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The Intifada of the elections:

Some reflections on the elections
in Palestine and on the tasks ahead




Jørgen Johansen, TFF Board Member


Jerusalem and Coventry - February 5, 2006


Elections in Palestine - a major achievement

All Palestinians and other friends of Palestine should be congratulated with the elections! Despite occupation, travel restrictions, checkpoints and a number of other obstacles from the Israeli side, the PA, the political parties and the constituency managed to hold the campaigns, the actual voting, the counting of votes and the presenting of the results at a remarkably high standard.

No state in the region has ever been able to deliver such a standard under such conditions! The formal parliamentary democracy is now established in Palestine. For it to become a real and functional democracy there is still a way to go, but this a very important step in the right direction.

In this perspective, let us not forget that only a few, if any, countries that brag about being democracies are doing very well on the deeper, substantial criteria for a real and functional democracy. Western politicians rather seem to believe that Palestine will be democratic only if the new leadership is pro-EU/USA.


Why did people voted for Hamas?

For a few days Palestinians tasted freedom and democracy. Many liked it. It was a form of People's Power never previously experienced in Palestine. I have difficulties in imagining that the people would ever accept to go back to the old system. Worries about Hamas introducing a theocracy, such as the ones we see in Iran and the Vatican, is not very probable. A majority of those who voted for a change will never accept that.

But a development in the direction of fundamentalism will grow the more rest of the world isolates the new government and parliament. For those who want the new power-holders to adopt democracy and respect for human rights there is an urgent need to open doors and start dialogues.

The recent election should be analysed in the light of the two previous elections, the municipality and the presidential ones, and it is necessary to take into consideration the recent developments in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Iraq too.

Many voices have already been trying to explain why Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyya [Hamas] did so well. Here follows the explanations I tend to agree with and then I add some arguments of my own:


• Disappointment with Fatah

I agree that many voted for Hamas to punish Fatah for the corruption, for not being able to deliver what they have promised, and just because they wanted to try something else after so many years that presented them with more and more problems. The institutionalised corruption within the PA caused very serious problems for many, many Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas has so far not managed to reduce the level of corruption significantly.


• Hamas provides food, education and organisation

We should not underestimate that many voted for Hamas because their huge and important work on welfare, schools, distribution of food, etc. They have a record to be proud of in these areas. The PA was for many the symbol of unemployment, poverty and even hunger. Hamas have for a long time now been much better on all sorts of grassroots activities within labour unions, student organisations and other youth organisations. They are overall better on mobilising and organising ordinary people than Fatah, which has been using too much of their resources and skills on monopolising most political institutions.


• Religion plays a less important role than some may think

The religious factor was important for many. But far from every voter used her og his ballot for religious reasons. It is true that people tend to practise their religion in times of crises and war. When everything is chaotic it is good to have a fixed point in life. For many, the mosques, the imams and the Koran have served as such safe points. Hamas announces publicly that it is an Islamic movement that follows the Sharia laws and - for good reasons - represent these values of many citizens.

But many of those who voted for Hamas this time did not do so for religious reasons. It seems probable that in addition to people's wish to "punish" Fatah many just wanted a change and probably many thought that Hamas was a better choice for purely pragmatic reasons. It is important to separate the rhetoric from the practice when we judge Hamas.

Furthermore, we should bear in mind that their representatives, just like any other politicians, use different languages and arguments depending on who their audiences are. The main message in the election campaign was much more liberal than the most radical quotations Western media are digging up these days.

What a Hamas leader is saying to radical, devoted followers will of course be different from what their newly appointed PR consultant, Mr Aqtash from Birzeit University, will tell Western media. What their practical politics will be is probably none of these versions.


• Hamas claimed success in fighting Israel

Some voted for Hamas because Hamas has symbolised the resistance against the occupation. In contrast, Fatah has for many symbolised just an endless number of compromises - compromises in which Palestinians have been the loosing part time and again.

Every time Fatah engaged in peace negotiations it was betrayed by Israel, USA, Norway, etc. The most concrete results for ordinary citizens are the Wall, ever-present checkpoints, more settlements and more poverty. The results for Fatah have been bad consequences for their constituency. Hamas was outside these processes and consequently was not blamed for the results.

Many gave Hamas credit for the withdrawal from Gaza. But I believe that is a wrong assumption, though many wanted to believe in that. If with some degree of probability, you can define an event as a victory, you are more likely to do so than critically analysing the fact and come up with a different conclusion.

