Safwat Kahlout
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
April 2, 2008 - 6:41pm

Ever since Hamas overwhelmingly won parliamentary elections in 2006, the international community has been trying to reverse a result that neither it nor Hamas expected.

At first the international community, led by the US, tried to include Hamas in its designs for the region by offering it three conditions to enter the regional order. Once those were rejected, Washington instead opted to isolate Hamas and ignore the elections.

Israel, happy to play along with this strategy, was given a free hand to escalate at will and tighten its closure on Gaza to undermine the already fragile economy there in an effort to bring Gazans into the streets against Hamas.

The strategy had some initial success. Many voted for Hamas in the first place in order to punish Fateh for the corruption of preceding years. Once sanctions hit, people were heard to lament, "better to be led by the corrupt if they put bread on the table". But the fundamental perception remained the same: Hamas were clean and Fateh corrupt, and it is this fundamental perception that has lingered.

After Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip in June of last year, the international community adopted a modified version of its original strategy. With the Palestinian people having divided themselves into two, the international community decided it would try to strengthen the West Bank under President Mahmoud Abbas by shoveling money at the Palestinian Authority there, while continuing to isolate the Hamas-led Gaza Strip.

But after two years, the attempt to undermine Hamas' popularity has failed. Opinion polls, on the contrary, show an increase in support for the movement. There are several factors at play here.

First, while economic sanctions have hit hard, Palestinians have never had much to lose. Indeed, an argument can easily be made that Palestinians hold their dignity much dearer than their limited wealth. Hamas thus has become the symbol of the struggle for Palestinian pride.

Second, the Israeli escalation against Gaza, which was countered by the Palestinian resistance in general and Hamas' Izzedin al-Qassam brigades in particular, left the public with the clear perception that it is Hamas that is willing to fight and die for the Palestinian people. This perception is only strengthened when the sons of Hamas leaders are killed on the frontlines.

Third, the choice by Abbas to pursue negotiations as the only option to regain Palestinian rights, after 15 fruitless years of the PLO doing exactly that, has only presented Israel with more time to create more "facts on the ground". By refusing to grant Abbas even the smallest achievement to show for his efforts, the Israelis have convinced Palestinians that Abbas is weak and that Hamas is right when it says that Israel is not serious about peace and negotiations are thus a waste of time.

Fourth, with international funding to the Palestinian Authority at an all-time high, people are looking to increased transparency to see where that money goes. In Gaza, people are asking why none of that money is coming to them, since the PA is supposed to be for all its people. Furthermore, the international community does not seem to understand what should be obvious to any public relations analyst: that anyone vocally supported by Israel and the US is treated with the utmost suspicion by Palestinians. The reverse is also true, thus offering Hamas another source of support.

Finally, the internal split in Fateh is further bolstering Hamas. For as long as Fateh, or anyone else for that matter, does not present a clear and viable alternative to Hamas, its perceived fiscal probity and organizational unity, Hamas will continue to flourish in opinion polls. Fateh did not seize on its defeat in parliamentary elections to re-evaluate and restructure itself, while Hamas has only grown more united in the face of adversity.

The US-inspired strategy to undermine Hamas has thus failed. The international community would do well to reconsider its underlying assumption that economic sanctions will do anything to move the Palestinian people from its fundamentally principled support for Hamas.


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