Julian Manyon on why the Palestinians voted for Hamas — and why the terrorists will not be transformed into politicians by the realities of power
Fundamentalists of any stripe are not to my taste but the leading ideologues of Hamas have a grisly fascination. Mild-mannered, often well-educated, including doctors and scientists in their ranks, they are nonetheless subscribers to a Covenant in which ‘the Day of Judgment will not come about until... the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say “O Muslim ... there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”’ It is a world view firmly rooted in the Middle Ages.
I first encountered it when interviewing Khaled Meshal, the neatly bearded professor of physics who is now the overall leader of Hamas, shortly after a sophisticated but botched Israeli attempt to kill him in 1997. Mossad agents had sprayed a deadly toxin into Meshal’s ear as he left his apartment building in Amman. But two of the would-be assassins were caught, and to secure their freedom the Israelis were forced to provide the poison’s antidote to the Jordanian hospital where Meshal was taken. We spoke a few weeks later, in his modest but pristine flat. Searching for a starting point in our conversation, I put it to him that the permanance of the state of Israel must surely be accepted.
‘Remember Hattin,’ Meshal said softly. It took me a moment to realise that he was referring to the parched battlefield near the Sea of Galilee where Salah al-Din extinguished the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem in the course of one day in 1187. ‘The Crusader State lasted 88 years,’ Meshal observed. ‘Inshallah the Jewish state will not last that long.’
Israel’s attempt to assassinate Meshal proved to be a blunder of historic proportions. Not only was Israel forced to provide the cure, enabling Meshal to decamp to Damascus, but it was also compelled to release from prison the high-voiced but inflammatory preacher Sheikh Yassin. It was Yassin’s established presence in Gaza which enabled Hamas to cement its hold on the Palestinian imagination and fire it with the warped ideology of the suicide-bomber as holy martyr. Israel’s killing of Yassin in March 2004 — when the quadriplegic’s wheelchair was smashed to smithereens by an air strike — did nothing to halt the rise of Hamas. The remains of the wheelchair are now a shrine.
The extraordinary electoral triumph of Hamas can be explained in part by the unquestionable corruption of Fatah, some of whose leading members behave more like the hangers-on of an African potentate than the supposed leaders of a national movement. Another reason for the triumph is that Hamas appealed directly to the ordinary people with its sponsorship of welfare clinics, Islamic education and care for the dispossessed. The overwhelming reason for the movement’s credibility in Palestinian eyes, however, is that its leaders were the men who had somehow survived the fire of Israel’s targeted killings, even managing to hurt the enemy and force him into retreat from Gaza. Very few Palestinian voters will have spared a thought for the people killed and maimed in Hamas’s bus and café suicide-bombings. This vote was born of deep frustration and anger; the corrupt incompetence of Fatah had to be punished and the ‘authentic’ struggle of Hamas rewarded — whatever the consequences.
The men that the West and, of course, Israel will now have to deal with include the earnest doctor Mohammed al-Zahar, who in 2003 survived an Israeli air strike on his Gaza home. An Israeli air-force bomb killed his eldest son and left his wife paralysed; unsurprisingly, it failed to shift Dr al-Zahar from the path of violent struggle to the path of moderation. Another whose personal experience may leave him reluctant to embrace compromise is the striking figure of Mohammed Abu Tir, whose orange beard, dyed in what he says is the manner of the Prophet with henna from, of all places, Iran, has made him an instant celebrity and object of ridicule on Israeli television. The Israeli satirical TV show It’s a Great Country equipped an actor with orange facial hair and portrayed Abu Tir as an Islamic buffoon. Another actor impersonating the Israeli chief of staff and former air force commander General Dan Halutz complained that his targeting laser might not show up on the luminescent beard.
