The Intifada of the Elections

some reflections on the elections in Palestine and the tasks ahead


By Jørgen Johansen, Visiting Scholar, Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies, Coventry University, UK


Elections in Palestine major achievement.


All Palestinians and other friends of Palestine should be congratulated with the elections! Despite occupation, travel restrictions, checkpoints and a number of other obstacles from the Israeli side, the PA, the political parties and the constituency managed to hold the campaigns, the actual voting, the counting of votes and the presenting of the results at a remarkably high standard. No state in the region has ever been able to deliver such a standard under such conditions! The formal parliamentary democracy is now established in Palestine. For it to become a real and functional democracy it is still a way to go, but this a very important step in the right direction. And here I want to add that only a few (if any?) countries who brag about being democracies are doing very well on the more deep criteria for a real and functional democracy. Western politicians seem to believe that Palestine only will be democratic if the new leadership is pro EU/USA.


Why did people voted for Hamas?


For a few days Palestinians tested freedom and democracy. Many liked it. It was a form of People Power never previously experienced in Palestine. I have difficulties in imagining that the people would ever accept to go back to the old system. Worries about Hamas introducing a theocracy, like they have in Iran and the Vatican, is not very probable. A majority of those who voted for a change will never accept that. Any development in the direction of fundamentalism will grow the more rest of the world isolates the new government and parliament. For those who want the new power-holders to adopt democracy and respect for human rights there is an urgent need to open doors and start dialogs.


The recent election should be analysed in the light of the two previous elections (the municipality and the presidential ones) and it is necessary to take into consideration the recent developments in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Iraq.


Many voices have already been trying to explain why Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyya [Hamas] did so well. I agree with a lot of it. Let me just shortly indicate what I agree with and then add some arguments of my own.


-         Disappointment with Fatah


I agree that many voted for Hamas to punish Fatah for the corruption, for not being able to deliver what they have promised, and just because they wanted to try something else after so many years with more and more problems. The institutionalised corruption within the PA was causing serious problems for many, many Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas has so far not managed to reduce the level of corruption significantly.


-         Hamas provides food, education and organisation



We should not underestimate that many voted for Hamas because their huge and important work on welfare, schools, distribution of food, etc. They have a record to be proud of in these areas. The PA was for many the symbol of unemployment, poverty and even hunger. Hamas have for a long time now been much better on all sorts of grassroots activities within labour unions, student organisations and other youth organisations. They are overall better on mobilising and organising ordinary people than Fatah, which has been using too much of their resources and skills on monopolising most political institutions.


-         Religion plays a less important role than some may think


The religious factor was important for many, but far from every voter used their ballot for religious reasons. But people have a tendency to be more actively religious in times of crises and war. When everything is chaotic it is good to have a fixed point in life. For many the Mosques, the Imams and the Koran have been such a safe place in their lives. Hamas is announcing publicly that they are an Islamic movement following the Sharia laws and, for good reasons, representing these values for many people.


But many of those who voted for Hamas this time did not do so for religious reasons. It seems probable that in addition to “punish” Fatah many just wanted a change and probably many thought that Hamas was a better choice for pure pragmatic reasons. It is important to separate the rhetoric from the practice when we judge Hamas. And we must bear in mind that their representatives, just like any other politicians, use different languages and arguments depending on who the audience is. The main message in the election campaign was much more liberal than the most radical quotations western media are digging up these days. What a Hamas leader is saying to radical devoted followers will of course be different from what their newly appointed PR consultant, Mr Aqtash from Birzeit University, will tell western media. What their practical politics will be is probably none of these versions.


-         Hamas claimed success in fighting Israel


Some voted for Hamas because they have symbolised the resistance against the occupation. Fatah has for many symbolised just an endless number of compromises (in which Palestinians have been the loosing part every time). Every time Fatah have been engaged in peace negotiations they have been betrayed by Israel, USA, Norway, etc. The most concrete results for ordinary people are the Wall, flying checkpoints, more settlements and more poverty. The results for Fatah have been bad consequences for their constituency. Hamas was outside these processes and consequently was not blamed for the results. Hamas was by many, wrongly, given the credit for the withdrawal from Gaza. That is a wrong assumption, but one many wanted to believe in. If you, with some degree of probability, can define an event as a victory you are more likely to do that than critically analysing the fact and come up with a different conclusion.[1]


The growing armed resistance against the US-led occupation in Iraq has encouraged many to believe in the power of the Kalashnikov, the suicide bombs, and the road-side bombs. This is just as important as a very complex process which deserves a serious discussion. The main problem is that so many believe that there is either a choice of armed resistance or passivity. The 100 other options for how to influence the situation are not on the table in most of the restaurants in Ramallah or the cafeterias in Nablus. Here there is an enormous task for those with knowledge and ideas about how to promote a sustainable peace with other means.


