Author: Maher Mughrabi is a writer and journalist at The Age
1. The elections themselves
On the night of 25 January 2006, I put together a graphic for The Age’s coverage of the Palestinian parliamentary elections based on exit polls from Birzeit University and the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, an internationally respected polling organisation headed by Khalil Shikaki. The forecasted results were:
Badil (DFLP etc) 3
Third Way 2
Independent Palestine 2
Of course it is by no means unprecedented for pollsters to be wrong, even exit pollsters, and in the event the results saw Hamas take 75 seats, Fatah 44, secular/left lists 9 and 4 seats going to independents.
Shikaki’s organisation believes that at least some of the striking discrepancy between its exit polling and actual results was caused by the refusal of some Hamas voters to take part in on-the-spot canvassing, a perhaps understandable reaction given the past consequences in other Middle Eastern countries of voting for Islamist movements.
But it is also clear in the election’s aftermath that the extent of Hamas’ victory was amplified by inherent biases in the electoral system. This system is divided into national and district-based lists, and in the former Hamas and Fatah fared roughly equally. In terms of vote share, they also fared roughly equally in the districts, but here Fatah was undone by its failure to restrict the number of candidates it had running and the presence of independents – many of them defectors from Fatah – on the lists. Hamas ran tighter lists with fewer candidates and so their share of the popular vote was not spread nearly so thin. To put it in hard statistical terms, the split was as follows:
Hamas received 41% of the district vote, while Fatah received 36%.
Hamas won 68% of the district seats (45), compared to 26% for Fatah (17).
The district system is a straight race, with the best-placed winning, and so diverges from a strictly proportional representation of the electorate. This hurt a disorganised and divided Fatah, which failed to ‘game’ the system effectively, but it also (in a pattern we should be familiar with from western democracies) squeezed the smaller parties, most of whom reside on the socialist or progressive end of the spectrum. FairVote worked out this comparison between the actual results and a strictly proportional system:
Hamas 75 56
Fatah 44 52
Others 13 24
The majority required for government in the PLC is 67 seats. FairVote’s projection shows Hamas would need to reach out to smaller parties, as regularly occurs in Israel, to form a governing quorum. Of course it also shows that in the event of Hamas failing to form a coalition, Fatah would be well placed to do so. Nevertheless, Hamas clearly gained a plurality of the vote. So what is going on within Palestinian society?
2. The internal picture
Shortly after the election I had the privilege of being able to pick the brains of Zaki Chehab, the London bureau chief of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation and political editor of al-Hayat newspaper. When we discussed the situation in the territories, his first words to me were that if another parliamentary election were held in three months, Fatah might be returned to office. While not dismissing the very real base of support for Hamas, his contention was that beyond this base the electoral picture is volatile in the extreme. There was certainly a protest vote aimed at shaking Fatah out of its complacency and inertia.
In this regard it is important to note that Hamas did not use its usual name – Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, or Islamic Resistance Movement – or mention the destruction of Israel during its campaign. Instead it campaigned under the name ‘Change and Reform’ (al-Taghayyir wa al-Islah) and made the primary issues of its campaigning corruption in public life and internal security – the safety of Palestinians on the streets and a commitment to arms collection to end what the human rights activist Bassem Eid has called ‘the intrafada’.
To return for a moment to polling, which I hope I have not entirely discredited, polling in the lead-up to the elections by the Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that 25% of voters felt corruption in public life was the most important single issue, while lawlessness in Palestinian areas was nominated by 37% of those polled as the top issue. 71% of those who cited corruption as the big issue voted for Hamas; 56% of those who cited lawlessness voted the same way.
It is conventional wisdom that electorates vote on domestic issues, and though the domestic sphere in Palestinian life is encroached upon in ways that are unparalleled elsewhere, it is fair to say that this result was primarily an inward-looking one. Hamas already has a presence in Palestinian democratic life at the municipal level – where, it should be noted, they also deal with Israelis on a regular basis – and they are judged on their provision of basic services at that level. This was a meat-and-potatoes vote – or as we might say in Arabic, it was about mayy (water) and kahraba (electricity).