The growing armed resistance against the US-led occupation in Iraq has encouraged many to believe in the power of the Kalashnikov, the suicide bombs, and the road-side bombs. This is just as important and a very complex process which deserves serious analysis and discussion.

The main problem is that so many believe that there is a choice of either armed resistance or passivity. The 100 other means to influence the situation are not on the table in most of the restaurants in Ramallah or the cafeterias in Nablus.

Here lies an enormous task for those with knowledge and ideas about how to promote a sustainable peace with other means, i.e. with intense activity and nonviolence combined.


• Chaos after the death of Arafat

Undoubtedly, it is also important to recognise the effect of President Arafat's death has had on Fatah. Without his distinct leadership, a number of suppressed old internal conflicts quickly surfaced. All of them destroyed the former unity and some of them were devastating in their consequences for Fatah's election result. From the time when Mahmoud Abbas became prime minister, the old guard of Fatah people stood against firmly him and behind Arafat in several conflicts. So the election result can also be seen in the light of simple revenge.

Then there is another factor which I believe has been underestimated in the comments here and there: that Fatah and consequently PLO and the PA have been dominated for too long time by what is sometimes called the "Tunis-generation". The bright, young, and intelligent Palestinian men and women with a burning eagerness to "serve their country" did not have access to political positions when Arafat was the leader, and not enough changed in this respect during the first year with Mahmoud Abbas. Their qualifications were not used by the PA.

This is a very delicate problem. How can you remove elderly men from their high positions without offending them? The cultural context complicates such a move even more. There are also financial hurdles in this problem, with some relevance for the earlier level of corruption. The young generation could, if they had been given positions in PA, been very useful in changing the internal culture and adapt to the new times and conditions of today.

The old PLO traditions pertaining to how you would run an organisation dated back to - and made sense - the days when it was mainly an armed guerrilla movement. But it doesn't fit today's situation and tomorrow's challenges. The task is not to fight the enemy with military means, but to win open and fair elections with a constituency consisting of a lot of young, poor, disillusioned people and large groups of people who are third generation refugees living in camps.


• External criticism, internal support

Another factor I would like to raise is the effect of International actors and media labelling Hamas a terrorist organisation. Both the EU and the U.S. - but not UN - have them on their respective lists of outcasts ("terrorists"). It is a basic psychological fact that when "all" external actors place guilt on an actor, that blamed actor is likely to get support from his own people. With an extremely one-sided rhetoric by the U.S., Israeli, and European politicians and media regarding Hamas nobody should be surprised by the growing support for them. The fact that Hamas obviously was the group Israel and the U.S. feared automatically made them heroes among many Palestinians.


What will come out of these elections?

It's not easy to make predictions, for sure, but let me try anyhow. With a good level of information of the situation today, you may be able to say something about the next five days. But beyond that, it's little more that sheer guessing. Palestine is absolutely no exception. The guesses can be more or less qualified deductions, but they will still basically be a guess. Too many factors are unknown and each and all of the known factors change constantly.

Having said that, let me anyhow present some of my views on the options, possibilities and challenges ahead for those who are engaged in the future of the Palestinian people.


• Impact on/of Israeli elections

The coming elections in Israel will of course have an immense impact on the possibility of negotiating with the new PA. But this is not necessarily a question of left or right on the political scale. We have seen many examples that conservative politicians have had more room for maneuvering than the more leftist ones. I am not saying that I would like to see a hawk as the next prime minister in Israel! I am just making the point that politics is much more complicated than the naive view that everything can be placed on a two-dimensional line from Left to Right.


• Impact on relationships with the EU, the U.S. and Iran

In the perspective of the immediate future, I am worried about the financial situation for the new Parliament. Without money to pay salaries next Friday the reaction from administrative personnel, police forces, security personnel and others will come very soon. We are talking about around USD 100 million a month just for the salaries.

Since the occupation makes almost every kind of business activity impossible, the only way this money can be delivered is by donations from abroad. The U.S. and the EU have been the main contributors so far. It would be extremely foolish and counterproductive of them to stop the flow of money just because the fair elections turned out like they did.

