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Analysis by Fawzia Sheikh

on Hamas election victory

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Disturbing tremors persist in Palestinian politics following Hamas's landslide win against the Fatah party in parliamentary elections most had expected the incumbent to take narrowly.

Last month's election result sparked street clashes between followers of the two parties and even a bomb attack on a Fatah politician's home in Gaza -- all in the midst of a bid by political novice Hamas to convince Fatah to join a coalition to govern Palestinians.

"Hamas didn't expect this victory," Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East program at Chatham House, a London-based research institute, told IPS. "They expected to be the junior party of a coalition."

Complicating matters, Israel has stopped money transfers to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Other countries, in turn, threaten to end financial assistance to a fledgling Palestinian government that chooses weapons to resolve political battles with its long-time foe.

The so-called Middle East Quartet of peacemakers, comprized of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, warns of reactions if the Palestinian Authority forms a stronger union with Iran, labelled a state sponsor of terrorism in the last few years.

This all makes for what Middle East specialists describe as a difficult, if not impossible, task of governing the Palestinian areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank -- a political tinderbox even prior to the elections Jan. 25.

"It is a difficult call for Fatah," said Lowe. "If they don't join the government and support Hamas and keep the Palestinian Authority running, it may be seen as abandoning responsibility to help their people."

Lowe attributes Hamas's olive branch to challenger Fatah as evidence of its reluctance to assume full responsibility of running the territories.

"The movement is in real trouble," he said. He adds that Fatah's armed wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, constitutes another problem. Some members are calling for the ouster of President Mahmoud Abbas who they consider a traitor for allowing Hamas to win.

Following its defeat, Fatah quickly pledged to concentrate on rebuilding its beleaguered party.

Others believe the stakes are too high if the two fail to cooperate.

"Most of the employees in the PA institutions and ministers are from Fatah, and a delay in the payment of their salary is likely to create serious upheaval in the lives of a quarter of the Palestinian labor force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," Prof. Jamil Hilal, a sociologist at West Bank's Birzeit University told IPS.

"Both Fatah and Hamas have an interest to keep this mass of employees quiet, particularly since 60,000 of them, mainly Fatah supporters or members, are armed and work in the security and police force. So there are strong pressures on Hamas and on Fatah to collaborate."

Some political observers believe prevailing confrontations between parties at the grassroots level may eventually spiral into civil war, spilling across the border to Jewish settlements and involving the Israel defense forces.

"I don't think what's left of the Fatah leadership can control this," Lowe said.

These currently warring parties may distract Hamas from the business of governing, he said, particularly if replacing even a faction of the Palestinian security force with Hamas gunmen ignites a broader conflict.

"It remains to be seen who will be the senior figures in the security service. That could be a flashpoint."

The fact that Hamas is a political neophyte may also hamper its administration. While it is better organized and more united than Fatah, it lacks the know-how to run a broad-based government.

Hamas has extensive experience, though, in running social and charity networks that are widely said to finance terrorist attacks. These services, which have been offered predominantly in Gaza, have enjoyed "measured success," said Lowe. Hamas is keen to develop them nationally.

Before its win, the religion-based party did talk of imposing an Islamic code of conduct that will turn the territories into what Israeli analysts label Hamas-stan, after the strict practices of Afghanistan's former Taliban government. Hamas politicians reiterated this possibility following the elections.

This new society will likely forbid alcohol, force women to dress modestly, limit unnecessary socialising of the sexes, frown upon music and dancing, and generally shun perceived western immorality.

Apart from implementing Sharia law, the heart of Hamas policy is its animosity towards Israel, which it refuses to negotiate with unless the government vacates former Palestinian lands, and refrains from what Hamas describes as terrorising its people. It is widely assumed the new administration will strengthen connections with other Muslim countries, particularly those that also oppose Israel.

"They will organize their security forces. They will organize their weapons," said Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, a Jerusalem-based public-policy think tank.

The party would abandon its struggle against Israel only "many years down the line," Lowe said. As a result, he said, it will be difficult to run the territories with a commitment to such deep-rooted beliefs, particularly if Israel prevents members from travelling to the West Bank to govern.

But in the interest of continuing aid flow, Hamas will probably honor a ceasefire signed not long ago and abstain from carrying out suicide bombings against the Israeli population, said Baskin.

Official loathing of Israel may remain ideology with little teeth, also for other reasons.

Israel vowed following Hamas's triumph to crush Palestine if they launch attacks against Israelis, a disconcerting thought considering the government in the past has used only "two percent of its military power" against Palestinians, said Ira Sharkansky, professor of political science and public administration at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

"If we're pushed too far -- if they go up to three percent -- then the difference will be considerable."

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Albion Monitor   February 2, 2006   (

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