Hamas Steps into a Complex Landscape
Hamas Steps into a Complex Landscape

Hamas Steps into a Complex Landscape

There is more uncertainty than clarity surrounding this week's Palestinian elections, though this much is plain: Hamas, the Islamist movement designated a terrorist organization by the United States and considered a mortal enemy by Israel, will be joining the legislature. Its entrance is unlikely to be quiet. Riding an unprecedented wave of popularity and having outperformed expectations in recent municipal elections, it is on pace to capture a sizable portion of votes and, perhaps, find a seat at the Cabinet table.

Hamas's decision to enter the political realm was long in coming but hardly a surprise. Like Fatah, the dominant secular nationalist organization, Hamas was an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike Fatah, its agenda was not one of national liberation through armed struggle and diplomacy alone. Its first priority was the Palestinian people's social and religious transformation. Violence was not its only tool, any more than independence was its sole objective. Of the two organizations, paradoxically, it is Fatah that has the more militaristic pedigree. And, in the absence of armed struggle, it is Hamas that has a political agenda to fall back on.

True, violence came to Hamas, and when it did, it did so brutally. Its first targets were soldiers and settlers. Later, it extended its operations to suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, justifying them as retaliation for the killing of Palestinian civilians; on various occasions it offered - in a proposal Israel dismissed as disingenuous - to stop killing civilians if Israel did the same. Resort to violence itself displayed political intuition, as attacks were carefully calibrated to the public mood. The Palestinian Authority was failing miserably in fulfilling the elemental responsibility of protecting its people. Unable to provide security, Hamas aimed for second best: It provided revenge.

Even at the height of the armed confrontation, Hamas kept one eye firmly focused on the religious, social, and cultural, with domestic legitimacy foremost on its mind, as it rallied the faithful in mosques and tended to their needs through charitable institutions. Throughout, Hamas's leaders trusted in the ultimate payoff. Superior discipline and ideological coherence, coupled with the public's inevitable disenchantment with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, would yield dividends. Payback time, by all accounts, is now.

Vindicated by the breakdown of the peace process, the expiration of the Oslo framework, the outbreak of the intifadah, and Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas can join a new process without endorsing the Palestinian Authority's past policies. Politics also offers a respite from a taxing conflict with Israel that had cost the movement most of its historic leadership. Besides, the Islamists' popularity had reached unmatched heights: Fatah was divided and in disarray; the withdrawal from Gaza established in the public's mind that the Islamists' violence, not the nationalists' negotiations, produces results; and Hamas's reputation for integrity and efficiency compares happily to the Authority's dismal record.

In the West as in Israel, the prospect of Hamas's rise to power is provoking angst and anger, with fears ranging from a political takeover to the end of any chance at a diplomatic process. Hamas's past performance and present ideological pronouncements certainly give reason for pause. But other factors are at play.

Over the past year, Hamas on the whole has adhered to its truce with Israel; its elected municipal representatives coordinate with the Israeli administration; rather than oppose the principle of future negotiations, it disputes the basis of those that were held in the past; and, not unlike Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it favors a long-term interim agreement between the two parties, albeit on terms far different from those Sharon supports.

Furthermore, Hamas may be growing, but there's a limit. A minority of Palestinians backs its hard-core Islamist positions and most continue to oppose its outlook. Impressive as they are, Hamas's recent gains reflect disaffection for the Palestinian Authority more than support for its political program, its electoral size considerably inflating its actual one. So long as Hamas is not in charge, Palestinians will be grateful for every service it provides; once Hamas is in power, Palestinians will blame it for every service they lack. Hamas knows all this, and so far is operating within these confines. For all their rhetoric, the Islamists also are well aware that improving daily life depends on relations with Israel and that little can be achieved without the West's involvement. Should they take action that fundamentally jeopardizes either, Palestinians will suffer and Hamas shoulder the blame.

All the same, Hamas is unlikely to drop its rejection of Israel, its military arsenal, or - if it believes it will enjoy popular backing - its armed operations. The best clue to its future lies in its past: It will concentrate on domestic issues, seek to demonstrate that its presence can improve daily life, reduce corruption, and tackle lawlessness, all the while maintaining its long-term objective of transforming society. From the sidelines, whether in or out of government, it will criticize the Palestinian Authority's dealings with Israel without blocking them and maintain its calls for armed resistance without necessarily implementing it. Should it survive Sharon's incapacitation, Israel's unilateralism would fit neatly with the Islamists' worldview and provide the perfect match: Hamas will attribute this achievement to its steadfastness and argue that territorial withdrawals do not require ideological compromise. Over time, and particularly if the experiment proves successful, Hamas's transition may provoke disagreement between the pragmatic and militant wings and, eventually, perhaps a split.

With Sharon's stroke, the Israeli political scene has lost a central actor. With Hamas's electoral participation, the Palestinian political scene is gaining a new one. An already impossibly complex situation is about to become more complicated still.

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