Palestinians’ democratic choice must be respected

 Hamas’s triumph in Wednesday’s Palestinian elections is the best news from the Middle East for a long time. The poll was a more impressive display of democracy than any other in the region, outstripping last year’s votes in Lebanon and Iraq both in turnout and the range of views that candidates represented.

Whereas in Iraq parties that opposed the occupation had to downplay or even obscure their views, Palestinian supporters of armed resistance to Israel’s expansionist strategies were able to run openly. It is true that Hamas candidates did not make relations with Israel the centrepiece of their campaign. They focused on reform in the Palestinian Authority. But few voters were unaware of Hamas’s uncompromising hostility to occupation and its record in fighting it.

Wednesday’s election was remarkable also in owing nothing to Washington’s (selective) efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world. Instead, it was further proof that civil society in Palestine is more vibrant than anywhere else in the region and that Palestinian politics has its own dynamics, dictated not by outside pressure but the social and economic demands of ordinary people in appalling conditions. Providing a forum to freely express hopes and fears, debate policy and seek agreed solutions is, after all, what democracy is about.

In Israel and Washington reaction to Hamas’s victory has been predictably negative. European governments should take a more sensitive view. The first watchword is caution. Applaud the process but don’t take issue with the result. While the dust settles and Hamas works out its own priorities for government, Europeans should calmly analyse why Hamas got so much support.

Among several Hamas leaders I met in Gaza last summer, Mahmoud Zahar, one of its last surviving founders, exuded the clearest sense of inner steel. Trained as a medical doctor in Cairo, and now a short middle-aged figure with combed-over grey hair, he left several impressions.

This is no mosque-driven revolutionary or wealthy jihadi of the Osama bin Laden type, motivated by ideology or a desire for adventure. Like other Gazans, he has felt the occupation on his skin. His wife was paralysed and his eldest son killed by an Israeli F-16 attack on his house in 2003. Zahar was in the garden and lucky to survive.

In spite of that, he took the lead last year in persuading colleagues that Hamas should declare a truce or period of ‘calm’ with Israel. For 11 months no Hamas member has gone on a suicide bombing mission. That is no mean achievement, which foreign diplomats rarely credit.

Zahar’s reasons were not just tactical – a desire to deny Sharon a pretext for abandoning his retreat from Gaza. His strategy is to de-escalate the confrontation with Israel for a long period so that Palestinian society can build a new sense of unity, revive its inner moral strength and clean up its institutions. He feels Western governments give aid and use the issue of negotiations with Israel only as a device for conditionality and pressure, not in the interests of justice.

So he wants Palestinians to have a broad-based coalition government that will look to the Arab and Islamic worlds for economic partners and diplomatic support. It’s a kind of “parallel unilateralism”, matching the mood in Israel where the peace camp clearly has lost all real purchase.

“Israeli attitudes show they don’t intend to make any agreement. They’re going to take many unilateral steps,” Zahar told me. “In this bad unbalanced situation and with the interference of the West in the affairs of every Arab country, especially Syria and Lebanon, we can live without any agreement and have a `calm’ for a long time. We’re in favour of a long-term truce without recognition of Israel, provided Sharon is also looking for a truce. Everything will change in 10 or 20 years.”

Zahar also left me with no sense of embarrassment about the imminence of power. He pointed out that Mahmoud Abbas would remain president for three more years, as though implying he could be a convenient front for inevitably unproductive talks with Washington and Israel while Hamas acted as a watchdog on the main issues.

“There will be no contradiction between the Palestine legislative council and the president,” he said. “We will be the safeguard, and the safety valve, against any betrayal.”

Along with caution in reacting to the Hamas victory, Europe’s second priority should be to maintain continuity. Any cut-off in EU aid would only be a gift to Israel’s hardliners.

The EU is the largest international donor to the Palestinian Authority, (PA) and Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, blundered last month when he told a Gaza press conference that “it would be very difficult for the help and the money that goes to the Palestinian Authority to continue to flow” if Hamas were in government.

EU statements immediately after the election results were more measured. If Europe, weak though its power may currently be, wants to have an independent role in the Middle East, clearly different from the manipulative US approach, it is vital to go on funding the PA regardless of the Hamas presence in government.

Nor should the EU fall back on the cynical hope that Hamas will be as corrupt as Fatah, and so lose support. You cannot use European taxpayers’ money to strengthen Palestinian institutions while privately wanting reforms to fail. Hamas should be encouraged in aiming to be more honest than its predecessors.

Above all, Europe should not get hung up on the wrong issues, like armed resistance and the ‘war on terror’. Murdering a Palestinian politician by a long-range attack that is bound also to kill innocent civilians is morally and legally no better than a suicide bomb on a bus.

Hamas’s refusal to give formal recognition of Israel’s right to exist should also not be seen by Europe as an urgent problem. History and international politics do not march in tidy simultaneous steps.

For decades Israel refused even to recognise the existence of the Palestinian people, just as Turkey did not recognise the Kurds. Until 15 years ago Palestinians had to be smuggled to international summits as part of Jordan’s delegation. It is less than that since the Israeli government accepted the goal of a Palestinian state.

Hamas may eventually disarm itself and recognise Israel. That will be the end of the process of establishing a just modus vivendi for Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. It cannot be the first step. Today’s priority is to accept that Palestinians have spoken freely. They deserve respect and support. – Guardian Newspapers Limited

Hamas facts

What is Hamas? In Arabic it means ‘zeal’, but it also stands for Harakat al- Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah, or Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas does not recognise the state of Israel.

How does it operate?

Hamas has built a strong grassroots base through preaching and its network of health, education and welfare services throughout Gaza and the West Bank. It preaches armed resistance against Israel and has carried out dozens of bombings and other attacks against Israeli targets.

How is it funded?

Its community services are financed by Arab agencies and Islamic charities. Israel claims funding for its military wing comes from Iran, Syria and Palestinians living abroad.

Who are its leaders?

Ismail Haniya, 45, heads the Hamas national list of candidates. He teaches at the Islamic University in Gaza City and owes his prominence in the movement to his previous close relationship to the assassinated former leader Sheik Yassin.

Mahmoud Zahar, 51, is also believed to be the leader of Hamas, although he only appeared at number six in their national list of candidates. Israel bombed his home in Gaza City in 2003, killing his son and injuring him and his wife. Zahar is a surgeon and teaches medicine at the Islamic University.

Mohamed Deif, believed to be in his 40s, has not been seen in public for years but as head of the Hamas military wing, the Izz al Din Qassam Brigades, he is possibly the most influential Hamas leader. It is rumoured that he is partially blinded and crippled from an Israeli assassination attempt in 2003.

Khaled Mashaal, who is based in Damascus, is also seen as an important figure in Hamas despite his absence from the West Bank and Gaza. He survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997. – Guardian Newspapers Limited