-         Chaos after the death of Arafat


It is of course also important to recognise the effect the death of President Arafat has had on Fatah. Without his clear leadership a number of old internal conflicts popped up to the surface. All of them destroyed the former unity and some of them were devastating for the results in the elections.[2] From the time when Mahmoud Abbas was prime minister the old guard of Fatah people stood against him and behind Arafat in several conflicts. The results of the elections could be seen as a form of revenge.


One factor I think is underestimated is that Fatah (and consequently PLO and the PA) have for too long time been dominated by what is sometimes called the “Tunis-generation”. The bright, young, and intelligent Palestinian men and women with a burning eagerness to “serve their country” did not have access to political positions when Arafat was the leader, and not enough changed in this respect during the first year with Mahmoud Abbas. Their qualifications were not used by the PA. This is a very delicate problem. How can you remove elderly men from their high positions without offending them? The cultural context complicates such a move even more. It is also financial hurdles in this problem, with some relevance to the earlier level of corruption. The young generation could, if they had been given positions in PA, been very useful in changing the internal culture and adapt to the new times and conditions of today. The old PLO traditions of how to run an organisation were developed, and made much sense, when it was mainly an armed guerrilla movement. It is not fit for the situation of today when the task is not to fight the enemy with military means, but to win open and fair elections with a constituency consisting of a lot of young, poor, disillusioned people and large groups of people who are third generation refugees living in camps. 


-         External criticism, internal support


Another factor I would like to raise is the effect of International actors and media labelling Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Both EU and US, but not UN!, have them on their respective lists of outcasts (“terrorists”). It is basic psychology that when “all” external actors put guilt on someone there is a tendency that the blamed one gets support from his own people. With an extreme one-sided rhetoric from US, Israeli, and European politicians and media regarding Hamas nobody should be surprised by the growing support for them. The fact that Hamas obviously was the group Israel and USA feared automatically made them heroes among many Palestinians.


What will come out of these elections?


In politics the possibility to predict the next steps is just as difficult as in meteorology. With a good level of information of the situation today, you may be able to say something about the next five days. But more than that is nothing more than a guess. Palestine is absolutely no exception to this rule. The guesses can be more or less qualified deductions, but they will still basically be a guess. Too many factors are unknown and each of the known factors is in constant change.


Let me, despite this warning, present some of my views on the options, possibilities and challenges ahead for those who are engaged in the future of the Palestinian people.


-         Impact on/of Israeli elections


The coming elections in Israel will of course have an immense impact on the possibility to negotiate with the new PA. But this is not necessarily a question of left or right on the political scale. We have seen many examples that conservative politicians have had more room for maneuvering than the more leftist ones.[3] I am not saying that I would like to see a hawk as the next prime minister in Israel! I am just making the point that politics is much more complicated than the naive view that it can be placed on a two-dimensional line from Left to Right.


-         Impact on relationships with EU, US and Iran


In the immediate future I am worried of the financial situation for the new Parliament. Without money to pay salaries next Friday the reaction from administrative personnel, police forces, security personnel and others will come very soon. We are talking about around USD 100 million a month for just salaries. Since the occupation makes almost every sort of business impossible the only way this money can be delivered is by donations from abroad. USA and EU have been the main contributors so far. It would be extremely stupid of them to stop the flow of money due to the fact that the fair elections turned out like they did. The Arab League has joined those voices that want Hamas to disarm and accept Israel before any transfer of money can be done. I believe such declarations will come, but it cannot be expected over night. It cannot be expected that such a shift in policy can be the first thing the new Parliament and Government will do. What sort of signal would that be to their constituencies? We have already seen several indications and moves from Hamas over the last year that they are on the move in the right directions on these questions. Give them some more time and they will deliver. If the US and the EU stop giving money to the PA, I am sure Iran will step in, complicating things enormously.


