Hamas Enters the Political Arena

Victory in the local elections in Gaza could be Hamas' first step toward contending in the parliamentary elections

The talks between the Palestinians and Israel in the last few days have pushed aside what Fatah activists are calling a "political earthquake": the results of the local elections held in the Gaza Strip on January 27.

Following Fatah's very limited success in the elections in 26 West Bank municipalities a few weeks ago, and after the impressive victory of Fatah's candidate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in the elections for chairman of the Palestinian Authority, the local election results spelled a major defeat to the PLO, and a great success for Hamas.

Hamas won a significant majority in seven of the ten municipalities and local councils that held elections. These authorities consist of 118 elected officials, 77 of whom are Hamas representatives. Most commentators, Palestinian and other, said the broad support for Hamas candidates in Gaza does not mean the Palestinian public voted against Abu Mazen's political position. In the local elections the candidate's personality, reputation for honesty, qualifications for managing local services and family and clan connections carry considerable weight. These elections have no bearing on political issues. Indeed, the Palestinian public sees the Hamas activists and leaders as much more modest and honest people than the Fatah activists.

However, the residents of the West Bank and Gaza are well aware of the differences between the political positions of Hamas and Fatah, and those who vote for the Hamas candidates understand that indirectly they are also lending their support to a tougher stand toward Israel.

Once the election results were out, several violent clashes took place in Gaza between Hamas supporters celebrating in the streets and Fatah men who tried to stop them. Some 30 people were injured. Senior Fatah officials met last week to discuss how to proceed in the wake of the defeat. As usual in these cases, they exchanged accusations. Abbas Zaki, a senior Fatah official, said that a committee the movement had formed to help its candidates in the Gaza elections did nothing. He accused Fatah leaders of spending their time traveling overseas, and said they displayed no interest in the goings-on in the territories.

"It's a nasty shock to all of us," said Mohammed Khurani, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and one of the most prominent activists of the younger generation.

Islamic rapprochement

Hamas' participation in the local elections in the West Bank and Gaza is undoubtedly an important step towards its becoming a political party as part of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has so far boycotted the PA, because it was formed on the basis of the Oslo accords. But now, along with the cease-fire talks, Hamas and Fatah are discussing the possibility of the Islamic movements (Hamas and Jihad) joining the PLO and taking part in the elections for the Palestinian parliament due in July 2005.

The rapprochement between the Islamic bloc and Fatah is one repercussion of the four years of conflict with Israel. The partnership in the struggle and suffering brought the two sides closer. Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan strengthened Hamas. Its activists in Gaza now retort that while Fatah received partial control in Gaza following an agreement of compromise and concessions, they (Hamas) are achieving an honorable liberation for Gaza.

The Islamic movements set a number of conditions to joining the PLO and contending in the parliamentary elections, including changing the election system. Presently the West Bank and Gaza Strip are divided into several voting regions, each of which has a number of representatives according to the size of its population. This system ensures the election of the largest party's representatives. Indeed, in the 1996 elections the showdown was not between Fatah and other parties' candidates but among the Fatah candidates themselves. Consequently, almost all 88 parliament members are Fatah men, or independent candidates close to the organization.

The Islamic movements wish to replace this system with one similar to the Israeli system. The Israeli method, in which the whole country is one election region, enables many parties to enter the parliament and undermines the rule of the largest party. Fatah will not agree to this. The solution emerging from the talks is to integrate the two systems - half of the officials will be elected in regional elections and the other half in national elections.

The next Palestinian parliament, to be elected in July, is expected to be very different from the incumbent one, and the Islamic movements will apparently have a prominent representation in it. Certain Palestinian journalists have raised the possibility of a political turnabout in the PA but these predictions are probably exaggerated; Hamas and Jihad are not likely to win a majority in the parliamentary elections.

However, if the Islamic movements join the PLO and run for parliament, they would effect a dramatic change in the Palestinian political system. The position toward Israel, for example, will certainly become tougher. The Islamic movements do not recognize the right of the "Zionist entity" to exist and advocate the continuation of the "armed struggle." Today the Fatah movement has complete control in the PLO and PA and faces a weak opposition. But once Hamas and Jihad join in, the picture will be very different.

It is very possible that a Palestinian government, to which Hamas and Jihad are partners, would be more effective. It would have a broader basis of legitimacy. The PLO institutions, and a number of PA institutions, are still based on the political power balance of the '60s and '70s, in which the left wing Palestinian movements were very powerful. To this day the Palestinian left has an extensive representation in PLO institutions, although it has almost no supporters left.

In the recent local elections, for example, the Palestinian left barely managed to get a candidate or two in, and it seems likely to be defeated in the coming parliamentary elections. The results of the municipal elections in the Gaza Strip are therefore a sign pointing to a new direction in the Palestinian political arena, a direction that could lead to a governmental turnabout.