Hamas, the victor in the Palestinian elections, resembles the Bolsheviks in 1917: against the background of generally «marking time», they unexpectedly succeeded in taking power, and now they must think about what to do with it. And also, similar to 1917, some of the Palestinian intelligentsia who were sympathizers yesterday are thinking about whether they should start packing their bags. The revolution was necessary and consequently inevitable, they said. But now suddenly it’s become reality, and that leads to reflections: why, what happens next, and who wins and who loses?
In Israel, some regard the Hamas victory as a catastrophe. Others (mainly on the right) – on the contrary, are gloating. «It’s better for us,» they say, «now the whole world knows what’s on the other side of the ‘green line’ – nothing but terrorists everywhere, and therefore, Israel’s hands are untied». Nobody, it seems, calls into question the proposition that «in the Palestine autonomous area there were free, democratic elections», however, the result is interpreted in different ways. Some say: «All right, they were ‘given’ freedom to vote and they elected terrorists». Others object: «The Palestinian people expressed their will, and it has to be respected. Perhaps they value Islam more than democracy, or Islamic laws are equivalent to democracy in the eyes of the Palestinians». Is that so? Here are several observations on this burning issue.
1. Of course, the will of the people must be respected – who disputes that? The question, however, is: how free was the will? The people’s will can be manipulated, and various psychological factors could have influenced this election. Israel bears the lion’s share of responsibility for creating the psychological atmosphere which led to the Hamas victory. Religiosity increases in difficult times – there’s any number of examples of this in history; and Israel does everything to perpetuate difficult times in the Palestinian territories under its control. The occupation regime, which has lasted nearly 40 years, with no end in sight, engenders fear, despair, a sense of hopelessness, and a loss of self-respect. The «separation fence» and countless checkpoints through the entire expanse of the Occupied Territories deprives people of freedom of movement – as a consequence of this it’s impossible for them to work normally and feed themselves and their families; impossible to work in their fields and gather during the harvest; impossible to give their children a normal education and plan for the future – both short- and long-term; it’s extraordinarily difficult to obtain basic medical services. That’s the reality which the Palestinians must grapple with from day to day. Add to this all the new instances of land confiscations and the shortage of water. Add the continuing destruction of the landscape and environment: Jewish colonies are expanding, new «outposts» appear all the time, new roads «for Jews only» are constantly being built anywhere and everywhere, across farmland, over hilltops; the problem of rubbish removal is assuming catastrophic proportions. Add the aggressiveness of the settlers; nocturnal raids by the army on villages and refugee camps; arrests of people in their beds; the destruction of homes; the overcrowded prisons and the soul-chilling thunder of airplanes breaking the sound barrier in the night sky over Gaza. In the conditions of State terror on the part of Israel, destitution, hopelessness, and in addition, the powerlessness of the leadership, it should come as no surprise that people vote against all that. Yes, now it’s already clear that the majority voted not «for» Hamas, but «against» – the corrupt Fatah, the Israeli occupation, the intolerable reality.
But can this choice be called free? Who knows how the Palestinians would vote if they were free citizens of an independent country and not inhabitants of an «autonomous» area, a wretched entity with restricted responsibility, dependent on a foreign army and compelled to yield to alien interests, thrust on them by force? But reality dictated their choice. And, yes, this choice must be respected.
2. Israel’s policy on the eve of the elections must have inevitably increased Hamas’ chances. And it’s not just a matter of the constant «targeted assassinations» (read: punishment without a court and investigation) of new Hamas members, which continued even under truce conditions. This is already the second time after the withdrawal that we are given to understand: it is useless to expect us to conclude an agreement as the result of negotiations. We are arrogant, impatient, and intolerant. And our endlessly repeated mantra «there is no one to talk with» was embodied in the reality of the exit from Gaza – without negotiations, without mutual obligations. It really looked like running away in the face of terror – and was perceived accordingly. What Fatah could not achieve at the negotiating table was achieved by Hamas, subjecting our soldiers and settlers to constant danger. (This is a fact and all conversations about our «unilateral concessions» to the Palestinians can’t stand up to any criticism. Unilateral «concessions» do not exist: they require at least the other side’s agreement to consider them as «concessions». From whom can we now demand a cease-fire of the «Qassam» rockets? No one promised us this in response to our withdrawal.) The logic of Hamas, thinking that «Israelis understand only force», won, and attempts to reach agreements were once again discredited. And that’s still not all! When it became clear that Hamas was planning to take part in the elections and had good chances, Israel again attempted to interfere, and moreover showed signs of panic: «We won’t allow it! We’ll close down the polling stations! We’ll cancel the elections!» And all this because of Hamas! The popularity of those who could provoke such fear in the powerful and terrible «Zionist enemy» must inevitably soar sky-high. Which is what happened.
