[Marxism] An act of self-determination: Why Hamas won the Palestinian vote

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Mar 19 16:34:32 MST 2006

This section of a generally useful article is still the best assessment
I have seen of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections.  It gets
to the heart of the issues, in my opinion.

It is also vital reading as a part of responding to -- and I think
response is necessary -- to the latest  Book of Daniel, the song of
hatred and cry for war and occupation against the majority or near
majority of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere
who are guilty of open or covert "exterminhationism"  War, occupation,
and whatever else is necessary including, if necessary, "exterminate the
brutes!" (that's Conrad and me, not Goldhagen, who is nothing but
careful to surround his war chant with oodles of very softly spoken
liberal demurrers.  It highlights the roots of Islamism in decades of
defeats that have been dealt, in particular to the Arab peoples and to
appeals to God to destroy the enemy, talk of bloody revenge, as a result
of justified anger and frustration that have not found a clear road
forward, combined with political conservatism and religiosity greatly
reinforced by defeats and setbacks. 

Among other things, the answer needs to counter the tendency of the
Islamists (and other Arabs and Muslims as well) to link up with the
traditions of anti-Semitism to explain their situation and to seek
allies, including the hope of winning a section of the imperialists to
turn on the Jews -- a fantasy which cannot be fulfilled as long as
Israel remains an effective instrument of imperialist purposes, as it
has been and remains.  Key to getting the Jewish question right however
is recognition without ifs, ands, or buts of the fact that the Israeli
Jewish people are an oppressor nation not only relative to Palestinians
but relative to the Arab Middle East, and threatening to decisively
establish the same relation with Iran.  The view of the Jews of Israel
as an enemy is not based on anti-Semitic fantasy  but on historical and
daily reality and actual social relations.  It is a fact, however, that
this relation opens the door to anti-Semitic fantasizing, especially
when no clear road forward seems capable of being charted.

The anti-Semitic trend should be pedagogically responded to as an
obstacle to the liberation struggle of the Palestinians and other Arabs,
including  because reliance on the imperialists is almost organically
built into these analyses (the imperialists are turned into fellow
victims of world Jewry in this picture).  The Jews of Israel -- and this
fact MUST be faced plainly -- are not a fellow oppressed people relative
to the Arabs, but an OPPRESSOR NATION.  In relation to the Palestinians
and Arabs more generally, as Trotsky said of US whites in 1939, they are
HANGMEN, and quite active hangmen at that.
Fred Feldman

New York Review of Books
Volume 53, Number 4 . March 9, 2006
Hamas: The Perils of Power
By Hussein Agha, Robert Malley
In the days following the Palestinian elections on January 25, in which
Hamas won seventy-four out of 132 seats in the Palestine Legislative
Council, Hamas officials expressed hope that they could join with Fatah
in forming a government. They spoke of national unity and referred
respectfully to the authority of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud
Abbas. In statements aimed at the West, they claimed they had never
truly advocated Israel's destruction, and they made it clear they were
willing to deal pragmatically with both the Jewish state and the
agreements the Palestinian Authority had made with it. They apparently
dropped, at least from their immediate goals, their demand for an
Islamic Palestinian state; and they said nothing about resuming armed
attacks. An outsider could be forgiven for failing to realize that Hamas
had done quite well in the voting, let alone that it had won, let alone
by a landslide.

Out-and-out victory was not what Hamas had expected or, for that matter,
what it had wished for. It had come to see itself as a watchdog on the
sidelines, sitting in the legislature without controlling it, shaping
the government's policies without being held accountable for them,
taking credit for its successes and escaping blame for any setbacks. Its
triumph presents it with challenges of a different, more urgent, and
less familiar sort. Hamas suddenly finds itself on the front line, with
decisions to make and relations to manage with the world, international
donors, Israel, Fatah, and, indeed, its own varied constituents. The
Islamists may have secretly expected to sweep the elections but, if so,
that secret remains well kept. Referring to Iraq, President Bush once
spoke of America's catastrophic success. Judging from the Islamists'
initial, startled reactions to their triumph, this may well be theirs.


What explains Hamas's performance? Most observers argue that the
Islamists profited from Fatah's poor record, its mismanagement, costly
internal divisions, and all-around ineptitude. They have a point. Hamas
ran on a platform of good government and earned the respect of voters in
local districts by displaying greater integrity than its predecessors
had in keeping its promises and avoiding corruption. Its candidates
campaigned not under Hamas's banner but under the slogan "Change and
Reform," a phrase that was not intended to fool anyone but that played
well to popular sentiment. Fatah's corruption estranged even the most
secular-minded Palestinians, and not a few of them cast their vote for
the Islamists in the hope that they would wipe the slate clean. 

