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Hamas and Us
Gila Svirsky, Israel
February 1, 2006
1) Who's to blame?
Listening to the reactions of passersby at the recent Jerusalem vigil of Women in Black, you would think it was our peaceful little group that put the Hamas into power. This stems from Israeli right-wing politicians who are asserting that Hamas won because of the Gaza withdrawal and other conciliatory overtures, i.e., "rewarding terrorism". Indeed, Bibi Netanyahu & co. are delighted with the Hamas victory, on which they can now build a fear-saturated election campaign, and return voters to the fold who lately had slipped into something more moderate.
But here's my take on what made Hamas victorious in the recent elections: Israel’s failure to sit down and negotiate an end to the occupation. This is often phrased as "the failure of Fatah to make progress on peace", but they amount to the same thing: the Fatah failed because Israel refused to offer any reward for moderation, refusing to sit down and negotiate with them.
And what about the corruption claim—that voting for Hamas was also a vote against the corruption of the Fatah politicians? This may have played a role for some voters, but since when does corruption bring down a politician? Certainly not in Israel, where Sharon's corruption has been an open book, but forgiven by those who support his politics. Corruption is tolerated when approval ratings are high in other respects. The corruption of the previous Palestinian government would have been overlooked, had the politicians only managed to show some progress on ending the occupation.
2) When terrorists become politicians
I remember standing on the balcony of my home in Jerusalem on a lovely May morning of 1977 and gasping when I heard who had won the Israeli election: Menahem Begin, former head of a Jewish terrorist organization that had killed 91 civilians by bombing the King David Hotel in 1946. And then it was Begin who returned the Sinai Peninsula and negotiated peace with Egypt. In 2001, Israel elected Ariel Sharon, responsible for blood-soaked episodes in Qibiya, Beirut, Gaza, Sabra and Shatila, and more. And then it was Sharon who returned Gaza—imperfect, but a singularly important precedent.
I condemn terrorism, whether 'rogue' or state sanctioned, and I would never have voted for Hamas (or Begin or Sharon). But who is better positioned than Hamas to reach a compromise peace agreement? We have the mirror image of Israel in the Palestinian election: Just as the Israeli right (Begin and Sharon) could more easily make concessions than Yitzhak Rabin, who had to fight our right wing all the way, so too the Hamas can mobilize more support for concessions than the more moderate Fatah could now undertake.
3) About creeping fundamentalism
Yes, I am worried about Hamas rule, particularly its domestic agenda in Palestine: I worry about women, non-Muslims, journalists, gays, people in the arts, and all those who benefit from the open society. To what extent will the Hamas increase the role of Shari'a (Muslim) law in civilian life? Or religious education in the schools? On the other hand, it's quite evident that Palestinians have experienced democracy and will not easily tolerate a closing of their society.
I take heart from this week's survey of the Palestinian population, published in the Palestinian Authority's Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda and reported in the Jerusalem Post*:
84% of Palestinians support a peace deal with Israel. In case you wondered if this includes the Hamas, 75% of Hamas voters are opposed to calls for the destruction of Israel. The Hamas knows that seculars comprise a large portion of their constituency.
4) And who benefits from ending foreign aid?
So along come American and Israeli politicians advocating for a policy that would isolate and punish the Palestinians by withholding financial aid. Everyone knows this would destabilize the fragile economy, harm the innocent (but not the politicians), and foster increasing bitterness against the secular west. A much more reasonable approach would be to extend support and see how responsibly Hamas uses it. Or does someone have an interest in sowing chaos in the Palestinian territories?
Yes, I too would like to demand a renunciation of terrorism and violence as a precondition for talking …I'd like to demand it from both sides. But realistically this has to be done as part of the negotiations.
Gila Svirsky is an Israeli peace and human rights activist.
* Jerusalem Post, January 31, 2006.