Victory of Hamas: The Chickens Have Come to Roost
By Farish A. Noor
The spectacular victory of Hamas at the polls has caught many local and international watchers of Palestinian politics with surprise, though it should not have been one at all.
Hamas’s resounding victory – ammounting to 76 seats won compared to Fatah’s 43 – has given Hamas an outright majority in Parliament. The high turnout of 77 per cent would also indicate that this was no fluke victory, but rather a decisive indictment of the failure of Fatah and other moderate Palestinian leaders to keep the Palestinian pact going and to persuasively argue the case for Palestine on the broader international stage.
All eyes are now on the leadership of Hamas to see whether it can and will opt for the democratic constitutional path to politics and governance, or whether it will use this overwhelming mandate to the max and interpret its own victory as a resounding sanction for the continued use of violence.
Hamas’s leaders like Mahmoud Zahar have insisted that Hamas will retain its original objective of fighting for the total freedom of Palestine and all Palestinians, and to add to the worries of the powers-that-be in Washington and Israel, has also dismissed the idea of asking the movement’s militias to stand down.
Yet it is too early to tell if this is all the stuff of bluster and rhetoric, or whether this will be but a prelude to the eventual softening up of Hamas itself. After all, if Hamas is about to enter the corridors of power its leaders – like politicians elsewhere – will sooner than later learn that smart business suits and silk ties do not sit well with Kalashnikovs and grenades. Hamas has only to look at another former militia movement that has made the successful transition to constitutional politics: Hizbullah.
Hizbullah, which commands the support of hundreds of thousands of Shias in the region, began as a militant movement that was even more dogmatic and doctrinaire in its politics and praxis. After all, it was Hizbullah that steadfastly refused to compromise and work with other movements that it argued were working in the pay of Washington, such as the Mujahideen of Afghanistan whom it regarded as paid mercenaries in the service of the CIA. Hizbullah for years supported only the most kosher of resistance movements,
such as the IRA or liberation movements in North Africa, Latin and Central America that it regarded as being firmly committed to the cause of anti-Imperialism. Hamas, on the other hand, has always been seen as more political in form and content, to the point where it has even been accused of being aided (indirectly) by Israeli agents who were keen to tarnish the image of the once-popular and credible PLO under the late Yasser Arafat.
It is this tangled history of Hamas that makes it all the more problematic and difficult to determine where it will go next. Caught up in the convoluted internescine political labyrinth of Palestinian politics, Hamas is as much a turf-war fighter as it is a liberation movement. Its support base comes mainly from disenfranchised Palestinian Muslims who felt disillusioned by the broader, secular nationalist ideology and rhetoric of the PLO. While the PLO was a broad-based movement that fought for the liberation of Palestine and all Palestinians- regardless of their religious, ethnic or clan background, Hamas is blatantly and unashamedly more exclusive in nature. Its rhetoric has been shaped by the religious vocabulary of absolutes and a monochromatic view of the world that divides between Good and Evil, friends and enemies: Indeed, the sort of language that President Bush Junior should be more than familiar with.
Hamas’s coming to power therefore reads as a case of the militant chickens coming home to roost. For decades, the Israeli government, with the backing of the USA, has sought to discredit the more inclusive and secular nationalist movement led by the PLO. The PLO’s left-leaning nationalist agenda was seen as being too inclusive and capable of uniting Palestinians of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and its ultimate success in the 1970s of gaining global recognition – up to the level of the United Nations – made it seem even more dangerous for Israeli politicians bent on containing and defeating the Palestinian movement once and for all.
The emergence of Hamas was, ironically, a boon of sorts at the start for Israel: Here was a Palestinian movement that could easily be demonised and marginalised thanks to its fiery rhetoric, replete as it was with talk of hellfire and damnation for the unbelievers. Cast as a demonic fundamentalist threat, Hamas was presented as a global terrorist bogeyman long before latecoming wannabes like Osama ben Laden were even on the scene. But the enemies of Hamas failed to note one vital factor: That movements like Hamas thrived on demonisation and stigma, and that the more the leaders and members of Hamas were targetted, arrested and assassinated, the grander its hall of martyrs and heroes grew.
While the PLO was seen as growing more and more moderate, Hamas claimed the glory of being one of the most hated and feared organisations by Israel, ending up on the black list of every developed industrialised nation. This gave Hamas the aura of power and influence that in reality it did not have but aspired to. Israel’s demonisation of Hamas was its best publicity campaign ever.
Now that the votes have been counted and it is evident that Hamas is about to step into the murky political arena of Palestinian politics for the first time, it shall remain to be seen whether its leaders can retain the edge and reputation of sacrifice and martyrdom that has been their political and cultural capital for so long. Hamas, like many other movements that have remained outside politics, thus far has developed the image of a movement untainted by the dirt and grime of realpolitik. But governance is a dirty job, one that often soils one’s reputation as fast as it adds to one’s waistline: Just ask the failed and discredited leaders of Fatah and they will tell you that.
Should Hamas play the game of constitutional politics by the rules, it will be only the latest Islamist militant movement that has undergone the discursive change and plastic surgery to enter the real world of politics. This may leave a vacumm that may later be filled in by yet another marginal group that claims the authenticity of being ‘outside the system’ and thus cleaner, purer and holier than thou. Hamas will therefore have to find the means to both domesticate itself while retaining the support of its impatient constituents and supporters, and this will hardly be an easy task. But for now at least, while the AK-47s are being shot skywards in joy rather than anger, the Neo-Cons of Washington and the elites of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem can sit back and pause for a second: Hamas’s victory is neither novel nor a surprise. Indeed it is the perfectly logical consequence of a sustained policy to oppress, dehumanise and subjugate a colonised people. What else can they expect, save an angry chicken coming home to roost?