The Harakat al-Muquwama al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Resistance Movement, known throughout the world by its Arabic acronym, Hamas, seized control of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in elections in 2006. Winning 74 of the 130 available seats in that legislative body, the Hamas victory sent a message to the world: Palestinians were not going to let the West (or Israel) decide who their leaders were. Fed up with corruption, poor living conditions and the state of the peace process with Israel, Palestine placed itself firmly in the 'successful democracy' category of Middle East nations. The successors to the legacy of Yassir Arafat and the PLO were pushed aside in favor of new leadership.
Known more commonly throughout the world for the actions of its armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, reaction to the election was swift. International observers described the election as "extremely professional, in line with international standards, free, transparent and without violence." Israel and the so-called Quartet on the Middle East (consisting of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia), however, immediately condemned Hamas' victory and began steps to impose economic and political sanctions against the nascent Palestine Authority (PA). In effect, the reaction to the election was to attempt to obviate the will of a majority of Palestinian voters, to collectively punish all Palestinians for the election results and somehow cast shame on the success of a democracy that so many critics of Middle East politics had said was badly needed in the region.
Hamas’ presence in the Palestinian government has led to stagnation domestically. Israel and the Quartet have wielded their collective power to shun the new government and to pressure their allies to do the same. A naval blockade of Gaza, coupled with the Israeli seizure of needed tax and tariff revenues have led to worsening economic conditions in an already suffering climate. Political pressure has led to a change in the charter of the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to prevent Hamas from keeping control of the PLC in any future elections (unless Hamas agrees that only the PLO represents the Palestinian people). And any nascent Palestinian state has already been fractured with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip, while the rival Fatah organization controls those West Bank areas under Palestinian control.
Economic punishment, political isolation and war notwithstanding, however, Hamas remains. Standing strong, like something out of the West’s worst dreams, Hamas has remained a stalwart force in Arab-Israeli politics and looks to be growing in that power. Hamas continues its social welfare work among the population of Gaza, and its reputation for a lack of corruption has seen it grow in strength in public opinion polls compared to Fatah. A 2007 poll by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that 62% of Palestinians had a favorable view of Hamas. The Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has survived political challenges from PA President Mahmoud Abbas, angry rhetoric from the West, Israeli bombings and a proposed Israeli assassination attempt and now appears to be taking his place on the international stage as a statesman.
In his first excursion outside of Gaza since 2007, Haniyeh recently went on a tour of several nations, including Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt. Looking every bit the traveling statesman, Haniyeh met privately with elected officials and political party leaders and was hosted at several large public events. Among those hosting Haniyeh were Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, Rached Ghanouchi of the newly elected Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia and Mohammed Badie of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Haniyeh’s message was simple, Muslim solidarity is the future of the Middle East, not the patronage of the United States and its allies. Central, of course, to Haniyeh's meetings was the theme of Palestine, support of which he called a "religious and nationalist commitment."
This trip came soon after another perceived victory for Hamas, a prisoner release deal struck between the organization and Israel. In October, 2011 Hamas released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and in return Israel released over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from its jails. While many thought the deal a mistake (equating one Israeli life for hundreds of Palestinians), it gave Hamas a huge public victory to leverage, and further highlighted failures in leadership in the West Bank led Abbas government. Israel was, no doubt, well aware of the achievement it was handing to Hamas, but went forward with the deal.
In the end, however, Hamas is still a political pariah. Western governments will not acknowledge it unless it is partnered with the Fatah led government and then, only conditionally. Hamas is still equated with terrorism. Hamas does not implicitly recognize Israel's right to exist and still extols violent resistance against the "Zionist entity." Hamas is an Islamic organization. It speaks in terms of jihad and religious obligations to Palestine. Unless it can overcome these obstacles to full acceptance as a political player, it remains something of a show piece, a noisy instigator that can be ignored internationally. Or can it?
Haniyeh's trip around the region, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennadha in Tunisia, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco and a general sense of anti-Western sentiment arising from the Arab Spring all seem to place Hamas in an ascendant, and possibly leadership role. The organization certainly appears to have new allies in the region. Hamas has resisted Israel, the US and its allies politically, militarily and iconically for years and is still here to tell its tale.By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist