2 February 2006 Edition

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A question of respect


Palestinian elections - Hamas victory

The people of the Occupied Palestinian Territories have endorsed a new political reality, one in which a radically changed Legislative Council in which Hamas, standing on the platform of Change and Reform have taken 75 of the 126 seats, reducing Fatah's share to 45. Despite the continued hardship of the occupation a 78% Palestinian turnout has spoken in what can only be praised as authentically democratic elections. As such not only must the manner in which they were held be respected but so too its outcome.

And yet there seems little attempt to grant such respect towards the incumbent government. The Israeli acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, following the revelation of the Hamas victory, has clearly stated that a government led by Hamas, or a government that Hams is a part of cannot be a partner for peace and is to be considered an authority that supports terrorism. The US response echoed Israel's predictably negative line calling on Hamas to recognise Israel and lay down its arms. The EU, despite its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana's, previous threats of withholding the $600 (£341m) should Hamas take power, have now adopted a more pragmatic 'wait and see' approach in its relations to the Hamas government.

Scant regard, however, has been paid in the media to Hamas' position concerning negotiations with Israel. Hamas's election manifesto made no mention of 'destroying Israel'. Furthermore, Hamas has offered a long-term ceasefire, perhaps lasting a generation, in return for Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 borders — a de facto recognition of Israel's existence. Such offers are only strengthened by an eleven-month unilateral ceasefire maintained by the movement. Its language too has shifted in tone and talk of destroying Israel has consciously moved to talk of armed resistance against Israel. Aziz Dweik, a prominent Hamas candidate in the southern West Bank town of Hebron stated to Al Jazeera that 'Eventually we will have to distinguish between the ideological and the political'. Rather than oppose the principle of future negotiations, it disputes the basis of those held in the past.

Hamas's victory did not come around primarily as a product of its opposition to Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. Running on the platform of Change and Reform Hamas presented a credible alternative, 'honest, tried and untainted by corruption', to the outgoing Fatah legislature divided internally and plagued by allegations of corrupt and malfunctioning governance. Fatah's electoral strategy steered clear of the charges against it focusing upon its history of resistance yet failed to convince an electorate who felt few tangible or economic achievements. Israel's cynical manipulation of the peace process twisted Oslo's reconciliatory spirit into new and more sophisticated means of maintaining an increasingly brutal occupation.

For Hamas now comes the real test. The new government of the Palestinians can not rely solely on its image as a strong alternative to a corrupt, weak and fragmented Palestinian Authority. It must now address itself to the pressing issues of delivering social and economic change and addressing Israel's continuing occupation. Hamas has been preparing itself to govern and can draw upon the valuable experience of its welfare and education networks and technocrat base. It has solid organisational and ideological behavioural codes. For their part the EU and the wider international community may consolidate democracy but only through a continuation of funding and support for the position of negotiation about a future, viable Palestinian state, and respect for what was expressed freely at the polls.

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