It has now been over three months since the election, and in that time I think some doubt has been cast on Zaki Chehab’s diagnosis. There is as yet little sign of Fatah turning over a new leaf, or facing up to the (for it) fresh challenges of being in opposition. Instead we have witnessed a series of undignified scuffles between the Abbas presidency and Hamas authority over control and composition of the security forces, scuffles which have repeatedly degenerated into precisely the kind of public armed displays Palestinian voters had hoped would become a thing of the past. In these disputes, which the Western media frequently portrays as worrying evidence of Hamas ‘militancy’, I think that – at least at present – Palestinian public opinion tends to view Fatah’s role more harshly, for a number of reasons.
It should be remembered that the problems of proliferation and indiscipline in the security sector began long before Hamas’ entry into the parliamentary arena, and indeed that the existence of such problems within Fatah ranks was one of the reasons that the Bush Administration pushed for the creation of a post of prime minister. At the time, the argument was that too much power rested with the presidency (in the hands of Yasser Arafat) and not enough with the legislature.
Yet in the wake of the Hamas victory, the White House and US State Department have pushed for the same powers to be re-invested in the presidency. It would seem that when Condoleezza Rice talks about the importance of ‘one authority with one gun’, the word ‘authority’ is to be understood as a synonym for ‘Mahmoud Abbas’, who was the first choice for the prime ministership and now occupies the presidency. Indeed, that slogan was central to his election as President after Arafat’s death. The result is that Fatah attempts to make political capital from the security forces issue are now viewed with great cynicism and as part of a ‘foreign agenda’ that Fatah’s old guard is too eager to promote (of which more later).
The second problem that has confronted Hamas in the months since its electoral victory is that while it has been able to provide services at the micro level, at the macro level such provision is crucially reliant upon the occupying power, Israel, and the wider community of donor nations, both of which have sought to use the threat of embargo to leverage political and ideological concessions from Hamas in government.
The irony of this situation is that for many years Israel has argued with all the diplomatic and political means at its disposal against a similar use of sanctions in its case, insisting that this would constitute interference in a bilateral ‘peace process’ and an infringement on its sovereignty and democracy. The British proposal for a trust fund to keep Palestinians’ heads above water while the Government they chose for themselves is frozen out is only one of many proposals for parallel economic and political arrangements. Given the proclaimed commitment of the ‘Quartet’ (the USA, Russia, the EU and the UN) to a viable Palestinian state, one might wonder what viability and statehood are ultimately to mean, questions that the Quartet’s recently departed envoy James Wolfensohn and charities such as Medecins Sans Frontieres and CARE International have skirted but which need to be directly addressed.
Finally, there will be a concern among some Palestinians, especially Christians and secularists, that a vote for Hamas might allow religious law in through the back door. At the time of the elections, The Age’s Middle East correspondent Ed O’Loughlin wrote an intriguing piece on the question of religion in Palestinian public life, noting the rise of conservative values on alcohol and gender mixing and pointing to the case of Qalqilya, where a Hamas municipal administration banned an open-air youth festival on such grounds. In the parliamentary elections, both of the district seats in Qalqilya went to Fatah, despite the fact that in recent years Qalqilya has perhaps been the district of the West Bank hardest hit by the construction of Israel’s so-called security barrier.
This volatility, I would contend, means there is a very real limit to how far Hamas can take floating voters with them down a path of radical social engineering.
3. The external picture
When Condoleezza Rice turned up in Riyadh in February to ask the Saudi Arabian regime to curtail its aid to the Palestinian Authority, Prince Saud al-Faisal called for ‘a continuation of the peace process’. Rice then asked ‘How do you keep the peace process alive when one of the parties is not committed to peace?’. We might also ask this question, though with a rather different emphasis from that of the good doctor.
