Despite the surprise that greeted Hamas’ election victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, the Islamic Resistance Movement did not come from nowhere.
Hamas first emerged as a real player on the Palestinian social and economic scene during the first intifada that started in 1989. Even then it came from the ranks of the long-established Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which had remained relatively marginal until Hamas engaged in active resistance to the Israeli occupation.
The movement strongly opposed the peace negotiations with Israel in 1991, the Oslo agreement of 1993 and all subsequent agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that was established as a result of Oslo. The movement also boycotted the 1996 parliamentary elections.
With this opposition, Hamas gained three advantages that allowed it to steadily increase its popularity with the public. The first, and maybe most important, was its heavy involvement in fighting the Israeli occupation at a time when Fateh, which had initiated and led that struggle until the peace process, was no longer involved. Hamas, in other words, strove to replace Fateh as the leading resistance movement.
In this regard, Hamas was helped immensely by Israel’s refusal to end its expansion of illegal Jewish settlements during the years of the peace process. Thus, Hamas’ second advantage was the failure of the peace process to achieve its promised and declared objectives, whether in terms of ending the occupation or in terms of improving the lives of Palestinians and establishing the institutions of a future Palestinian state.
Hamas took advantage of both the failures in governance of successive Palestinian governments, especially until 2002, and the reluctance shown by Israel to implement signed agreements. That reluctance left the Palestinian public in little doubt that Israel was trying to cheat the Palestinian leadership. It was taking advantage of the peace process to neutralize Fateh vis-a-vis the resistance while normalizing relations with the Arab world without at the same time fulfilling its obligations under the peace process.
Finally, Hamas also received large amounts of money and support first from state sources and then from unofficial, including individual, supporters from the region and the world, allowing it to establish an infrastructure useful to promote its political position.
In addition to these factors, the movement’s promotion of Islamic values also proved popular among a population overwhelmingly Muslim. In all, they led to Hamas’ victory in last year’s elections.
In response to this victory, the parties opposed to Hamas’ government opted for different and contradicting strategies.
What had become the Fateh-led Palestinian opposition decided to allow Hamas to govern in the hope that it would fail to deliver on its election promises. Fateh rejected an early invitation by Hamas to join a unity government, and the strategy was based on the belief that, given the limited powers of the PA and the harsh measures of the Israeli occupation, any Palestinian government was bound to fail.
The international community, however, led by the US, adopted a different strategy. By imposing a political and economic embargo on the Palestinian government, Washington hoped to force the government out of power.
Israel took a similar position and decided to stop transferring the tax monies it collects on behalf of the PA and as per the Oslo Accords, some two-thirds of the PA’s domestic revenue.
But the international and Israeli strategy contradicted that of the internal opposition. By boycotting the PA, the Palestinian public was led to understand that the international community, which had originally encouraged parliamentary elections, was punishing Palestinians for exercising their democratic rights.
Consequently, Palestinians were easily convinced that the government’s shortcomings and inability to fulfill its obligations and meet its promises could be blamed on the international community and Israel rather than Hamas, and the movement did not suffer a public backlash.
This, however, started to change in the last few months when it became clear that in fact international aid and Arab financial support had increased in the past year, something Minister of Planning and acting Minister of Finance Samir Abu Eisheh was eventually forced to concede.
It was a double-edged sword, though. On the one hand, Hamas could not continue blaming only the international community for the dire financial straits of the occupied Palestinian territory, but nor could the opposition convincingly blame it for causing international isolation.
This development, combined with the collapse of the civil servants’ strike against the government, the gradual official Arab recognition of the Hamas-led government and the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, has left Hamas with little motivation to get behind a unity government.
But the stalemate on this issue, caused mainly by Hamas’ attempts to change the rules of the game by not recognizing the leadership role of the PLO and its international political commitments, brought the situation between Fateh and Hamas to the brink of civil war.
Hamas, at this late stage in the game, cannot both accept the parameters of Oslo by running in elections for control of the PA and want to change them by denying the legitimacy of the Oslo agreement that created this body.
At the same time, all other interested parties, inside or outside Palestine, have to shape their policies around the fact that Hamas came to power through free and legitimate democratic elections. In turn, that must be the only way the movement loses power.