According to unofficial election returns, the Islamic movement Hamas (an acronym for حركة المقاومة الاسلامية, "the Islamic Resistance Movement," and the acronym means “zeal” - note: if you can't see the Arabic characters, it means you need to install the Arabic language set on your computer) has garnered somewhere between 75-80 seats out of the 132 seats making up the Palestinian legislative council, in an election that had over 77% turnout. Already, the current Prime Minister, (who is not of Hamas, but an old guard leader of Fatah – [a reverse acronym of حركة التحرير الوطني الفلسطيني, the "Movement of Liberation for the Palestinian Nation”, meaning “conquest” or “victory”] and formed in 1958 and the largest party in the PLO) has resigned, and it is possible that the President, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), may also resign. Early reports in the world press presume that Hamas might turn to Salim Fayyad, the squeaky-clean and relatively independent Finanace Minister, to lead a Hamas-led government, possibly in a "national unity" government with Fatah in which Hamas takes over all the domestic and economic posts, and leaves Fatah to handle international affairs. Given the official Israeli, American and EU ban on working with Hamas, this sounds like a pragmatic option - but it may be simply a matter of wishful "group-think."
A quick backgrounder, slammed out in 1 hour, and based on two useful books at hand: The Palestinian Hamas by Shaul Mishal & Avraham Sela (two very good political scientists from TAU and HU, respectively; Columbia U. Press, 2000); and Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza by Ziad Abu-Amr (a political scientist and now PNA legislator – I do not know if he was re-elected or even if he ran; Indiana University Press, 1994):
Hamas was formed officially in the Gaza Strip in 1988, but its roots go back to 1928, with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood Association (MBA) in Egypt. By the early 30’s, branches of MBA were in existence in Palestine in the form of the Young Muslim Men’s Association. One particularly early proponent of MBA in Palestine was the religious leader from Haifa Shaykh `Izz al-din al-Qassam, who took up arms against the British and the Zionists, and was killed by British troops in 1935 (supposedly with a rifle in his hands). Under separate British, then Israeli, Jordanian, and Egyptian rule, the MBA associations were declared illegal. In particular, after a 1965 coup attempt in Egypt, the MBA leadership was jailed and killed in Egypt (amongst them the leader and ideologue Sayyid Qutb), and amongst those arrested was a Gazan Shaykh named Ahmad Yassin, later released. (Egyptian rulers have engaged in a utilitarian love-hate relationship with the MBA, even to as recently as the last parliamentary elections.)
In the overpopulated slums of occupied Gaza of the late-70s, a group of impeccably uncorrupt religious leaders formed a social support organization (al-Mujamma` al-Islami – المجمع الاسلامي) to promote Islam along MBA lines (da`wah) amongst the youth. The leader was Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, a blind paraplegic religious figure who operated the movement out of his home. With Israeli acquiescence, Islam was allowed to flourish in Gaza (as a counter weight to PLO), and the MBA movements for their part refrained from direct action against Israel. A main center of activity became the Islamic University in Gaza, established in 1978, and seized by MBA in 1983.
In December 1987, when the 1st Intifada started, the leaders of this revivalist movement surged into action, and by January issued a leaflet declaring their intention to join the struggle against the Jews (HAMAS sees the struggle as first a religious duty, and only secondarily political). Initially, HAMAS ran attacks against Israeli targets in Gaza and West Bank, but then moved out into Israel – using methods developed by the Lebanese Hizbollah, especially suicide bombings.
Hamas was then declared outlaw by the Israeli government and military occupation, and an attempt to break it then occurred. Yassin was arrested and convicted to life imprisonment by the Israelis in 1989. Though there always was the claim that military ops (“martyrdom operations” of the `Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades) were separate from political leadership, Israel turned to the leadership for accountability.
Hamas opposed the 1993 Oslo peace process with maximalist intensity, and under the gudiance of legendary operative Yahya Ayyash (aka “the engineer”), ran a series of deadly attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians (both inside and outside the green line). In Jan. 1996, in a controversial decision by then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Ayyash was killed by the Israeli General Security Service, and this resulted in a spring 1996 terror campaign that swung the Israeli elections to Benjamin Netanyahu. There has consistently been a relationship between Islamic terror and the Israeli electorate turning to the right. And if I were Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, I would be a very happy candidate for Prime Minister.
Ever since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Israel has demanded that the PNA “uproot terrorist organizations” in its midst. Occasionally the PNA has complied, particularly under American pressure, but a “revolving door” to Palestinian prisons allowed arrestees to go free.
Under Netanyahu, in Sept. 1997, Israeli spies botched an assassination attempt on Hamas’ #2 man, Khaled Meshal, in Amman, Jordan (watch for Meshal to emerge as the new leader of the Hamas-led PNA). As a result, Yassin and 70 other activists/terrorists were released from prison, and Yassin was met in Gaza with great fanfare. Even Arafat (who was threatened by Yassin's popularity) turned out for his welcome home.
Under American pressure, Hamas was banished from Jordan, and now its foreign department is situated in Damascus, Syria.
The 1st Intifada died out, but in Sept. 2000 a second intifada broke out – and in this Hamas was the leading player, now permitting female martyrs, and even developing a short-range missile to lob into neighboring Israeli settlements from Gaza.
Even Yassin however talked of a staged conquest of sacred Palestine, and there has been a vague undertone of possible compromise with the Zionist/Jewish enemy, including temporary cease fires occasionally. Nevertheless, Hamas and the smaller organization Islamic Jihad began another major terror campaign, though in recent months (for reasons to be stated), Hamas has taken a lesser role.
Amongst Israeli responses to this new wave of terror has been “targeted killings” of selected terrorist leaders & the controversial “security fence,” which together have proven to be quite effective in stemming – though not eliminating - terror attacks in Israel.
The most prominent of the targeted killings came on 22 March, 2004, when Yassin was killed in an air attack and a month later his unrelenting #2, `Abd al-`Aziz al-Rantisi, was also killed. Fatah was seen as ineffective and corrupt, and when President Arafat died in Nov. 2004 to be replaced by an elder if bumbling Fatah veteran (it was the replacement, Abu Mazen, who called these elections which are leading to his political demise), the stage was set for this Hamas victory. So without the charismatic father-figure of Arafat, Fatah started to resemble a cult-personality cum political party that had lost its sole purpose (a parallel to Sharon's Kadima?), and with very little to show for its 40 years of rule (and in particular the last 10 years of corrupt ineptitude), Fatah melted away before the robust Hamas. Sure, there might be a civil war in the PNA if the militant gangleaders of Fatah decide to put up a challenge, but as of this morning, the democracy that is Palestine is struggling with the transition peacefully.
In a later blog, I will try to provide some analysis, but as of 9 am this morning, there is very little useful analysis I can muster, with the news of this Hamas victory only hours old.
This much can be said: just as Israeli political turmoil and policies effect Palestinian politics, this surprising Hamas victory in the polls (something not foreseen by even Israeli military intelligence, which usually conjures up worst-case scenarios) will have an enormous impact on the upcoming Israeli vote, now just 2 months away. Unless a new kind of Hamas emerges in the coming weeks, expect the undecideds in Israeli electorate to turn sharply to the right.