TCS Daily

Democracy and Hope in Gaza

By Shawn Macomber - February 9, 2005 12:00 AM

The howls of pessimism that followed the recent, first-ever, local elections in the Gaza Strip are certainly understandable. The interminable Israeli-Palestinian dispute has, after all, broken the hearts and taken the lives of many would-be peacemakers over the years - even as Israel and the Palestinian Authority declare a fragile cease-fire. The desire to not be fooled into hope again is no doubt a powerful one, and Hamas' convincing victories in most of the ten participating municipalities, taking 75 of the 118 council seats with as many as 85 percent of eligible voters coming out to the polls, isn't exactly comforting to those familiar with the murderous work of the terrorist organization.

Nevertheless, Hamas' political aspirations are good news, if for no other reason than that a taste of the limelight will doubtless make lurking in the shadows all the more unappealing. The life of a mainstream political figure feeds the ego as well as anything else-and whatever they say, most of these men have egos like anyone else-without the nasty side effect of having to hide your identity to avoid being on the wrong end of a Mossad targeted killing.

A situation where Hamas sits out elections and antagonizes democratically elected figures would be much more volatile and dangerous than one in which the organization participates. For the first time, in a quantifiable, verifiable way, Hamas will be accountable to the Palestinian people. The simplistic rhetoric of being a people's movement will now be judged by voters, and either accepted or declined. According to the genius logic of democracy, Hamas will have to deliver if it wants to continue to win, and that means bowing to reason and compromise far more often than it has previously proven willing to do.

The terrorist group has already made it exceedingly clear that the taste of public political victory suits it just fine. A Hamas leader in Gaza, Sami Abu Zukri, went so far as to call the recent election, "our sweetest victory," and now Hamas spokesmen are saying that the group most likely will field candidates in July's parliamentary elections. Polls show it has become clear to average Palestinians that they have not benefited from the Intifada. Hamas leaders know that in order to be competitive on a larger scale they will have to scale back the more vitriolic rhetoric and abandon unreasonable demands. The about-face on several fronts has already begun.

In advance of the recent elections Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' leader in Gaza, said publicly, "If there is total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza the Hamas movement will be ready to halt its military action because it is important for us to put an end to the misery of our people." Likewise, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, a man who only a few short moths ago ruled out ever ending attacks on Israel, has bizarrely tried to reason that the group's aim is to be, "always constructive, not destructive"-a perfect political soundbite if ever there was one.

Indeed, the municipal elections should not in any way be viewed as a victory for terrorism. While Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri blustered for the foreign press that the results showed "a consensus on the choice of jihad and resistance," the way the terrorist organization actually went about winning the election had virtually nothing to do with its usual modus operandi of murder.

Consider: Hamas' official electioneering slogan was, "Change and Reform," targeted to those fed up with years of PLO rule that has not ended the occupation or abject poverty. A 25-year-old imam from a mosque in Beit Hanoun, for example, told reporters that he had voted against the ruling Fatah party primarily because, "They were in power for 10 years and did nothing." After the victory, the people in the streets were chanting, "Hamas is the real way for reform and rebuilding," not, "Death to Israel."

In other words, this is the first election that allowed those in Gaza to hold Fatah accountable for its failings. Hamas didn't win this election because of a policy of armed resistance. It won, first and foremost, because it is the opposition party. Second, Hamas has cultivated support for its less savory actions by running schools, hospitals and welfare organizations while Fatah sat by as Arafat sent aid money to offshore bank accounts. On the eve of the election during the Islamic holiday of Eid al Adha, Hamas went so far as to deliver cooking supplies and lamb to the poorest Palestinians.

Palestinians suffered silently as Arafat's spoiled brat of a wife paraded around Paris like a queen. Now democracy has given them a voice. Was there any doubt what that voice would say? With regard to how Hamas' newfound political future bodes for the peace process, there is a precedent here that suggests they will rather be onboard than left behind.

When the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein (Ourselves), was barred from multi-party negotiations in 1994 to end the conflict between Irish factions and the British, the IRA hastily declared a cease-fire to get Sinn Fein into the talks. This eventually resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which, while not perfect or complete by any measure, has successfully ended most of the violence that had cost more than 3,600 lives. The IRA was responsible for dozens of viciously random car bombings, and, yet, when facing exclusion from the political process it worked hard to become a part of, it chose peace over anonymous, violent struggle or political irrelevance.

Further, since the current incarnation of Sinn Fein's first major electoral victories in the early 80s, Sinn Fein, under Gerry Adams, a man who loves the spotlight, has served as a moderating factor on the IRA, although the two claim to have little to do with one another. As tensions flared once again this week, Sinn Fein's deputy leader, Martin McGuinness, told reporters that his party was, "totally and absolutely opposed to any return to conflict," adding, "We believe the peace process is the best way forward." While it remained unsaid, this was a message the IRA would have to take to heart coming from its political benefactors.

Wouldn't it be grand if maybe, just maybe, one day soon we might hear a Hamas leader express such a sentiment? It is by no means certain, but there is at least hope that such a day may be coming, and that hope should be fostered and not extinguished. It's not about forgiving Hamas for their crimes or their rhetoric. It's about finding a way out of this conflict that has dragged on for far, far too long.

Shawn Macomber is a Staff Writer at The American Spectator and runs the website www.Returnof


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