Of those Palestinian voters polled who rated the peace process as their top priority, 69% voted for Fatah and 19% for Hamas. This sounds good for Fatah, until we realise how many of those polled actually chose the peace process as their top priority: a mere 9%.
Palestinians were certainly aware of how the decision to vote for Hamas was likely to be viewed from an external vantage point. However after five years of being ignored at a global level and subjected to unilateral Israeli measures while people continue to talk about a ‘peace process’ and the Palestinian Authority having to prove itself as a worthwhile ‘peace partner’, the question is whether voters believed there was any prospect of immediate headway on this front regardless of their vote.
The turn to Hamas might also be seen as a reflection of prevailing global attitudes, which favour unilateralism and ‘selfishness’. Fatah has invested considerable political capital both in the peace process as a bilateral exercise and in international law and its application in the Palestinian sphere. I hardly need to point out that the notion of international law, here and abroad, is at its lowest ebb in decades.
Unilateralism has of course been a hallmark of Israeli policy for decades, first under the guise of Zionist ‘freedom of action’ and self-determination, and then under the guise of national sovereignty. In recent years, this broad philosophy has been articulated in specific policies of disengagement, which Ariel Sharon gave the Hebrew name hitnatkut and which Ehud Olmert more recently renamed hitkansut. Although such moves are portrayed both by Israel and its allies as positive contributions towards a ‘peace process’, they are in fact a continuation of Israeli behaviour that exploits the imbalance of power between a recognised state and the indeterminate status of the Palestinian polity.
In 1991, just before the Madrid and Oslo processes began a new era of bilateral contacts, there were slightly less than 90,000 Jewish settlers in those Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967. By 2006, such contacts notwithstanding, the number of such settlers stood at around 460,000, with a consequent diminution of possible resources and territory for any ‘viable’ Palestinian state. The Bush Administration, which has made viability part of its lexicon, nevertheless has declared that it will accept the fait accompli of Israel’s ‘major population centres’ in the territories, in clear derogation of international laws to which the US is a signatory. After his election defeat in 1992, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir admitted that his vision had been to postpone any peace deal until the settlers reached such numbers that their presence could not be altered. That vision seems now to have been fulfilled in the West Bank, at least as far as the superpower and its allies are concerned.
When Mr Bush recently hosted Mr Olmert to discuss the situation (a discussion which evidently did not require the presence of a Palestinian interlocutor), it became clear that where support for Israel and support for a negotiated peace collide, the question will simply be fudged. Due to the imbalance I pointed to earlier, this approach will always suit Israeli policymakers. Successive Israeli governments have maintained a commitment – evident in the maps they present, patterns of settlement and the construction of the separation barrier – to the basic outline of the Allon Plan.
It is this understanding of the Oslo process and the subsequent ‘road map’ – as agreements that bind Palestinians but not a sovereign Israel, and can thus be declared ‘dead’ or ‘null and void’ only by the latter party – that has propelled many Palestinian voters in the direction of Hamas, which has throughout the ‘peace process’ maintained a refusal to recognise Israel. This has often been portrayed by outsiders as an atavistic stance determined by religion or Jew-hatred, an impression that Hamas has often fostered. However the movement’s senior leadership clearly seeks to establish a pragmatic ground between the belligerent rhetoric of its cadres and what most Palestinians now see as a succession of negotiated ‘surrenders’.
Basic to this position is the view that the sovereignty that stands in need of recognition is Palestinian, not Israeli. The recent sanctions drive, focused as it was upon the issue of recognition of Israel, reaffirmed the Palestinian sense that they are being blackmailed into signing away their rights. The recent peace plan put forward by Mr Abbas, with an ultimatum to Hamas and the threat of a referendum, may well have merit, but against the wider diplomatic backdrop it risks being seen as a further subversion of Hamas’ democratic mandate and as a Trojan horse for Israeli and American agendas.