The Arab League has joined those voices that want Hamas to disarm and accept Israel before any transfer of money can be done. I believe such declarations will come, but it cannot be expected over night. It cannot be expected that such a shift in policy can be the first thing the new Parliament and Government will do. What sort of signal would that be to their constituencies? We have already seen several indications and moves from Hamas over the last year that they are moving in the right direction on these issues. Give them some more time and they will deliver. If the U.S. and the EU stop giving money to the PA, I am sure Iran will step in - thus complicating things enormously.


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Results are badly needed


• Jobs, food and travel and...

Hamas will need to deliver positive results to ordinary people pretty soon. A majority of those who voted for them expect results within months. This will be Hamas' main challenge. All oppositional movements that have gained power have faced the difficulty of delivering a real change in a relatively short time perspective.

This means that the average Palestinian must rather soon get a job, see more food on the table, experience less travel restrictions and more safety (as opposed to security) and that he and she will soon enjoy at least some improvements in the infrastructure (roads, electricity, sewage systems, water supply, etc).


• The security situation

Next we will see whether the new government will be able to control the police and security forces. Will the forces obey the new Parliament? What if they don't? What will be the relationship between these forces and the armed groups within Hamas? Formally of course, it is President Mahmoud Abbas who is the Supreme Commander of the Security Forces. But with only a minority behind him in the Parliament, it could well become quite difficult for him to exercise de facto control over these forces. His earlier proposal to share this function as chief of the forces with a deputy president may soon be put on the agenda again.

The conflicts around the security forces serve as the possible "gun powder barrel" for a worst- case scenario of civil war in Palestine. And that is a situation the hawks in Israel would love to see. I would be surprised if they are not already doing their best to bring about such a situation. Mossad, Shin Bet and their collaborators are probably working hard to create splits at this very moment. What can be done to prevent them from succeeding in that? (As I am writing these lines I hear on the radio that Fatah people have stormed the Parliament in Gaza and Ramallah and my heart is crying).


• Need for experienced people

Another serious problem is the lack of people within Hamas who have the needed skills to manage a country. There are thousands of positions to fill in ministries, agencies, security forces and so on. Very few have acquired the education and the experience needed in such positions. This is not to say that they will not be able to find ministers, but it will take quite some time for them be competent and feel comfortable in those positions throughout the administration.

The jump from being hunted as "terrorists" by IDF, the Israeli Defence Forces, to be acting as responsible ministers is a pretty big one. For many other positions it may turn out to be very difficult to find competent people at all. The organisations they are running well today cannot just be abandoned. Some of them could turn into governmental agencies, but certainly not all. There is also the question as to how smoothly the takeover from the old Fatah-led organisations will take place. It'll be easy for neither the outgoing nor incoming representatives.


• New elections soon?

Many Fatah activists obviously want to make the takeover as difficult as possible for Hamas. They are doing their best to create problems for the incoming representatives. Some even think they can create enough chaos to have new elections relatively soon and then come back in power with "clean" hands. I doubt if this option is wise and doable. At the moment, there is a strong need for conflict-resolution between Hamas and Fatah. But I cannot see any obvious mediator who commands enough respect in both camps.

Whatever Hamas wants to achieve over the next four years of power in Palestine, the international actors manipulating the processes in the region are much more influential than Hamas will ever be. It is not only up to Hamas to decide what will happen with the Palestinian people in the time to come. If they are able to fulfil some of the welfare they have promised it will be good for the population. If they, due to incompetence, external interference or domestic conflicts cannot deliver, they will be removed in the 2010 elections.


What can we do?

For the moment I would argue for maximum level of contacts with all parts of Hamas. Isolation is just as unhealthy for political movements as it is for prisoners! Meet with them, congratulate, discuss, listen, learn and present your views in open and honest discussions!

Since most states seem to avoid contacts with Hamas, these tasks will need to be the responsibility of civil society actors. There is nobody else to do the job. After some months we will understand if it is time to propose joint projects. Hamas is not a unified organisation. Naturally, there is a diversity of views on a number of questions inside Hamas. I regard it as very important to understand and get insights into Hamas and their different sections as soon as possible.

Let us identify which "fractions" it makes most sense to contact and have dialogues with. I cannot imagine that many are knocking on their doors already, but I would like to be among the first ones.

The fact that the U.S. and the EU regard it illegal to seek and obtain such contacts should not prevent or deter us. And even if we initially have to make these contacts partly outside the public sphere I don't want to be too secret about them. I want to be open about these contacts, and to continue our good contacts with Fatah and other PA people.


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