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How Hamas has attained political power

BY RALPH NURNBERGER Miami Herald January 27, 2006

The strong showing of Hamas in the Palestinian elections is worrisome to Israel, the United States and most European states. However, it is not surprising.

The United States classified Hamas as ”a terrorist group.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated ”It is not possible to have one foot in terrorism and the other foot in politics. It simply does not work.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that “it is very difficult for us to be in the position of negotiating or talking to Hamas unless there’s a clear renunciation of terrorism.”

Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader, repeatedly emphasized during the campaign the right to armed struggle to destroy Israel. He said, ”We do not recognize the Israeli enemy, nor his right to be our neighbor, nor to stay on the land. Our principles are clear: Palestine is a land of Waqf (Islamic trust), which cannot be given up.” Zahar told a cheering crowd that Hamas participated in the elections to make the newly elected legislative council “a project of resistance.”

Upsetting? Yes. Surprising? No.

Hamas previously refused to participate in Palestinian Authority elections, believing this was de facto recognition of Israel. Following the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004, Hamas reversed this stand, determining to enhance its political power by engaging politically.

Since Arafat’s passing, Hamas’ support has grown by approximately 40 percent. Five factors contributed to Hamas ascendancy.

• First, Hamas concluded that it could fill a power vacuum after Arafat died. While Arafat’s popularity declined during his last years, he was still an icon who was almost impossible to challenge successfully. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), is a man in his 70s, with little charisma and almost no following on the streets.

Despite his apparent desire, Abbas was unable to curb Palestinian corruption. His security forces are unable to ensure law and order. Unemployment among Palestinians still seeking work is approximately 20 percent in the West Bank and over 30 percent in Gaza. Poverty is more widespread, and basic services are inadequate. Arab states have not provided the aid they promised.

Despite meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George Bush, Abbas did not move the peace process. Both Israel and the United States concluded that, despite his positive comments, Abbas could not deliver.

• Second, Fatah, the party founded by Arafat in the 1960s and now led by Abbas, has become increasingly fragmented. Although theoretically united while Arafat lived, splits within Fatah were discernable during Arafat’s lifetime. Younger members objected to the arrogance of their elders, many of whom had traveled with Arafat and only returned to the region in 1994. While the old guard never regained credibility on the streets, younger leaders such as Marwan Barghouti developed their own following within Fatah, but did not achieve sufficient leadership positions within the party.

• Third, Hamas earned support even among Palestinians who rejected hard-line positions. Aided by funds from Iran and elsewhere, Hamas provided alternative social services, including education, medical care and welfare. Hamas also sought to crack down on many elements of corruption. Its successes in municipal elections enabled it to show that it could work to enhance the quality of people’s lives.

• Fourth, explanations provided by Hamas for Israeli disengagement from Gaza resonated more than those provided by the PA. Khaled Mashal, a Hamas leader, said, ”The resistance . . . of our people forced the Zionists to withdraw.” This approach legitimized the death of ”martyrs,” enhanced Palestinians’ self-image and set the stage for future territorial gains through further violence.

• Fifth, Hamas is more politically unified than Fatah. Unlike Fatah, which ran multiple candidates in some districts, Hamas did not dilute its vote.

Hamas will now play a major role in the new government without rejecting any core principles such as accepting Israel’s right to exist, renouncing terrorism or disarming its constituents. This, in turn, poses major challenges to Washington and Jerusalem.

Ralph Nurnberger is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University.

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