4. what happens next?
The American push to isolate and even undermine Hamas is a worrying return to the bad practice of the past, which characterised the relationship between America and the PLO and Britain and the IRA. Quite aside from the political wisdom of such a move, it also contradicts the stated American commitment to democracy over ‘stability’ in the Middle East.
The danger of seeking to isolate Hamas in this way is that should it fail to deliver services or effect reform, it will not be seen as politically responsible for that failure, and instead confidence in the democratic process itself will be weakened. One need only look at the effect that subversion of democracy has had in Algeria and in Egypt, not to mention Iran, to see how much carnage could result.
There are of course some in Israel who would welcome this prospect as a confirmation of their prophecies about ‘Hamas-stan’, and an opportunity to reassert the previous paradigm – that of military control as ‘civil administration’ – while strengthening their hold on Palestinian land and resources.
If America means what it says about a new era in the region, it needs to recognise not only that Palestinians are important leaders in bringing sophisticated democracy to the Middle East – far beyond the sectarianism and tribalism we have so far seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, and already incorporating female voters without any of the difficulties seen in Kuwait – but also that the failure of the Palestinian project in particular could have far wider ramifications in confirming an Islamist narrative of western hypocrisy and alignment with the most inflexible forms of Zionism.
I think there are three major and interrelated diplomatic responsibilities for Hamas in the immediate future. The first is that it must develop a more reasoned language for dealing with the question of Israel’s existence and character than the rhetoric of destruction it has favoured until now; the second is that it must seriously examine and publicly clarify its position on the use of suicide bombing now that it is in government; and thirdly it must prepare itself politically and at a civic level for the next major outbreak of violence.
The source of that outbreak might be Islamic Jihad, which remains outside the democratic process, or the PFLP, which will surely be pondering a reaction to the kidnapping of its members by the Israeli military in the Jericho prison raid. On the other hand, there is a strong likelihood that its source might be an incident engineered by Israel, which has more reserves in the currency of violence than any other actor.
When I gave a precursor of this talk in March at RMIT, I told Linda Waldron, a reporter for Green-Left Weekly, which sponsored that event, that while Hamas was far from being a left-wing movement, voting for it in January might well have been a left-wing thing to do. I also told the audience that I was a great believer in the will of the Palestinian people, and that I saw the Hamas victory as a positive development insofar as it expressed that will.
This remains true, however it is important to stress that the popular will of the electorate is neither infallible nor definitive in matters of government. Hamas is for me a troublesome movement in many of the same ways that Zionism is. It is essentially what we might call a volkish movement, one that seeks to define Palestinians in terms of religious identity and which believes that an Islamic ideal will ultimately provide answers to the social and political problems facing the population as a cultural collective, rather than a political aggregation of individuals. It is here that Hamas and I part ways, for as I hope I have made clear, I see the best hope for peace in engagement on all sides and an emphasis not on cultural difference and distinction but upon universal rights and responsibilities.
Thankyou for your time and attention.
For the comprehensive final results see h ttp://www.elect ion s. ps/template.as px ? id=291, where a full breakdown of the national and district lists with voter statistics and names of candidates is provided by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. For post-mortems on the polling inaccuracies by Khalil Shikaki’s Centre for Policy and Survey Research and Birzeit University, see http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2006/exitplccomparisonjan06.html and http://home.birzeit.edu/dsp/elecengish/ respectively. For other pre-election polling, see Nabil Kukali’s Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion at http://www.pcpo.ps/polls/poll149.htm .
http://www.fairvote.org/media/pep/Palestine.pdf ‘It’s The Election System, Stupid: The Misleading Hamas Majority and the System that Created It’. As FairVote points out, this problem is not a specifically Palestinian one; the first Iraqi parliamentary elections and the 2005 Japanese parliamentary elections also had a non-proportional district system that skewed voter representation.