Hamas ran a remarkably disciplined and professional campaign, putting
together an impressive list of academics and professionals, many
unaffiliated with the group, some Christian and some female. It
underplayed the religious planks of its platform, and even the struggle
against Israel figured less prominently and less violently in its
literature than in Fatah's-in part, no doubt, because it felt it had
less than Fatah to prove. Not all or even most of Hamas's voters
subscribe to its political program, yet the organization fed on the
resentment and alienation that had built up during the decade-long rule
by the Palestinian Authority. Hamas acted as a catch-all movement,
bringing together a loose assortment of the devout, the dispossessed,
and the deprived. It offered an answer for everything, and for nearly
everyone. Several answers, in fact. And for the time being, at least.


But if Hamas benefited from a typical protest vote, it did so under
highly atypical conditions of occupation, a situation that magnified
Hamas's gains because it added to the list of things against which
Palestinians were protesting. Voters showed their dissatisfaction with
the Palestinian Authority, which had failed to meet people's daily
needs, ensure elemental security, or achieve independence and statehood.
In voting as they did, the Palestinians challenged Israel, whose
persistent occupation, military attacks, and settlement expansion
merited, they thought, a more forceful and effective response. They also
reacted to the positions of the US and other nations, which, in their
eyes, had made possible Israeli oppression and perpetuated their own
sorry fate. And they rebelled against a "peace process" which, after
thirteen years and on almost all counts, had landed them in a worse
position than when it was first launched. 

Certainly, the experience of the past few years gave little cause for
them to reconsider these views. The world, Israel included, warmly
greeted President Abbas's election in January 2005 with promises of
swift progress. Abbas counted on renewed negotiations with Israel and
closer relations with the US to deliver genuine improvement to his
people and prove that his diplomatic approach worked. In both respects,
he fell short, and by quite a distance. Israel's insistence on acting
unilaterally devalued his principal currency, which was his presumed
ability to get results through talks. The most significant change on the
ground, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, was decided before his election;
it would have occurred without him, and it resulted from unilateral
decision-making rather than from bilateral negotiations. 

Abbas's ties with Washington were strengthened, yet he had precious
little to show for it. Helping Abbas became Washington's exclusive and
hollow rallying cry. An empty slogan backed by hesitant and feeble
measures, it also was a meaningless one, for the US never bothered to
make clear what precisely Abbas was being helped to do. And throughout,
the Palestinian Authority acted as the powerless supplicant, rejoicing
in friendly visits in Washington and patronizing platitudes ("Abu Mazen
is a man of peace") which, with no visible supporting policy, further
eroded the Palestinian Authority's credibility back home. 


But the vote was more than a rejection of corruption, an expression of
frustration with the peace process, or even an act of defiance. It was
an expression of deeply felt, if unarticulated, anger at years of lost
dignity and self-respect, coupled with a yearning to recover a semblance
of both. As many Palestinians saw it, they had been on the receiving end
of constant demands while Israel still occupied their land with
impunity. For years, the Palestinian Authority stood by helplessly
during Israeli military incursions. It was asked to defend Israelis from
Palestinian attacks, but prohibited from doing the reverse.

At Camp David in July 2000, Palestinians felt under pressure to accept
what practically all of them deemed unacceptable. When they turned down
what for them was a virtual proposal, they were vilified, depicted as an
affront to civilization, members of a culture of liars and killers. The
imprisonment of their historic and democratically elected leader, Yasser
Arafat, who for decades had personified the Palestinian people and
cause, prompted barely a yawn from Western leaders; his death was
greeted with unconcealed glee. Through the years, the US and Europe
compounded their neglect of Palestinian suffering with degrading
lectures about how they should behave and whom they should elect, and
with threats to cut off aid if they did not oblige. 

Because of all it did, said, and stood for, a vote for Hamas became one
way to exorcise the disgrace. The Palestinian Authority had been unable
to protect its people, and Hamas evidently could do no better on that
score. But though its brutal attacks on Israelis did not provide safety,
they provided revenge, and, for many Palestinians, in the biblical land
of primal urges, that was second best. While not condoning every Hamas
operation, for vast numbers of Palestinians, the Islamists' current
position on Israel and the use of violence against it also rang as a
truer, more authentic expression of their feelings. In this, Prime
Minister Sharon displayed greater discernment than the Israeli left:
deep down, most Palestinians, though ready to accept Israel's existence,
have not accepted its historical legitimacy; though supportive of a
mutual cease-fire and peace agreements, they will not relinquish the
right to fight for their land. At the height of the peace process, when
statehood seemed within reach, they were prepared to live the lie, and
go along with their leaders' ambivalent concessions. But most
Palestinians felt otherwise, and the dissonance between what was
believed and what was stated added to the indignity of their position. 

Unlike Fatah, Hamas did not succumb to international pressure to alter
its views, which explains both why the West warned against voting for it
and why, as hope for a peaceful settlement disappeared, Palestinians did
so nonetheless. Hamas's performance was made possible, evidently, by
acute dissatisfaction with the Palestinians' material situation, but its
roots lay deeper, in their psychological condition. Voting for Hamas was
not merely an act of rejection. It was, in the only way many
Palestinians knew how, an act of self-determination.

Feb. 8, 2006

More information about the Marxism mailing list