The victory of Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections focused attention on the increasing influence, not just in Palestine but across the region, of Islamic political parties as well as violent groups who fly the banner of Islam. While these are two separate phenomena, there are people who, either from a lack of knowledge and understanding or from ideological intention, try to confuse them.
Across the region, there is a genuine increase in public support for Islamic political parties. Most of these political expressions of Islam are not engaged in any violent activity.
But in parallel there is also an increase in the activity of violent groups that are using Islam as a pretext to justify their illegal practices and to gain popularity. Al Qaeda is a typical example of the latter category, while parties like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan are examples of the former.
For a proper understanding it is important to differentiate between the two.
Because of the dramatic increase in public support for the two types of Islamic groups, it is imperative that whoever is concerned with these developments look a little deeper than just at the activities of these groups, whether political or violent. We must try to analyze the socio-economic and political conditions that are responsible for their growth in popularity and consequently why their activities differ.
It is often remarked that those engaged in terrorism come from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds. That truth should not hide the evidence repeated in several credible studies that violent groups generally establish popular bases in specific environments characterized by poverty, economic deterioration, injustice and oppression.
The Palestinian case is complicated by the fact that more than internal dynamics are at play. The way to understand the continuing growth in support for political Islamic groups in Palestine requires us to understand both the socio-economic and internal political dynamics, as well as external dynamics regarding the behavior of Israel, which remains a very significant factor in internal Palestinian politics, and the attitude of the relevant members of the international community, particularly the US.
The strength of Hamas in Palestine that led to its victory in free and democratic elections wasn’t sudden. It was a cumulative and systematic process that was shown clearly in diverse public opinion surveys and studies. It was a genuinely Palestinian process that wasn’t influenced by Islamic political groups or Islamic terrorist groups outside Palestinian society and Palestinian circumstances.
These circumstances are well documented. Hamas’ success is a result of the failure of the previous government and the PLO to deliver political and economic solutions.
The continuing consolidation of the Israeli occupation in the face of the peaceful stance and political positions of a Palestinian leadership willing to compromise and the parallel decision by Ariel Sharon, with American backing, to ignore the Palestinian leadership, convinced the Palestinian public to go for its only alternative.
In addition, the failure of the Palestinian pro-peace process government to deal successfully with the economic difficulties that resulted from the Israeli closure and settlement expansion policies led the Palestinian public to give up on that leadership and try an alternative.
There is no evidence, either from intelligence or political sources, of the presence of any external and non-Palestinian political influence or presence such as al-Qaeda in Palestine. The attempt to divert attention in that direction is an attempt by some to escape responsibility for what has happened and try to blame non-existent bogey-men.
However, the failure of Hamas to fulfill its promises to the public, together with a continuation of current Israeli and American positions and behavior that prevent any political solution and economic recovery might in the future create a conducive environment for more extreme groups to appear in certain parts of Palestine such as Gaza.
At the moment, what we see in Palestine are genuine Palestinian expressions of frustration both with the Palestinian leadership and its international allies.