Socialist View, No. 15, Spring 2006

Fatah ousted from power

Can Hamas "liberate" the Palestinians?

THE HAMAS landslide in January's long awaited Palestinian Authority (PA) elections has ousted Fatah as the dominant political force of Palestinians in the region for the first time in 40 years. The Hamas list won an outright majority with 30 of 66 seats at the national level and 46 of 66 seats in constituencies. Fatah won 27 seats on the national level and only 16 of the constituencies. SUSAN FITZGERALD writes

Commentators in both Israel and Palestine have likened the result to a "political earthquake". For Fatah this is no exaggeration as they watched their traditional strongholds in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem turn out one by one in support of "Change and Reform", the name and in part also the programme under which Hamas stood in the elections. This was a far-reaching victory for Hamas which even made gains in areas with large Christian populations such as Bethlehem and Nabulus.

Hamas won this election for a number of reasons but key among them was the enormous desire of the Palestinian masses to be rid of the corrupt and out of touch Fatah leadership. A major aspect of the "change and reform" campaign was geared towards exposing Fatah and promising to wipe out corruption.

While for Palestinians the corruption of Fatah officials was clear for all to see, the extent and scale of the robbery was highlighted in the media. The findings of an internal investigation, which identified up to 50 cases of "financial and administrative corruption" defrauding the PA treasury of $7 million in funds, hit headlines around the world. Millions were channelled into a fictitious pipe factory, while land deals in the West Bank were found to be non existent. Millions more dollars were siphoned off into private accounts in Palestine and internationally. This situation led to top Fatah PA leaders enjoying a life far removed from ordinary Palestinians, two million of whom live in dire poverty with many in overcrowded refugee camps. In contrast, Hamas are not tainted with corruption and are seen by people as having "clean hands".

Another factor is the involvement of Hamas in various charities which have acted as an auxiliary social welfare system. The near collapse of social services, along with up to 50% unemployment reported in some areas, has left many families entirely dependent on aid to survive. The role of Hamas in "plugging the gaps" in food provision, health, education and other services gave them a direct line to the people. This has contributed significantly to the success of their candidates in both these elections and last year's municipal elections.

Hamas also won support on the basis of the complete collapse of any semblance of a peace process. While the Fatah dominated leadership of the PA were promoting talks as part of a dead peace process and pointing to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as proof of progress, anyone with eyes could see that the reality was quite different. While 9,000 settlers were moved out of Gaza, 14,000 moved into the expanding West Bank settlements. Israel seized more land in the West Bank in July of last year alone than it gave back in Gaza. The period of the peace process has in reality been a period of the re-drawing of borders by Israel and an ongoing land grab to secure Israeli access to increasingly scarce water supplies.

In addition to being seen as corrupt, Fatah were also viewed as inept in the face of the ongoing occupation and daily humiliations at the hands of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), which included mass arrests and the brutal demolition of houses, schools, factories and hospitals. Life during the period of Bush's "road map" got worse not better. The overall economy diminished by a third and unemployment doubled as Israeli authorities stopped Palestinians working in Israel, cutting off a crucial economic life line. The IDF has imposed literally hundreds of military checkpoints throughout Gaza and the West bank, drastically restricting travel and the transport of food and humanitarian aid. The erection of a 30-foot high separation wall in the West Bank literally ploughed through communities leaving 242,000 Palestinians on the "wrong side", isolated between the wall and the Israeli Border.

These are some of the reasons why people have turned to Hamas but while they may represent a change for now, they do not represent a way forward for the Palestinian masses. The type of society envisaged by Hamas would be a hostile environment for any independent movement of the working class in defence of its rights and socialist ideas.

Birth of Hamas

The Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, first emerged in the late 1980s as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, an alliance of Islamist organisations throughout the Middle East. In the past, Israel actually funded and facilitated various Hamas organisations in an attempt to undermine Fatah. More recently though, Israel has engaged in a concerted campaign of assassinations of Hamas leaders and militants including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair bound founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, in 2004. In the wake of January's election, Israel's Defence Minister, Mofaz, warned that Hamas leaders should not think they were exempt from assassination attempts by the IDF.

Hamas' historic aim, as expressed in its founding charter in 1988, has been to create an Islamist state on the territory encompassed by Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. While undoubtedly Hamas will come under pressure from its own members and supporters to deliver on this, officially they are at pains to reassure people that they will not force their beliefs.

Hamas' programme

For some this has not allayed fears about what a Hamas-run administration would mean. Miriam Farahat, elected for Hamas in Gaza City, was reported to have said that her first draft law will be to make headscarves for women compulsory. Many Palestinians will also remember Hamas attempts during the first Intifada to impose restrictions on the sale of alcohol and the attacks by Hamas' activists on unveiled women. But while a layer of Palestinians may be looking to Islam as an alternative, decades of secular society would mean that attempts to push through fundamentalist policies or sharia law would be met with opposition. Hamas recognise this fact and know that their electoral victory does not represent carte blanche to rule as they wish.

On the question of Israel, Hamas have said that they will neither negotiate with nor recognise Israel. The preamble to the Hamas Charter of 1988 states "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it." It also states that "The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered or given up." But in the weeks after the election many contradictory statements appeared as to what Hamas were prepared to do now that they are in power. The reality is that Hamas already effectively negotiate with Israel on a local municipal basis on issues like water, electricity and other services. When asked if he believed they would eventually negotiate with Israel, the Hamas mayor of Nabulus Adli Refat Yaish said "Why not?" This is a position unlikely to be supported by more hardline members, including the separate leadership of the military wing at this stage.

