Palestine: Beyond a Religious Argument

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The victory of the Islamist organisation Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January has been greeted with varying degrees of hysteria by Western governments and media.

The US administration has led the charge, threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority (which Hamas now runs). The hypocrisy of the US government is plain - promoting democracy but refusing to respect the Palestinians' democratic choice. But even on the left there has been unease at Hamas's victory. Does this represent the "Talibanisation" of Palestinian politics? The voices of Palestinian voters, and the history of Hamas itself suggest otherwise.

Exit polls show that religion is not the real dividing line between Fatah, the secular nationalists, and Hamas. Pollsters asked voters if they considered themselves "religious". Just over half of those who considered themselves in this way voted for Hamas, while 40 percent voted for Fatah. It is over the failed peace process that Palestinians are most sharply divided - nearly 80 percent of those opposing the Oslo peace deals voted for Hamas.

The reasons for this shift are not hard to find. I remember the atmosphere of hope in Gaza in 1994 as the PLO's leaders prepared to return. Palestinian policemen patrolled the streets and the Palestinian flag hung from every lamppost. The Israeli policies of settlement building, economic blockade and state terror shattered those hopes. But the corruption which many Palestinians associate with Fatah also played a significant role. Over 70 percent of voters who identified corruption as the most important issue in the elections backed Hamas.

Hamas has benefited from Israel's recent policy of "disengagement" from Gaza, as most Palestinians see the withdrawals as a result of the armed struggle. "I want to remind [Fatah negotiator] Saeb Erekat of something," Abu-Ali Qaran from the West Bank town of Qalqilya told reporters from the Palestine Information Centre, a pro-Hamas website. "What did we achieve from negotiations while you were in charge? Was Gaza liberated?" Others emphasise similar themes: "The people want a leadership which says no to the Zionists and the Americans"; "I support Hamas's decision not to recognise Israel. Which Israel should we recognise? The Israel of 1948? The Israel of 1967? The Israel of the Wall? Or the Israel of 2010?"

Hamas's provision of social services explains some of the organisation's support, but it is not the whole picture. The foundation of Hamas in 1987 marked a shift away from a focus on the "Islamisation" of Palestinian society. Instead the leaders of Hamas, which was set up as a direct response to the outbreak of the Intifada, argued that the fight for national liberation should be the first task of the Islamist movement.

As academic Issam Aburaiya wrote recently on the Znet website, "Hamas has sanctified and Islamised Palestinian nationalism. In contrast to many commentators who argue that the latest Hamas victory signifies the victory of Islam over nationalism, one can argue that it actually signifies the strength and potency of national themes and symbols in Palestinian politics."

The appearance of a national liberation movement in religious dress should surprise no one. Many of the secular nationalist movements of the Middle East have turned to Islam to find the language which could move the masses. As these movements degenerated - clinging onto power through repression, cheerleading for neo-liberalism at home and imperialism abroad - Islamists stepped into their shoes.

The emergence of Hizbollah in Lebanon illustrates how Islamist movements can become the vehicle for a national liberation struggle. An organisation that began life as a radical Islamist split from Amal, the Shia militia, it mobilised Lebanese from all religious backgrounds to liberate southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. Ironically, Hizbollah succeeded in rising above sectarian conflict where secular parties had failed.

It is clear that many Palestinians do not see Hamas and Fatah as opposites. Rather, Hamas's strength lies in its adoption of the principles on which Fatah was founded - armed struggle to liberate the whole of Palestine "from the river to the sea". However, Hamas also shares Fatah's basic weakness. Yasser Arafat, when he founded Fatah in the 1950s, asserted the Palestinians' independence of the other regimes in the region. Yet he became their prisoner because he rejected the idea that liberation in Palestine is connected to revolutionary change across the Middle East. If Hamas relies on those same rulers, rather than looking to the millions across the region inspired by its victory, the Palestinians will be betrayed again.