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IDSA COMMENT

Hamas victory: From Non-State to State Actor

January 29, 2006

In the post Yasser Arafat era, politics in the Gaza Strip is taking a completely different turn. For the last few years Ariel Sharon had taken a very tough stand against the militant group Hamas. However, now, particularly when Sharon is fighting for his life in the hospital, the Hamas's overwhelming victory in the Palestinian elections is likely to change the political dynamics of the region incalculably.

Many analysts see this victory not only as an end of corrupt Palestine Authority (PA) government but also as a direct challenge to the United States and Israel. Surprisingly, Hamas won a clear majority, capturing 76 of the 132 seats in parliament. Four independent candidates backed by Hamas also won. Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian political life since the 1960s but had in recent years alienated voters because of rampant corruption, obtained only 43 seats. The rest went to smaller parties.

One reason for the overwhelming victory of Hamas is a natural outgrowth of decades of abuse by Israel. For many years, while the Western media was only projecting the reprehensible suicide bombings by Hamas, this electoral victory clearly indicates its acceptability to the Palestinian masses. Though the rise of Hamas in Palestine politics has indeed been very violent, it has also played a crucial role in connecting with the masses through involvement in various social service activities.

Over the years many groups have been involved from the Palestine side in the struggle against Israel. Of these, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Hamas, and Hezbollah are the main groups.

Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) is a radical Islamic organisation, which became active in the early stages of the Intifada (the mainstream Palestinian resistance movement which began in 1987). Though its primary area of operation was the Gaza Strip, it has also been active in the West Bank. Hamas has played a major role in violent fundamentalist subversion and radical terrorist operations against both Israelis and Arabs. Hamas is committed to a "holy war" for the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of an Islamic Palestine "from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River." Through its participation in street violence and murder, it boosted its appeal in the eyes of the Palestinians, which further enhanced its growth potential thus enabling it to play a central role in the Intifada. Because of its subversive and terrorist activity, Hamas was outlawed in September 1989. After the Gulf War, Hamas became the leading perpetrator of terrorist activity throughout the Occupied Territories as well as inside Israel.

The activities of Hamas mainly came to the forefront when it started opposing the Oslo peace accord between Israel and the PLO. In contrast to Hamas, PLO is not a fundamentalist group but the main secular, nationalist organisation of Palestinian politics. But during the last 20 years Israel has been forced to deal with both the PLO and Hamas mainly because of the asymmetric threat posed by the latter. Over the years Hamas's supporters have challenged the Palestinian national Authority, which was earlier led by Yasser Arafat. After the PLO and Israel signed a peace deal in 1993, Arafat founded the Palestinian Authority (PA), a new, Palestinian-led government for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. During the last few years, Hamas and PA have developed a love/hate relationship; sometimes they cooperate, sometimes they compete, and sometimes they clash. The recent defeat of PA and subsequent violence on the streets of Palestine clearly indicate the widening gap between these two major factions of the Palestinian movement.

This victory for Hamas is unique in many ways. Most importantly it has brought to power the most dreaded terrorist outfit but by democratic means. This has created difficulties not only to outside powers like the US, Israel and EU but also portends trouble to the Palestinian population. Given that the survival of the PA government was mainly dependent on funding from the West, none of these powers are likely to support a 'terrorist' government. This issue of Western funding is also critical for Hamas, which cannot otherwise raise resources to sustain itself in power and fulfil the people's socio-economic aspirations. And for this, it would have to renounce violence and its avowed position of "destroying Israel".

For India, Hamas's victory could be an eye-opener. In Jammu & Kashmir, some terrorist organizations enjoy a certain level of popular support though they have not yet deigned to test their electability. Hamas's victory could motivate them to test the electoral waters in future. India should understand the ramifications of such possibilities and remain prepared to deal with the situation as and when it arises.

Finally, Hamas's triumph is real bad news for the United States. If Washington wants to exert further pressure upon Hamas to disarm, its democracy agenda would end up looking rather weak and lacking in credibility. Also, the group's biggest backers, Iran and Syria, are likely to win some political capital simply by having backed the winners. And in the end the problems of the US's best friend Israel are far from over.