Chehab compared the result to that of Israel’s 1977 ‘earthquake’ election, which saw the Labour Party – the founders and long-serving elite of the nation – overthrown by the Likud. As we know, Labour has struggled ever since to redefine its role in the Israeli electoral domain. When I asked Chehab what would happen to Fatah, which likewise articulated Palestinian national aims and identity for decades, in the wake of this defeat, he responded by changing the tense of my question: ma biddo yaseer, saayir (‘it is not going to happen, it is happening’). He was talking about a clearing-out of the stables within Fatah. Chehab believes that one of the clearest messages from this election was that the Palestinian public are prepared to re-elect Fatah, provided they see convincing evidence of internal reform. There are hints of this too in polling carried out by Shikaki, which suggests that the vote was above all a rejection of Fatah’s old guard (see http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2006/exitplcfulljan06e.html). For more on the question of reform, see http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/print/2006/780/re13.htm ‘Fatah comes to terms’ by Erica Silverman, al-Ahram Weekly, February 2-8, 2006.
http://www.phrmg.org/intrafada.htm ‘The Intrafada: An Analysis of Internal Palestinian Violence’, researched and compiled by Leonie Schultens and translated by Nadia Nusseibeh for the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group’s bimonthly publication The Monitor. Eid, the head of the PHRMG, has also written on this issue in http://www.phrmg.org/articles/reign_of_thugs.htm ‘The reign of the thugs’, published in Ha’aretz on January 28, 2004. For the figures that follow, see Shikaki (note 3).
And Fatah attempted to ensure this outcome despite the loss of their mandate to govern; see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4708820.stm ‘Outgoing MPs boost Abbas’ power’, BBC News,
February 13, 2006. Fortunately for Palestinian democracy, the incoming Hamas Government was able to promptly reverse this legislation.
For Rice on this issue, see http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/66473.htm, a press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on May 18, 2006. George Bush cites Abbas’ use of the slogan approvingly in http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/10/20051024-6.html, an interview with al-Arabiya television on October 24, 2005. Rice has also used the formula recently with reference to the problems facing Iraq: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/64972.htm.
http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/palestinian-economy-faces-collapse/2006/03/16/1142098600512.html ‘Palestinian economy faces collapse’ by Steven Erlanger, The Age, March 17, 2006;
http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/pr/2006/04-13-2006.cfm ‘MSF refuses to be a “social palliative” of EU and US policies’, Medecins Sans Frontieres, April 13, 2006;
http://news.scotsman.com/latest_international.cfm?id=654672006 ‘Quartet envoy questions Palestinian aid cuts’ by Adam Entous, The Scotsman, May 2, 2006;
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/05/17/wmid17.xml&sSheet=/news/2006/05/17/ixnews.html ‘US restores aid to Palestinian hospitals’ by Tim Butcher, The Daily Telegraph, May 17, 2006;
http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/britain-backs-palestinian-trust-fund/2006/05/07/1146940409436.html ‘Britain backs Palestinian trust fund’ by Adam Entous, The Age, May 8, 2006.
http://www.theage.com.au/ne ws/world /rise-of-islamism-creates-uncertainty-over-shape-of-society-to-come/2006/01/30/1138590441189.html ‘Rise of Islamism creates uncertainty over shape of society to come’ by Ed O’Loughlin, The Age, January 31, 2006; see also http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0228/p01s04-wome.htm ‘One town doubts Hamas’ by Joshua Mitnick, The Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2006. In al-Khalil (Hebron), a traditionally religious district where the peace process has left perhaps its messiest failure to resolve the issue of sovereignty, all nine of the district seats went to Hamas.
http://www.trut hout.org/docs_2006/0 22306M.shtml ‘Saudis reject US request to cut off aid to Hamas’ by Joel Brinkley, The New York Times, February 23, 2006.