Abu Tir has spent 25 years in Israeli prisons — for membership of illegal organisations and concealing weapons. He is proud of his time in jail. ‘Only weak prisoners were broken by the Israelis,’ he told me. ‘They never broke me.’ Last week over a lunch of stewed lamb and sticky rice Abu Tir, who seems destined to be a key figure in the new Hamas administration, addressed Western concerns over his movement’s electoral victory. His was the uncompromising logic of a man who has spent a long time debating only with himself. ‘Who has used terrorism against who?’ he demanded of me between mouthfuls. ‘Who occupied our land? Who threw out our people?’
I remarked that Western governments want to see Hamas disarm, but the eyes above the astonishing beard fixed me in their glare. ‘Did your country disarm when it was attacked? Did America disarm when the Twin Towers were destroyed? If your Tony Blair can have a defence ministry and an army, then so can we.’
‘But will you renounce suicide-bombings against civilians?’
‘If the occupiers fear these operations, then they should leave our land.’
A no, then; but it is precisely Hamas’s historic willingness to use any methods against the Israeli occupier that struck a chord with Palestinian voters. However necessary from the Israeli security perspective, the occupation of the West Bank continues to impose intolerable strains on Palestinians, with the civilian population subjected to fixed and flying checkpoints, to draconian restrictions on their movements, and to the constant fear of Israeli snatch operations, which are normally conducted at night and frequently end in violence. Even for a journalist equipped with the Israeli government’s press card, attempting to travel the short distances between Palestinian enclaves can be time-consuming and frustrating, with roads suddenly closed and areas sealed off. It is far worse for the Palestinians. Under the public relations cover of the Gaza withdrawal, the Israeli army has cantonised the West Bank and imposed what the Haaretz newspaper calls ‘collective punishment’.
But the burden of Palestinian expectations is already beginning to weigh on the Hamas leadership. Clearly, it cannot force an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied areas, and the Israelis may at some point even use the Hamas threat to tighten the screw. In fact, Hamas will hardly be able to govern its scattered towns and villages without Israeli acquiescence as the hated Jewish state continues to provide such basic services as electricity and connections to the telephone network.
So will reality transform terrorists into politicians? Will we gradually see the same metamorphosis which turned Jomo Kenyatta, Gerry Adams and indeed Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir from ‘men of violence’ into ‘men of peace’? Will Hamas, as George W. Bush is demanding, abandon the key section of its Covenant, which proclaims that the state of Israel is part of the Islamic Waqf, which must not be given up by any Muslim?
I fear the answer to all these questions is no. Hamas is considering an attempt to defuse international criticism by appointing a government of technocrats. It’s likely to extend the present ‘calm’, and appears to have the discipline to keep its supporters under control. Its leaders are somewhat fancifully offering Israel a long-term truce or hudna of perhaps 30 or 50 years in return for a P alestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, but this is certain to be rejected. What Hamas will not do, however, is sign away what they still believe are the historic and religious rights of their people to the land of Palestine — by which they mean the whole of Israel
For all the Israeli highways and apartment buildings now filling that land, Hamas knows that this claim, however unrealistic it may seem to Western eyes, is the ultimate source of its strength among the Palestinians — and throughout an increasingly militant Arab world. Its strategy will be to try to unify and strengthen Palestinian society in the time-honoured but still effective manner of Islam for what may in the end be another round of conflict. Israeli strategists will be considering whether they can afford to allow them the time to do so.
Meanwhile this bruising and largely unforeseen election result has raised further doubts over President George W. Bush’s crusade for democracy in the Middle East. One US newspaper caricatured him as an inept chemistry student whose experiment has blown up in his face. But the true lessons go deeper. Yes, Arab populations want the chance to vote, but they are not making their choice in the comfortable surroundings of the West, and they distrust our motives. In their eyes, our hands are stained with lust for oil and unquestioning support for Israel, and, for many, salvation lies not in corrupt ‘democratic’ politicians but in what they see as the shining honesty of Islam.
Julian Manyon is Middle East correspondent of ITV News.