Monday, February 06, 2006

Hamas Victory and Middle East Peace Process

Hamas victory and Middle East peace process
The Jakarta Post, Opinion and Editorial - February 03, 2006
Muhamad Ali, Manoa, Hawaii
There are now two general political views and attitudes towards the victory of the Palestinian Hamas in the context of the Middle East peace process: Pessimism and optimism. The United States, Israel and some European leaders, which brand Hamas as a terrorist group, consider this triumph as a shocking set-back and they are reluctant to appear optimistic.
Some, including Indonesia, are more positive, however this will depend on the way in which Hamas runs the government, solves internal problems, and deals with "significant others", especially Israel.
By participating in the local, municipal, and now general elections, Hamas has actually of itself changed. Founded in 1987 by Shaikh Ahmad Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, it was partly shaped and even aided by the existence and attitudes of the Israel occupation, and was partly influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement. Israel helped weaken the Palestinian Authority under Fatah that led to the strengthening of Hamas.
Hamas provided hope for many discontented Palestinians, because of what they saw as a corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority. It is formally committed to establishing a Palestinian state within its own borders, and to the destruction of the state of Israel. It has pursued this aim through a series of attacks on Israeli troops, settlers and civilians both in Palestinian territories and in Israel.
However, it also assists ordinary people in settlements and refugee camps. Hamas has gained support because of its charity work and its corruption-free image. Significantly, in the election campaigns Hamas omitted mention of its long-standing commitment to destroy Israel, and raised the possibility of indirect negotiations with the Israelis. Now, by winning the elections, Hamas would in all likelihood have to shift their violent, radical policies to more moderate strategies befitting a responsible government.
Recent results of general elections in Iran, Egypt and now Palestine, show that the Middle East is actually taking the democratic path. Radicalism and terrorism have existed partly because certain elements have seen no viable political alternative to pursue their aspirations.
The participation of Islamic movements in the democratic process will likely reduce the possibility of underground resistance and violence. The elections have been praised as free, fair, transparent and peaceful, which should be regarded by other democratic governments as a good sign.
Hamas leaders and the Palestinian peoples now face even greater challenges.
First, they must be able to convince people in Palestine and Israel that they will no longer endorse violence.
Second, despite the triumph, Hamas must fulfill their promise to collaborate with Fatah and smaller parties; they should no longer reject each other; they must build their country together. They have democratically won the elections and they must show that they are also able to govern democratically. Hamas has the right to form the new government, but the new government must govern democratically and professionally.
Third, and this is probably the greatest challenge, Hamas must change their political attitudes to Israel. Hamas should be willing to deal with Israel; they must talk. Conventional rejectionist attitudes will not help at all in the peace process.
Being in a position of power, Hamas cannot ignore its partners in the Middle East and international communities. Politics means compromise, and if Hamas cannot compromise, then the path to peace will become much more difficult. All have to come to terms and adapt to the new reality.
Of course, the challenges are now being equally faced by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union. Many tend to see the victory as an obstacle to the peace process. But they will have to moderate their views and accept the current political reality.
They cannot say that the election was democratic but disregard and isolate the winner, in the same manner that Hamas cannot win democratic elections but at the same time reject the right to exist and live peacefully with their significant others. Both sides of the equation cannot be ignored. Both must negotiate, no matter how hard and painful.
Peace in Palestine will now greatly depend on the way that Hamas runs the government, its behavior in internal affairs, and its dealings with other important players. If they can ensure all of this, they will win international support and long-term peace in the Middle East will be more likely to prevail.
The writer is a lecturer at the National Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta. He is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He can be reached at

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