3. Only someone who is completely ignorant of the Palestinian reality can be surprised at the orderliness and tranquillity of these elections. It must not be forgotten that Palestinian society has always aspired to democracy and, as one of its expressions, free elections. As a rule, Israel has been opposed to this. Palestinians were permitted to vote for the first time – and then only for municipal administrations – in 1976. But then the Israelis crudely intervened and tried to forbid the elections and dictate their conditions. When this was unsuccessful, the «Jewish underground» made attempts on the lives of three of the elected mayors – one of them, the mayor of Nablus (Shem), lost his legs as the result of a bombing. Israel sent two other elected mayors into exile in Jordan. The Israelis always reproached the Palestinians for a lack of democracy – and stubbornly opposed its development, impeding elections time and again. And now finally it has come to pass – the elections were held. It can actually be said, that the Palestinians «squeezed out» the maximum amount of democracy in the extreme conditions in which they took place. We can’t fail to admire that, especially against the background of the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. The conduct of the losing side also merits attention – the hopes of some «well-wishers» for a civil war, it appears, were not justified. More than that – Fatah supporters held massive protest demonstrations… against themselves, more precisely, against their leaders, thereby manifesting an enviable capacity for self-criticism. No one is trying to discredit or slander the victors, no one is in a hurry to accuse them of falsifying ballots or buying votes. In our elections there have been much worse scandals, no matter how much we boast about our «democracy, the only one in the Middle East».
3. And all the same it is impossible not to feel anxiety. A fundamentalist religious, militarised movement has come to power in the Palestinian autonomous area which in essence is not even a party and has no experience of political work. Alas, religious fundamentalists seldom become democrats. And anyone who displays excessive optimism and forgives the people’s newly elected leaders for everything beforehand risks making the same mistake that Western intellectuals like Sartre made, who didn’t want to notice the fundamentalism of the Communists who ruled the Soviet Union. Of course, the Hamas victory means in the first place the defeat of the corrupt Fatah, which did not vindicate the hopes for liberation. But we have to think about whether it doesn’t also mean the defeat of the people who struggled to build the nation, the country, independence. Islamists are inclined to see Palestine rather as a piece of the larger Islamic world than as an autonomous nation. Palestinian society will have to display vigilance and exert all of its creative powers in politics, in order not to lose its originality and not turn into a spiritual province of the Muslim world.
4. But it will also be difficult for the Hamas movement. In order to preserve those qualities owing to which it came to power – «clean hands», social responsibility, refusal to compromise in struggle – it will have to work out a more pragmatic position with reference to Israel, immunity to the temptations of power and, what is no less important – a clear, but simultaneously flexible and creative policy toward the provocations which will not be long in following from Israel. Alas, for the Israeli government and army, the election of Hamas frees their hands and offers a convenient justification for a further escalation of violence. Nothing works so much to the advantage of our rightists as terrorist actions against the civilian population. However, it is difficult to imagine that Hamas can give up the armed struggle at this stage. This would discredit it in the eyes of its most convinced voters. To enter into the slippery labyrinth of high politics, without changing its principles while doing so, is a difficult task even for more experienced actors. Possibly the call for the creation of a regular Palestinian army, already sounded by the new leadership, will serve for this – an army which could resist the armed forces of the enemy, replacing the individual fighters, who indiscriminately kill the civilian population, children, women, and old people of any religion and nationality.
5. Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the name of peace is also faced with a difficult task. With all the understanding of the reasons for Hamas’ victory, with all the realization of the need for struggle with the Israeli occupation from the «peace camp», it will be hard to see a partner in people who only yesterday were sowing death on the streets of our cities. Especially as this partner perhaps doesn’t want to have anything to do with us. It is possible that the election of Hamas will lead to the establishment «on the other side» of an isolated, separatist society. In recent years the joint Israeli-Palestinian struggle against the occupation and growing apartheid expanded. What will be the fate of this struggle now? How will its participants be able to oppose the fulfilment of the cherished dream of our rightists – to completely isolate the peoples from each other? What will be the fate of those Palestinians who, while respecting the «will of the people», cannot feel any sympathy at all for religious separatism and fundamentalism? Will it not happen that gradually all the «moderate» citizens from both sides will simply leave and continue to «coexist peacefully» somewhere in Canada, and the territory between the sea and the Jordan River will finally be transformed into a battlefield of the fanatics? These questions can’t help but alarm us, and it’s still impossible to answer them. One thing is clear – the Palestinians’ yearning for genuine freedom and democracy cannot be satisfied until Israel leaves them in peace. But that, to all appearances, won’t happen: in the meantime, the development of events has a persistent taste of deja vu. Israel announces that it will not permit the newly elected leader to travel from Gaza to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian autonomous area. It delays the transfer of Palestinian money from its banks. It continues «targeted assassinations». They already tried all this when Arafat was in power. We’ll see what happens now with Khaled Meshal.
Vera Reider is a journalist, writer and translator who immigrated to Israel in 1989 from the Soviet Union. Her activities focus on contributing to the “alternative Israeli media” in Russian, seeking to break the right-wing dominance of the Russian language press in Israel. She is a member of Taayush and other joint Russian-Arab and Jewish-Arab groups. She works for Mossawa (“Equality” in Arabic), which is the organisation that fights for the equal rights of the approximately one million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens.
Translated from Russian by Agatha Haun and revised by the author, members of Tlaxcala, the network for linguistic diversity (firstname.lastname@example.org). This translation is on Copyleft.