bodies like labor and student unions and has done
well. But most people read those successes as a protest vote against the PA,
rather than a sign that Palestinian society identified with its Islamic
platform. This time, too, I believe, many of the ballots cast for Hamas were
in protest of the corruption in the PA and Fatah. Because it has never
served in government, Hamas was able to come to the public with "clean
Other than integrity, what image was Hamas trying to project?
It ran professionals - engineers, doctors, lawyers, many of them trained in
the West - to create the feeling that its candidates will be more effective
at governance. Hamas also has a strong record in fields associated with
local government, like education and welfare. At the beginning of the last
school year, for example, it handed out school bags filled with books, pens
and pencils to 12,000 families in the Bethlehem area.
Were there other factors behind Hamas's electoral success?
Hamas was far better organized than Fatah, whose performance in the first
round of elections was chaotic. Fatah learned its lesson - many of the
people responsible resigned - and did better in the second round. But Hamas
still had the advantage. It also had a well-oiled machine for getting out
the vote and exploited the lingering tribal mentality. Wherever it was
running a candidate associated with a specific clan, it drew on the extended
family to get voters to the polls.
So the local vote was divorced from ideology?
I'm not sure we can go that far. But few ideological slogans were evident in
Do Hamas's inroads on the local level augur a similar showing in the
upcoming parliamentary elections?
Its winning candidates will now have an opportunity to prove themselves as
local officials, and some may exploit their enhanced public profile to run
for parliament. On the other hand, if the Fatah primaries, scheduled for May
27, yield candidates perceived as anti-corruption reformers, they will boost
Will voters look beyond good governance?
They will be looking mainly at the chances of getting a real peace process
moving with Israel. If they assess these chances as good, they'll likely
vote for more moderate candidates. If they believe the chances are poor,
they'll want to vote for the most extreme candidates, to match what they
perceive as Israeli extremism. Most Palestinians currently believe the peace
process is stymied [by Israel] and unlikely to be revived, which stands to
serve Hamas. But Hamas does face one major problem: After last year's wave
of targeted assassinations took out much of its top leadership, it has few
charismatic figures sufficiently known to draw votes to its national slate.
Isn't it possible that becoming a major-league party will induce Hamas to
moderate its positions?
There are already moderate voices in Hamas, like Sheikh Hassan Yousef [head
of the Hamas politburo in Ramallah], who speaks of concluding a 10-year
hudna [truce] with Israel. But his conditions for it are Israel's full
withdrawal to the pre-67 border, East Jerusalem as the capital of a
Palestinian state, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. One
could view this as a compromise, given Hamas's overall vision [of Israel's
destruction]. But I don't see any Israeli government acceding to these
Is Palestinian society paradoxically growing more democratic but less likely
to opt for peace?
We're talking about two separate things. A strong Hamas showing in the
parliamentary elections will hinder the ability of any Palestinian
government to negotiate with Israel. But you can't reduce the meaning of
democracy to a choice between alternative parties in free elections; it's a
compilation of civic elements. Palestinian voters will also have to ask
themselves: Will a country governed by Hamas have a free press? Will
Christian Palestinians enjoy the same rights as under a secular government?
Or will Hamas move toward basing legislation on shari'a [Islamic law],
limiting the quality of democracy rather than enhancing it?