The challenge of navigating Palestinian politics

The existence and growth of the Hamas movement is directly linked to the brutality of Israel’s policies against the Palestinians.

That was demonstrated in recent municipal election contests between the two largest rival Palestinian factions, Fatah founded by Yasser Arafat and Hamas founded by Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Although Yassin was murdered by Israeli assassins, the growth of his movement ends the Israeli myth that the personality-driven policies of the occupied Palestinians can be controlled by killing the leader.

Fatah and Hamas are strikingly different. Fatah is a secular ideological movement capable of making political compromises with Israel. Hamas is a religious political movement driven by faith and incapable of compromise.

For Palestinian voters, the choice is simple, continue to believe Fatah and its leader Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can deliver an independent state through compromise, or that Israel can be eventually defeated by the promise of more Hamas militancy.

A third movement marginalized by the Hamas-Fatah rivalry also exists, but it influence is among Diaspora Palestinians and led by the disciples of the more violent and uncompromising secular movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by George Habash’s and commonly called the “Jabha.”

Jabha activists in the United States and Europe have been forced into a marriage of convenience with Hamas movement. They dominate most of the NGOs based outside of occupied Palestine including the powerful international al-Awda movement, which defines the rights of Palestinian refugees but fails to offer a strategy to implement those rights. And the Jabha rejects compromise with Israel.

Like many Palestinians, the Jabha activists see that one day Hamas will dominate all Palestinian politics.

Hamas got its start by accident when Likud leaders in the 1970s sought to “create” a rival to Arafat by shoring up the disorganized religious factions under Sheik Yassin in the Gaza Strip.

Yassin accepted Israeli help in raising funds and in building hospitals, schools and social centers that later became a political base. During the first Intifada, Yassin used that strength to launch Hamas, something the Israeli plotters never envisioned. Ironically, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who played a direct role in shoring up Yassin’s strength, ordered his murder last year.

Although it is denounced as a terrorist organization, it’s main attraction is the very network of social, health and public services, an area where other groups like Fatah have failed.

In fact, during the recent municipal elections, Hamas candidates countered their open rejection of compromise with Israel by promising more increased social and health services.

Support for that message grows.

Fatah won 56 percent of the overall vote compared to 33 percent for Hamas. Early returns show Fatah won in 45 of 84 communities while Hamas won 23 including in the three biggest towns up for grabs.

When you examine past election returns, Fatah dominates areas where the occupation and the deterioration of public services are less severe. Hamas dominates areas of heightened conflict and oppression.

Qalqaliya, where Israel has imposed the harshest of conditions on its residents, has become a Hamas stronghold. The Apartheid Wall encircles divides the city into zones, separating farmers from their land. The Apartheid Wall doesn’t protect Israelis from Palestinian attacks, but allows Israel to confiscate more land and define new political borders.

The Apartheid Wall is built inside occupied Palestinian territory, not on the 1967 “Green Line.” The path of the Apartheid Wall places important land assets such as farms and water wells on Israel’s side while imprisoning the bulk of Palestinian population on the other.

This has created an enormous hardship on the residents worse than most other occupied cities, feeding a growing political discontent and undermining confidence in Abbas.

Hamas has found footholds outside of the Gaza Strip in West Bank towns like Qalqaliya where it staged a massive post-election victory rally.

Hamas reinforced power in Gaza towns and refugee camps like Rafah and al-Bureij, one of the poorest camps. Hamas strength continues to grow in the West Bank in direct proportion to growing discontent with the secular policies of the government.

Although Fatah has managed to remain in control and dominate the government, Hamas knows that its influence will continue to grow.

Parliamentary elections will be held in July. There, Palestinian representation in local municipalities will be reflected on a national decision-making level.

While it is too early to predict the results, Abbas and the Fatah movement surely will cling to an eroding lead.

Eventually, though, it is not unreasonable to predict that Hamas will soon take over the government as the promises of independent statehood remain elusive and unachievable.

Once in control, Hamas ideology will prevent any movement towards negotiated peace and will lead only to more conflict and violence.