Election of Hamas Presents New Opportunity

Against all odds, the Jan. 25, 2006 electoral victory of Hamas opened the door to the possibility of a new dynamic in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Several years of deterioration in the relationship between the parties and the failure of the Fatah leadership had enabled the rise of the Islamist movement, whose levels of popular support had been steadily on the upswing.

In an internationally monitored multiparty contest, to which it fielded teachers, professors, pharmacists and businessmen, including a number of women, Hamas won 58 percent of the parliament (74 out of 100 and 32 seats), amounting to 45 percent of the popular vote.

Here, now, was a strong, democratically elected, well-organized political actor commanding internal discipline and displaying enough cohesiveness to deliver on its decisions.

Ten months later, this potential has not been tapped.

To the contrary, Israel, the United States, and the European Union have adopted a counterproductive course of action.

In opting to curtail Hamas' freedom of action, and in effect creating the conditions for its failure in office, they pursued shortsighted policies that are ensuring perpetuation of the conflict's deadlock, more misery for the Palestinians, and continued insecurity for the Israelis.

Such cecity is also contradicting the principles of democracy, which these countries are invoking to pressure the legitimate Hamas government.

With a view to force Hamas to their threefold demand -- recognizing Israel, forswearing violence, and endorsing pre-existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements -- the United States, the European Union and Israel have decreed and implemented a crippling political, economic and financial embargo that has resulted in a new humanitarian crisis, an embryonic civil war, riots due to unpaid salaries (to 160,000 Palestinian Authority employees and 80,000 teachers and health workers), the closure of about 100 businesses that moved to neighboring Egypt and Jordan, and a dramatic rise in criminality, racketeering, and kidnapping.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is the associate director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the institution with which he is affiliated. This essay is part of a debate series being sponsored by IQ2 US, in New York on Nov. 29, 2006. For more information, visitwww.iq2us.org

In addition, Palestinian per capita income has been cut by half due to suspended transfers of tax revenues, while the arrest by the Israeli authorities of a third of the ministerial cabinet and a quarter of the elected parliament has rendered the local political process almost meaningless.

Ignoring the general disposition of Hamas and its dogged political determination merely tells a story of intransigence feeding intransigence.

For the insistence on treating this organization as a terrorist group obscures the central fact of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

In that context, a militant group that emerges as a resistance movement; grows into a social-support organization efficiently operating schools, health-care centers and welfare services; suspends its resort to force; and agrees to abide by the rules of democratic contest cannot be termed terrorist.

As it is, Hamas has unilaterally declared since March 2005 a self-imposed cease-fire (tahdiya), which it respected for 15 months until the Israeli killing of the picnicking seven-member Ghalya family, following which the group's armed wing led a commando operation on an Israeli army base.

On Nov. 9, Israeli forces again killed 17 individuals also members of a same family, the Althamna of Beit Hanoun.

All along, the Israeli government failed to reciprocate the cease-fire declaration and multiplied near-daily military incursions invariably resulting in casualties.

Since June, close to 300 Palestinians have been killed, 30 of them children.

Regarding the other two demands of the international community, Hamas had offered in January 2004 -- and reiterated as late as Nov. 1 -- to enter into political negotiations leading to a 10-year truce (hudna), and the movement has been part to discussions, in September, on a draft document for a program that would "respect previous agreements in a manner that protects and safeguards the higher interests and the rights of the Palestinian people."

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is the associate director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the institution with which he is affiliated. This essay is part of a debate series being sponsored by IQ2 US, in New York on Nov. 29, 2006. For more information, visit www.iq2us.org

The lack of parity is striking here as no international demands are made of Israel that it recognize a sovereign Palestinian state, renounce violence, and abide by the agreements it signed with the Palestinian Authority.

Beyond being counterproductive and unbalanced, the Hamas isolation policy is also ill-advised.

Indeed, for all the exaltation of the country's military prowess, Israel has not historically been very good at games of brinksmanship.

This summer's gamble against Hezbollah is the latest case in point ending in what The New York Times termed euphemistically a "new awareness of the limits of Israeli military power," and Haaretz diagnosed clinically as a "humiliating defeat."

While the 20-year-old Hamas has taken significant strides to rid itself of its militant past and has matured into a bona fide political party, the world has been standing by as powerful states and international organizations have sidestepped an elected government that has committed no violations while lending uncritical credence to the positions of an occupier.

The not-so-subtle plan to weaken Hamas and announce its failure was but a self-fulfilling prophecy meant, too, to punish the Palestinian citizenry for electing an Islamist party.

Yet Hamas' levelheaded resistance to the extraordinary pressure exerted on it by the Israeli actions and the international embargo, as well as its ability to secure, earlier this month, a constructive way out of the deadlock with Fatah (with the agreement on a new prime minister, Mohammad Shubair) are additional indications of its ability to be an astute partner that knows when to be steadfast in relation to its electoral mandate and when to be flexible as regards to political reality -- traits not known, ostensibly, to be characteristic of a terrorist organization blindly bent on destruction and mayhem.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is the associate director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the institution with which he is affiliated. This essay is part of a debate series being sponsored by IQ2 US, in New York on Nov. 29, 2006. For more information, visit www.iq2us.org

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