Following its shock victory in Palestinian elections Hamas looks set to be involved in democratic government for the first time. Palestinians rejected Us warning to stay away from Hamas, However even diehard Hamas supporters were taken aback by the sweep. We speak with Jillian Schwedler assistant professor in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland examining the potential effects this will have on Palestinian movement and Middle East politic in general.
Shahram Vahdany – How did Hamas pull this? How did they make this happen?
Jillian Schwedler – Well, I think the question is why is Hamas popular? And some of the concern has been Hamas has won the elections and is popular because of the use of terrorism but I really don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s much more that the Palestinian people are very frustrated with the former leadership, with the Fatah movement in particular, the Palestinian Authority essentially it’s been the same group of people for the past decade and I think the Palestinians see there hasn’t been a lot of progress. And so I think the vote for Hamas has been largely a vote for a populist alternative, as opposed to supporting what Hamas stands for and advocates in terms of violence, I think it was more of a sign of just voting out the incumbent power, voting out the Fatah movement and voting out the existing Palestinian Authority.
SV – So do you believe mostly this a vote against Fatah as opposed to for Hamas?
JS – Yes. I think it’s mostly that. I mean certainly, there is some support for Hamas as Hamas, but for the most part, Palestinians do not want an Islamic state. They don’t want Shariah law implemented widely, so many of the things Hamas stands for don’t really have wide support so I think it’s largely a vote against the Fatah movement. We need an alternative; we want something different.
SV – How much have Israel and the United States contributed to the popularity of Hamas?
JS – Well, I think considerably. I think the contributed indirectly by not allowing Fatah and the Palestinian Authority to make any real gains. They put up so many obstacles, first by isolating Yasser Arafat, and later by just continuing the building of settlements and haven’t allowed Fatah to have any significant gains. The withdrawal of Gaza was one but short of that, they haven’t really allowed Fatah to achieve anything and so by virtue of those policies that isolated the P.A. there really wasn’t much of an alternative and I think that indirectly contributed to why Hamas became such a popular alternative.
SV – A few months ago, one of the leaders of Hamas went on record and officially thanked Israelis for helping Hamas to gain popularity. Is this the end of the peace process?
JS – I don’t think it is. I think the peace process had really stalled. Personally, I don’t find it a particularly positive outcome. You know, it wouldn’t have been my first choice of how the elections would go. But nonetheless, I don’t think it’s necessarily the end of the process. We’re going to have to wait and see for the next few months. But one of the things that tend to happen when Islamic groups begin participating in an election is that the more moderate or pragmatist voices end up being much more influential and powerful and the extremists tend to be isolated. This has happened in Jordan, with the Islamists party, this has happened in Egypt with the Islamists, this has happened in Turkey where the Islamists party in Turkey now supports Turkey joining the European Union, which is nothing, that you would ever have expected before. So, I think there’s a strong possibility that the moderate voices will really become more powerful within Hamas, as a result. That’s not necessarily going to happen, we don’t know, but I think there is a possibility for this. If that happens, then that could be a very positive outcome in terms of starting the peace process up. If that has the result, of decreasing, the extremists in Hamas, and giving more power and strength to the moderates that would be an extraordinary advance, but at this point, I think we’re going to have to see how it plays out over the next few months.
SV – What’s happening with the Israelis, are they willing to negotiate with Hamas?
JS – Well, so far no. They’ve said that they won’t and the US has said that in order to continue sending foreign aid to the Palestinians they’re going to ask Hamas to immediately accept the existence of Israel, and to stop denouncing Israel’s existence. Now, at a basic level that would seem like a very reasonable request, to just simply ask them to acknowledge that. But it puts a lot of pressure on Hamas. Right coming out of the gate, in its first few days after winning the elections, and I think it would be better to set that aside and let Hamas try to work itself out internally for the short term. In the meantime, Israel has said that short of that acceptance of the state Israel, it won’t negotiate with Hamas. So, again, we’re not going to see the immediate peace process moving forward. We’re really in a state where people are somewhat holding their breaths to see. But I would think the better strategy would be to not put too much pressure on Hamas right now and to see what its first moves are.
SV – What would be the future of Fatah dominates security forces in Palestine that is right now?
