Intolerable disappointment

Alastair Crooke

The World Today, March, 2006

James davies wrote in the American Sociological Review in 1962 that what provokes a people to take down its government is not simply deprivation or misery, but an ‘intolerable gap between what people want and what they get’, and that revolutions often come during economic depressions which follow periods of generally rising standards of living.

For Palestinians, the economic misery has been paralleled by a period in which general circumstances of life, freedom to move, or to achieve any personal or national aspirations have crashed equally rudely from those heady days of 1993 when the signing of the Oslo Accords suggested that a state was within grasp. As Davies warned, it was this gap between aspirations and the reality, rather than the privations themselves, that finally led to the electoral revolution that placed Hamas in control of parliament.

National aspirations
Commentators in the west are apt to say that the Palestinian election outcome was more a Fatah defeat than a Hamas victory. They suggest the defeat could be ascribed to Hamas’ technical efficiency in the delivery of welfare services; but that in the wider issue of how to achieve a state, Palestinians largely sided with Fatah policies. In this view, the result represents little more than a protest at Fatah’s poor recent performance.

What we witnessed was indeed a revolution. It was no uncalculated snub to Fatah, although the wish to protest at corruption within the Palestinian Authority no doubt played its part. It signalled a verdict that Hamas had won the argument about national aspirations.

During the Intifada between 2001 and 2003, I held a number of meetings in Palestinian towns to widen the base of support for European Union (EU) efforts to achieve a de-escalation of violence. Every Palestinian faction and movement would usually attend. Even then, it was plain that the salami-slicing away of the West Bank by settler outposts, settler-only roads, checkpoints and military posts had convinced the majority that the Fatah-initiated Oslo incremental process was putting a Palestinian state further from reach – rather than leading towards it.

The sense of grievance felt by participants at these encounters was sharpened because Fatah negotiated this incremental approach behind the backs of the other factions, and agreed to dismantle their rivals as the price for receiving a monopoly of power from Israel. It was evident even then to most who attended that there was a crisis of confidence in the political process and a growing sense that the Hamas interpretation on Oslo was right.

In addition to the failure of Oslo incrementalism, Hamas also argued that Fatah’s entire approach to the negotiations was flawed. The hope that Palestinian good behaviour would receive its due reward by gaining United States and international support, was seen to be wrong-headed. The international community could not be relied on; it was a mistake to base strategy on such foundations.

Fatah’s aim to correct the asymmetry of negotiating power between Palestinians and Israel by seeking to enlist the US was rejected. Hamas would point to the success achieved by Hizbollah in negotiating with Israel through third parties, and without having conceded on principles. Of course the Palestinian situation is more complicated than that of Hizbollah. Palestinians widely accept that, when both parties eventually sit together, a successful negotiation will only result if both understand that for either to leave the table without agreement would carry a price.

Caught unawares
This election outcome reflects a wider sense that Hamas has been right on these fundamental issues, and that to bridge that intolerable gap will require a radical new approach. This revolution has created real anxiety in the west. This is understandable because Hamas is a movement that almost no one in the US or the west knows. Because the west does not talk to movements that use violence for political ends, it is not surprising that it is uncertain as to their real nature – and inevitable that it gets caught unawares.

If we insist on isolating such groups there will be no one to read the signals of change and transformation. At least in the case of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, when their public face remained one of defiance, there were those in contact who were able to pick-up different signals at other levels of private engagement.

Will to win
The principal concern seems to be that Hamas’ rise to power may spell the end of the political process and in particular of the Roadmap. This is a misperception since presently there is no political process. The withdrawal from Gaza was unilateral, and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (abu Mazen), has so far notably failed to open negotiations with Israel.

Hamas has not entered this political process simply to act as a spoiler to any renewal of real progress toward a Palestinian state. Its leaders told me a month before the election that their target was to achieve seventy to eighty seats in the Legislative Assembly, they aimed for an absolute majority in the 132 seat Parliament. They intended to win and have been quietly preparing for this moment. We may expect them to launch their proposals for a political process in due course after forming a government.

Hamas sees a renewal of the ceasefire that is formally reciprocated as a possible entry point into a political process with Israel. Such a process would not stop with a de-escalation of violence, but is intended to lead to a Palestinian state.

Some suggest that these sort of proposals are irrelevant since neither Israel, nor the US or Europe will engage with a Hamas government. I doubt that this will be the case. Opinion polls in Israel already show that a majority of Israelis see negotiations with Hamas as inevitable. It will be difficult for the EU and the US to walk away from the Palestinian process simply to spite the victors of a largely peaceful election and in which no one suggests that Palestinians were coerced into supporting Hamas.

These were ‘our’ elections. They were held at the insistence of the International Quartet – the UN, US, EU and Russia. Refusal to speak or engage to the legitimate winners would be perceived as perverse throughout the Middle East. After a certain amount of huffing and puffing by the west, we will end by following the Israeli lead.

There are many in Israel who understand that the arrival in government of a disciplined and effective movement enjoying a fresh mandate offers a real prospect that any agreement reached may be implemented effectively. The negotiations could be tough, but if they succeed, there is a prospect of an enduring solution.

Finding a formula
Hamas knows Israel and the west will try hard to impose a pre-conditions that it gives up violence and recognises Israel. In its election platform Hamas dropped the call for the destruction of Israel. Leading candidates said publicly that this was not a tactical move, but a strategic decision. They cannot say that what happened in 1948 with the establishment of Israel was right and just – dispossessing Palestinians of their land and their displacement into refugee camps as a result of events in Europe. But they can recognise the reality of the situation.

Finding the right formula that acknowledges the Palestinian account of their experience of 1948 in terms of an affirmation of their rights tied into the reality of today will, I expect, be the focus of discussion over the coming year. It should not be beyond the wit of diplomats to find the formula.

De-militarisation – but not disarmament – is also possible. Hamas is likely to offer a new ceasefire that may lead to a long term armistice that could last twenty-five or even fifty years. In the shorter term, disarmament may follow the Israeli model: The Haganah, which led the struggle against British colonialism, evolved into the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). The Irgun, which had been responsible for bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, was subsequently absorbed into the IDF; and the Stern gang, also described as terrorists by the then Israeli leaders, merged in the Lehi, who were also absorbed into the IDF. All kept their weapons.

Clearly the arrival of Hamas in government will challenge many assumptions of western policy. It will not be easy, but if Hamas does succeed in delivering tangible results to the Palestinian people, the impact will extend far beyond Palestine. It may define the future of Islamism and help to open an alternative to those revolutionary Islamists who believe that ‘only by burning the system, can a new start be begun’.

This article first appeared in

One Comment

  1. Hey very nice blog!! Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds also…I am happy to find numerous useful info here in the post, we need develop more techniques in this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .

Leave a Reply