Examples of the trend against international law and towards national prerogatives include: http://wbai.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=6227 ‘First Anniversary of Hague Ruling Against Israel's Apartheid Wall’, Palestine Monitor, July 9, 2005; http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/11/26/1069825836064.html?from=storyrhs ‘Coalition stretches credibility with Australia's elastic borders’ by James Ensor, Sydney Morning Herald, November 27, 2003; http://archives.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/auspac/06/06/aust.detention.react/index.html ‘Howard rejects UN detention concerns’ by Grant Holloway, CNN, June 7, 2002.
Even the Nuremberg war crimes trials, the cornerstone of our modern conception of international law, can now be impugned by some commentators, as we see with former politician Neil Brown’s ‘Ruthlessness In Pursuit Of Terrorism Is No Crime’, The Australian, January 9, 2006, p. 6.
For an explanation of the difference between these terms, see http://www.forward.com/articles/7598 ‘Hitkansut’ by Philologos, Forward, March 31, 2006. Israeli novelist Amos Oz, generally regarded within Israel as part of the peacenik left, has also articulated this politics under the term “divorce”, for example in his monograph Help Us To Divorce: Israel and Palestine – Between Right and Right (Vintage, 2004).
http://www.theage.com.au/articl es/2006/05/24/1148150323828.html?from=rss ‘Bush backs Olmert’s “bold” plan’ by Michael Gawenda, The Age, May 25, 2006.
After the 1967 war, Israeli labour minister Yigal Allon designed a plan to partition the occupied West Bank between Israel and Jordan. According to this plan, the narrow waist of the central part of Israel was to be eliminated by annexing more territory around the Palestinian town of Qalqilya and settling Jews there. Other areas to be annexed and settled included East Jerusalem and its surrounding mountains and the Jordan Valley. While other aspects of the plan (annexation of the Gaza Strip, for example) have since been modified, the West Bank portion of Allon’s plan remains central to Israeli security policy. The plan was presented to prime minister Golda Meir on September 15, 1970. For a close examination of current settlement developments in the occupied East Jerusalem area and their likely political consequences, see ‘Annotation: Subdivide and Conquer’ by Paul Maliszewski and Hadley Ross in the November 2005 edition of Harper’sMagazine, pp. 78-79.
In an article published in The Age, Ted Lapkin of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council portrays refusal to recognise Israel as a function of Jew-hatred and religious extremism ( http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/hamas-is-new-name-for-old-desire-to-eliminate-israel/2006/05/02/1146 335728510.html ‘Hamas is new name for old desire to eliminate Israel’, May 3, 2006). Lapkin told readers that “an independent poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in mid-March revealed a more than 60 per cent rejection rate of the Jewish state's right to exist” . In fact the poll results (http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2006/p19e.pd f ) show that the question of Israel’s right to exist was never raised. What was raised was whether Hamas should change its policy on recognition now that it is in government (question 10) or in response to sanctions (question 12, which Lapkin has used to fabricate his misleading analysis). However a number of other questions and the responses to them indicate both that recognition is viewed in pragmatic political terms rather than racial or religious ones (questions 17, 21, 26, 29, 30, 36, 41 and 42) and that Palestinians fear unilateralism (questions 26, 30, 31, 32 and 33). On the question of Abbas’ credibility with the Palestinian electorate, see http://www.agenceglobal.com/Article.asp?Id=920 ‘How to hail and kill democracy in Palestine’ by Rami Khouri, Agence Global, May 27, 2006.
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/14/international/middl eeast/14mid east.html?ex=12975 73200&en=957986e4a40ff0c2&ei=5088&partner=rssn ‘US and Israelis Are Said to Talk of Hamas Ouster’ by Steven Erlanger, The New York Times, February 14, 2006.
http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2006/662/662p5c.htm ‘GLW forum discusses Hamas victory’ by Linda Waldron, Green-Left Weekly, March 29, 2006.