SJ – Well, I’m not sure, I mean, you’re absolutely right, Fatah has dominated, and one of the things Fatah has done over the course of the past decade that’s been pretty disastrous for Palestinians, and this is why I think they’ve rejected Fatah, is they’ve ruled in a very autocratic way. They’ve shut out all sorts of alternative voices, they’ve dominated everything from the civil administration, basic services and the security forces as you’ve mentioned. So they’ve really sought to just dominate the completely political scene and so there’s this question of whether Fatah will cede control of that. I suspect, I’m not a military expert, that the ranks and files are going to remain, and Hamas will try to add some alternative leaders in directing the security forces. But certainly, it isn’t in the position to reconstruct the security forces from scratch, using all Hamas people. So I wouldn’t expect that that would happen, but I would expect they would try to take leadership positions and insist on that sort of control.
SV – In your view, will they share the administrative power with Fatah?
JS – At this point, Aljazeera reported yesterday that Fatah leadership would not join a government with Hamas. So if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter so much if Hamas invites them to join if Fatah refuses to join. What we might see, which often happens, is you may see some prominent Fatah leaders work with Hamas but not in a formal capacity of a coalition between Fatah and Hamas. I don’t think we’re going to see any sort of coalition. But we’ve already seen people like *Saeb Erekat come out and say we are loyal opposition, you know, we see ourselves as in the opposition now, but we’re going to continue to do whatever we can for Palestine. I think you’ll find in some instances a collaborative relationship but not a formal coalition. That’s what I would expect but of course, it could work out differently.
SV – The latest news that I heard is that Fatah supporters demanded President Abbas step down and he threatened he will resign if Hamas do not follow his agenda.
JS – I haven’t heard that, but that’s interesting.
SV – Do you think Hamas, in order to continue receiving US aid, will be willing to disarm itself?
JS – I don’t think they will. I think it’ll be interesting to see. I would guess they’re not going to be willing to disarm right away because Hamas would see that as a sign of giving in, and acquiescing much, much too quickly. So right now, it’s really a game of showmanship of who’s going to stand up to the other. What I do think will happen, again, I could be wrong, and I expect that Hamas will restrain itself from undertaking military activities at the moment, other mounting suicide missions. For the short term, maybe not the long term, but for the short term to try to accomplish something and allow Israel or the US to fault the process so they can say, look you never gave us a chance, you never let us to run the government, you weren’t serious about the democratic process, etc. It’ll be interesting to see if the US really cuts all of its foreign aid because that of course would be devastating for the Palestinians. They may try to find a more middle ground gesture to make.
SV – My last question is, what is your opinion on the over-all effect on the Middle East and specifically on boosting Iranian control over the region, given that Iran already has the support of the powerful Shiite sect in Iraq, Hizbullahs in Lebanon, Syria and now Hamas which was supported and funded by the Iranian government?
JS – I don’t think it will affect the stance of Arab regimes, but as you know, the key question is Israel and the US. Israel has already been expressing increasing concern about Iran, the US has been more critical of Iran, particularly after the elections last summer, where you had a much more conservative government come in and replace a lot of the reformers. So I do think they’ll look at it as a sign and watch very, very closely for any move Iran makes as an excuse to up the ante with Iran. I don’t think there’s going to be any armed conflict with Iran, any time soon, because Iran is such a significant power, but you could see increasing isolation, renewal and deepening of sanctions and these types of practices. These could very well come forth. We’ve really been moving in this direction for the past few months anyways and so the Hamas victory might just add yet another justification for trying to further isolate Iran.
I do think Hamas would support Iran in terms of coming out on their behalf and fighting with them. I don’t think Hamas is in a position to add practical or tactical support, but I would not be surprised at all if they came out and out and said, we’re a government and we have a right to ally and build relationships with any other government we like. We’re a popularly elected government and we have that right. And it might be a provocative move. I think part of what we’re likely to see is cat and mouse.
SV – I appreciate you giving us this time. Thank-you.
JS – My pleasure. I hope I was helpful.
*Saeb Erakat (Sa’ib Muhammad Salih ‘Urayqat; born 1955) was the chief of the PLO Steering and Monitoring Committee
Jillian Schwedler Author of the book “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen ,” Schwedler is assistant professor in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland . She is author of a forthcoming book on the inclusion of Islamist parties in pluralist elections.