Hamas will find themselves in an almost impossible situation where on the one hand they cannot just abandon their stance of standing for the destruction of Israel. But on the other, the alternative is even more difficult. "If your platform is the destruction of Israel, you're not a partner in peace", said George Bush, commenting after the election, an election that went horribly wrong as far as US interests in the Middle East are concerned.

Not being a "partner in peace" is the context in which the PA has seen it's almost $1 billion in international aid threatened. The House of Representatives voted in mid February 418-1 for a non-binding resolution, opposing all US assistance for the PA as long as any party calling for the destruction of Israel controlled its parliament. Israel is withholding the $50 million a month in customs duties and taxes that it collects on behalf of the PA The hypocrisy of imperialism is glaring, democracy is to be supported provided it produces the right result!

It is possible though that Israel and the US will deal with a "moderate" Hamas leadership short of the formal removal of the offending clauses in their constitution, providing the year old Hamas ceasefire is maintained. One concern of the US is that if all funds are cut off, the Hamas leadership will be forced to go with a begging bowl to other Arab regimes, but especially to Teheran, with the danger that the PA could end up as a client state of Iran.

Hamas will not be able to deliver on their promise of an independent Palestinian state. Palestine is held in an economic stranglehold by Israel, which absorbs an estimated 80% of Palestinian exports. The barring of Palestinians working in Israel has caused unemployment to sky-rocket, and the closing on 15 January of the Karni crossing by the IDF has meant that severe food shortages have ensued. Medical supplies, fresh produce and dairy products have not reached Gaza in weeks. The UN has warned that the continued closure of trade routes could prompt a humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

These are all immediate issues with which the Authority must now deal, along with finding the money to pay the salaries of the 135,000 PA staff. On the day that Hamas were being sworn in, Fatah dominated national guardsmen mounted protests demanding their wages. While some will take the view "better an honest pauper than a corrupt thief", Hamas will no doubt face other such revolts unless they can deliver on the essential issues of jobs and services.

The ongoing Israeli military attacks pose another headache for Hamas. A survey carried out days after the election by the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda stated that 84% of Palestinians support a peace deal with Israel and that more than 75% of the peace-deal supporters voted for Hamas. This does not indicate any support for the "road map" or any so called peace processes to date, but rather shows that while there is enormous anger at the occupation people are war weary.

For Hamas, the election success was a double-edged sword. More comfortable in opposition, the last thing they wanted was to be in power. Hamas straight away sought a coalition with Fatah and are prepared to work with Fatah President Muhammad Abbas. They have placed more moderate Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Aziz Dweik, into the key positions of Prime Minister and Legislative Council Speaker, respectively.

Little room for manoeuvre

Nevertheless, Hamas still have very little room for manoeuvre; they must contend with the opposition of Israel and the west, but also face opposition from within. Hamas received 56% of seats but only 44% of the vote against 42% for Fatah. One reason was the splits within Fatah as sections of their membership stood or backed "independent" candidates. There is a possibility now of the more militant younger sections of Fatah ousting the old guard. On this basis, with Hamas unable to deliver anything, with the Fatah militias still strong and with their control of the Palestinian security forces, a changed Fatah could redevelop support and provide a future challenge to Hamas.

Israel faces its own elections on 28 March, the tremors from the Hamas "earthquake" will be an issue undoubtedly. The various parties are trying to outdo each other with hardline stances on security and Hamas, but a poll for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily conducted two days after the election indicated that almost half of Israelis favour negotiating with Hamas.

The election of Hamas could be a spanner in the works for the newly formed Kadima party which had won support for its strategy of disengagement. The Kadima Party presented hopes for what would in effect be a government of "national unity" with former prominent members of both Likud and the Labour Party joining the new party. Kadima had been tipped to do very well in the elections and their support is holding up, but it's not ruled out that the right wing Likud Party headed by former Prime Minister Netanyahu could gain support by whipping up security fears.

While fears about security are very real, the class issues in Israel remain outstanding where 1.5 million people live below the official poverty line. The policies of neo-liberalism and Israeli capitalism have seen the income of the poorest 30% drop by 9% while the richest 30% enjoyed a 6% hike in their share. Attacks on working conditions and privatisation plans have brought thousands of council workers and others out on strike action over the last period.

The response to the election of former leader of the Histraduth Trade Union Federation, Amir Peretz, to the leadership of the Labour Party late last year gave an indication of the potential for new class forces to emerge and the impact that a clear socialist alternative would have. Peretz used radical rhetoric calling for a 50% increase in the minimum wage and state pensions for all. But his role as Histraduth leader has many inglorious chapters, particularly the abandonment of dock workers striking against the privatisation of their industry. He has also "toned down", more recently calling for capitalism with a "human face" and has supported "humane privatisation".

None of the establishment parties in Israel offer a way forward for the working class no more than Hamas do for the Palestinians. Real security and a decent standard of living is ruled out under capitalism, just as is the desire of the Palestinian masses for a viable and independent state. Only a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine, as part of a broader voluntary socialist federation of the Middle East, democratically run and utilising the enormous wealth of resources in that region can guarantee a future free from war and poverty.

To achieve this, the urgent task facing both the Palestinian and Israeli working class and youth is the building of independent organisations of the working class committed to a socialist programme to challenge capitalism in all its forms.

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