Results needed badly


-         Jobs, food and travel


Hamas will need to deliver positive results for ordinary people pretty soon. A majority of those who voted for them expect results within months. This will be the main challenge. All oppositional movements that have gained power have faced the difficulty of delivering a real change relatively soon. For the average Palestinian that will mean that she or he gets a job, food on the table, less travel restrictions, more safety (as opposed to security) and improvements in the infrastructure (roads, electricity, sewage systems, water supply, etc).


-         Security situation


In the next step it will be a great challenge to see if the new government will be able to control the police and security forces. Will the forces obey the new Parliament? What if they don’t? What will be the relationship between these forces and the armed groups within Hamas? Formally it is the president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is the supreme commander of the Security Forces. But with only a minority behind him in the Parliament it can be very difficult for him to have actual control over these forces. His earlier proposal to share this function as chief of the forces with a deputy president could soon come on the agenda again.


The conflicts around the security forces are the possible “gun powder barrel” for a worst case scenario of civil war in Palestine. And that is a situation the hawks in Israel would love to see. I would be surprised if they not already are doing their best to create such a situation. Mossad, Shin Bet and their collaborators are probably doing their best to create splits in this very moment. What can be done to prevent them from having success in this?  (As I am writing these lines I hear on radio that Fatah people have stormed the Parliament in Gaza and Ramallah and my heart is crying).


-         Need for experienced people


A serious problem is the lack of people within Hamas who have skills fit for running a country. There are thousands of positions to fill in ministries, agencies, security forces and so on. Very few have experiences relevant for such positions. This is not to says that they will not be able to find ministers, but it will take some time for them be warm in the chairs. The step from being hunted by IDF as “terrorists” to be acting as ministers is a pretty big one.  For the many other positions it can be very difficult to find people at all. The organisations they are running well today cannot just be abandoned. Some could turn into governmental agencies, but not all of them. Then we have the question of how smooth the changeover from the old Fatah-led organisations will run. Nobody must believe it is going to be easy for the outgoing or incoming representatives.


-         New elections soon?


Many Fatah activists obviously want to make the takeover as difficult as possible for Hamas. They are doing their best to create problems for the incoming representatives. Some even think they can create enough chaos to have new elections relatively soon and then come back in power with “clean” hands. I doubt if this option is wise and doable. There is for the moment a strong need for conflict resolution between Hamas and Fatah. But I cannot see any obvious mediator who has respect enough in both camps.


Whatever Hamas wants to achieve over the next four years of power in Palestine, the international actors manipulating the processes in the region are much more influential than Hamas will ever be. It is not only up to Hamas what will happen with the Palestinian people in the time to come. If they are able to fulfil some of the welfare they have promised it will be good for the population. If they, due to incompetence, external interference or domestic conflicts cannot deliver, they will be removed in the 2010 elections.


What can we do?


For the moment I would argue for maximum level of contacts with all parts of Hamas. Isolation is just as unhealthy for political movement as for prisoners! Meet with them, congratulate, discuss, listen, learn and present your views in open and honest discussions! Since most states seem to avoid contacts with Hamas, these tasks will need to be the responsibility of civil society actors. There is nobody else to do the job. After some months we will understand if it is time to propose joint projects. Hamas is not a unified organisation. There is of course a diversity of views on a number of questions inside Hamas. I regard it as very important to understand and get insights into Hamas and their different sections as soon as possible. Let us identify which “fractions” it makes most sense to contact and having dialogs with. I cannot imagine that many are banging on their doors already, but I would like to be among the first ones. The practical problem that US and EU regard it as illegal to have such contacts should not prevent us. And even if we initially have to make these contacts partly outside the public sphere I don’t want to be too secret about them. I want to be open about these contacts, and to continue our good contacts with Fatah and other PA people.







/Coventry, UK 2006/01/29
Jorgen Johansen
Visiting Scholar
Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies
Coventry University
Priory Street
Coventry CV1 5FB

















[1] In this case that IDF/Israel left because Gaza has very little value and mainly was a heavy financial burden and that the withdrawal would probably give them some more credit as “the peaceful and wise actor” in the region. That is a good card for the Israeli government in their ongoing campaign to convince “the international community” that they have to keep settlements on the West Bank.


[2] I am not sure that all of these conflicts will be bad for Fatah or the Palestinian people in the long run. I was probably necessary to “ventilate” some of the frustration which had been building up inside Fatah over the years.

[3] It was Nixon who first visited China and Reagan was the first to Moscow. No president from the Democrats could make these steps without being criticized for being ”too soft with the enemy”. The reactionary ones could make such moves without problems.