Hamas came to the Palestinian public with 'clean hands'

Ina Friedman  

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 future.

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 hands."

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 the campaign.

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 Fatah's prospects.

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 terms.

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?

  The Jerusalem Report 1999 - 2004